ARMS CONTROL VERIFICATION CHALLENGES
On the 20th anniversary of America’s illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003 on the false pretext that Hussein was still harbouring weapons of mass destruction, Hans Blix recalls in a short video a very key point: multilateral verification can — and did — work spectacularly well:
[By the eve of the US attack on Iraq] we had carried out about 700 inspections on the ground and about 30 inspections on sites [based on US and UK intelligence] and we had found no weapons of mass destruction.
Thus, the second UN verification mission — UNMOVIC — was able to confirm the success of the original UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) in finding and destroying Saddam Hussein’s WMD programme, including vast quantities of chemical and biological weapons.
Against that backdrop, we consider new efforts to strengthen the almost non-existent verification provisions of the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention.
Can a 1975 bioweapons ban handle today’s biothreats?
The World Health Organization defines biological weapons as follows:
Biological and toxin weapons are either microorganisms like virus, bacteria or fungi, or toxic substances produced by living organisms that are produced and released deliberately to cause disease and death in humans, animals or plants.
Matt Field and Erik English, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in an article provocatively entitled Can a 1975 bioweapons ban handle today’s biothreats? (6 March 2023), provide an excellent history of how the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention came into being, and the steps that have been taken since its entry into force to agree on verification measures.
Since 1975, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has been the cornerstone of international efforts to curb the proliferation of offensive biological weapons programs. Many experts credit the treaty with having established or at least reinforced a “norm” against the use of germs as weapons.
But there’s always been a piece missing from the bioweapons ban. The convention has no strict verification regime to ensure that countries are complying with it.
Efforts in the 1990s to give the treaty more “verification teeth”
Two developments in the 1990s pushed BWC members to attempt to give the treaty more teeth:
- Saddam Hussein’s BW programme (acknowledged to UNSCOM inspectors just before the September 1991 3rd BWC Review Conference); and
- The extent of the ongoing Soviet programme, as revealed by defectors.
Field and English explain the effect of these disturbing revelations:
In the 1991 review conference’s final document, BWC members agreed to create a group of experts to examine how to verify compliance with the convention.
Work continued on a Verification Protocol from 1991 to July 2001, when the George W. Bush administration effectively ended the talks. In the words of the then American Ambassador Donald Mahley:
In our assessment, the draft Protocol would put national security and confidential business information at risk.
A key sticking point for the US was the “vast number” of civilian facilities — like pharmaceutical plants — relevant to bioweapons. But equally important was the role of John Bolton.
Field and English explain:
According to Andrew Weber, who worked to dismantle the Soviet bioweapons empire as part of the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the George W. Bush administration had an ideological problem with the BWC verification negotiations.
John Bolton, a top arms control official in the administration — who’s famously against all arms control — helped blow up the work that was done on a verification protocol….
RI President Peggy Mason comments:
I was Canada’s Ambassador for Disarmament to the UN at the time. In the UN First Committee, John Bolton instructed the US delegation to oppose Canada’s proposal for an expert group to reach agreement on key multilateral verification principles. The groundbreaking study went ahead despite US objections.
Increasing transparency has been ongoing
Over the years, states party to the BWC and civil society groups have worked to increase the transparency of biodefense and dual-use biological research activities, including agreements on:
- Confidence-building measures on self-reporting information about research centres, biodefence programs, disease outbreaks, and other issues pertinent to biological arms control.
- Peer review of the reports, including on-site visits.
- Tracking of high containment labs for dual-use research on dangerous pathogens.
The end goal of the verification system would be to increase confidence that no country is violating the treaty
Allegations of bioweapons use and disinformation campaigns
Against a backdrop of Russian allegations of a US–Ukraine bioweapons programme and American allegations that both Russia and North Korea are maintaining offensive bioweapons capabilities, Field and English identify another role that verification could play:
A verification arm of the BWC could be useful in sorting out allegations about biological weapons—and debunking disinformation campaigns that involve bioweapons allegations.
Biden administration supports expert working group
After the Biden administration, in November 2021, signalled a new openness to the examination of further compliance measures, the Ninth BWC Review Conference agreed to
establish a Working Group open to all States Parties…. to identify, examine and develop specific and effective measures, including possible legally-binding measures… on compliance and verification.
