Regulating potential military use of biotechnology: Need of the hour

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As per the convention on Biological diversity, biotechnology has been defined as ‘any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or to modify products or processes for specific use’. Modern day biotechnology has gone beyond its traditional uses such as agriculture or medicine, although in the past bio weapons have been used during warfare.

The commercial genetic engineering database in the field of agriculture, medicine, animal husbandry can be used to attack plant, animal and human population. This database is available with both the state and the industries and can be easily accessed by terrorists. There can be multiple types of groups which can apply biotechnology as bio-weapons, one being the state acting against another state, second being the state sponsored terrorists, or third being a scientist working with biotechnology acting under the influence of a terrorist organisation.

The use of poison for assassination purposes has been done since time immemorial, this use of poison has not only been against individuals but also against armies. It was the German army which first used biological weapons in form of Anthrax (an infection caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis), although it was rather on the small scale and neither was it very successful; the German Army attempted to infect animals directly or tried to contaminate the animal feed using both Anthrax and Glanders (an infectious disease that is caused by the bacterium Burkholderia mallei).

During the second world war the Japanese successfully used biological weapons during their conquest of China. In North America the Nobel Prize winning discoverer of insulin, Frederick Banting, created what could be called the first private Biological Weapon Research Centre in 1940. While the US government was busy researching and building upon nuclear technology the former Soviet Union was feared to have developed and stockpiled biological weapons, although nobody really knows what they were working on or what happened to the research after the fall of the Soviet Union although it is feared that all the stocks are not destroyed and might have fallen into other hands, some of the bioweapons that were developed by the Soviet Union under Biopreparat, a gigantic biowarfare project were anthrax bacilli and smallpox virus, some for use in intercontinental ballistic missiles. They also engineered multi drug-resistant bacteria, including one for plague.

The military of the US after the second World War started open air testing biological weapons on the unassuming civilian population exposing them to both pathogenic and non-pathogenic microbes. The most infamous test was conducted in 1966 in New York, the metro system was contaminated with Bacillus globigii ,which is a non-infectious bacterium used to simulate the release of anthrax, to study the spread of the pathogen in a big city; but because of the growing opposition of the Vietnam war and considering the risk posed by the biological weapons President Nixon decided to abandon offensive biological weapons’ research and signed the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1972.

The first international convention that prohibited the use of Biological weapons was the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The Protocol was drawn and signed at a conference in Geneva under the League of Nations, it entered into force on 8th February 1928. The 1925 Protocol prohibits the use of ‘asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices’ and ‘bacteriological methods of warfare’. The Protocol does not mention anything regarding the production, storage or transfer of biological weapons but only prohibits the use of biological weapons or chemical weapons. During the negotiation of this Protocol, a number of parties submitted that the obligation of no use would cease to apply when such weapons were used against them.

On 10th April 1972, Biological Weapons Convention was opened for signature and came into force on 26th March 1975. There are 182 state parties currently and 5 signatories. The BWC was the first multilateral treaty banning a class of weapons. This treaty bans 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.

This treaty also bans the transfer of or assistance with acquiring the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles. The use of biological and toxic weapons is not banned by this treaty but on the other hand it reaffirms the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Under this treaty the state parties are required to destroy or divert to peaceful purposes the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and means of delivery within nine months of the Convention’s entry into force.

The BWC has not provided for a formal verification mechanism, although state parties are encouraged to consult one another to solve the compliance concerns. The member states are eligible to lodge a complaint with the UN Security Council in case they believe that any member state is violating the Convention; the Security Council has the power to investigate the accused acts. Under the Treaty there exists a mechanism for review conference which is held every five years for Convention’s implementation, and establishment of confidence-building measures.

Multiple allegations of non-compliance were made under the BWC and hence as a result Chemical Weapon Convention was opened for signature in 1993. This convention is aimed at the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction by prohibiting the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by States Parties.

The signatories are under an obligation to take steps to enforce the prohibition, they have to destroy the stockpiles of chemical weapons they hold in facilities within their jurisdiction as well as the chemical weapons abandoned by them on the territory of other state parties. The verification regime within this convention incorporates ‘challenge inspection’, under this a State Party can request a surprise inspection in case it has any doubts, the other State Party has to comply and has no right to refuse the request.

It was the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998 which makes it a war crime to employ chemical weapons in international conflict. The amendment in 2010 extends prohibition on the use of chemical weapons to internal conflict.

India has ratified the BWC on 15th July 1974. India has developed its biotechnological infrastructure, and also has facilities dedicated to developing defensive measures to combat biological attacks, these facilities could be potentially used for mounting offence. Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) acts as the Centre for Indian Biodefence Strategy. DRDO primary lab which is Defence Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) is located in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh.

The DRDE conducts studies in toxicology, biochemical pharmacology, and the development of antibodies against several bacterial and viral agents. Work here revolves around countering disease threats such as anthrax, brucellosis, cholera, plague, smallpox, viral haemorrhage fever, and botulism.

In 2003, the Indian government announced changes in the ‘Nuclear Use Doctrine’ which allows India to retaliate with Nuclear Weapons in the scenario where India is attacked with biological or Chemical Weapons.

The effect of Biological Weapons is unpredictable, it is impossible to know and control its effect after its release. But because of the prolonged dual use of biotechnology it is very difficult to prohibit any type of biological research, monitoring and ethical decision making would increase transparency. Transparency cannot be achieved through international control alone, concentrated efforts of many actors, including non- governmental organizations, professional associations, scientific organizations, and political parties is required. A special duty lies with the researcher, he or she must be aware of the ethical aspects and the consequences his or her work will have on society.

-This article is brought to you in collaboration with Rashmika Singh from School of Law, Christ Deemed to be University.

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