Archive Article: The Threat Of Biological Warfare.
January 4, 2009
Enduring freedom and lasting security cannot be achieved without preventing biological weapons from being developed in the first place. Therefore, it is very important that more be done to stop the spread of biological weapons.
The Geneva-based International Peace Bureau is the oldest and most comprehensive of the international peace federations. It was founded in 1892 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910. It now deals with such matters as nuclear weapons, landmines, conflict resolution and peace education.
The current edition of its magazine contains a supplement on “Biological Weapons: A Global Menace”. The material was written before the current concern over biological warfare – and so it is very timely
A biological weapon is any infectious agent such as a bacteria or a virus that is used intentionally to inflict bodily harm to people, animals, or nature. These agents can be used to cause massive casualties or economic damage as a means of warfare and terrorism – all without immediate detection.
Biological warfare is as old as recorded history, such as the poisoning of drinking wells. Japan used biological warfare in its war in northern China in the 1930s. The UK experimented with anthrax in World War II – but found that it was far more dangerous than anyone had thought and the Scottish island where the experiment took place remains off limits to visitors to this day.
More recently, the Soviet Union conducted experiments (one of which may have gone wrong). It was discovered after the Gulf War a decade ago that Iraq had a large stock of biological weapons.
Meanwhile, new scientific developments are posing fresh challenges to the disarmament community. For example, the genome project has created a whole new era of biological research. The bad news is that some of that research could be done to see if a biological weapon can be developed specifically to target certain groups of humans.
Some scientists have worked on biological warfare and have been encouraged to do so by politicians. But defence forces themselves have reservations about using them because spreading a germ may eventually mean that one’s own forces could be hurt by it.
Biological warfare was the first form of warfare to have a treaty banning it – the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention. This bans the development, production and stockpiling of such weapons. 143 countries have agreed to be bound by it (including Australia).
But the treaty is weak because it is a product of its era. In those days, countries (led by the Soviet Union) refused to have any international verification that they were in fact carrying out their disarmament obligations. This policy changed under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s and there are now international inspections to check on the recent nuclear and chemical weapons treaties.
Therefore, it is important that the 1972 biological warfare treaty be updated to include some system of international verification. There will be a major conference on this issue next month.
It is pleasing to note that Australia is playing an active role in this conference – as it did with the successful chemical warfare treaty.
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