The Biological Threat to International Security

Are we underestimating it? In this article, Arya Pimpale throws light on the potential scope of biological warfare, its unforeseeability and frightening simplicity as well as the implausibility of the Biological Weapons Convention, the multilateral treaty that prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, transfer and use of biological weapons.

The current international political landscape is being challenged by a new threat to international security, the use of disease-causing agents –  virus, bacteria and toxins – as devastating agents of biological warfare. Against a backdrop of ‘new wars’, asymmetrical warfare and terrorism combined with advances in biotechnology and biosciences have resulted in the exacerbation of this deadly threat.

Bioterrorism has become increasingly prominent in the security discourse over the last decade. Recent instances that have attracted international attention towards the matter include the 1984 Oregon food poisoning case, in which 751 people who visited ten local restaurants became infected with Salmonella that was deliberately planted by members of a religious commune; and the 2001 anthrax attacks case in which letters containing anthrax spores killed 5 people and injured 17 across media companies and the government in the United States.

However, attempts to use biological warfare agents date back to the ancient past. Sythian archers, for instance, infected their arrows by immersing them in decomposing bodies or in blood amalgamated with manure as far back as 400 BC. The British forces under Sir Jeffrey Amherst provided blankets that had been used by smallpox victims to the Native Americans in order to spread the disease during the French and Indian War in the 18th century. During the First World War, the German Army created anthrax, glanders, and cholera agents particularly to use as biological weapons. They were also suspected of infecting people in St. Petersburg with plague and glanders. During the Second World War, the Japanese were suspected of intentionally releasing pathogens and toxins in over 1,000 water wells in villages during their attack on China. It has been argued that some of the pandemics they induced endured for years, infecting and killing more than 30,000 people in 1947, long after the Japanese had capitulated.

It is also important to note that certain types of biological weapons with the capacity to produce devastating and long-lasting results could be used to target the environment. For instance, during the First and Second World Wars, the German, British, and American governments devised biological agents that could regulate plant growth, initiate epiphytotics or plant epidemics, infect animals as well as damage fisheries and water-based vegetation. Such bio-weapon disease outbreaks have the ability to cause the extinction of endangered wildlife species, the erosion of genetic diversity in domesticated plants and animals, the defoliation of traditional human livelihoods and the annihilation of indigenous cultures.

You know the drill! Unreliable international laws, balance of power, proliferation and non-compliance

Two treaties outlaw biological weapons: the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The Geneva Protocol, with currently 140 State Parties and 36 Signatory States, prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in war and was signed under the international regime of the League of Nations. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), established in 1972 under the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) with 180 State Parties and 6 Signatory States as of today, is the first multilateral treaty that prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, transfer and use of biological agents of warfare. Treaties and international laws have existed for a long time, but so has the ever-improving capacity of human beings to find innovative ways of killing each other. The convention has failed to prevent countries from maintaining biological weapons programs. Today, although only a few countries are suspected of developing and possessing biological weapons, the threat of biological warfare remains due to the inexpensiveness of bio-weapon production, the potential for the catastrophic spread of cureless diseases, the fear of biological weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, and the proliferation caused by the ‘balance of power’ system which operates in the current international system.

Throughout its 46-year existence, the BWC has faced several challenges such as the lack of universality, the lack of accurate verification mechanisms, the ever-increasing improvements in biosciences and biotechnology leading to the threat of lethal bio-weapon production, and a history of non-compliance. Eleven states have not joined the treaty and several State Parties lack essential legislation to enforce the treaty’s conditions domestically. To date, it is difficult to identify the difference between legitimate biological research for peaceful purposes and offensive biological weapon research. There is no effective mechanism in place to confirm whether countries such as China, Egypt and Iran, who are suspected of pursuing harmful biological weapons research and programs but claim to comply with the BWC, are honest about their intentions. Furthermore, in practice, should a devastating pandemic occur, it would be difficult to discern its real cause, whether by nature, mishap, or sabotage.

Due to the challenges mentioned above, there has been a lack of confidence that all members are compliant, which has resulted in a lack of trust in the legitimacy of the BWC regime. The human race today is better equipped to create worse warfare agents than ever before. Advances in biosciences and biotechnology across the world have increased the risk of countries producing harmful biological agents for the purpose of warfare.

Several Signatory States Parties, or those States Parties that have ratified or acceded to the BWC, have blatantly violated its conditions a number of times. The Soviet Union developed and maintained its offensive biological weapons program despite ratifying the BWC. While Russia claims to have ended this program, doubts remain regarding the possible remnants of the program. Similarly, biological weapons programs were revealed in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and, supposedly, South Africa, the US and China, in later years. What is worse is that only limited information is available on the degree of compliance by States Parties and the national legislation they enact to prevent the development, production and use of biological weapons.

Given the human track record of conflict involving weapons of mass destruction, and the potential of biological warfare, we are led to the tragic conclusion that biological warfare has a future. The lack of an effective verification mechanism is the biggest challenge that the BWC faces and overcoming it would make the convention more credible, encouraging more states to comply. Considering the devastating and intractable nature of the threat, efforts to curb it must be multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral and well-coordinated. A wide range of local, national, international, regional and non-governmental organisations with necessary expertise must collaborate and coordinate their efforts to monitor and enforce legislation to comply with the provisions of the BWC.

Arya Pimpale is a graduate of International Relations at Leiden University.

Photo by The U.S. Army