The incapacitating chemical agents loophole

By Michael Crowley, Malcolm Dando | October 22, 2014


Twelve years ago, Russian security forces employed a secret incapacitating chemical agent (ICA) weapon believed to affect the central nervous system in their attempt to save 900 hostages held in a Moscow theater by armed Chechen fighters. Although the bulk of the hostages were freed, more than 120 of them were killed by the chemical agent and many more continue to suffer long-term health problems.

To this day, the Russian authorities refuse to publicly disclose the weapon they employed, nor will they provide any details of the nature and levels of incapacitating weapons they may have developed or stockpiled. Despite the official silence, there is evidence, documented in a new Bradford University report, of continued research by Russian scientists into such chemical agents including computer modeling of so-called calmative "gas flows" in enclosed spaces, as well as explorations of related fields such as the interaction of potential ICAs with human receptor sites.

And Russia is not alone; China and Israel have also developed ICA weapons targeting individuals, while a number of other states have conducted research that is potentially applicable to the study or development of such weapons. But the international community has turned a collective blind eye to such activities, apparently considering them an issue too difficult to deal with. The Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention in December provides an opportunity to rectify this omission, before more countries become intrigued by these weapons, with the consequent threat of their proliferation and misuse.

Potential uses and dangers. There is no agreed definition of incapacitating chemical agents (which are also referred to as calmatives, incapacitating biochemical weapons, immobilizing agents, and knockout gas). They can be described as a disparate range of substances—including pharmaceutical chemicals, bioregulators, and toxins—that are intended to act on the body's core biochemical and physiological systems (such as the central nervous system) to cause prolonged but non-permanent disability. They include centrally acting agents producing loss of consciousness, sedation, hallucination, incoherence, disorientation, or paralysis. At inappropriate doses, however, death can result. A variety of chemical agents are legitimately used for medical, veterinary, or other peaceful purposes, but they could potentially be employed as ICA weapons.

Proponents of ICA weapons have long promoted their development and use in certain law enforcement scenarios—for example, armed sieges in which hostages have been taken, where there is a need to rapidly and completely incapacitate an individual or a group without causing permanent disability or fatality. They have also been raised as a possible tool in a variety of military operations, especially in locations where fighters and civilians are in close proximity or intermingled.

In contrast, a broad range of observers, including scientific and medical professionals, arms control organizations, international legal experts, and human rights and humanitarian organizations, as well as a number of countries, have criticized ICA weapons, contending that their use presents potentially grave dangers to health and well-being. The British Medical Association, for example, has concluded that “[t]he agent whereby people could be incapacitated without risk of death in a tactical situation does not exist and is unlikely to in the foreseeable future. In such a situation, it is and will continue to be, almost impossible to deliver the right agent to the right people in the right dose without exposing the wrong people, or delivering the wrong dose.” 

Critics have expressed a variety of other concerns, including the risk of creeping legitimization of ICA weapons, as the norm against the weaponization of toxicity is eroded; the dangers of ICA weapons proliferation to both state and non-state actors; their potential use as a lethal “force multiplier;" their employment to facilitate torture and other human rights violations; the further misuse and militarization of the life sciences; the potential for states to use law enforcement ICA weapons development as a cover for covert offensive chemical weapons programs; and the danger of creating a slippery slope” that could lead to chemical warfare.

Past research and the implications of advances in science and technology. From the late 1940s onward, military, security, and police bodies and policy makers of certain countries have explored the potential utility of ICA weapons. States that reportedly conducted research and attempted development of ICA weapons or acquired such weapons at some stage prior to the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 included Albania, China, Iraq, Israel, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Yugoslavia. 

In the light of these previous efforts, the revolutionary changes occurring in a range of relevant chemical and life science disciplines and technologies—including neuroscience, medicinal pharmacology, and synthetic biology—have raised concerns that these advances may be used to weaponize incapacitating chemical agents and to develop other chemical weapons. During a 2010 meeting on ICAs convened by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Ralf Trapp, an independent international consultant on chemical and biological weapons disarmament, said: “The explosion of knowledge in neuroscience, bioregulators, receptor research, systems biology, and related disciplines is likely to lead to the discovery, amongst others, of new physiologically active compounds that can selectively interfere with certain regulatory functions in the brain or other organs, and presumably even modulate human behavior in a predictable manner. Some of these new compounds (or selective delivery methods) may well have a profile that could make them attractive as novel candidate chemical warfare agents.” 

Advances in the discovery or synthetic production of potential ICAs are just part of the story; they have occurred in parallel with developments in particle engineering and nanotechnology that could allow the delivery of biologically active chemicals to specific target organs or receptors. The potential consequences of misuse of such technologies have been previously highlighted in the 2008 National Research Council report, "Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies," which also warned of the misuse of developments in nanotechnologies or gas-phase techniques allowing the dissemination of highly potent chemicals over wide areas: “[T]echnologies that could be available in the next 20 years would allow dispersal of agents in delivery vehicles that would be analogous to a pharmacological cluster bomb or a land mine.”

In the light of such ongoing concerns, the new Bradford University report examines contemporary research into a range of pharmaceutical chemicals potentially applicable to the study or development of ICA weapons. As well as documenting contemporary research by Russian scientists, the report highlights the development and marketing by Chinese companies of ICA weapons employing an unknown anesthetic agent for use against individuals, and the possession of such weapons in 2011 and 2012 by the Chinese Peoples' Liberation Army. The report highlights previous research into ICAs by Israel and the notorious use of an ICA weapon as an attempted assassination tool by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad on at least one occasion, in 1997. In addition, the report explores more recent unconfirmed allegations of ICA weapons use by Syrian government forces during the ongoing civil war. And the report examines potentially relevant chemical and life-science dual-use research conducted since 1997 in the Czech Republic, India, Iran, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

ICA weapons and the CWC. ICA weapons clearly come under the scope of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came into force in 1997 and which is monitored by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Under the CWC, the use of any toxic chemicals (including ICAs) as weapons in armed conflict is absolutely prohibited. However, there are differing interpretations as to whether, and in what circumstances, such toxic chemicals could be employed for law enforcement purposes.

To date, this issue has not been satisfactorily addressed by the states that are party to the CWC. No policy-making organ of the OPCW has made any interpretative statements clarifying whether ICA weapons can legitimately be employed for law enforcement purposes, and if so, in what circumstances and under what constraints. CWC signatories are left to interpret the scope and nature of their obligations in this area, with the danger that a “permissive” interpretation may evolve. In 2013, certain countries—including the United Kingdom and United States—formally declared that they are not developing and do not possess ICA weapons. But other states that have conducted research in this area remain silent.

Because the possession and use of incapacitating chemical agent weapons appears to be restricted to a relatively small number of countries, there is still time for the international community to act. The OPCW has a window of opportunity, in which it can take a precautionary, preventative approach, monitoring developments in relevant dual-use research and addressing the attempted development, acquisition, stockpiling, and potential use of these agents as weapons.

If the OPCW does not act decisively in the near future, there is a danger that an ever-growing number of countries will seek to harness advances in relevant scientific disciplines for ICA weapons development programs or may be perceived—rightly or wrongly—of doing so. This, in turn, may convince other states to conduct their own ICA weapons research and development programs or potentially explore an even broader range of chemical agents, with the danger of a consequent spiral of actions and reactions that could weaken or eventually erode the prohibition on chemical weapons.

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