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Biological Weapons and Their Disarmament

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Committee History and Introduction

The General Assembly (GA) was established under Chapter IV of the United Nations (UN) Charter. Since the General Assembly is the principal organ of the United Nations and has representatives from all the Member States of the United Nations, it is able to discuss a wide variety of world issues. As a result of the extensive spectrum of topics discussed by the UN, the General Assembly is made up of six different committees. These committees are the Disarmament and International Security (DISEC) committee, the Economics and Financial (ECOFIN) committee, the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural (SOCHUM) committee, the Special Political and Decolonization (SPECPOL) committee, the Administrative and Budgetary committee, and the Legal committee.

The First Committee deals with disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community and seeks out solutions to the challenges in the international security regime.

It considers all disarmament and international security matters within the scope of the Charter or relating to the powers and functions of any other organ of the United Nations; the general principles of cooperation in the maintenance of international peace and security, as well as principles governing disarmament and the regulation of armaments; promotion of cooperative arrangements and measures aimed at strengthening stability through lower levels of armaments.

The Committee works in close cooperation with the United Nations Disarmament Commission and the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament. It is the only Main Committee of the General Assembly entitled to verbatim records coverage.

The First Committee sessions are structured into three distinctive stages: general debate; thematic discussions and action on drafts.

Mandate of the Committee

Established in 1945 under the Charter of the United Nations, the General Assembly occupies a central position as the chief deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the United Nations. Comprised of all 193 Members of the United Nations, it provides a unique forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the Charter. It also plays a significant role in the process of standard-setting and the codification of international law.

The Assembly meets from September to December each year (main part), and thereafter, from January to September (resumed part), as required, including to take up outstanding reports from the Fourth and Fifth Committees. Also, during the resumed part of the session, the Assembly considers current issues of critical importance to the international community in the form of high-level thematic debates organized by the President of the General Assembly, in consultation with the membership.

Powers and Functions

According to the Charter of the United Nations, the General Assembly may:

  • Consider and approve the United Nations budget and establish the financial assessments of Member States.
  • Elect the non-permanent members of the Security Council and the members of other United Nations councils and organs and, on the recommendation of the Security Council, appoint the Secretary-General.
  • Consider and make recommendations on the general principles of cooperation for maintaining international peace and security, including disarmament.
  • Discuss any question relating to international peace and security and, except where a dispute or situation is currently being discussed by the Security Council, make recommendations on it.
  • Discuss, with the same exception, and make recommendations on any questions within the scope of the Charter or affecting the powers and functions of any organ of the United Nations.
  • Initiate studies and make recommendations to promote international political cooperation, the development and codification of international law, the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and international collaboration in the economic, social, humanitarian, cultural, educational and health fields.
  • Make recommendations for the peaceful settlement of any situation that might impair friendly relations among countries.
  • Consider reports from the Security Council and other United Nations organs.

The Assembly may also take action in cases of a threat to the peace, breach of peace or act of aggression, when the Security Council has failed to act owing to the negative vote of a permanent member. In such instances, according to its ‘Unity for Peace’ resolution of 3 November 1950, the Assembly may consider the matter immediately and recommend to its members collective measures to maintain or restore international peace and security.

What Is Disarmament?

The concept of disarmament is substantially referring to the idea of how certain weapons, objects and materials need to stopped at the production level which could harm the humankind in worst possible ways if they exist.

If we break the term, then disarmament, in lay man terms it would refer to the reduction and elimination of anything that could be used as an arm to harm people.

Now when we discuss disarmament in regards to the agenda, the idea that certain microbes or biological agents if scientifically researched, carried and created and used in the form of weapon of mass destruction, then it could even lead to the annihilation of mankind.

Bearing the effects of this pandemic, we are the living example of how the scientific research deliberate or not, may affect and question the whole existence of our beings.

Now disarmament on an international platform takes place through various treaties and conventions that the countries indulged in the scientific research subdue to, to reduce and abolish the paradigm of the creation of these weapons of mass destruction.

What Is Biological Warfare?

Biological weapons are microorganisms like virus, bacteria, fungi, or other toxins that are produced and released deliberately to cause disease and death in humans, animals or plants.

Biological agents, like anthrax, botulinum toxin and plague can pose a difficult public health challenge causing large numbers of deaths in a short amount of time while being difficult to contain. Bioterrorism attacks could also result in an epidemic, for example if Ebola or Lassa viruses were used as the biological agents.

Biological weapons are part of a larger class of weapons referred to as weapons of mass destruction, which also includes chemical, nuclear and radiological weapons. The use of biological agents is a serious problem, and the risk of using these agents in a bioterrorist attack is increasing.

