Wars, laws and deadly spores

Biological Weapons - Crimes of War
August 27, 1999

Tim Garden ponders the relationship between war and law.

In 1979 more than 60 people died of anthrax in Sverdlovsk over a period of six weeks. Five years later, 751 people suffered food poisoning from eating from restaurant salad bars in a small town called The Dalles in Oregon. We now know that the deaths in the Soviet Union were caused by a very small accidental release of anthrax spores from a biological weapons plant, while the American salmonella outbreak was caused by deliberate bacterial contamination of food by a religious cult.

Biological weapons are not new, but they are becoming more attractive to a number of players on the international security scene. The United States government is particularly concerned by the potential threat that it faces from a wide range of possible adversaries in this area. Joshua Lederberg, Nobel laureate in medicine, has collected together some 15 academic papers on various aspects of the biological weapons threat as perceived from the US. There is considerable overlap between authors, but a consistent gloomy message emerges: the danger is real and there are no totally effective counter-measures.

Most historical reviews of biological warfare start by citing the use of plague victims' bodies by the Tatars in 1346 as catapult projectiles against the hapless inhabitants of Kaffa. But as with many mass killing methods, it was not until this century that scientific advances coupled with industrial production techniques made biological warfare a realistic concept. Germany had an ambitious programme running throughout the first world war and targeted the mules and horses of the Allies with anthrax. However, chemical warfare was favoured because it could incapacitate troops quickly. After the war, bacteriological warfare was grouped with chemical in the international efforts to limit the use of indiscriminate weapons. The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibited the use of biological weapons, but did not prohibit research or possession. It was not until 50 years later that the US ratified the protocol.

The experience in the second world war was mixed. Hitler had prohibited biological weapons development until 1943, and the Allies continued their own development programmes for retaliatory use if necessary. Only the Japanese carried out both a major development programme and large-scale attacks with these novel weapons. Cultures of various bacterial agents were sprayed from aircraft. In one of the more hazardous systems described in this book, fleas were bred and allowed to feed on plague-infected rats. The fleas were then released from aircraft over Chinese cities. Each attack required the release of 15 million infected fleas, which must have made the pilots feel that they deserved equal status with their kamikaze colleagues. The Japanese suffered some 10,000 casualties and 1,700 deaths in 1941 from their own biological weapons.

Despite the confirmation that biological weapons were of dubious military utility, the cold war accelerated their development. Large-scale production was undertaken by the USSR, and the Korean war gave an impetus to production in the US. For those of us engaged in military planning during the cold war, there never seemed to be any scenario where the use of biological weapons would make tactical sense. In 1969, Britain made a proposal to the United Nations to prohibit the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons. The Warsaw Pact nations supported the proposal, with the proviso that the provision for inspections of suspect facilities should be dropped. The 1972 treaty came into force three years later, by which time the US had destroyed all of its biological arsenal. If UN conventions were universally observed, that should have meant an end to the threat of biological warfare. The signatories to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention included the Soviet Union and Iraq. As we now know, both pursued their programmes actively.

The accident in Sverdlovsk is well documented in the book. For a short time on April 2 1979 some air filters at a biological warfare research facility were accidentally turned off. Anthrax spores escaped and were blown southwards by the wind. Those who were infected and died over the following six weeks were all living or working within a narrow four-kilometre corridor downwind of the facility. Livestock were infected up to 50 kilometres from the leak. If a minor filtration problem can cause this degree of infection, it is easy to imagine what destruction a deliberate offensive use of anthrax might cause. Of the various case studies considered in the book, there is a particularly chilling footnote referring to a piece of US Department of Defense mathematical modelling. This deduces that a single drone carrying 6.5kg of anthrax could produce a cloud over an entire city that would cause the deaths of several hundreds of thousands of people within 72 hours. While slower, the total kill rate is higher than that for a single nuclear weapon.

