Helping the United Nations combat bioterrorism

By Barbara Hatch Rosenberg | February 20, 2007

The U.N. General Assembly adopted a Global Counterterrorism Strategy in September 2006 in accordance with a mandate from the 2005 World Summit and the recommendations of Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his 2006 report “Uniting Against Terrorism”. 1 Annan’s report stressed, “Bioterrorism is especially under-addressed and in acute need of new thinking.” In response, the General Assembly called for several biological initiatives: mobilization of biotechnology stakeholders to develop a program to ensure that advances in biotechnology are not used for terrorist purposes; development, together with member states, of a single comprehensive database on biological incidents; and revitalization of the secretary general’s capabilities for investigating allegations of the use of biological weapons. In addition to these prescribed activities, the United Nations alone bears the responsibility for enforcing the ban on biological weapons, as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) has no other mechanism.

The threat of bioterrorism requires a global response that only the United Nations can coordinate. Here’s how new Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should start:


Ban took office in January 2007 with new biotechnical mandates but no technical assistance. To be effective, he should seek impartial biological expertise from his own sources instead of relying on member states, as the U.N. Secretariat has customarily done. International technical staff will be needed to oversee the collection of specialized data for biological threat and risk assessment and to monitor technological developments with bioterrorism potential–the secretary general has the responsibility to alert the Security Council to matters that may threaten international peace and security. Technical advisers are needed without delay to direct the renewal (already initiated) of the secretary general’s resources for investigating biological weapons use and to expeditiously evaluate any allegations of biological weapons use that may arise in the future. The United Nations will need biologists to work with the scientific community to set international standards for the conduct of dual-use biological activities. Technical staff would also be the obvious caretakers for the confidential archives of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) when it is disbanded; the personnel could be selected so as to maintain the necessary institutional memory. Even while employed by UNMOVIC, experts can be assigned to other U.N. elements provided that UNMOVIC is reimbursed for all costs. 2

A core unit of biotechnical experts could mobilize additional scientific expertise (when needed) from both within and outside the U.N. system. The cost for a minimal unit of three experts at the P4-P5 level would not be prohibitive–around $900,000 for salaries, benefits, office costs, U.N. space, research materials, etc., based on information from UNMOVIC staff and personnel from other inspection agencies. If sufficient funds cannot be found within the U.N. budget, there is a possibility of outside assistance.

It is important for technical advisers to be independent of political and policy considerations. They should be located in an independent unit that reports directly to the secretary general, rather than in an existing U.N. unit such as Disarmament Affairs, which is essentially political in nature. For oversight, the secretary general could appoint a small panel of eminent and experienced scientific authorities to periodically review the work of the technical unit, especially the arrangements for biological investigations.


Annan pointed out that Security Council readiness for prompt investigation would help deter state support for terrorist groups. 3 Annan asked member states to consider the best mechanisms to resource and support such investigations, either at the request of states or of the Security Council acting under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. In principle, the answer to this rhetorical question already exists. For chemical or nuclear investigations, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can be called upon to provide inspection services under U.N. direction, as the IAEA has already done in Iraq. 4 For biological investigations, the secretary general has the authority to make advance arrangements himself for investigating alleged use of biological weapons at the request of any member state. 5 In his March 2005 report “In Larger Freedom”, Annan called upon the Security Council to make use of his biological investigational capabilities when necessary. 6 Although the standing authority of the secretary general is limited to investigating the use of biological weapons, the Security Council can request the secretary general to investigate any threat, including development, possession, testing, transfer, or accidental escape of biological weapons.

The 2005 consensus report of the United States Task Force on the United Nations, a bipartisan, Congressionally mandated study chaired by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, recommended establishing a new U.N. organization to deal with issues related to biological weapons. 7 They proposed that the organization should establish and train a roster of biological weapons specialists as a standby verification mechanism for use by both the secretary general and the Security Council, and it should write a manual of methodologies for future investigations based on the recent experience of UNMOVIC, the IAEA, and the Iraq Survey Group. 8 The task force essentially asked the United Nations to take a new and more professional approach to biological investigation.

There is now general agreement that the secretary general’s existing investigational arrangements–never really successful–are out of date and in need of extensive revision. 9 The opportunity is at hand for creating an effective biological inspection capability along the lines suggested by the U.S. task force, but this option will be lost if the updating falls into the old pattern.

