Published on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website on March 18, 2008
Scientists are developing new substances at the cross section of biology and chemistry–such as peptide bioregulators–that could be used to incapacitate and kill. These substances defy the typical biochemical threat spectrum that includes microbial pathogens such as the anthrax bacterium and toxins such as botulinum. Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, documents this research and its impact on existing arms controls in “The Body’s Own Bioweapons” (March/April 2008 Bulletin). Here, Pal Aas, a chief scientist at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment; Alan Pearson, the director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Control Program at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation; Ralf Trapp, a France-based technical consultant to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; and Tucker continue the debate about the impact of these new lethal and incapacitating agents and ways to discourage their development.
By Alan Pearson, Director of Biological and Chemical Weapons Control Program, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
All of the participants in this roundtable have identified states and their interest in incapacitating chemical weapons as the primary cause of concern regarding bioregulators and their chemical analogs. This may seem strange to readers in the United States where discussions of biological and chemical weapons overwhelmingly focus on terrorism. But my colleagues are right. Not only are states expressing interest in the developments Jonathan Tucker describes, which they believe will provide the basis for “usable” (i.e. useful and politically acceptable) chemical weapons, but only states have the capabilities needed to see the development of such weapons through from agent discovery to weapons deployment.
As Ralf Trapp points out, interest in incapacitating chemical weapons is not new. In fact, for nearly 60 years, advocates for such weapons have been able to convince funders that, because of advances in science and technology, “usable” incapacitating weapons are just around the corner. Yet somehow the promised incapacitants never seem to arrive. That today’s scientific advances are enabling new ways of manipulating human physiology and brain function does not necessarily mean that new chemical incapacitants are any more likely to be “successful” than the old.
That said, Trapp’s point that the mere possibility of “success” could suffice to stimulate research and development of new incapacitating chemical weapons has repeatedly been proven. Even more, the belief that researchers have developed an “acceptable” weapon could lead its use, as occurred in Moscow in 2002. For now, I am more concerned about these beliefs than I am about the possibility that a truly nonlethal incapacitating chemical weapon could be developed. The reason lies in the malleability of the concept of acceptability, which varies according to time, place, and context. I’m concerned that increased interest in incapacitants will generate pressures that lead to the use and proliferation of weapons that are deemed “good enough.” In other words, if and when “success” comes, it may be due more to a redefinition of acceptability than to advances in science and technology. Then, the institutionalization, conventionalization, and marketization of the new chemical weapons (whereby they become more like small arms sold in the global market than like strategic weapons held by a restricted number of states) may well lead to an ever-expanding definition of acceptability, ever-broader range of uses, and a more powerful array of new and improved agents. (As a corollary, scientific debates about the likelihood that researchers can develop truly nonlethal chemical weapons will play a larger role in determining whether incapacitating weapons are developed and, especially, used than Trapp may grant.)
My colleagues also appear to agree that the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) must somehow set limits on the types and quantities of toxic chemicals that can be used for law enforcement, and ultimately must establish measures for monitoring and verifying compliance with these limits. But what limits, and how to set them?
Tucker proposes a “modest” first step–that States Parties declare their stocks of law enforcement chemicals and delivery systems. This could be useful if the declaration mechanism includes a specific definition of “law enforcement chemicals.” Without a specific definition, States Parties could use the declaration mechanism to try to legitimize a wide and potentially open-ended range of chemicals for law enforcement purposes. An agreement to develop such a mechanism would provide a focal point for efforts to develop criteria, standards, and methods for determining whether a toxic chemical or delivery system is consistent with law enforcement purposes.
States Parties would have to address the central question raised by Trapp–what is the difference between prohibited and permitted chemicals? This question is really two questions: What actions qualify as law enforcement purposes under the CWC, and what characteristics of toxic chemicals are and are not consistent with such purposes? The first question relates to the hotly contested boundary between law enforcement and armed conflict, an issue that extends beyond the CWC. In the context of the CWC, the term clearly means more than domestic riot control. I believe that it means less than counterinsurgency operations, and that it excludes mixed combatant/noncombatant situations.
While complete resolution of this question within the CWC seems unlikely, even partial agreement would inform discussions of the second question, which falls squarely within the CWC. Nothing in the convention prevents States Parties from setting whatever criteria they collectively agree on, except that chemicals listed in Schedule 1 of the Verification Annex (like mustard and nerve gases) are definitely prohibited for law enforcement purposes. Some observers suggest that law enforcement chemicals be limited to those which meet the definition of riot control agents (“any chemical not listed in a Schedule, which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure”). However, powerful States Parties, including the United States and Russia, are not inclined to agree.
Perhaps there is another approach. Law Professor David Fidler argues that, based on international human rights law, the more toxic a chemical is and the more difficult it is to control the effects of its use (i.e. to control the individual dosage received and/or the exposure conditions), the less likely that the chemical is of a type consistent with a legitimate law enforcement purpose. Might it be useful to incorporate the concept of controllability into the definition of law enforcement chemicals? For example, could they be defined as chemicals that produce “reliably controllable and temporary incapacitation which disappears within a short time following termination of exposure?”
Tucker proposes that the States Parties establish an advisory panel to explore the full range of relevant issues and provide a menu of policy options for regulating incapacitants. Such a panel could be the focal point for discussions leading to a declaration mechanism. Julian Robinson has suggested establishing an open-ended working group [PDF] with a mandate to develop guidelines for interpreting the law enforcement exemption, but not pursuing a declaration mechanism at this time. Whatever States Parties decide, they should begin a joint process of thoroughly examining Trapp’s question. And whatever the outcome of this process, it should result in criteria, standards, and methods for determining whether a toxic chemical or delivery system is consistent with law enforcement purposes.
by Pal Aas, Chief Scientist at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment
“The Body’s Own Bioweapons” is an informative and well-balanced presentation of the possible threats posed by mid-spectrum agents, such as bioactive molecules derived from the human body.