Biological warfare is the deliberate use of disease-causing biological agents such as bacteria, virus, rickettsia, and fungi, or their toxins, to kill or incapacitate humans, animals, or plants as an act of war. The following characteristics of biological warfare make them weapons of choice for mass destruction and terrorist action: incubation period (not immediate), amount required is less than chemical warfare agents, odorless, colorless, production with no need for specialized equipment, and natural distribution means that they can easily be obtained. Biological warfare agents (BWAs) are disseminated as aerosol sprays, in explosive devices, in food or water, or by absorption or injection into the skin. Based on the risk to national security, BWAs have been prioritized into three categories by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers are some of the diseases caused by category A agents.

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Agents such as staphylococcal enterotoxin (type B), epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringens, ricin toxin, abrin toxin, and trichothecene mycotoxins belong to category B.

The agents classified as category C include hantaviruses, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, Nipah virus, the tick-borne encephalitis viruses, the tick-borne hemorrhagic fever viruses, and yellow fever.

International and Regional Frameworks

The initial framework banning the use of biological weapons is grounded in the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, which is also referred to as the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The Protocol prohibits the use of biological and chemical weapons in war, and was the first to do so. It was signed on 17 June 1925 during a Geneva conference by the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations, and entered into force on 8 February 1928. Following the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, also called the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) or Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), entered into force on 26 March 1975. Upon signing on 10 April 1972, this legally binding treaty encourages Member States to exemplify proper behavior in regards to biological weapons.

The updated version includes 165 States Parties and 12 Signatory States. The Convention is the “first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction”. The Convention serves as an international guideline for all Member States to restrict the development and production of any biological weapons, banning “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”. This also includes, but is not limited to, “weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict”. In addition, Member States are not allowed to participate in any transferring trading or assisting others with any biological tools.

Biodefense programs are still permissible, as they allow for technological advancements through testing which increases knowledge and can help develop new medication. However, existing biological equipment is required to be destroyed in compliance to the treaty. Member States were given nine months after the convention came into force to clean and eradicate all biological weapons materials.

To oversee the compliance with the terms of the Convention, the Special Conference of the States Parties to the Convention established in September 1994 an Ad Hoc Group open to all States Parties to consider the development of verification measures. At the 1996 Fourth Review Conference of the Parties to the Convention, States Parties recognized again the importance of effective verification.

The most recent Review Conference, held in January 2012, reiterated its call to enforce the Convention through confidence-building measures (CBMs) to promote biosafety, as agreed at the Second and Third Review Conferences. This will help promote transparency and promote biological science and technology transfer for peaceful purposes through cooperation and technology transfer. Such measures include a code of conduct to prevent the misuse of bioscience and biotechnology. Despite progress made, no legally binding system has the capacity to inspect compliance with the terms of the Convention, which limits the effectiveness of these measures. According to the United States’ Department of State, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria are “suspected of continued offensive biological warfare programs in violation of the BWC”, and this does not account for considerable uncertainty for the potential of other programs. In looking forward to the Eighth Review Conference in 2016, the Chair for the 2014 Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of Experts, Ambassador Urs Schmidt, highlighted the necessity for promoting effective action to improve implementation in practical terms.

Production, Development and Detection of Bio-Weapons

Publicly available evidence on bio-weapons is necessary to the international community to maintain peace and security. For example, after voluntarily destroying their stocks, the United States opened their biological facilities and held public inspections with international visitors to act as an example and have other states follow its lead. However, sovereignty concerns and issues around engagement limit the international community’s ability to know about, and monitor existing programs.

The level of engagement with the international system in regards to weapons by a Member State can help determine further steps towards ensuring the reduction in risk for attacks. Though the BWC does not obligate declarations about existing bio-weapons, it does outlaw them for “hostile intentions”, which can never be fully known. This means that all existing laboratories, which engage in the research and development of substances that could be used as agents in warfare, can remain undeclared. As such, many Member States reserve the right to privacy for in-state military matters. This is a security threat as these hidden facilities can advance biotechnology and generate large quantities of potent toxic substances in a short period of time. Tracking these facilities would be difficult if a biological warfare attack were to be unleashed.

The manufacturing and storage of these substances is one problem, but another is their ability to be camouflaged within other weapons such as missiles, bombs, or spray systems. Moreover, the detection of diseases caused by biological weapons can prove to be inconclusive due to the fact these diseases can be caused naturally and such investigations require an extensive amount of data that UN Member States have to obtain (not individuals or nongovernmental organizations). This means the identity of the aggressor would be difficult to determine due to the amount of significant evidence that is supportive.