When the General Assembly gave the secretary general his authority to investigate alleged use of biological weapons, it instructed him to maintain a list of qualified laboratories and experts, provided by member states and available on short notice, and to develop technical guidelines and procedures for investigation with the assistance of qualified expert consultants provided by interested member states. 10 “A Report of Qualified Experts,” never adequate and now out-of-date, was issued in 1989. 11

Instead of relying on uncoordinated member state contributions as in the past, however, the existing authorizations would permit the development of a much more effective investigational mechanism. In a 2004 paper, Germany pointed out that the secretary general also has the authority to choose expert consultants himself–on the basis of their personal abilities–to advise and assist him in preparing for and conducting investigations and evaluating reports of alleged use; in order to maintain readiness, the consultants would have to be permanent members of the secretary general’s staff. 12 Thus, the secretary general could instruct his own experts to contract the best possible personnel by selecting them from among those nominated by member states and requesting nomination of specific qualified experts when necessary–using, for example, the UNMOVIC roster as a source for experienced candidates.

Britain also issued a paper in 2004 that built on the same prerogative and went well beyond the secretary general’s past arrangements. 13 It called for experts chosen by the secretary general to select a roster of inspectors and laboratories and to conduct regular exercises to train them in realistic environments; to develop procedures for maintaining the security and confidentiality of information; and to make standing logistical arrangements, including access to nonscheduled aircraft on short notice. The proposal included specific recommendations for improved investigation procedures, and it noted that the secretary general should have control over the equipment used in investigations in order to calibrate, validate, and protect it from contamination.

The United Nations already possesses the equipment needed for biological weapons inspections. When UNMOVIC is disbanded, the Security Council will have to dispose of it. Two European nations offered to store and maintain the equipment for UNMOVIC at no cost. They would probably be willing to do so for the secretary general if the equipment is transferred to him for use in exercising his inspection authority. When the equipment becomes outdated, UNMOVIC experience indicates that manufacturers are often willing to provide the United Nations with new equipment pro bono.

Calls for incorporating a roster of trained experts and inspection experience gained in Iraq into a permanent U.N. WMD investigational body have been heard from many distinguished groups, and nongovernmental experts have put forth several detailed proposals. 14 These reports generally specify that roster experts should work under U.N. staff codes in order to preserve their independence. Experts on call, contracted by the United Nations when mobilized, are subject to Article 100 of the U.N. Charter, which prohibits the receipt of instructions from any government and forbids governmental attempts to influence those hired. This practice allowed UNMOVIC to avoid the problems experienced by its predecessor, UNSCOM (the U.N. Special Commission for Iraq), which utilized experts that member states provided, trained, equipped, and supported. Former UNMOVIC Executive Chair Hans Blix has said, “Much has been written about the importance of UNSCOM reporting directly to the Security Council and not being dependent upon the secretary general and the big, and allegedly, bureaucratic U.N. Secretariat. For my part, I will rather underline that UNMOVIC, unlike UNSCOM, was not dependent upon member governments to provide gratis personnel, equipment, and services.” 15

It is evident that building and maintaining a competent biological investigational capability will require both permanent technical staff and an on-call roster. All the necessary preparations could be carried out right now by technical staff without further authorization, up to the point of actual training and laboratory certification. Before those undertakings, a General Assembly resolution would probably be desirable both for political support and funding. The cost for training and certification, based on UNMOVIC experience and projections, would be roughly $380,000 per year. If funds cannot be found within the regular budget, there are member states that may be interested in contributing. In its “Strategy Against the Proliferation of WMD,” the European Union includes “financial resources to support specific projects conducted by multilateral institutions . . . which could assist in fulfilling our objectives.” 16 A number of member states that contributed services to UNMOVIC, including the use of their facilities for roster training sessions, may be willing to do the same for the secretary general. For example, a small European country was prepared to sign an agreement with UNMOVIC providing the use of training facilities and support at no cost, as well as office and laboratory space, equipment storage and maintenance, and health and safety support in the field.

Conducting actual inspections would incur additional costs. Transportation, living expenses, and special services would be required. To maintain independence, roster experts would have to be paid as U.N. consultants when called up, mostly at P3-P5 rates (without benefits, if hired for less than six months). An estimate for a one-week field inspection with eight inspectors (two staff experts, six roster experts), based on UNMOVIC data, is approximately $170,000, using scheduled flights. When the General Assembly established the secretary general’s investigational authority, it made no provision for covering inspection costs; it was simply assumed that interested member states would pick up the tab. Past experience shows that this and other ad hoc arrangements for inspections were inadequate. In the long run, a General Assembly resolution establishing a more reliable and equitable means of funding on-site inspections would be desirable.


