The ongoing bio catastrophe is forcing the world to also witness an extraordinary demonstration of how effective biowarfare would be. It does not matter how this particular episode originated because the consequences are an unprecedented illustration of how nations can easily be brought to their knees in weeks. This will not go unnoticed by terrorist organisations and many of them will deploy skills to acquire a capacity to wage similar biowarfare. It is also noteworthy that such biowarfare is extremely easy to wage if lethal viruses can be obtained. A few people entering the target country and travelling around it can cause utter havoc within weeks. The country’s economy and society can be paralysed and its ability to resist severely compromised. Such a modus vivendi of assault will also allow deniability. An indirect threat to conduct biowarfare can be issued through unrelated third-parties and used as a discreet powerful bargaining chip.
However, such a potential biowarfare threat can equally be encountered by many other countries, including Islamic regimes that face domestic dissent, as well as all major powers around the world. What they need to collectively agree is that they will treat a threat to any one country of biowarfare as an attack on all of them. And the need to respond collectively to provide aid to the impacted country. An agreement is also imperative to treat the likely national origin of the biowarfare assault as a country that is engaging in war and meriting immediate military sanction. They must also collectively refuse to make any concessions to the terrorists and indeed initiate changes on the ground that completely repudiate the demands made, e.g. by the mass transfer of populations at issue.
The existing Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) entered into force in 1975 and remains weak; it has failed to address fundamental issues that would make it an effective agency for surveillance and enforcement. Its worthy goals are a ban on the development, stockpiling, acquisition, retention, and production of biological agents and toxins “of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes;” weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles “designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict. It also prohibits” the transfer of or assistance with acquiring the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles described above.
In addition, the convention enjoins states-parties to the convention to destroy or divert to peaceful purposes the “agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and means of their delivery” described above within nine months of the convention’s entering into force. Paradoxically, the BWC does not actually ban the use of biological and toxin weapons but merely reaffirms the 1925 Geneva Protocol, prohibiting their use. It also does not ban biodefence programs. It illustrates the apparently insuperable difficulties universal treaties encounter in creating truly binding agreements when individual nations do not trust each other, in the final analysis, and seek to retain the ability to take unilateral action. And the real associated difficulty pertains to compliance, which relies on bilateral and multilateral consultation though allowing the right to complain to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This option has never been invoked and is anyway subject to the prevailing veto norms of the UNSC, which means even a rogue state can rely on support from one of its members.
The BWC has proved ineffective because it has been flagrantly violated by a number of countries. It is alleged Russia and North Korea did not adhere to its provisions despite being signatories. Iraq was also deemed to have developed a biological warfare capacity, according to the UN. Others like Libya and Syria have been accused of violating it as well. Successive review conferences and the creation of an ad hoc body to assess and submit recommendations have ended in failure, with most countries failing to comply with reporting requirements. It was proposed a designated body would conduct routine on-site visits to declared facilities and initiate challenge inspections of suspect facilities and activities as well. However, the ad hoc body failed to resolve this most critical issue of on-site visits and the institution of an effective export control regime. In 2001, the U.S. opposed any protocol that would hinder its defence preparedness or hurt its commercial interests. Even funding for the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) to reinforce the BWC institutionally was only to be supported by additional voluntary contributions since the U.S. opposed mandated national obligations. By the eighth review conference in 2016, it was clear that the BWC was to remain toothless, with neither the U.S. nor Russia interested in serious enforcement measures. The price of failure to agree to effective enforcement provisions and enlarge the BWC’s role is now being paid by the entire world.
Perhaps the whole issue can now be revisited, in the light of the universal catastrophe, as a matter of urgency and the BWC strengthened, for example, by an agreement on compulsory international surveillance. Those countries which refuse should be expelled from international organisations and their nationals denied all travel. Other international treaties should also be established to provide a basis for specific additional pre-emptive measures, including the threat of decisive military action, to be undertaken in order to combat this truly extraordinary threat to global welfare. India, as a country, is high on the list of terrorist targets and likely to become even more vulnerable in the future. This is likely when NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) withdraws from Afghanistan and the U.S. ceases to receive quite as much attention from Middle East terrorists, once its military engagement with the region wanes.
India needs to assemble a high-level expert team to study the manifold implications of a similar or even worse episode by reviewing the current experience and by analysing data generated by it. Quite clearly, multiple scenarios can be postulated and the required responses in such a dire eventuality. India and other countries, especially in the EU, which have suffered grievously owing to Covid-19, need to press for and hope for wide-ranging international agreements on biological warfare and supposed peaceful research as well. Any new agreement must include within its ambit international inspection of supposed peaceful research facilities. China might consider concurring a price worth paying to avoid dire long-term repercussions emanating from an understandably aggrieved world community. In the meantime, India should also anticipate the failure to create a reinforced international BWC convention and consider unilateral national measures. It must seriously consider a retaliatory biodefence capacity and re-think its nuclear strategy. India will need to redefine what its fundamental national interests are and if nuclear retaliation will be contemplated if they are egregiously violated.
The author taught international political economy for more than two decades at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Views are personal.