Pandemic prevention, banning killer robots, and keeping outer space peaceful

Preventing a Future Pandemic

For a really sensible discussion on an often fraught and highly politicized set of issues, see: The Origin of Covid-19 and preventing the next pandemic (Amanda Moodie and Nicholas Evans,, 4 June 2021). The authors contend that:

while answering the question of where the novel coronavirus came from is important, many of the most important policy decisions … [nations need] to make to prevent future pandemics do not depend on viral origins.

Very little about pandemic response or preparedness for future pandemics turns on the particulars of how this one started.

They identify two main sets of global challenges:

  • Identifying and preventing the spread of zoonotic pathogens; and
  • bolstering safety and security in high containment laboratories

Stressing that a key pandemic prevention measure is the funding of research into universal vaccines for “zoonotic frequent flyers like coronaviruses”, they write:

Collectively, studies now suggest that developing a universal coronavirus vaccine is scientifically feasible. This must be a worldwide effort.

But an increased effort for global vaccines means, in turn, more high-level biological research, giving new urgency to the biosafety and security issues.

Just how safe are high-containment labs?

Moodie and Evans write that policy makers have long debated biological safety in high-containment labs:

Biosafety, biosecurity, and awareness-raising among life scientists are ongoing topics of discussion at the Biological Weapons Convention.

Biosafety is a major focus in the Global Health Security Agenda.

The World Health Organization has maintained a guide for the responsible conduct of life sciences research with dual-use potential for more than a decade.

But, as the authors point out, debating the issue is not the same as “national-level action” to manage biological risk and ensure protection from accidents:

The United States has had a number of high profile laboratory incidents over the years, involving anthrax, highly pathogenic avian influenza, and smallpox, even as it has continued to develop and expand its high-containment lab capacity — already the largest in the world.

For the Canadian situation, the September 2020 CCDR report indicates that the already low Canadian rate of laboratory incidents continued, with exposures mainly limited to hospital technicians. Of concern, however, are the limitations of the data due to the recent nature of the Laboratory Incident Notification System (LINC), instituted in 2016.

Transparency and Biosecurity

Moodie and Evans caution that lack of transparency surrounding public health dilemmas is not limited to authoritarian societies like China, writing:

Globally, biosafety norms are poorly implemented and reviews of biosafety and biosecurity are often conducted in secret.

With respect to the US in particular, they cite “consistent” criticism of US biological security and safety “for decades” and conclude that:

more work is needed around the world to make sure that all countries have biorisk management policies and appropriate oversight measures in place, and that they’re open about the problems they encounter and their efforts to solve them.

For a Canadian angle on the lab-leak hypothesis and the renewed focus it brings to certain highly risky experiments and related safety regulations, see: Origin of SARS-COV-2: Why the lab-leak idea is being considered again (Benoit Barbeau, 6 June 2021.

What about a deliberate attempt to develop a biological warfare agent?

Moodie and Evans underscore that:

to our knowledge no serious analysis of COVID-19’s origins — even from those who support a laboratory release hypothesis — has concluded that anyone deliberately introduced the SARS-CoV-2 virus to the global population.

Bearing in mind that conclusion, they assess the highly negative implications of such a transgression for the Biological Weapons Convention and the broader norm against the use of a disease as a weapon, focusing in particular on the “the knotty political problem” of how to address flagrant violations:

Even treaties that [unlike the BWC] have extensive verification provisions have grappled with what to do when a state party has demonstrably violated a treaty’s prohibitions.

What about financial reparations?

As for efforts to hold China financially responsible for the pandemic, Moodie and Evans argue:

  • There is no international legal precedent for such reparations
  • Countries like the USA may well find themselves facing similar claims in future
  • This effort undermines the international collaboration that is essential for pandemic preparedness

What is most needed, they conclude is:

a laser-like focus on the real enemy: the causative agents of disease.

Canada, NATO and Killer Robots

The next NATO Summit is set for 14 June 2021 in Brussels, presumably in virtual format.

In a  speech previewing the Summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the fifth Summit objective, to uphold the rules-based international order, includes the “setting of new standards for emerging technologies.”