The BWC, which embodies the norm against biological weapons, includes only one means of verification, the right of states parties to lodge complaints with the Security Council and the obligation of states parties to cooperate in carrying out any investigation the Security Council may initiate. Thus, the United Nations must play an active role in enforcing the ban on biological and toxin weapons. Active efforts are underway to increase the number of BWC states parties (now at 155) and move toward declaring the ban to be a rule of international law, universally binding on BWC parties and nonparties alike. 17

State compliance with the ban is critical for preventing bioterrorism because states are the most likely source for the acquisition of biological weapons. There is no evidence that terrorists presently possess significant biological weapon capabilities or could soon develop them on their own. 18 Nor is it likely that any state would risk providing biological weapons directly to terrorists. Rather the history of weapons proliferation indicates a flow from the big powers to those with lesser resources via designs and materials bought, stolen, or leaked from the original sources. The anthrax strain in the letters of 2001–the only significant bioterrorist attack in recent times–is an example. This is the way biological weapons are most likely to fall into the hands of terrorists, who would surely prefer to poach on state programs rather than to imitate the costly and time-consuming process of developing the weapons themselves. 19

No significant action to establish a verification regime can be expected under the BWC in the foreseeable future, even if the United States should reverse its opposition. The failure of the BWC Protocol negotiations in 2001 made the defunct Protocol, which still remains on the table in so-called “Sleeping Beauty” mode, a political weapon that any state party to the BWC can invoke if it wishes to prevent new negotiations. At the same time, many parties that formerly supported the Protocol now consider its text–as it finally evolved under the consensus rule, stripped of much of its early value–to be obsolete because of the recent experience in Iraq. Nonetheless, many parties remain committed to the development of measures to verify compliance with the BWC “in the longer term.” 20

A strengthened and operational capability for biological investigations, maintained by the secretary general and available to the Security Council would be a significant step forward for the BWC. It would tend to deter parties from gross violations, and it would provide an alternative to military action in confronting serious biological threats. 21 But it would not be equivalent to a BWC compliance regime. The permanent Security Council members would effectively be excluded from investigation, and there still would be no routine or periodic measures for assessing compliance. If eventually an appropriate BWC compliance regime is adopted, its inspectorate could be jump-started by a ready, skilled, and up-to-date U.N. biological investigation mechanism. There is also another interesting possibility: A competent U.N. investigational capability could evolve into a dedicated international biological inspection agency, serving the BWC but outside of it, much as the IAEA serves the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

A major element in an effective biological regime is likely to be the monitoring of dual-use biological facilities by maintaining a constant possibility of inspection, with specified access required. Such a regime, which could be viewed as a “safeguards” mechanism, could be established through an agreement analogous to the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements concluded with the IAEA by parties to the NPT to cover dual-use nuclear facilities.

To initiate such a process, a group of like-minded BWC parties could decide to negotiate a compliance agreement and facilitate the process by not requiring consensus, following the model of the Ottawa Landmine Convention. 22 Global post-9/11 popular concern about biological weapons might lend support to the process. Like the landmine convention, a BWC compliance agreement could assign implementation to the secretary general; his biological inspection capability would be a critical asset. Once the General Assembly approved the agreement, it could be opened for signature by all the parties to the BWC. Significant pressure on parties to sign the agreement applied by the Security Council or a group of major powers would be essential. The secretary general’s biological weapons investigational capability could then be reorganized as a biological analog of the IAEA. This route to a satisfactory BWC compliance regime might well be easier to negotiate than a replication of the Protocol process.

