Regime against CBW

The work of HSP has long focused on the formation and proper functioning of what may be thought of as an international regime to eliminate chemical and biological warfare and its weapons: a regime that builds up and strengthens the long-standing taboo against chemical and biological warfare.

Today the regime is operationalised as a multi-layered framework of activities. These take place at the international level, such as Security Council resolution 1540 (2004) described as the first comprehensive strategy on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; at the plurilateral level, an example being the G7 Global Partnership, and at the national level in national criminal law. Other international network-based activities are also important components of the regime and include The Australia Group - an informal arrangement within which representatives of 40 countries plus the European Commission share information on the proliferation of chemical and biological agents and technologies.

The core components of the regime as expressed in international law are as follows:

  • The 1925 Geneva Protocol is an international treaty whose states parties have agreed among themselves not to use CBW weapons against one another. This prohibition, building upon earlier agreements such as those of The Hague in 1899 and 1907, is now generally considered to have entered customary international law, and is thereby binding upon all states whether they have or have not formally joined the treaty.
  • The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), now subscribed to by the large majority of states, is an international treaty renouncing germ weapons in order to “exclude completely” the possibility of such weapons being used against human beings, other animals or plants. The BWC extends the existing regime of CBW no-first-use established by the Geneva Protocol (and its antecedents) by explicitly outlawing development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons. However, the Convention makes essentially no provision for any particular procedures or forms of international co-operation and for an organization to implement its rules or enforce its norm of non-possession. At the time of negotiation this was judged to be acceptable, though not all the negotiating partners agreed.
  • At the Second Review Conference in 1986, states parties introduced voluntary “confidence-building measures [...] to prevent or reduce the occurrence of ambiguities, doubts and suspicions” and “to improve international co-operation in the field of peaceful biological activities”. Although modified and expanded at later meetings, the subsequently confirmed reports of gross violation of the BWC by the USSR promoted belief that such measures could never in themselves be sufficient. As a result in 1995, negotiations for a legally binding instrument that would strengthen the treaty by establishing verification or other compliance-promoting procedures were opened. These negotiations collapsed in 2001 at the Fifth Review Conference. The BWC Intersessional Process, which has run since 2003, is focussed on developing common understandings and effective action on a range of topics including national implementation, biosafety and biosecurity measures, education and awareness raising, and capacity building in the event of a disease outbreak. Consisting of two meetings per year - a meeting of experts and a meeting of states parties - the process has provided a space for interaction between the health, law enforcement and scientific communities and has facilitated increased levels of cooperation and collaboration on national, regional and global efforts against biological-related security threats.
  • The 1977 Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD) has particular provisions which prohibit warfare with antiplant chemicals that have “widespread, long-lasting, or severe effects”. This treaty entered into force in 1978, but is at present subscribed to by less than a majority of the world’s states. Among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, only France is a non-party.
  • The Secretary-General’s Mechanism for the Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological weapons has, since the late 1980s, empowered the Secretary-General of the United Nations to promptly investigate alleged violations of the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Intergovernmental attention towards the need for such a mechanism goes back to reports of germ warfare use during the Korean War and, later during the late 1970s, to reports of “yellow rain” in Laos and neighbouring regions. Several UN investigations of alleged use of CBW weapons were mounted during the 1980s and early 1990s, initially, and inconclusively, in regard to the “yellow rain”, then during the Iran-Iraq war, when the Secretary-General conclusively verified Iraqi resort to mustard gas, and later in Mozambique and Azerbaijan, where his investigators reported non-verification of the alleged chemical-warfare episodes on which evidence had been presented. In 2013, the Secretary-General used this mechanism to investigate numerous allegations that toxic chemicals were being used in the Syrian civil war.
  • The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in April 1997, originated in intergovernmental talks on CBW that commenced in 1968. A full-blown disarmament-cum-antiproliferation treaty, the CWC is directed against all weapons that rely for their effects upon the toxicity of chemicals towards human beings or other animals. It prohibits development, production and stockpiling of any such weapons, or assistance in acquiring them, and obliges parties to the treaty not only to institute domestic compliance-assuring measures, including penal legislation, but also to participate in a verification system operated by an international agency based in The Hague, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The treaty further extends the 1925 Geneva Protocol by including among its provisions an express prohibition of any use of toxic chemical weapons, including retaliatory use. The large majority of the world’s states have joined the treaty, with the exception of some of the small island states, North Korea, and several of the states in the Arab-Israeli confrontation. Some see the 1993 Convention - and especially its features of nondiscriminacy, penetration of private industry, and intrusive international verification - as the makings of an international regime for the control or suppression of all types of weapon of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.
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