SDG agenda a pipe dream without sustainable peace, disarmament

biological and chemical weapons.
"Bioterrorism could kill more than nuclear war, but no one is ready to deal with it." -- Bill Gates

The debate over the possible origins of the Covid-19 virus has brought to the fore the threat posed to the humanity by biological weapons. While there is no evidence that the coronavirus is a biological weapon, it made the humanity aware of the damage such weapons could cause. Efforts to build global peace requires an effective mechanism to eliminate biological and chemical weapons needs to be ever vigilant and sustained effort as it is the right thing to do, and it would reduce unnecessary human suffering.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the humanity’s attention to the need to address three priorities: weapons of mass destruction; conventional weapons; and new battlefield technologies. And such an effort has a strong basis in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The resources spent on weapons drains resources from sustainable development efforts. About 15,000 nuclear weapons are stockpiled around the world, and the world is “one mechanical, electronic or human error away from a catastrophe that could eradicate entire cities from the map.”

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According to WHO, 65 000 deaths were caused by technological disasters between 2009-2018. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) treaty is a legally binding treaty that outlaws biological arms, which is also the most relevant global mechanism to control biological weapons. The BWC:

  • Forbids the state parties from developing, producing, stockpiling, or otherwise acquiring biological agents or toxins that have no justification for peaceful or defensive purposes;
  • Prohibits states from designing, building, stockpiling, or otherwise gaining equipment to deliver biological agents or toxins for hostile purposes;
  • Compels states to destroy or divert to peaceful purposes their existing stocks of prohibited items;
  • Bans states from transferring restricted items to anyone or otherwise helping in the manufacture or acquisition of biological weapons;
  • Safeguards the rights of states to exchange equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information for peaceful purposes to avoid hampering their economic and technological development;
  • Commits states to cooperate in solving any problems through consultation and in carrying out any investigation initiated by the UN Security Council; and
  • Commits states to assist others that have been attacked using biological weapons.

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The periodic review of the BWC is mandated by the treaty and plays a crucial role in proposing changes. The review mechanism envisages checking the operation of the BWC, related scientific and technological developments, as well as progress towards developing a convention that prohibits the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. As the usual UN work pattern, the annual meetings of state parties and meetings of experts are held to iron out diplomatic and technical topics before dealing with them more formally at the review conference.

It appears that global efforts to prevent the use of biological weapons and pathogens seem to be drifting. The Eighth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (2016) appears to be yet another lost opportunity of reinvigorating the treaty.

The international community banned the use of chemical and biological weapons as early as 1925 after they witnessed the horrific aftereffect of such weapons during World War I. The Geneva Protocol signed on 17 June 1925 had come into effect on 8 February 1928. Sixty-five states had ratified the protocol, 38 states are signatories, and 145 are state parties.

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The Geneva protocol was brokered by the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations. The global community was aware of the brutal nature of biological and chemical warfare. (Table 1. presents a brief history of international efforts towards the prohibition of chemical weapons.)

The United National took almost three decades since its inception to develop a global initiative to address the issue of biological weapons through the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and their Destruction. The BWC was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. The treaty was opened for signature on 10 April 1972. The BWC entered into force on 26 March 1975.

One of the limitations of BWC is that for enforcing compliance with the convention, it relies too much on self-reporting by the member states and the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism for investigation of alleged use of the chemical and biological weapons.

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The second review conference (1986) agreed that the state parties were to implement several confidence-building measures (CBM) to prevent or reduce the occurrence of ambiguities, doubts and suspicions and to improve international cooperation in the field of peaceful biological activities. The CBMs were expanded by the third review conference (1991). It further reinforced the ban in 1993 by prohibiting the development, stockpiling and transfer of biological weapons.

Under the revised agreement, the state parties undertook to provide annual reports. The reports use specific formats – on explicit activities related to the BWC including data on research centres and laboratories; information on vaccine production facilities; information on national biological defence research and development programmes; declaration of past activities in offensive and defensive biological research and development programmes; information on outbreaks of infectious diseases and similar occurrences caused by toxins; publication of results and promotion of the use of knowledge and contacts; information on legislation, regulations and other measures.

