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Chemical and Biological Weapons

Exploring and addressing the threats posed by chemical and biological weapons to international and national security

Recent events in Syria, the United Kingdom, and Malaysia have given a new prominence to the threat posed by chemical and biological weapons. One question that arises out of these events is whether we should expect further proliferation and use. In ‘The Future of Chemical Weapons’ (Security Studies, 2018), Geoffrey Chapman, Hassan Elbahtimy and Susan Martin provide a systematic analysis of the impact of chemical weapons use specifically addressing the consequences of such use on ‘military utility’ and ‘civilian victimisation.’ By examining the use of chemical weapons at Ghouta in 2013 and on the Hama Plains in 2014, the authors find that: first, chemical weapons have demonstrated limited military utility in Syria, either tactically or as a tool of civilian victimization; second, the costs of use have been repeatedly demonstrated by the international reaction to their use; and third, the use of sarin—a nerve agent—has attracted a stronger international response than the use of chlorine, a less lethal agent.

CSSS researchers have also looked at explaining patterns of non-state actor use of chemical weapons. In the article, 'Islamic State and Al-Nusra: Exploring Determinants of Chemical Weapons Usage Patterns(Perspectives on Terrorism, 2017), Chapman compares the use and non-use of chemical weapons between the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS in Syria. Depending upon the group’s strategy, chemical weapons may appeal as a way of deliberately transgressing norms, generating fear and escalating violence even if the material impact of improvised usage is limited. 

The use of chemical weapons in Syria also raises questions about the ability of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CSC) and similar regimes to respond to violations. Staff are engaged in ongoing projects that examine this question. Initial research findings were published in a recent commentary by Chapman, for the European Leadership Network, which explored the possible implications of chemical weapons use on nuclear arms control.

In an article ‘Chemical Weapons and Public Health’ (Public Health, 2019), Hassan Elbahtimy joins a group of public health scholars to produce cross-disciplinary research on the broader consequences of chemical weapons. The article leverages insights from analysis of chemical weapons use in Syria, to demonstrate how the use of chemical weapons impacts public health (in addition to individual health consequences) and complicates humanitarian assistance and post-conflict management.

One of the challenges of responding to the use of chemical or biological weapons is the issue of attribution. CSSS staff have been working on this and related issues for more than ten years. In Terrorism, War, or Disease?: Unraveling the Use of Biological Weapons(Stanford University Press, 2008) Susan Martin and others analysed the challenges of identifying, characterizing and attributing unusual biological events, in an effort to build understanding and capabilities for improved policy responses to such events. Examining the complex political, military, legal, and scientific challenges involved in determining when BW have been used and who has used them. 

Our work on biological threats also includes exploring approaches for strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). In a report on ‘Compliance and Enforcement in the Biological Weapons Regime’ for the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR 2019),  Filippa Lentzos explores the prospects and potential mechanisms for verification within the BWC. Examining the structures, science and actors involved, and advocating for an incremental, forward-looking approach to strengthening BWC compliance-monitoring. Filippa Lentzos’ research also tracks and analyses global increases in the number, size and scope of biodefence programmes. Moving beyond traditional, quantitative BWC compliance estimates she has sought to employ qualitative approaches in order to more effective capture responsible practices. Working in partnership with BWC states parties, Fillipa Lentzos is developing novel approaches to BWC transparency and trust-building, outlined in policy documents submitted to BWC meetings by, amongst others, the United Kingdom (2014), Germany (2016), Georgia (2018), and Portugal (2019).




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