France has recently issued international arrest warrants targeting Syria’s president, his brother, and two other high-ranking officials. The warrants are linked to alleged chemical weapon use against civilians in Douma and the Eastern Ghouta district in August 2013, resulting in over 1,000 casualties. Despite Syria’s denial, a joint inquiry by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed the Syrian government’s use of sarin and chlorine in chemical attacks.
Chemical weapons, constituting Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), have left indelible marks throughout history. These weapons, crafted to exploit the vulnerabilities of the human body, encompass toxins and chemicals with the intent to induce rapid death or injury. The inaugural use of chemical weapons in World War I’s Second Battle of Ypres, where Germany deployed chlorine gas, stands as a grim milestone. This surprise attack claimed thousands of lives, with chlorine gas causing severe respiratory irritation, internal burns, vision loss, nausea, and ultimately death by asphyxiation.
Chlorine gas, the pioneering chemical weapon, inflicted devastating effects, underscoring the brutality of these instruments. The chemical’s interaction with lung lining produced Hydrochloric acid, leading to internal burns and irreversible damage to vital organs. Most chemical weapons share the common trait of immediate lethality, causing irritation, blisters, and respiratory organ damage. Their insidious nature lies in their ability to seep into the bloodstream, causing systemic harm.
The weaponization of chlorine gas during World War I marked humanity’s entry into a dark era of monstrous inventions. Over subsequent decades, these lethal creations fueled massacres and claimed thousands of lives. This ominous development set a precedent for the evolution of increasingly destructive weapons, posing enduring threats to global security and shaping a troubling trajectory in the history of warfare.
Biological weapons encompass a variety of disease-producing agents, such as bacteria, viruses, rickettsiae, fungi, and toxins, capable of being employed as weapons against humans, animals, or plants. The historical use of infectious agents and poisons in warfare is a longstanding practice, often resulting in more deaths than conventional combat arms in various conflicts.
Similar to chemical, radiological, and nuclear weapons, biological weapons are categorised as weapons of mass destruction, despite not causing mass destruction of infrastructure or equipment. While lethal biological weapons can lead to mass casualties, their impact lies more in the potential for widespread pandemics, the difficulty of controlling disease effects, and the fear they instil. Consequently, most countries have collectively denounced the use of biological weapons, acknowledging their indiscriminate nature and the potential for catastrophic consequences.
The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), initiated in 1972, has garnered signatures from 180 states and Taiwan, with 170 of them ratifying the treaty by 2013. This international agreement prohibits member states from using biological weapons in warfare and from engaging in activities such as developing, testing, producing, stockpiling, or deploying them. Despite this global commitment, some states persist in pursuing biological warfare capabilities as a cost-effective alternative to nuclear weapons.
Moreover, the evolving threat landscape includes concerns about the potential for deranged individuals or terrorist organisations to manufacture or steal biological weapons. This emerging security challenge underscores the need for ongoing vigilance and cooperation to prevent the misuse of biological agents and mitigate the risks associated with their proliferation.
The Historical Landscape of Biological Weapons
1347 – The Black Death’s Sinister Origins: One of the earliest instances of biological warfare dates back to 1347, when Mongol forces reportedly catapulted plague-infested bodies over the walls of Caffa, a Black Sea port. The consequences were profound, with the Black Death pandemic sweeping Europe, claiming 25 million lives and reshaping the continent over the next four years.
1710 – Plague as a Weapon: In a siege against Swedish forces in Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia), the Russian army resorted to hurling plague-infested corpses over the city walls, demonstrating the enduring and indiscriminate nature of biological warfare.
1763 – Smallpox Blankets: During Pontiac’s Rebellion, British troops besieged at Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh) took a different approach by passing blankets infected with the smallpox virus to Native Americans. This calculated act led to a devastating epidemic among the indigenous population.
World Wars Unleash Biological Horrors
World War I (1914-1918): Germany initiated a clandestine program involving the infection of horses and cattle owned by Allied armies on both fronts. This included German agents infiltrating the United States, infecting animals destined for Allied forces. There were also reports of a German attempt in 1915 to spread plague in St. Petersburg.
World War II (1937-1945): While there is no documented evidence of biological weapons use during this conflict, Japan violated the 1925 Geneva Protocol by engaging in massive biological warfare research. This included using biological weapons against Allied forces in China and conducting gruesome experiments on over 3,000 human subjects, including Allied prisoners of war.
The Cold War and Biological Weapons Proliferation
Post-World War II Era: The Cold War saw both the Soviet Union and the United States, along with their allies, pursuing extensive biological warfare research, development, and weapons production programs. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1972 aimed to halt such activities, but the Soviet Union, despite signing the treaty, continued a clandestine biological warfare program.
Post-Soviet Era (1991): After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged Soviet violations of the BWC and pledged to terminate the remaining biological weapons program. The challenge then shifted to preventing the spread of information, technical assistance, and materials related to biological weapons outside the former Soviet borders.
The Persistent Challenge of Biological Weapons Proliferation
Present Landscape: Today, only a limited number of United Nations members are suspected of maintaining active biological weapons programs. However, the secretive nature of such programs, which can be disguised as innocuous facilities, poses a significant challenge. The lack of verification procedures under the BWC allows for potential treaty violations without external evidence.
Proliferation Risks: The accessibility and relatively lower costs associated with biological weapons make them an attractive option for states or even terrorist organisations. The absence of effective detection mechanisms and the potential strategic advantage of deploying lethal biological weapons underscore the ongoing challenges in curbing proliferation.
(Views expressed in the article are of author’s own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Business Upturn Asia)