Global WMD Risks Are Rising. It’s Time to Do Something About It

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Global WMD Risks Are Rising. It’s Time to Do Something About It

Treaties to control chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are at risk.

Global WMD Risks Are Rising. It’s Time to Do Something About It
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

Agreements designed to control weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are at risk, in different ways, with compliance and enforcement mechanisms under particular pressure.

Non-compliance concerns have contributed to the stalling of the long-standing bilateral nuclear arms control process between the United States and Russia. This process has delivered massive nuclear reductions since the Cold War as well as underpinning multilateral progress on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation in the 1990s. Earlier this year, alleging persistent Russian non-compliance, the United States announced it intends to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Russia, for its part, has made counter-claims of American non-compliance. This could have major consequences for European security if either the U.S. or Russia re-introduce land-based, intermediate range nuclear-tipped missiles. Further, it adds to doubts over the extension of the U.S.-Russia New START agreement in 2020. Without New START, the era of nuclear arms control may be truly at an end, raising the prospect of unconstrained arms racing among the nuclear-armed states. This could vastly complicate the process of finding lasting nuclear stability in the crisis-prone Asian region through negotiated restraints, like arms control measures.

Biotechnology is advancing rapidly around the world. A biotech boom is underway in several Southeast Asian countries. Such a boom is good for science and could stimulate socioeconomic benefits in several areas. However, new advances in areas like gene-editing could also be exploited in clandestine weapons programs designed to develop a new generation of biological weapons – or improve previous ones – in a manner that’s hard to detect. This is particularly alarming as the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) still has limited tools to ensure state parties comply with its prohibitions. Despite efforts since the 1990s to strengthen the BWC, states remain divided over whether, and if so, how, mechanisms to detect and address non-compliance can be improved.

By 2013, many experts had dismissed chemical weapons as an obsolete and illegal form of warfare. Since then, these weapons have been used in Iraq, Malaysia, Syria and the United Kingdom, including the use of the nerve agent VX in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur airport. The U.S. has accused the Government of North Korea of being behind the Malaysia airport attack, something the North Koreans deny. Difficulties in compliance and enforcement are evident in the division over how to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This division is damaging to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the world’s chemical weapons watch-dog, is trying to fix this through a new mechanism to independently and objectively identify perpetrators of chemical attacks. However, certain states, such as Russia and Syria, oppose the development of this mechanism.

So What?

WMD-related arms control and disarmament measures are important components of the rules-based international order. They make an underappreciated contribution to stability and strategic predictability. They underpin efforts toward a more peaceful, nuclear weapon free world in the longer run. Allowing the WMD treaty regimes to crumble could usher in a destabilizing scramble towards the development of weapons that most hoped to be rid of. It would erode longstanding norms, weaken transparency and undermine efforts to prevent terrorists from gaining access to WMD-related technology. It could ultimately lead to WMD use becoming commonplace.

This erosion is not in the long-term interests of any state. Unilateral actions to tackle WMD-related concerns are occasionally an option. But they are risky, politically challenging, expensive and arduous even for the most powerful states. And when they have occurred, such actions have sometimes broken down, tragically in some cases. The lesson here is two-fold: WMD treaties matter on normative and practical levels, and states need to deal with WMD-related compliance issues cooperatively.

What can we do about it?

Ensuring that states enforce and comply with their WMD-related treaty obligations remains important. These regimes are not standing still, and there is a need for work towards further arrangements. For instance, these topics will be front and center of any eventual negotiations to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

New thinking is required to boost confidence in compliance. First, this entails taking stock of what works in the current system and looking across the somewhat siloed treaty regimes for successes, failures, and lessons to learn. For example, what can those working on the BWC learn from investigations into allegations of chemical weapons use?

Second, it requires engagement with key stakeholders to understand the needs of a range of different states. For instance, what are states willing to pay for compliance mechanisms? under which conditions? How far are stakeholders willing to open-up their activities and facilities to external scrutiny? What do states need in order to have confidence in the conclusions of investigations of non-compliance?

Third, it requires looking to the horizon for improved capabilities to augment WMD-related treaties in the future. For example, how can international organizations, such as the OPCW, validate methods of open-source data collection in support of compliance assessments? How can organizations that investigate compliance counter fake-news and disinformation? Could technological advances in areas of distributed ledger technology, machine learning, drones and satellite surveillance be successfully employed to detect non-compliance?

The answers to these questions are not silver bullets for the problems faced by WMD-related treaties. Yet constructive ideas could, first, help to identify the kinds of concrete action that would bolster efforts to control WMD; and, second, feed into a better-informed vision of what the world could and ought to do to improve compliance and enforcement with WMD-related treaties.

James Revill is a researcher with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). His work focuses on WMD Compliance and Enforcement. 

John Borrie coordinates UNIDIR’s research and heads its research programme on WMD and Other Strategic Weapons. 

Augusta Cohen is on UNIDIR’s Graduate and Professional Program.