International Policy Digest

World News /14 Mar 2020

States Need to Give up their Chemical and Biological Weapons

The international community has made efforts towards arms control through bilateral, regional and international treaties. Not every state possessing the capacity has the same inclinations, but the general trend is towards global arms reduction. Going by SIPRI’ Yearbook 2019, there are a total of 13,865 nuclear warheads in existence. In 2018, the number was 14,465. The United States has decreased its stockpile by 265, while Russia has decreased its stockpile by 350. From over 70,000 nuclear warheads in 1985 at the peak of the Cold War to 13,865 in 2019, arms control has succeeded by quite a fair margin.

While the use of biological and chemical weapons is not new, their use has become more sophisticated over the years. Whether it was using poison-tipped spears and arrows, or flinging disease-riddled bodies through catapult over enemy territory, or poisoning the water supply of the enemy, these weapons have a long history of being used. The human capacity for evil and barbarity has been seen throughout the centuries. Whether it was Emperor Barbarossa who poisoned the enemy’s well, or giving smallpox infected blankets to Native Americans, or the use of nerve agents by the Nazis, or the use of napalm and Agent Orange by the United States in Vietnam, or the recent use of sarin by Bashar al-Assad in Syria, history is rife with examples.

The emergence of the Biological Weapons Convention was a result of an international effort to put to table the use of biological and medical research for peaceful as well as nefarious purposes. It was first open for signature in 1972, and entered into force in 1975.

Importantly, the Biological Weapons Convention doesn’t outright ban the use of biological agents. It also lacks universality. Not every state is a signatory and the recent review conferences have been abysmal in tabling and discussing important points. There’s also the issue of BWC lacking in even providing a platform to discuss advanced biological research issues like genetic engineering, and the absence of any sort of protocol for enforcement of its terms along with a lack of consensus whether more should be done towards tackling even the spread of naturally occurring diseases and the possible weaponization by rogue or non-state actors.

Confidence building measures were taken up in the 2nd review conference, but due to its non-binding dictum, more than half of the member states did not participate. The non-binding aspect of everything that BWC stands for keeps it from being a fully potent anti-biological weapons initiative. Add to this the fact, the signatories are almost always at each other’s throats claiming non-compliance. All of this is not to say that the BWC has completely failed. It has brought important issues to the fore, even if it hasn’t been able to legally bind the member states towards the adoption of its terms. The very presence of such a convention shows at least the acceptance of the dangers that biological weapons possess and the fact that their spread must be checked.

What BWC needs are some major changes, including, but not limited to, bringing in legal compliance, strong leadership role being taken up by major powers so as to lead the way, timely payment of amounts ascribed to each member state so as to avoid any disruption in the functioning of its review conferences, making sure the review conferences happen even if major players have their sets of issues, and more confidence building measures being undertaken.

With regards to chemical weapons, much before the negotiations began in the early 1980s, the 1925 Geneva Protocol tried to prohibit the use of chemical and biological agents. It did not, however, have anything to say regarding the development, procurement, or stockpiling of such agents or delivery agents. On the 3rd of September 1992, the formal negotiations concluded, and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva adopted the basic text of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It was later opened for signature on 13th January 1993, in Paris.

It can be said that the CWC seems to have more than just a bark than the BWC because it goes on to have a detailed class system of categorizing the chemicals and providing reporting as well as inspection threshold for the same. CWC also places routine inspection requirements on industrial facilities. Quite expectedly, there were voices from within the U.S. and Russia that claimed that CWC was not capable of fully combating the development and spread of chemical weapons and in the absence of such a capability, it would not be wise for the U.S. or Russia to dismantle their then existing chemical production facilities. For Russia, it was also a question of economics as it estimated the cost of dismantling and disposing of chemical weapons was around $5 billion. CWC also has the advantage of having penalties for non-compliance.

The United States, along with Russia, Syria and Iran are non-compliant states. The United States seems to provide a security justification for its non-compliance owing to the fact that Russia has not complied with CWC, and so it maintains that it would be foolish for them to do so. The United States also claims that Iran transferred chemical weapons to Libya during the Libya-Chad war. The U.S. also accuses Russia of using nerve agents on UK soil.

While BWC and CWC are important frameworks towards the achievement of the eventual goal of a world free of biological and chemical weapons, BWC’s non-binding stand as well as the penalties of non-compliance in the case of CWC just not being enough are quite important aspects that must be considered and changed so as to give more credibility and power to these conventions. In absence of major reforms to both of these conventions, the future of arms control seems shaky and any major conference devoid of discussion of such reforms would be akin to seeing through a glass darkly.