Security experts and members of the arms control community identify bioterrorism and the production of bioweapons on a small and large scale as one of the most challenging threats to national and international security. There are reasons to argue against such statements.
First of all, the development and production of bioweapons is a difficult and sophisticated task. It is not an exercise in which individual terrorists will engage but is more likely the terrain of states or industries with a high-level of scientific and technological knowledge. The steps–production, dissemination, aerosolization, spray-drying, microencapsulation, etc.–necessary to weaponize large volumes of materials are complex. If terrorist organizations developed these capabilities it would be a serious challenge.
In particular, the development of lethal agents or agents that impair brain function, emotion, or cognition constitutes a serious threat to individuals. However, Tucker hits on an important point when referencing examples of what Soviet scientists achieved on this front during the Cold War. They were all frightening examples of possible threats from large state bioweapons programs. Thus, the international community should be making more efforts to force signatory states and nonsignatory states to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). In addition, states should negotiate a verification protocol for the BWC. Increased commercial interest in bioregulators and the rapid development of production technologies have additional implications for these treaties.
In addition, the various interpretations of the term “law-enforcement” in the CWC are problematic. If states accept a broad interpretation of the law-enforcement exemption in the CWC, they should specify and limit the types and production-volumes of agents. Furthermore, necessary verification measures should be introduced that cover the “law enforcement” use of “bio-chemicals.” These points should be addressed at the upcoming CWC review conference.
It will be difficult to change the CWC or amend its lists of chemicals, so other options must be considered. I agree with Jonathan Tucker’s idea of modifying the provisions in the CWC Verification Annex that cover “other chemical production facilities.” This approach would increase the international control of the production of such possible threat agents.
More generally, the next biothreat could be chemicals derived from the human body, but this would take time. In the wide spectrum of biochemical agents available as terrorist weapons, other agents are probably of greater interest today and during the next decade. In my opinion, conventional explosives will continue to be the primary weapon for most terrorist groups. The next option will probably be classical chemical warfare and/or biological warfare agents and radiological agents. Toxic industrial chemicals are another possible and realistic alternative, as these chemicals are easily available.
By Ralf Trapp, Technical Consultant to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
The title of Jonathan Tucker’s article could easily have been “the body’s own chemical weapons.” I’m making this point to highlight the convergence between biology and chemistry–a development whose implications for arms control needs further study. The emergence of new chemicals that interfere with brain functions or other regulatory processes in humans (such as bioregulators and neuroactive peptides) is a key feature of this crossover.
Military interest in this type of toxic chemicals is not new; what is new is the scientific potential opened up by the biological revolution, combined with advances in engineering and information technology. Scientists’ expanding understanding of biological systems combines with advances in particle engineering and the promises of nanotechnology for the development of “smart” delivery systems to carry biologically active chemicals to specific target organs or receptors. The synthesis of complex molecules of biological origin including peptides has also become much easier than in the past.
At the same time, the demand side is evolving, with military requirements adapting to the changing nature of warfare. So-called nonlethal weapons are drawing attention, and scientists are assessing incapacitating chemicals that interfere with human body functions and should have pharmacological safety margins sufficient to avoid killing the target population. To be clear, scientists debate whether it is possible to develop chemical or biological agents that can satisfy the requirement of “non-lethality.” (See this recent British Medical Association report). But this discussion misses an important point: The mere fact that there may be an agent that may satisfy the requirements to an extent that may be judged acceptable could suffice to stimulate research and development of new incapacitating agents.
The implications for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) could be serious. Both treaties approach the weapons they ban in a comprehensive manner, defining the purpose (intent) of using an agent for weapons purposes as the criterion for deciding whether a chemical or biological material is a prohibited weapon or a legitimate material. That consideration also applies to incapacitants. Contrary to Tucker’s argument, the status of incapacitants under the CWC is far from ambiguous; or rather, if their status was ambiguous, the status of any toxic chemical, whether lethal or incapacitating, would be, too.
The CWC has some contradictions, though. It allows toxic chemicals to be used for law enforcement purposes, including domestic riot control. Yet, it unequivocally bans the development, acquisition, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. Is it possible to distinguish whether a toxic chemical or a delivery system are intended solely for law enforcement purposes and not as a new chemical weapon? What features, characteristics, and parameters would be consistent with law enforcement, and which stipulate chemical weapons? Neither question has a simple answer. Restrictive interpretations of the convention limit the law-enforcement clause to a state’s rights to use certain toxic chemicals for domestic riot control; liberal interpretations accept a range of possible uses of any toxic chemical under a state’s jurisdiction but call for voluntary declarations to enhance transparency.
Tucker suggests that States Parties should limit the types and quantities of toxic chemicals that they stockpile for law enforcement purposes. He also proposes ways to modify the CWC’s verification system to take account of the risks associated with bioregulators. In my view, before one can address the second proposal, there needs to be a common answer to the first one. CWC States Parties have so far failed to discuss the use of incapacitants for law enforcement purposes–this question was in the “too-difficult” category. Expecting the upcoming CWC Review Conference to resolve this issue would be setting it up for failure.
Scientists and policy makers have publicly debated many of the issues related to the use of incapacitants for law enforcement purposes, and States Parties should initiate a thorough discussion of the matter at the state level. This discussion should aim to clarify the demarcations between legitimate developments and prohibited activities. Such a discussion would also help to understand possible verification requirements for the crossover between chemistry and biology. In Julian Perry Robinson’s words, the creeping legitimization of incapacitants would lead to a new generation of psychochemical weapons. If ignored, this issue could weaken the fabric of the CWC and open the door for a resurgence of chemical warfare of a new kind.