The potential of biological agents as strategic weapons has not been lost on Saddam Hussein in Iraq. While the Unscom inspection team have been fairly successful in destroying his nuclear and chemical warfare capacity, they are less certain how well they have done in reducing his ability to manufacture biological weapons. Two chapters by different authors come to the conclusion that Iraq is still intent on achieving a strategic capability using weapons of mass destruction and that it is more likely to be successful through its biological warfare research programmes. While the number of potential nuclear weapons states in the world has declined in recent years, the number of states that seem to be developing a capability for the strategic use of biological weapons has been increasing. The biological weapon is sometimes described as the poor man's atom bomb. Certainly its manufacture is far simpler than that of a nuclear weapon. The process can also be hidden more easily, as commercial biomedical factories can be used to produce the pathogens. Delivery systems are required, but given the comparatively small payload weight, they can be concealed more easily. States, such as Iraq, see a strategic biological weapon arsenal as a means of standing up to the nuclear powers. As was seen in the Gulf war, this can be a two-edged sword. It is now clear that they had weaponised biological agents, but they were deterred from using them by the implicit threat of nuclear retaliation by the US or Israel.

The future threat from such weapons is much more likely to be from non-state actors. Biological weapons are relatively easy to produce, cause great fear among the general population, and given the delay caused by the disease incubation period are anonymous. This makes them attractive to terrorists, anti-government groups and fanatics. In these cases, classical deterrence cannot work.

Can we determine whether an outbreak of fatal food poisoning is caused by bad hygiene or deliberate contamination? An anthrax epidemic would be suspicious, but a virulent influenza strain would be put down to natural mutation. The book covers a surprising number of such cases. It identifies the easy availability of pathogen cultures as one of the problems. The case is cited of a white supremacist who was able to purchase a culture of the organism that is associated with plague.

The subtitle of the book is Limiting the Threat , and control of availability of dangerous cultures is an obvious recommendation. However, there are many potential killer agents, and many entirely legitimate uses for them. The need for good intelligence is highlighted but this will never be the complete answer in a democratic society. These discomforting conclusions mean that limiting the threat may mean expending most effort on preparation for coping with the outbreak of infection in order to minimise loss of life. While precautionary inoculation against the most likely biological warfare diseases may be possible for military troops who are at direct risk, it is unlikely to be an effective or desirable general approach. The key to defensive measures must be early detection, and the book could have addressed this topic in more depth. Biotechnology is offering some prospect of fast-reacting sensors that can rapidly identify a wide range of agents. The universal wearing of a relatively inexpensive protective mask is recommended as a way of reducing civilian casualties from aerosol agents, such as anthrax, by several orders of magnitude. Quick-response medical teams, trained to recognise a biological warfare event, are also needed.

Lederberg and his colleagues do not address in any depth the question of the biological weapons of tomorrow. The mapping of the human genome coupled with the wonders of genetic engineering may offer some very unpleasant opportunities to the biological weapon designer of the next century. Combining the speed and lethality of the Ebola virus with the ease of transmission of influenza would be bad enough. If such agents were then able to target particular gene configurations, ethnic cleansing and genocide could be pursued by dictators, fanatics and the insane in all-too-efficient ways. Lest this seem too fanciful, the book records a particular expedition by 40 Aum Shinrikyo cult members to Zaire to help in the Ebola virus outbreak of 1992. They failed in their aim to collect samples of the deadly virus and had to content themselves with releasing the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway three years later.

After Lederberg's ponderous and depressing academic tome, Crimes of War looks remarkably glossy. The heavy sans serif typeface on pages that mix black, shades of beige and white, all interleaved with compelling photographs, makes for an exciting visual effect. This is a book that seeks to make international humanitarian law understandable to everyone. The editors point out that the laws of war are sometimes frustratingly counterintuitive. It is possible for an aggressor to stage a war of conquest while abiding by the Geneva Conventions, just as the doughty defender can commit war crimes while defending his territory. The book is arranged as an A-to-Z guide with some 140 separate articles by journalists, academics, lawyers, military men and UN staff.

Is it possible that such a complex subject can be addressed satisfactorily in this way? Turning to B for "Biological weapons", Terence Taylor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies manages to capture virtually all the major issues discussed in Lederberg's book in just two pages. He concentrates on the use of bacteria, viruses and toxins as military weapons and explains the evolution of the Biological Weapons Convention with its strengths and weaknesses. He takes the experience in Iraq as his case study.