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Countries do use biological weapons for various reasons, but mostly because of the ease of developing and using them. Biological weapons use microorganisms or natural toxins to produce disease in humans, animals or plants. To act as a weapon, pathogens need a means for transmission to contaminate food and water supply or use insects, exposed individuals or aerosols to spread a pathogen.

One of the potential effects of biological weapons is on the biological diversity. Bioweapon disease outbreaks could cause the extinction of endangered wildlife species, erosion of genetic diversity in domesticated plants and animals, the destruction of traditional human livelihoods. The effect of the use of Agent Orange on the Vietnam population by the US military still lingers on.

Though biological and chemical weapons are primarily developed as military tools, often civilians are the major casualty. The 1925 Geneva Protocol categorised tear gas as a chemical warfare agent and banned its use in war shortly after World War I. From 1993, nations were called to sign the UN Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that outlawed the use of riot control agents in warfare. However, many countries use tear gas as a civilian control tool.

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The global peacebuilding efforts require an effective mechanism to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. The global eradication of biological and chemical weapons needs sustained effort. The Popular discourse on the historical relationship between disarmament and development must be part of the national dialogue on peacebuilding architecture.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of biological and chemical weapons. However, it has severe limitations — it does not prohibit the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons, and some countries assert the right to retaliate if attacked with biological weapons.

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which came into force in 1975, supplemented the Geneva Protocol. It was the first multilateral disarmament treaty to ban the production and use of an entire category of weapons. The BTWC has currently 165 states parties and 12 signatories. It aims at prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, retention, transfer, and use of biological weapons by anyone.

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Unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention, the treaty lacks verification and compliance procedures, and there is no implementing body to monitor observance. The efforts to establish a verification system collapsed due to the withdrawal of cooperation by the US. It became evident the BTWC does not prevent states from conducting biological weapons programmes. The fact that Russia and Iraq, both signatories to the convention, conducted clandestine bioweapons programmes exposes the inadequacies of the current regime.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) do provide an added incentive to develop popular mobilisation for sustainable peace. The linkages between the disarmament agenda and the agenda for sustainable development is strong. The UN Secretary-General noted, “Excessive spending on weapons drains resources for sustainable development.” Excessive emphasis on weaponisation is incompatible with creating inclusive, stable societies, strong institutions, effective democracy, good governance and a culture of peace based on respect for human rights.

The disarmament agenda has strong linkages with many SDGs. Such action can help bring back the historical relationship between disarmament and development and emphasise human security over the border security. The overall SDG agenda has a strong link to the progress on SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), which includes targets on disarmament and arms regulations. The disarmament agenda has strong linkages with several goals of the SDGs. SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), SDG 14 (life below water), SDG 15 (life on land) and SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals).

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On SDG 3, for example, armed violence as a leading cause of premature death. Disarmament and arms control can reduce the impact of conflict on human health. Gender-responsive disarmament and arms control can reduce violence against women and girls, in line with SDG 5. Disarmament and arms control can further support SDG 14 and SDG 15 by reducing the impact of weapons on the environment. Testing and use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have contaminated the environment and contributed to the environmental crisis.

Effectively countering the threat from biological weapons requires several mutually reinforcing multilateral actions, including a strengthened prohibition regime, public mobilisation and enhanced political will. Freeing the world from weapons of mass destruction needs to promote transparency and build confidence that all state parties do comply with the convention and violators are penalised, possibly under the supervision of the Security Council.

To achieve this goal, there needs to be greater awareness among the public and pressure the UN and the governments to strengthen the regime. Perhaps, a renewed and expanded security council is needed to ensure a significant weapon-free world. A renewed effort to link disarmament with sustainable development goals must be fruitful.

(Dr Joe Thomas is Professor of Public Health and Sustainable Development at MIT WPU Campus, Kothrud, Pune. The views are personal.)

Prof. Joe Thomas

Dr Joe Thomas is Global Public Health Chair at Sustainable Policy Solutions Foundation, a policy think tank based in New Delhi. He is also Professor of Public Health at Institute of Health and Management, Victoria, Australia. Opinions expressed in this article are personal.