Priorities for improving the chemical weapons treaty

By Pal Aas, May 16, 2008

Some States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) are concerned about limiting the development and possible use of incapacitants for law enforcement. This was clear during the negotiations of the CWC. Other countries would like to have the right to produce any chemical, drug, or other agent for law enforcement purposes. Such agents could have several effects on humans, including altering brain function. Discussions between these groups about whether riot control agents are the only law enforcement agent allowed under the CWC have not resulted in further agreement. But it is time to close this potential loophole. It was disappointing that the CWC's Second Review Conference failed to address this issue, but this failure should result in the involvement of more scientists, nongovernmental institutions, and others, and increase their engagement in the years before the next review conference in 2013. It is not too late–a more effective strategy must, however, be developed.

It is essential to take account of the potential effects on humans of existing and new agents as described by Jonathan Tucker. Scientists have identified several bioactive peptides, proteins, and other synthetic and naturally occurring chemicals that affect the human nervous system and cause a wide range of symptoms. If, to guard against the illicit production of these agents, states institute a verification annex that requires declarations and inspections of facilities producing and using significant quantities of these agents, then all such production facilities should be included and not just the few that produce limited types of agents. Rapid developments in the life sciences will result in new means of incapacitation, and most of the incapacitating agents are unlikely to be peptides, as Alan Pearson argues.

Tucker raises another important issue: new and potentially harmful delivery methods that weren't even considered possible while the CWC was being negotiated, such as using bacteria or other living cells to deliver agents. Toxins and agents developed under the cover of "law enforcement" can be delivered in bacteria and are not subject to enhanced verification measures under the CWC. This is an excellent example of the type of new developments that should be monitored by scientific advisory boards.

Tucker also addresses the issue of truth serums. Eventually such serums will be developed and be available for interrogations. But are they a violation of the CWC? Their use would probably be legitimate under the CWC framework, but only as a domestic law enforcement agent. Interfering with the personality and behavior of humans will raise ethical issues, however, and such agents could be prohibited as a result. The use of toxic chemicals as law enforcement agents, as raised by Ralf Trapp, is out of the question but serves to emphasize the necessity of addressing and clarifying the law enforcement issue.

Ralf, can you clarify what you mean when you say, "The issue of incapacitants is not primarily about new science . . . but about legal boundaries." From what I have read during the past few months and years, the development of incapacitants is closely linked to scientific developments. Regardless, I agree with Tucker that the implications of using incapacitants for law enforcement purposes needs to be addressed, sooner rather than later. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons's Scientific Advisory Board could help advance this debate.

On the issue of verifying "other chemical production facilities," I agree with the Second Review Conference's support for "directing inspections towards facilities of greater relevance to the object and purpose of the Convention." I share Trapp's concerns, however, that this position limits new declaration requirements or verification provisions.

Topics: Biosecurity


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