Research on war agents - Offensive research, defensive research

The so-called UN Biological Weapons Convention that entered into force in 1975 takes an important step further than the Geneva Protocol, negotiated half a century earlier, which tried to stop the deployment of biological weapons. The UN Convention also forbids explicitly any research, production and stockpiling of biological weapons. At the same time, it permits further research on pathogens that could potentially be used as weapons “for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes” (Article I). As long as an attack with biological weapons, particularly by non-state violent actors, cannot be ruled out (see infotext on “Bioterrorism—Myth, fiction or current threat?”), this exception is entirely understandable. Many countries, amongst them Germany, still find it necessary to maintain research programmes for the defence against attacks by biological weapons.

The permission to conduct defensive or peaceful research in potential biological warfare agents, however, is not without its risks. To begin with, some toxins that are very common in civilian medicine can also be used as a weapon in higher concentrations. Then, even defensive research cannot avoid addressing the chances of an offensive use of biological weapons. The development of any anti-virus presupposes that there is a virus that must be identified and neutralized. The effectiveness of a vaccine cannot be tested without the pathogen itself. This argument sometimes even is the foundation for justifying the production of means of delivery for biological weapons. In the 1990s, the US-American foreign intelligence service CIA built some missiles that were particularly suited for spreading biological warfare agents, justifiying this with the intention to test and improve their defence strategies against a possible attack.

Such measures are a considerable strain on the provisions of the Biological Weapons Convention. However, the mere research on vaccines could already point to the intention of deploying biological agents offensively as whoever intends to release a deadly and uncontrollable virus ought to be well advised to immunize its population and its armed forces beforehand. Offensive research, therefore, needs defensive research as much as vice versa. In the field of biological weapons, in particular, it is therefore extremely challenging to clearly draw the line between offensive and defensive research as foreseen by the Convention. An effective inspection of whether the biological weapons convention is adhered to or not is therefore very demanding. The danger of misuse also increases. A good example is research conducted by the Apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s (cf. Info text: “Biological weapons and biological war—A short history). Officially declared as a purely defensive programme, the regime still attempted—as became known later—to produce offensive biological weapons for the military and its secret service.

So, can we deduct from this that a verification of the Biological Weapons Convention is impossible when there is no clear line between offensive and defensive research? First, we will have to admit that any offensive or defensive character of biological weapons research can hardly be deducted from the nature of the substances and appliances used. It primarily depends on the motivation of the researchers themselves and the intention of the politicians or armed forces that commission the research. Still, many experts have made concrete suggestions of how the adherence to the Convention can be improved. The preparedness of the parties to the Convention to increase transparency of their allegedly defensive biological weapons programmes would be key. This would entail a complete reporting on the transport of pathogens that can be used as biological agents of war, in particular, their export into other countries. Another element would be uninhibited access by international verification teams to all biological laboratories and research facilities of the parties to the Convention. Negotiations regarding such verification have taken place. However, they did not succeed in adopting a corresponding addition to the Convention, partly because in 2001, the US government refused full monitoring of its biological weapons programme.

The United States, in particular, refuses to disclose its research on biological weapons. It cites two-sided nature of research on biological weapons that in its view negates effective verification of the Convention. It confirmed this stance as recently as in 2011 on the occasion of the Seventh Review Conference. At the same time, it invited a select number of parties to the Convention to visit its research facilities for their ‘biological defence’.

Sources and further information:

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