Crimes of War is designed to be a ready reference book for journalists, aid workers and the general public. It was published too soon to be able to refer to Kosovo for its examples and that allows the reader to test how useful it would have been to inform the debate during the campaign. The first question that needed answering was whether intervention in Kosovo without a specific UN mandate was legal. Turning to the article on "Humanitarian intervention", David Rieff tells us that such intervention "is at once an immensely powerful and a terribly imprecise idea". He correctly points to the influence of UN bureaucrats and aid workers as some of the most fervent interventionists. Interestingly, he quotes Bernard Kouchner (now in charge of the civil rebuilding of Kosovo) as popularising the French legal theory of the right of intervention. Rieff concludes that the tug of war between sovereignty and intervention will continue to rage in international law circles. Gaining no strong guidance from this section, the reader may turn to "Gray areas in international humanitarian law", but this centres on the definition of armed conflict and whether it is internal or international.

When it comes to the conduct of the campaign, the book is able to offer more concrete advice on every aspect. The series of Nato bombing errors caused agonising in the western media. Collateral damage gets a page to itself. While the laws of armed conflict restrict indiscriminate attacks (another article on these), there is no prohibition per se of attacks that are expected to cause collateral damage, but the risk must be proportional to the military purpose of the mission. The principle of proportionality merits its own section and reminds military commanders of their responsibilities to update target lists in the light of civilian movements. Two targets during the Kosovo air campaign caused more argument than any others: the deliberate targeting of Serbian television studios and the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

Gaby Rado addresses the question of legitimate military targets and uses the Bosnian Serb attack on Sarajevo television studios as an example: "Unbeknownst to most television reporters, customary law long ago deemed radio and television stations to be military objectives." While it is a war crime to attack anything that is not a legitimate military target, the list of such targets is long and includes factories producing transport and electricity plants that produce power for mainly military consumption. The legitimacy of particular weapons is a rich area for debate. However, a reader who follows the index entry for cluster bombs will be disappointed to find no direct assessment of them. The targeting mistake that led to the bombing of the Chinese embassy will surely feature in future editions of this volume. Nevertheless in the section on "wilfulness" we are reminded that a military commander commits no crime if he causes civilian deaths because of faulty target intelligence.

There is a wealth of information applicable to the criminal conduct of the Serbs in Kosovo. Dipping into Roger Cohen's piece on ethnic cleansing directs the reader to torture, extra-

judicial executions, rape, human shields, crimes against humanity and genocide. Each of these sections takes one deeper into the horrors that made Kosovo a justifiable case for intervention.

War crimes are not something new, but the eagerness of the international community to do something about them is a welcome recent development. The establishment of the international tribunal in 1993 to try those accused of war crimes in the former republic of Yugoslavia was a massive step forward in giving international humanitarian law some teeth. The process is slow and unwieldy, but the war criminals of Bosnia are now being brought to justice. It is likely that the process will be pursued more vigorously in the aftermath of Kosovo.

There has certainly been more awareness of the need to document evidence before it disappears. But the ad hoc tribunals for Yugoslavia and for Rwanda are inadequate for the global policing of war crimes. The move towards an international criminal court is a first tentative step towards addressing the extraordinary range of crimes that are documented so graphically in this book. It is unfortunate that the US is so opposed to the concept on the grounds that it is not prepared to allow jurisdiction over its own citizens.

Editors Gutman and Rieff have produced an important book. It is accessible to the ordinary reader and turns difficult international legal concepts into digestible articles. Importantly, the analysis is as objective as is possible in a field so full of passion and outrage. The text remains cool, while the black and white photographs drive home the horrors of war crimes. It is a book that should be available to ordinary soldiers during training. There is even an entry on the topic of training in international humanitarian law. In it, Michael Hoffman suggests that civil and military leaders, who claim that their forces obey the laws of war, should be asked what training their troops receive. The 1949 Geneva Conventions require states to include the study of international humanitarian law in "programmes of military and, if possible, civil instruction, so that the principles thereof may become known to the entire population". On this basis, the laws of war should be a part of the national curriculum. Certainly, it should be on the bookshelf of every prime minister, defence minister and foreign secretary. It would make useful reading before having to go on live worldwide television to defend the military actions of democratic countries that have embarked on humanitarian intervention. There is a growing body of international law that can allow good to triumph over evil, but there will be times when a totalitarian opposition seems to have all the advantages. Kosovo has shown that successful humanitarian intervention is difficult but possible and has advanced the rule of international law as a result.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is a trustee, World Humanity Action Trust, and author of The Technology Trap: Science and the Military .

Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat

Editor - Joshua Lederberg
ISBN - 0 262 12216 2 and 62128 2
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £.95 and £13.95
Pages - 351

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