Biological warfare is not a new concept in the arena of international politics as it has been used as a tool to sabotage enemies in previous centuries. Biological weapons are a sub-category of Weapons of Mass destruction (WMDs) in which there is a deliberate use of micro-organisms like pathogens and toxins to cause disease or death in humans, livestock, and yields. From its usage in the 14th century by Mongols to its usage by imperial Japan during the 1930s-40s against the Chinese, it has always been a threat to global security. The evolution of bio-weapons can be broadly categorized into four phases; the first phase includes the post-WWII developments with the evident use of chlorine and phosgene in Ypres. The second phase was marked by the use of nerve agents like tabun, cholinesterase inhibitor, anthrax, and plague bombs. The initiation of the third phase was marked by the use of biological weapons in the Vietnam war during the 1970s where deadly agents like Agent orange were used. 4th and last phase includes the time of the biological and technological revolution when genetic engineering techniques were at their peak. Traditionally they have been used in wartime in order to defeat the enemy but with the emergence of violent non-state actors, bioterrorism is another potential threat to the security of states. There are certain goals that are associated with the use of biological weapons. Firstly, it is purposed to hit the economy of the targeted country, breaking down government authority and have a psychological effect on the masses of the targeted population. It is also a kind of psychological warfare as it may hit a smaller number of people but leaves an impact on a wider audience through intimidation and spreading fear. It also creates natural circumstances under which a population is induced with the disease without revealing the actual perpetrator.
With the advancement in genetic engineering techniques more lethal biological weapons are being produced every day around the world. Countries which are economically deprived are more likely to pursue such goals as it is difficult for them to go for heavy military sophistication keeping into consideration their poor economic conditions. Biological weapons serve as an inexpensive tool for developing countries to address their issues in the prevailing international security environment. During the initial decades of the cold war, the united states of America (USA) and the Soviet Union went for acquiring tons of biological weapons alongside nuclear proliferation.
The quest for these weapons reduced during the 1970s with the formation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). This convention was presented in 1972 before countries and finally came into force in 1975 with 150 countries who signed this convention and 140 countries who fully joined this treaty. This convention prohibits any biological weaponization in order to promote peace and stability around the world. But this convention has obvious defects as it is unable to address many issues like it doesn’t prevent the use of biological weapons but just reinforces the 1925 Geneva Protocol which forbids the use of bio-weapons. Convention allows ‘defensive research’ to which there are many objections that what is incorporated into this defensive research. It is non-binding to the signatory states and in case of countries are proliferating it lacks the effective oversight techniques to look after them whether they are pursuing these biological weapons capabilities or not. From the inception of this convention till now, it has clearly failed in stopping the countries from the acquisition as well as using these weapons. This is evident as there were many cases after 1975 where these weapons were used as in the 1980s when Iraq used mustard gas, sarin, and tabun against Iran and many other ethnic groups inside Iran. Another incident that was highlighted was the Sarine nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system leaving thousands injured and many got killed. In the post-cold war era, however, the number of these attacks reduced as much attention was shifted to terrorism after the 9/11 attacks with the change in global security architecture.
“Anthrax letters” in post 9/11 attacks revealed yet another dimension of bio-weapons which was the threat of bioterrorism from non-state actors. The US became a victim of bioterrorism when in 2001 a powder was transported through letters containing a bacterium called anthrax infecting many people. One purpose that terrorists have is to make the general masses feel as if they are unsafe in the hands of their government which can be best achieved through the use of these weapons. The fact that biological weapons are cheaper and more devastating than conventional weapons make it more likely for biological weapons to be used by terrorists. Also, the fact that they are easy to hide and transport and a smaller quantity can leave long-lasting impacts on a larger population makes these weapons more appealing. Now that we are facing a global pandemic in the form of COVID-19 which according to some conspiracy theories is a biological weapon poses an even more serious challenge to international security in coming decades. There is no such scientific research that proves Corona Virus as a biological weapon but the realization here is whether or not it is a biological weapon but the world was least prepared for it. Not only the developing countries but also developed states suffered more despite having enormous medical infrastructure. The fact that there has been a decline in the incidents related to bioterrorism should never let us think that there is no possibility of such attacks. The fact that the world failed to handle Covid-19 puts a question mark on the credibility of measures if we are faced with bio-terrorism. The medical community as well as the general population needs to develop an understanding of how to respond if there is such an attack. At the international level, there is a dire need to develop some strong norms which discourage the development and use of such weapons in any capacity.
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