22nd June 1997


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Biological weapons: a provocative puzzle

World News Analysis

by Jonathan Power

Imagine that the

US., Russia, China, Britain and France gave up all their nuclear weapons under international treaty and next imagine that a ‘’rogue’’ nation secretly developed a nuclear arsenal and posed the risk of threatening one of them with a nuclear attack.

But the big powers, anyway, quietly decided, without fuss or hyperbole, to take the situation on the chin and continue to live without the capacity to retaliate in kind. Well, actually, that is the situation we are already in with another weapon of mass destruction, one that could, in the right conditions kill 100,000 people in a city of 500,000.

It is the biological weapon. According to American estimates eleven nations are now developing them in defiance of the Biological Weapons Convention, signed into international law 25 years ago, one of the more benign legacies of Cold War warrior, President Richard Nixon.

When, Nixon unilaterally renounced American use of biological weapons in 1969 (not least for reasons of US self-interest) biological warfare was widely thought to have unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable consequences.

It was believed that the manufacture of biological weapons presented unsurmountable safety problems for the personnel involved. There was no feasible way of protecting the troops using such weapons from infection. And it was impossible to immediately occupy an area after they had been used; the after effects could linger for years.

When the convention outlawing biological weapons was drafted in 1972 the scientific advisers apparently did not anticipate that anything could significantly change this picture. No one thought to write in a sentence that would include the misuse of genetic engineering and other methods of biotechnology.

Today we are in a situation, as the International Institute for Strategic Studies reports in its latest Strategic Survey, where ‘’preventing determined proliferators acquiring biological and toxin agents appears to be virtually impossible’’.

Biotechnology is now so advanced that recombinant DNA research offers a host of new possibilities for new types of biological weaponry- weapons that can consistently produce a given effect that will be highly contagious yet safe for the belligerent to handle and difficult for the targeted population to identify and take defensive action against.

Bomb delivery still poses serious problems. The moment of impact alone is not sufficient to ensure dispersal of the microbial pathogens and toxins. Present day rockets adapted for the purpose of delivering biological weapons, such as those Iraq possessed during the Gulf War, could only contaminate a few square kilometres. But by the first decade of the next century a number of countries will have the ability to mount large scale biological weapon attacks of major proportions.

Is there a point anymore in maintaining the Treaty? Can the big powers still adhere to it? Most important, it provides a moral norm, a symbol of the world’s growing abhorrence not just of biological weapons per se, but of warfare itself.

The situation we now confront begs a fascinating question. If the advanced industrialised/military powers are prepared to renounce tit for tat with biological weapons why don’t they do it for nuclear weapons? They have, in effect, decided that their best deterrent against a biological weapon attacker is not to reply in kind but to depend on their much more sophisticated armoury of superior conventional weapons.

Logic would suggest they apply the same rationale to nuclear weapons. It won’t stop some ‘’rogues’’ making an effort to become nuclear but it would give the big powers much more moral and diplomatic leverage.

Whatever the shortcomings of the Biological Weapons Convention in the short-run, for the long run the big powers have implicitly decided that their best hope lies in moral sanction. So let it be with nuclear weapons.

The writer is a columnist for the Washington Post, the New York Times, and a regular contributor to the BBC on political comment. He was a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune.

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