International laws needed to prevent use of chemical and biological weapons

International laws are needed for chemical and biological weapons to prevent their use by states and rogue groups, says a Carleton researcher.

Mustard gas, anthrax and the plague have been used to wreak havoc over the course of history, but Carleton’s Katherine Simonds warns that weak international laws open the door to their repeated use in the future.

Simonds is a second-year master’s student in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and is researching how international bodies monitor the threat of chemical and biological weapons.

She recently attended two high-ranking meetings at the UN in Geneva (Meeting of States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention) and the Hague (13th Session of the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention) to observe, as a member of a non-governmental organization (NGO), how those international bodies function.

“Arms control agreements have been at the forefront of international policy since September 11th, 2001, to prevent the misuse of weapons by non-state actors,” explains Simonds, referring to groups that are not sanctioned by their home governments, such as terrorists. “Nuclear proliferation has become a hot topic – especially between the U.S. and Iran – but has left the threat of chemical and biological weapons overshadowed.”

Chemical weapons work by attacking the body’s vital systems and their precursors have legitimate uses in the manufacturing of cosmetics, gasoline, detergents and paper and textiles, among other everyday products. Advances in biotechnology have made it possible for companies that have access to bacteria, viruses or disease-causing agents to potentially develop offensive biological weapons on short notice. It is this “dual-use” capability that makes chemical and biological weapons so dangerous, according to Simonds.

The Chemical Weapons Convention established an international organization called the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. It has the authority to send inspectors to investigate states or companies that may be producing illegal chemical agents.

But this verification process doesn’t exist for biological weapons. A major concern today, says Simonds, is that there is no verification body to ensure that the states that agreed to never retain or acquire biological weapons under the Biological Weapons Convention are adhering to their international obligations.

“What I am trying to understand is why verification exists under one treaty but not the other,” says Simonds. “In Geneva and the Hague I was able to interview UN employees, NGOs and several state representatives including the U.K., the U.S. and Russia in search of explanations and insight into how states negotiate security arrangements.”

At these meetings, Simonds witnessed the importance of political will first hand, including the issues that divide developed and developing countries and roadblocks that have played a part in halting negotiations.

“Key decisions made at the international level also demand domestic obligations for individual states. Developing countries do not always have the technical or financial means to undertake their legal obligations or to even participate in discussions that will affect their security,” she explains.

Nations such as the U.S. and U.K. are more concerned with universality – ensuring that all nations are party to the Conventions – and are pushing for non-players to be covered under international law.

Simonds is studying how changes on the political stage will change how nations interact at next year’s meetings, particularly with newly-elected U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Now is the time for a review of U.S. arms control policies. I hope that the new administration will address this international security deficit by pursuing multilateral efforts to strengthen the Conventions and engage in renewed commitments to its own obligations.”

Canada will chair the 2009 Meeting of States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention and Simonds is interviewing Canadian diplomats to see what issues Canada will emphasize in this influential position.

“As a student of arms control and disarmament, it was an amazing experience to be able to observe these important multilateral processes.”

This entry was written by Melissa Nisbett and posted in the issue. Tags applied to this article are: . Leave a comment, bookmark the permalink or share the following short URL for this article via social media:

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