Nowhere is that effort more important than in relation to artificial intelligence (AI) and lethal autonomous weapons.

Vincent Boulanin, a Senior Researcher at SIPRI on the broader issue of military AI, of which lethal autonomous weapons are one element, writes:

as the United States and other countries build better AI, they may end up pushing nervous adversaries and even allies to take steps that could increase the risk of armed conflicts.

If the international community doesn’t properly manage the development, proliferation, and use of military AI, international peace and stability could be at stake.

While Boulanin focuses on confidence building measures to build greater common understanding of what constitutes responsible use of military AI, the International Committee of the Red Cross sees an urgent need for new law:

The ICRC is convinced that international limits should take the form of new legally binding rules to regulate autonomous weapons.

So how will NATO Summit leaders address this issue?

According to NATO Watch, the only civil society organization focusing exclusively on NATO:

Exactly where the alliance falls on the spectrum between permitting AI-powered defence technology in some applications and regulating or banning it in others is expected to be a hotly debated topic at the 14 June NATO summit and beyond.

Whither Canada?

Our blog of 4 October 2019 highlights a Liberal foreign policy campaign commitment, long advocated by the NDP and Greens, to:

  • take a leadership role in ensuring the ethical use of new technology, by developing and supporting international protocols to ban the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems.

Post-election, this was followed up by mandating Canada’s Foreign Minister to:

Advance international efforts to ban the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems.

While not quite the leadership role promised during the election campaign, it nonetheless reiterates the goal of a total ban and directs Canadian diplomatic efforts to this end.

Despite these promises, and a September 2020 hybrid virtual and in person, physically distanced, meeting of the States Parties to the CCW to consider lethal autonomous weapons, there is no evidence of a Canadian leadership role, or even a strong supportive one, in working towards a ban.

In two detailed civil society reports on the September 2020 meeting of states parties, outlining national positions and proposals, the only mention of Canada is that we were in attendance.

The relevant GAC website page does not even include the word “ban” nor does it outline any Canadian initiatives to that end. It states:

Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems

Recent years have seen significant advances in machine learning and autonomous piloting technologies. We are concerned with the possible implications of how these and other developments could be integrated into Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS).

States are currently considering the issue in the CCW. The CCW is providing technical, legal and political experts a forum to exchange information, agree on definitions and dialogue. Canada supports the work of the Convention to consider LAWS.

The Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (GGE), originally scheduled to meet in September and November 2020, now has a new schedule of meetings in June, August and September of 2021.

RI President Peggy Mason comments:

With the NATO Summit set to grapple with AI and the GGE set to meet shortly thereafter, we are completely in the dark as to what Canada is putting on the table, if anything.

We call on the Government of Canada to take a strong position at the upcoming NATO Summit in support of a ban on the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems.

“The Open Skies Treaty closes”

In our May 29, 2020 blog we discussed the importance of the Open Skies Treaty, the role Canada played in its negotiation and the implications of then President Trump’s decision to ditch the Treaty. Quoting from a European Leadership Network statement, we wrote:

Throughout its operation, the treaty has increased military transparency and predictability, helped build trust and confidence, and enhanced mutual understanding.

A May 31 editorial in the Wall Street Journal with the headline The Open Skies Treaty Closes praises the Biden administration decision to renege on an unequivocal campaign promise to reverse the Trump decision to withdraw from the Treaty, arguing:

Biden wisely changes his position on an accord Russia openly violated.

Writing on the same issue, New York Times journalistMichael D. Shear, takes a more balanced approach, noting that while Russia and the USA rely less on military overflights permitted under the treaty and much more on sophisticated networks of satellites, this is not the case for many Europeans (and one assumes Canada too):

U.S. allies have long argued that the true value was in information they could collect from aircraft, and they now fear losing access to views of Russian troop and arms deployments, especially in places like Ukraine.

While the Canadian government has been mute throughout, Canadian experts share the European view of the treaty’s value. Their collective assessment is well-summarized in an article by University of Ottawa Professor Peter Jones entitled: Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty Is a Short-Sighted Mistake (, 27 May 2020):

America’s allies support Open Skies. For them, most of whom do not have satellite capabilities, it represents their only opportunity to collect valuable information on Russia, and others, in an increasingly uncertain time.