1 U.N. General Assembly, “The United Nations Global Counterterrorism Strategy,” September 8, 2006 (; World Summit Outcome, September 15, 2005 (A/res/60/1); Kofi Annan, “Uniting Against Terrorism: Recommendations for a Global Counterterrorism Strategy,” April 27, 2006 (A/60/825).
2 UNMOVIC personnel have been temporarily assigned elsewhere within the United Nations on a number of occasions, with the provision that UNMOVIC must be reimbursed for salaries, etc. See, for example, paragraph 26 of UNMOVIC’s twenty-third quarterly report, November 29, 2005.
3 Annan, “Uniting Against Terrorism: Recommendations for a Global Counterterrorism Strategy,” paragraph 73.
4 In cases concerning chemical weapons, a relationship agreement between the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations permits the United Nations to call on OPCW in resolving allegations of chemical weapons use by nonparties as well as parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (A/Res/55/283). Security Council investigations may need to go beyond the limitations imposed by existing treaty regimes. In such cases, the European Union (EU) has explicitly declared its support for the use of nonroutine inspections under international control (“Basic Principles for an EU Strategy Against Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” European Council, 2003).
5 A/RES/37/98D, December 13, 1982; A/RES/42/37C, November 30, 1987.
6 Kofi Annan, “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security, and Human Rights for All,” March 21, 2005 (A/59/2005).
7 U.S. Task Force on the United Nations, “American Interests and U.N. Reform,” U.S. Institute of Peace, June 15, 2005.
8 The U.S. Task Force on the United Nations also recommended that the United Nations should set international standards for reviewing, approving, and monitoring dual-use bioresearch projects (especially in the area of genetic engineering) and ensuring that adequate biosafety and biosecurity measures are in place. This recommendation resembles the new U.N. Counterterrorism Strategy’s call for a program to ensure that biotechnology is not misused–a delicate and difficult task that the international community will need to face sooner or later.
9 J. B. Tucker and R. A. Zilinskas, “U.N. Field Investigations: The Historical Record” (sidebar in “Assessing U.S. Proposals to Strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention”), Arms Control Today, April 2002.
10 A/RES/37/98D, December 13, 1982; A/RES/42/37C, November 30, 1987.
11 “Annex I, Report of the Group of Qualified Experts Established in Pursuance of General Assembly Resolution 42/37C” (A/44/561).
12 “United Nations Involvement in Investigating the Possible Use of Biological Weapons” (BWC/MSP/2004/MX/WP.10). Germany submitted this paper on July 15, 2004, at the BWC meeting of experts to discuss international mechanisms for investigating alleged use of biological weapons; the paper refers to “Annex I, Report of the Group of Qualified Experts Established in Pursuance of General Assembly Resolution 42/37C,” paragraphs 57-64.
13 “Enhancing International Capabilities for Responding To, Investigating, and Mitigating the Effects of Cases of Alleged Use of Biological or Toxin Weapons or Suspicious Outbreaks of Disease” (BWC/MSP/2004/MX/WP.56). Britain submitted this paper on July 23, 2004, at the BWC meeting of experts.
14 Calls for a U.N. WMD investigational body modeled on UNMOVIC are found in the 2004 British proposal, the report of the U.S. Task Force on the United Nations, the “EU Strategy Against the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” (Chapter III, A.3, adopted December 12, 2003, by the European Council), and the report of the Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change (“A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility,” December 2004 (A/59/565)); Detailed proposals for a U.N. WMD investigation body have been presented by B. H. Rosenberg, “Enforcing WMD Treaties: Consolidating a U.N. Role,” Disarmament Diplomacy 75, January/February 2004, and T. Findlay, “A Standing United Nations Verification Body: Necessary and Feasible,” Compliance Chronicles 1, December 2005.
15 Hans Blix (keynote speech, 2004 Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, June 21, 2004).
16 “EU Strategy Against the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” adopted December 12, 2003, by the European Council, Chapter III, A.3. Financial estimates for planned contributions are found in “Annex B, Priorities Requiring EU Funding” of the biyearly Progress Report on the Implementation of Chapter III of the EU Strategy, Council of the European Union, December 2005. The cost of training and certification in support of a U.N. investigation capability would be a minor addition to the EU’s current expenditures for other such projects.
17 EU Council Joint Action (2006/184/CFSP), February 27, 2006. Action taken in support of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in the framework of the “EU Strategy Against the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Annex on Supporting the Universalisation of the BWC.”
18 M. Leitenberg, Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat (Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, December 2005).
19 To develop a usable biological weapon of mass destruction, the possession of a biological weapons agent is only the first step; production (the best agents tend to be unstable during growth, especially genetically engineered agents), purification and processing (treatments that promote aerosolizability and optimal particle size), effective means of delivery (without inactivating the agent), and not least, realistic testing require time, expertise, resources, and locations that are rarely, if ever, available to terrorists.
20 EU Council Common Position (2006/242/CFSP), March 20, 2006, relating to the 2006 Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The British Parliamentary undersecretary of state commented that there are no signs at the moment that the international climate has changed enough to permit universal agreement on verification.
21 David Kay, an U.S. critic of inspections before the Iraq War in 2003, commented in an April 2004 interview with Arms Control Today that he subsequently learned as leader of the Iraq Survey Group that “international inspection is even more important now than it ever was . . . there really is no substitute for effective inspections . . . if there is effective inspection the need for unilateral preemptive action becomes much less critical.”
22 For example, the EU has declared support for the establishment of additional international verification instruments to ensure effective detectability of violations and thereby deter noncompliance with WMD treaty regimes (“Basic Principles for an EU Strategy Against Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” European Council, June 16, 2003, no. 7).

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Topics: Biosecurity, Opinion

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