The Research Group for Biological Arms Control at the University of Hamburg aims to contribute, through innovative research and outreach activities, to the universal prevention of biological weapons development, production and use. The focus of activities is twofold. Firstly, the Research Group contributes to preventing the erosion of the universal bioweapons prohibition by opposing norm-harming activities. Secondly, it develops new concepts and instruments for monitoring bioweapon relevant activities and for verifying and enforcing compliance with the norm against bioweapons.
Since 1925, the use of biological weapons has been prohibited internationally by the Geneva Protocol. The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) also prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons. Most recently, in 2004, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1540, requiring states to refrain from supporting non-state actors in acquiring or using biological weapons. The BWC has been the cornerstone of the international bioweapons prohibition. Incidents of bioweapons use and development, in particular after the respective prohibitions had come into being, have been very rare. Several developments, however, have created challenges for the bioweapons ban.
Challenges for the norm against bioweapons
Firstly, the norm against bioweapons has not always been successful in preventing the development, production and use of bioweapons. Bioweapon programmes are proven to have existed in the former Soviet Union until 1992, in South Africa until the end of apartheid in the mid-1990s, and in Iraq until the Gulf War 1991. The Japanese Aum Sect is known to have developed bioweapons capabilities in the 1990s. And the anthrax letter attacks in 2001 claimed the life of five people.
Secondly, existing and alleged violations of the bioweapons ban were not effectively dealt with in the past. This was to a large part due to the lack of measures to uncover and prove or disprove violations of the bioweapons ban and effective enforcement mechanisms in the BWC. This has not changed so far. Effective international monitoring, verification and enforcement is missing until this day.
Thirdly, the technologies that enable actors to make and use bioweapons are rapidly spreading around the globe, making them available in more places and to more people. Furthermore, new technologies are emerging, that open up new possibilities of misuse.
Fourthly, the carrying out of norm-harming activities such as the development of non-lethal biochemical weapons and particular biodefence activities threatens to erode the principles of the BWC by reinterpreting its prohibitions and redefining the general purpose criterion.
Lastly, after the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax letters in autumn 2001, threat perceptions have dramatically changed from putting emphasis on state programmes to viewing non-state actor activities as the greatest threat. While there have been rare cases of terrorist attacks with bioweapons and terrorist organizations such as the Aum sect in Japan and Al Qaeda have tried to develop bioweapons, the most likely source of bioweapons attacks with massive impact remain state-based efforts. Therefore, besides countering the bioterrorist threat, the state-based threat needs to continue to be properly addressed.
In its current state, the international legal framework is not effective in countering the bioweapons threat. Keeping the norm against bioweapons strong and healthy requires putting a set of measures into place that addresses a range of actors and activities. Verifying and enforcing compliance with the bioweapons ban and protecting the anti-bioweapons norm from erosion are the two most important aims of this set of measures.
Opposing norm-harming activities
Repeated attacks on an existing norm, even if low level (e.g. technical non-compliance such as not handing in declarations), will inevitably weaken it. If such attacks are not addressed quickly, decisively and in a non-discriminatory manner, actors will feel that they can stretch the limits, acting over time in a less cooperative and more egoistic way, eventually leading to the breakdown of the norm.
Dangers to the anti-bioweapons norm are currently not primarily the use of bioweapons. No state is proven to have bioweapons, none advocates their use, and allegations of state interest in these weapons are not convincing. The likelihood of non-state actors using bioweapons is difficult to calculate but seems to be low. Norm-harming activities come instead in three different forms.
Firstly, constructing weapons, equipment or means of delivery for bioweapons agents and creating pathogens with “improved” bioweapons characteristics such as antibiotic resistance is crossing or at least scratching the thin line between allowed and prohibited activities, even if intended for threat assessment purposes. This certainly weakens the bioweapons ban and may amount to a violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.
Secondly, advocating the use of biochemical agents as non-lethal weapons creates exceptions to the absolute bioweapons prohibition and may lead the international community down a slippery slope of bioweapons development. Developing and using biochemical non-lethal weapons is a violation of the Biological Weapons Convention which – in contrast to the Chemical Weapons Convention – does not allow exceptions to the total ban.
Thirdly, non-compliance with rules under the BWC, such as not establishing and implementing the necessary national legal framework (fulfilling Article IV requirements) or not handing in the required annual declarations (fulfilling Article V requirements) is also weakening the norm.
To protect the bioweapons ban through opposing norm-harming activities, the Research Group has so far worked to support strict implementation of declaration obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention. It plans to focus its work in this area on developing and lobbying for limits on biodefence activities and helping to prevent the advent of biological/biochemical non-lethal weapons.
Developing new concepts and instruments for monitoring, verification and enforcement
A major source of weakness in identifying and deterring bioweapons programmes is the lack of verification measures in the Biological Weapons Convention. Today, no international instrument is in place to uncover violations of the bioweapons prohibition by states or to (dis)prove allegations of such violations. Multilateral negotiations for a verification instrument failed in 2001, and restarting such negotiations is not yet likely. The need for monitoring bioweapons-relevant activities and for verifying and enforcing compliance with the bioweapons prohibition remains unmet.
Verifying compliance with the bioweapons ban requires monitoring of bioweapons relevant activities. “Monitoring” is defined as the continuous collection of information relevant for making judgements about the compliance of states and non-state actors with the global ban on bioweapons. “Verification” is defined as the use of information – both from monitoring and from ad hoc activities such as challenge investigations – to make judgements about the compliance of states and non-state actors with that global ban.
Monitoring and verification in the biological area are more difficult than in other areas of technology such as chemistry and nuclear physics, because a wide range of life science research activities and technologies are dual use; the dual use dilemma is very widespread. Dual use means that the equipment and agents used, the methods applied, and the data, knowledge and expertise used and generated are the same for producing biotech products such as medicines or food, and for producing bioweapons.
Due to the strong dual use character of the lifesciences and biotechnologies monitoring needs to cover a wide range of topics including maximum and high biological containment activities, biodefence efforts, work with certain agents, specific types of activities such as aerosolization experiments, transfer of relevant equipment, agents, technology, knowledge and expertise, and national legal action. Relevant information can be provided by states, or collected from international organisations, non-state institutions and other open sources.
The Research Group focusses its work on the development of new concepts and instruments for monitoring, verification and enforcement in the biological field that can be applied by states, international organisations and/or civil society. As a guiding principle, monitoring, verification and enforcement activities have to be internationally applied, be non-discriminatory, transparent, and permanent. They need to address all actors – states and non-state actors such as industry, the scientific community, and individual scientists.