Historical Analysis

Two examples in the last 25 years demonstrate the potential for bioweapons to be used for bioterrorism. In 1995, sarin was inflicted on the Tokyo subway system by the Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo. This event brought the dangers of bio-weaponry to the attention of policymakers and counterterrorism experts as they began to examine the possibilities of other terrorist attacks executed in this manner.

In 2001, a bioterrorist attack was carried out in the United States, when violent non-state actors used biological agents as a scare tactic, when weapons-grade Bacillus anthracis (the organism that causes anthrax) was sent through the mail to two US Senators. This occurred shortly after the events of 11 September 2001; media outlets covered this news as 22 people became infected with anthrax and five fatalities occurred. Hundreds of millions of people were befallen with anxiety as letters sent to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy promising more attacks were quoted, “You cannot stop us. We have this anthrax”. No attacks followed as many months and years passed. In 2008, the FBI concluded that the anthrax letters served as a method to prompt fear, rather than kill on a large-scale using biological weapons. This inference shows how vulnerable the public is to “potential threats” that can cause instability.

Biological Weapons Convention and Its International Limitations

Ultimately, international conflicts and the potential for biological terror continue to beg certain key questions and illustrate where further action is needed.

In particular, the main question is whether it is necessary to verify on a regular basis the development and production of biological agents and toxins for hostile purposes. It is important to highlight the lack of compliance with the BWC and its limitations. No specific measures have been set forth for restricting the development, production, stockpiling, or the acquisition of biological agents or toxins for “hostile purposes” in the BWC. Therefore, the largest issue with enforcing the BWC lies in the definition given to hostile activities.

The Convention is not legally binding and therefore any Member State could violate it with little repercussion. Member States are also not required to be transparent about their stock of banned weapons prior to joining the Convention, nor to provide proof of their destruction. Further developing verification measures and CBMs can change how the use of biological agents is monitored and managed. The ways in which the Convention can be broken attest to why it should be reformed to enhance peace in the international community.

In order to address these issues, the BWC Review Conference (RevCon) is mandated by article XII of the treaty and plays a critical role in reviewing the treaty and charting next steps. The purpose of the RevCons is to review the operation of the BWC.

Consider scientific and technological developments that have taken place along with progress in the negotiation of the Convention itself. Annual inter-sessional meetings of States Parties and Meetings of Experts are held between RevCons to review a varying set of diplomatic and technical topics before dealing with them more formally at the RevCons.

Steer the Needs for Decreasing the Grey Area

Although the BWC can provide assistance to Member States who have been victimized by biological weapons use, only preparedness can help during these unfolding and unthinkable scenarios. Increasingly, preparedness must address concerns around the dual-use dilemma of biological weapons, which highlights the complex debate in which scientific innovation and knowledge can also lead to misuse of scientific agents as lethally weapons.

Specifically, scientific research has the dual-use of being used for harmful purposes, possibly causing large amounts of destruction to mankind, but also of gearing scientific knowledge towards the development of new vaccines or possible treatments. Currently much work is being conducted in the fields of biology and biotechnology without any association to the military. Activities intended to detect biological warfare agents can further enhance defense programs against them. This also creates a market for developing new pharmaceuticals and responses to vaccine-preventable diseases like presently for corona virus.

Biological weapons deterrence needs to be carefully outlined, as a gray area exists between distinguishing offensive and defensive research. Addressing existing and future biological warfare agents requires differentiating defensive and offensive characteristics, which can require evaluating genetically modified variants. Points to remember and stress upon:

  • What is the need for biological weapons?
  • Comparatively analyzing the nature of weapons, the extent of damage and control mechanisms
  • Understand the elements of the research including of the catalyst, the biological agent, the technical support and the group of experts
  • Understand the trading criteria and how these agents move and whether their limiting boundary is.
  • Envision the encapsulated role of UNDC (United Nations Disarmament Commission), and UNODA (United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs) in the implementation capacity.
  • Understand the ideology and factionalize the concept that anything can be converted into a biological weapon.

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Biological Weapons and Their Disarmament. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/biological-weapons-and-their-disarmament/
“Biological Weapons and Their Disarmament.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/biological-weapons-and-their-disarmament/
Biological Weapons and Their Disarmament. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/biological-weapons-and-their-disarmament/> [Accessed 9 Dec. 2022].
Biological Weapons and Their Disarmament [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2022 Dec 9]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/biological-weapons-and-their-disarmament/
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