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Preventing the use of biological and chemical weapons: 80 years on

10-06-2005 Statement

Speech delivered by Jacques Forster, vice-president of the ICRC, during the International seminar on the Biological and Chemical Weapons Threat, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases. and bacteriological methods of warfare.

On 6 February 1918, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) made a forceful public appeal against the use of poison gas to the belligerents of World War I. The ICRC described this gas as a " barbarous invention which science is bringing to perfection " , protesting " with all the force at our command against such warfare which can only be called criminal " and warning of " a struggle which will exceed in barbarity anything which history has known so far " .

In the same year, a chemist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Inspired by the concern that the world's population would soon outpace global food production, Haber had invented a process that converts atmospheric nitrogen into agricultural fertilizer. Today, the food supply for an estimated two billion people depends on this process. 

But Haber's genius had not only focused on food production. He thought that chemistry could also provide a solution to the deadlock in the trenches of World War I. Believing in the potential of a new form of warfare, he played a pivotal role in the first gas attack in military history on 22 April 1915. About 150 tons of chlorine gas blew across the fields of Flanders in Belgium. The death it inflicted upon hundreds of soldiers was described as " drowning on dry land. " And once the taboo against poison in warfare was breached, the use – by both sides of the conflict - of mustard gas, which burns the skin and causes blindness, followed.

" 22 April 1915: the death it inflicted upon hundreds of soldiers was described as drowning on dry land." 
What would the Second World War have been like if the prohibition of poisonous weapons had not been restored with the 1925 Protocol? While many fundamental humanitarian principles have been utterly violated during those six years of conflict, the 1925 Protocol was respected by all belligerents. It might be argued that the fear of reprisals was the main deterrent. Although this is likely, whether because of a fear of reprisals or for some other reason, the Protocol drew a line which no belligerent dared to transgress.

The taboo against the use of poison in warfare, although codified in the 1925 Protocol, predated it by more than two millennia and was built upon the rules of warfare of diverse moral and cultural systems. Ancient Greeks and Romans customarily observed a prohibition on the use of poison and poisonous weapons. By 500 BC, the Manu Law of War in India had banned the use of such arms. A thousand years later regulations on the conduct of war drawn from the Koran by the Saracens specifically forbade poisoning.

Public abhorrence of gas warfare, reflected in the ICRC's 1918 appeal, as well as the call for a prohibition of the use of gas by the International Conference of the Red Cross in 1921, contributed to the diplomatic momentum which culminated in the treaty we honour today,

80 years after its adoption. It must be said that, despite a handful of well known violations since 1925, the norm against poison weapons enshrined in the 1925 Protocol has been respected in nearly all of the hundreds of armed conflicts since its adoption. But our responsibility today is not only to celebrate this success but also to ask ourselves how vigilant we are in ensuring that poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease never again occurs in warfare or for any other hostile purpose. And we must soberly ask how healthy the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions'regimes are in the face of recent techn ical and political developments.

"Nearly all major advances, in whatever domain, have been turned to hostile use." 
The work of Fritz Haber brings us face to face with a terrible truth about the progress of science. Nearly all major advances, in whatever domain, have been turned to hostile use. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have to consider what the future of humanity will be if the many beneficial advances in life sciences, biotechnology and pharmacology that we are now witnessing are put to hostile use.

The advances in biosciences which we are seeing now could make the use of chemical or biological weapons more effective, easier to make, safer to use, more difficult to detect and therefore more attractive to a State, group or individual who wishes to plan an attack. It may even be possible to alter peoples'behaviour, or even their fertility, without detection and from a distance. The use of pharmaceutical agents as weapons is now a reality with demonstrable and tragic results. The potential to target a particular ethnic group with a biological agent is probably not far off. These scenarios are not the product of the ICRC's imagination but have either occurred or been identified by countless independent and governmental experts. It is this concern which led the ICRC to make another public appeal in September 2002 on " Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity " . The Appeal carried three messages: first, it drew attention to potential risks inherent in certain advances in the life sciences and biotechnology; second, it underscored the pertinence of the legal and ethical norms which prohibit poisoning and deliberate spread of infectious disease; and third, it underscored the responsibility of governments, the scientific community and industry to prevent the use of scientific advances f or anything but the benefit of humanity.

"While there is growing concern about the threat of terrorism and the potential of using biological or chemical agents, it must be recognized that this is only one of a variety of threats of misuse of biological agents" 
The response to the ICRC's Appeal has been mixed. The most encouraging response has been from scientists and some major scientific academies which have begun to reflect on the risks of the misuse of their work and their legal and ethical responsibility to prevent this. Unfortunately, many major actors in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries have been reluctant to engage in discussion of potential misuse of their research and products. However, we are encouraged that efforts are underway to engage the relevant industry in a " Charter " of responsible practices.

We also welcome efforts being made by States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention to identify a range of measures to prevent and punish violations of its provisions. We nevertheless regret that the lack of success of the efforts to adopt a compliance monitoring Protocol for the BWC continues to inhibit agreement on a comprehensive agenda for urgently needed concerted action. While there is growing concern about the threat of terrorism and the potential of using biological or chemical agents, it must be recognized that this is only one of a variety of threats of misuse of biological agents and that any framework for addressing the full range of threats must include the 1925 Protocol and the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions.

Given the massive increase in the number of potentially dangerous agents together with the means to deliver them, their proliferation and the multiplication of actors with access to such agents, humanity risks losing the struggle against poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease. But this is not inevitable. We can minimize the risks by focusing our joint efforts on reaffirming existing legal and ethical norms and engaging not only government experts but also all relevant scientists and industry in cooperative preventive action.

"... humanity risks losing the struggle against poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease." 
Public abhorrence, ethical norms, codes of conduct, law and practical preventive measures are the tools with which humanity has protected itself, through generations and over several millennia, against poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease. The weakening of these protections, whether through neglect, yielding to the temptation to develop new types of chemical or biological weapons, a political impasse among major powers or the relegation of responsibility for these norms to experts – does not serve the interests of humanity. As the ICRC stated in its 2002 Appeal " We urge you to consider the threshold at which we all stand and to remember our common humanity " .

The norms contained in the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the two Conventions based on this instrument are among the oldest and most fundamental elements of international humanitarian law. We have inherited these on trust from previous generations. But to survive they must be more than legal documents; for they are not self-fulfilling. The vigilance and sense of responsibility they demand must go far beyond this room, to political leaders, to journalists and the wider public, to every scientist in relevant fields, to those who fund scientific research and to relevant industries and private companies. In the coming years, the 1925 Protocol is likely to be tested as never before. We cannot afford to ignore the risks, weaken the rules or decline our responsibilities. Some of the effects of chemical and biological warfare are al ready well known. We should not have to witness these again or indeed some new horror before all responsible actors assume their responsibilities.