A science and technology review mechanism
But there was another important agreement reached at the 9th Review Conference, as Field and English explain:
As with the verification issue, however, the latest review conference managed to push another door open, too, seeking to achieve a long-held goal: a science and technology review mechanism. The working group that will consider verification will also weigh how to develop a formalized system to keep the convention up to date on science and technology.
The goal of this “open-source research” is to establish a baseline.
In the words of Henrietta Wilson, a researcher at King’s College London who studies open-source research and its applicability to arms control:
What verification looks like in that context is less about finding the smoking gun of a violation and more about understanding what normal is and looking for aberrations from that normal.
RI President Peggy Mason, head of Canada’s delegation to the 1991 BWC Review Conference, comments:
After the revelations of Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons programme, it became clear that many of the Iraqi scientists involved in the programme — including the head scientist — had been trained in the field of dangerous pathogens in the UK and other western graduate schools. This is the type of information that open-source research can reveal as it happens.
Back to the power of the norm
The article ends with a discussion of the political realities that can create a yawning gap between verification and accountability. After all, the Chemical Weapons Convention has an entire organization dedicated to that task but still founders on the shoals of political and legal accountability once illegal use has been identified.
In conclusion, Field and English end quote James Revill, head of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR):
The international norm is so well established that currently no state will admit to having a biological weapons program because they don’t want to be associated with any suggestion of development or use of biological weapons.
The Pentagon, Russia and the ICC
A March 8th article in the Guardian entitled Pentagon accused of blocking effort to hand Russia war crimes evidence to ICC (Julian Borger) provides yet another reason why the Global South may be unwilling to cede the moral high ground to the West over the Ukraine war.
The article begins:
The Pentagon has been accused of blocking the sharing of US intelligence with the international criminal court (ICC) about Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
While the Biden White House and State Department have been supportive of cooperation with the Hague-based ICC as a means of holding Russian forces accountable for alleged widespread war crimes, Borger writes,
the defence department is firmly opposed on the grounds that the precedent could eventually be turned against US soldiers.
He further notes:
Joe Biden has yet to give a final decision.
Talk of diplomacy slowly increases
On a much more positive note, the latest Russia in Review (russiamatters.org, 24 February – 3 March 2023) reports the following, based on an article in the paywalled Wall Street Journal entitled NATO’s Biggest European Members Float Defense Pact With Ukraine (Bojan Pancevski and Laurence Norman):
Germany, France and Britain want to use the promise of stronger ties between NATO and Ukraine as leverage to convince Kyiv to pursue peace talks with Moscow.
The summary also reports that:
- UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants NATO’s July Summit to discuss an incentive for peace talks in the form of an agreement giving Kyiv much broader access to military equipment.
- French and German leaders told their Ukrainian counterpart during their meeting on Feb. 9 he needed to start considering peace talks.
- Emmanuel Macron also told Volodymyr Zelensky that he had been a great war leader, but that he would eventually have to make difficult decisions.
The summary concludes:
There are deepening private doubts among politicians in the U.K., France and Germany that Ukraine will be able to expel the Russians, and a belief that the West can only help sustain the war effort for so long….
On 10 March 2023 the Kyiv Independent reported this story with the headline WSJ: France, Germany, UK suggest defense pact with Ukraine.
This article expands on the “deepening private doubts” of key European politicians, citing a senior French official:
We keep repeating that Russia mustn’t win, but what does that mean? If the war goes on for long enough with this intensity, Ukraine’s losses will become unbearable…. And no one believes they will be able to retrieve Crimea.
The article also clarifies the limits of the proposed new agreement with NATO:
The proposed pact would not include the sending of NATO forces to Ukraine or Article 5 protection, but rather give Ukraine the military means to prevent a future attack by Russia by changing the Kremlin’s calculus.
Trump, Russia and the 2024 US Election
In our 24 February 2023 blog post, we included an article by former American diplomat Thomas Graham on how the Ukrainian, Russian, and American presidents would be reluctant to “back down” and engage in peace negotiations in the face of upcoming elections.
Professor Paul Rogers offers a quite different perspective:
if a Trumpian candidate gets to the White House then Ukraine will have to concede much more and Putin, in turn, will benefit with huge consequences for Ukraine and also for NATO.
