Chemical & Biological Weapons

Biological and chemical weapons are often grouped with nuclear weapons as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD). There is one crucial difference: biological and chemical weapons are unequivocally prohibited by multilateral treaties, the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Though chemical weapons have been used (by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and more recently in 2013 by the Assad regime in Syria), the weapons have been of little military utility due to their limited range, delivery options and effects. By contr...

Biological and chemical weapons are often grouped with nuclear weapons as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD). There is one crucial difference: biological and chemical weapons are unequivocally prohibited by multilateral treaties, the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Though chemical weapons have been used (by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and more recently in 2013 by the Assad regime in Syria), the weapons have been of little military utility due to their limited range, delivery options and effects. By contrast, bioweapons are of accelerating concern, as biotechnology is a fast-changing field.  Since biological and chemical weapons and warfare are banned under international law, any intentionally aggressive use of these technologies, whether by a state or nonstate actor, would constitute acts of terrorism. 

Since its founding, the Acronym Institute has supported and analysed efforts to strengthen the regimes to prevent proliferation and uses of these ‘weapons of terror’, with frequent articles in Disarmament Dipomacy covering both treaties’ review processes, UN Security Council Resolution 1540 and related resolutions, cooperative threat reduction and measures for biosecurity, verification and the elimination of remaining arsenals.  Though challenges remain, especially to prevent terrorists from acquiring biological and chemical weapons, the international legal prohibitions combined with revulsion have combined to devalue the weapons and reduce the attractiveness of biological and chemical weapons, reinforcing a potent taboo on their use.

Though chemical weapons can be made from ingredients commonly found in everyday life, including pharmaceutical laboratories, the chemical weapons regime is essentially robust, with over 180 states parties and a well developed verification regime administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague.  The importance of the OPCW's work and of the CWC itself was demonstrated recently when the OPCW was tasked with overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.  The process was initiated following the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons in 2013 during the country's civil war and a subsequent September 2013 US-Russia brokered diplomatic agreement under which Syria signed the CWC (having previously been one of a handful of 'hold-out' states) and agreed to disarm its arsenal of chemical weapons.

However, three main challenges remain: disposing of the largest (US and Russian) chemical arsenals in a safe, timely and environmentally responsible manner; preventing uses of chemical weapons by terrorists, and persuading remaining hold-outs to join the regime, particularly in the Middle East, where chemical arsenals have been developed and used - by Iraq in the 1980s and Syria in 2013 - and where some countries refuse to adhere to the CWC until Israel gives up its nuclear weapons, and Israel has signed but not ratified. Universalisation of the CWC will be linked with progress towards establishing a zone free of WMD in the Middle East.

There are three basic types of chemical weapons: battlefield weapons such as mustard gas, of marginal significance now; highly potent weapons like VX, with mass-death effects; and the so-called ‘non lethal’ weapons that rely on toxic effects and irritants.  Chemicals deemed ‘non-lethal’ and used for riot control are prohibited from international use but not covered by the CWC if used domestically. The most notorious recent use was during the 2002 Moscow theatre siege, when the Russian authorities’ use of fentanyl asphyxiated and killed twice as many hostages as terrorists.  Bioweapons can also be made from household, research, medical and commercial ingredients, though weaponisation on a large scale is more complex. With the potential to cause mass, indiscriminate devastation to people, living creatures and crops, bioweapons fall into three main categories: bacterial organisms, such as those that cause anthrax, plague and tularemia; viruses, such as causes smallpox or hemorrhagic disease, and toxins such as botulinum or ricin that poison or incapacitate. As a consequence, the core science and technologies cannot be banned, so more efforts are needed to detect, identify, prevent and respond to a bioweapons threat or attack, with focus on non-state as well as state perpetrators.  Since the 1990s, BWC parties have pursued different approaches to strengthen the regime. Negotiations on a legally binding multilateral verification protocol were scuppered by US opposition in 2001. The Sixth Review Conference established a small Implementation Support Union (ISU) in 2006.  This 3-person unit, housed in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations, has proved useful, and was reinforced in 2011 by the Seventh Review Conference. 

16 October 2015

The negative impacts on our society of patriarchy and male privilege are perhaps nowhere more pervasive and pernicious than in the field of weapons, war, and militarism. By consequence, much of the discussion on disarmament perpetuates the highly problematic gender constructions...

8 October 2015

Editorial: Making change
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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Civilian deaths and injuries from the...

16 October 2014

(Vatican Radio) The Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York, Archbishop Bernardito Auza gave two addresses on Tuesday concerning nuclear arms and the advancement of Women.

Please see below the Archbishop’s speech at the General Debate of the UNGA First...

Dr Rebecca Johnson
4 August 2014

Wars may be started for trivial or mistaken reasons, as happened in 1914, but they are fuelled by arms industries. It’s time to look at the alternative history of efforts to prohibit the weapons that feed wars, causing widespread humanitarian suffering.

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Dr Rebecca Johnson
30 August 2013

Civil society must stop the use of chemical weapons being used as a pretext for US-led bombing in Syria. A gendered understanding demonstrates that the only sustainable strategy is to pursue disarmament and strengthen international humanitarian law...

Before the poison gas attacks killed...

Dr Rebecca Johnson
3 May 2013

The core purpose of the NPT was security and the prevention of nuclear war, but the  esoteric diplomacy of the current regime has become too far removed from the dangerous and messy world of today’s nuclear risks and ambitions. Rebecca Johnson reports at the close of the NPT meeting...

30 October 2014

[Below is an abridged version of a Parliamentary discussion on the issue of Arms Exports and Controls, focused on the First Joint Report from the Committees on Arms Export Controls, HC 186, and the Government response, Cm 8935]

Column 130WH

Mr Jeremy Corbyn MP: ...

16 January 2014

Mr Sanders: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment he has made of progress on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.

Hugh Robertson: It is the Syrian regime's responsibility to comply with the UN Security Council resolution by...

15 January 2014

Question Asked by Lord Robertson of Port Ellen

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what enquiries have been made regarding the chemical signatures on the chemical weapons declared by the Assad regime in Syria since July.

The Senior Minister of State, Department for...

Author(s): Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General
24 November 2012

I reaffirm my firm resolve and commitment together with the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, in consultation with the States of the region, to convene a conference, to be attended by all States of the Middle East, on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of...

Author(s): Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland
24 November 2012

The conveners of the Conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, the United Nations Secretary-General, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, have issued statements regarding the...

Author(s): UN First Committee
6 December 2007

Other Weapons of Mass Destruction

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UNGA 62/23 (L.7*) Implementation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on...

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