The Biden administration response, that they will provide allies with all the information they need, is not only astonishingly patronizing but manifestly a promise the USA will only keep when it sees it in its national interests to do so.

The treaty’s fate is now finally sealed with news that the Russian parliament’s upper house voted Wednesday to withdraw from the treaty.  If President Putin endorses this action, it will take effect in six months. The only hope is a last-minute break-through at the upcoming USA-Russia Summit on 16 June in Geneva, but President Biden seems more intent on giving domestic hardliners what they want.

An Optional Protocol to the Outer Space Treaty

On a much more positive note, we end this blog with a new International Journal article by retired diplomat-turned-professor Paul Meyer (also Chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group) entitled: Could an optional protocol be the way to stop the weaponization of outer space? (International Journal, 2021).

He writes:

Recently, a renewal of great power rivalry including the development of offensive ‘counter-space’ capabilities has resurrected the spectre of armed conflict in space.

With widespread political support for the non-weaponization of outer space, has the time come to give legal expression to this goal by means of an optional protocol to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty?

To back up the claim of broad political support, he cites the repeated UN General Assembly annual votes in favour of the “Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space” (PAROS), including the most recent vote in 2020 with 185 in favour and only 2 voting No — the USA and Israel.

The article goes on to review the singular achievement of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty:

This foundational treaty imparted a special status to outer space as a form of ‘global commons’, beyond any ‘national appropriation or claim of sovereignty’.

The conflict prevention significance of this status is better appreciated if one reflects on how many terrestrial conflicts occur over clashing claims of sovereignty or territorial disputes.

However, as Meyer emphasizes, while the treaty does explicitly prohibit the placement of certain weapons in space, more is needed to give full effect to the non-weaponization goal. In that regard, he cites past Canadian political leadership to this end, including Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin’s September 2004 statement to the UN General Assembly that:

The time has come to extend this ban to all weapons.

After a review of diplomatic initiatives, including a 2008 draft treaty by Russia and China, updated in 2014, and a reminder of the military developments, like anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, that provide a “new impetus for diplomacy”, Meyer outlines his proposal to provide “legal reinforcement” to the Outer Space Treaty declaration against the weaponization of outer space in the form of an Optional Protocol to supplement the current Treaty.

Advantages include:

  • the protocol does not automatically bind the states parties to the original treaty but must be separately agreed by the states concerned;
  • importantly, adoption of the optional protocol would not entail ‘opening up’ the original Treaty, a move with unforeseeable and potentially negative consequences;
  • to bypass the deadlocked Conference on Disarmament, the negotiation could be undertaken through the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space or through a UN General Assembly mandated process or even an ad hoc diplomatic conference.

The article goes on to outline potential definitional issues, verification challenges and other possible roadblocks. On the role that Canada could play in overcoming these challenges, Meyer writes:

Such an initiative would require like-minded states acting in concert. Canada would be a natural leader for such an initiative given its past effort on behalf of space security. Other ‘middle powers’ could figure in a cross-regional coalition to get the diplomatic ‘ball’ rolling towards enshrining in law the non-weaponization of space.

In conclusion, Paul Meyer asks whether the more than 180 states that routinely endorse the PAROS resolution are prepared to follow it through and commit to a legally binding instrument to prevent the weaponization of space. He concludes:

If they are willing, and the mounting ‘counter-space’ threats and growth in space assets provide compelling motives to do so, an optional protocol to the Outer Space Treaty might afford an attractive means of achieving a non-weaponized status for outer space.

Photo credit: Wikimedia (earth observation satellite)

Tags: Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), biosafety and security, CCW GGE process, Global Health Security Agenda, high containment facilities, June 2012 NATO Summit, killer robots, Lethal Autonomous Weapons (AI), military artificial intelligence (AI), NATO Watch, Optional Protocol to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, pandemic, pandemic reparations, Paul Meyer, Peter Jones, The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, The Open Skies Treaty, universal vaccines, World Health Organization (WHO)