See Ukraine war: Does Putin have his eye on the 2024 US presidential election? (opendemocracy.net, 4 March 2023), the sub-head of which reads:
A pro-Russian president in the White House would shift the outcome of a prolonged war in Putin’s favour
This alarming prospect was also discussed in the 9 March Inside Story discussion entitled Is the war in Ukraine at a stalemate? (aljazeera.com), with University of Bath Professor Patrick Bury stating:
There is an election at the end of 2024, a very important one in the United States, as a result of which United States policy could change. There’s a section of the Republicans that say that the US is essentially too involved in Ukraine.
That will be weighing heavily on Ukrainian timescales I would have thought.
Russian defence and military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer stated his view that this was a factor in Putin’s calculations as well.
Window of opportunity for negotiations
Bury and Felgenhauer also agreed that a window of opportunity for talks might open up in the fall, after each side seeks to improve its battlefield position over the summer months.
But, in Pavel’s words:
Right now we are looking forward for a big fight.
For the full video discussion, click on the arrow below.
Where do we stand with Nord Stream pipelines sabotage?
For the latest allegations in the ongoing controversy over the Nord Stream pipelines sabotage, see the 9 March NATOWATCH News brief, which reads in part:
Unidentified European and US intelligence officials have obtained tentative intelligence to suggest a pro-Ukrainian saboteur group may have been behind the bombing of the Nord Stream gas pipelines last year, according to reports in the New York Times and German newspaper Die Zeit.
As well as discussing these latest allegations, NATOWATCH provides a good summary of the ongoing controversy.
Alleged Canadian election interference and the call for a public inquiry
- a request to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) to complete a review to assess the state of foreign interference in federal electoral processes.
- A review by the external and independent National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) about how Canada’s national security agencies handled the threat of foreign interference during the 43rd and 44th federal general elections, specifically around the flow of information from national security agencies to decision makers.
In addition, the Prime Minister announced his intention to
appoint an eminent Canadian to the position of Independent Special Rapporteur, who will have a wide mandate to make expert recommendations on protecting and enhancing Canadians’ faith in our democracy.
Professor Wark stated:
I don’t think a public inquiry makes a lot of sense for a couple of reasons.
These reasons include:
- the considerable time — up to 4 years — such an inquiry would take;
- the need to keep most of the relevant information private;
- the precedent of establishing a public inquiry based on leaks to the media without the actual documents on which they are based; and
- the release on 3 March of the Report on the assessment of the 2021 Critical Election Incident Public Protocol (CEIPP) by Morris Rosenberg.
Regarding the Rosenberg Report, Professor Wark states:
The Rosenberg Report which was released only yesterday kind of punctures the idea that there is an urgent need for such an inquiry.
Professor Wark has since expanded on the above comments in an article first published in the National Post but then reprinted by cigionline entitled How to Combat Election Meddling? Consider the Rosenberg Report (7 March 2023):
A crucial observation is that the original fear of foreign meddling, originating from the American experience of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, has since expanded to include domestic actor interference that might involve disinformation attempts, threats and intimidation of candidates or even violence on the campaign trail.
Regarding alleged Chinese interference, he outlines a number of recommendations in the Rosenberg Report regarding the need for a “sustained and well-resourced counter-intelligence campaign” as well as other disincentives for foreign meddling, while ensuring they are fully compliant with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Professor Wark also sees potential “deterrence and education” benefits in a foreign agent registry “if properly established”.
At the same time, in comments reminiscent of Senator Yuen Pau Woo’s warnings discussed in our 17 February 2023 post, Professor Wark writes:
But fear of foreign or domestic penetration of our body politic can also be taken to the extremes — McCarthyism was a byword for such a descent.
As we strengthen the gates against election interference, it is important that we avoid policies, rationales and public statements that cast widespread aspersions on the loyalties of Chinese-Canadians, of whatever generation, or spread a chill over political discourse.
What we must try to ensure is the freedom of all Canadians to come to their own reasoned judgments at election time. We call this freedom of thought.
In our 3 March post, we included the sad news of Daniel Ellsberg’s terminal cancer diagnosis, conveyed in a letter to countless friends around the world.
Today, we conclude with a link to a letter written to him by Seymour Hersh entitled My Fifty Years with Dan Ellsberg – the man who changed America (substack.com, 8 March 2023).
Photo credit: Creative Commons, j0e_m (Geneva Conference on Disarmament)
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