Technology undermining State sovereignty

Peace & Security16 Nov 2010Ineke Malsch

Last week, I attended the Fall Lecture of the International Criminal Law Network in The Hague, on ‘The Prohibition of Chemical and Biological Weapons under International Criminal Law’. Prof. Barry Kellman, from the International Security and Biopolicy Institute, suggested that the governance of emerging bio-, chem-and nanotechnologies applicable in ‘disease weapons’ could make it necessary to impose limits to State sovereignty.

This could be an interesting question for the debate on nanotechnology, peace and security, being held on Thursday 18 November, 11.00-12.45 at the University of Twente. Join General (ret) Kees Homan, Prof. Dave Blank, Dr Baerbel Dorbeck-Jung and me for this discussion.

Kellman pointed out the historic connection between international power and the ability to use violence threatening international peace and stability on the one hand, and concentrated economic potential and industrial power. New and emerging technologies are contributing to increasing independence in the capacity to change the course of history of state or economic power. Garage companies may, in the future, acquire the concentrated power to commit mass violence through bioterrorism. The potential perpetrators can be anyone, anywhere, and be unnoticed and disconnected from centres of military and economic power. The threat will be generalized ‘disease weapons’, mostly chemical, biological or nano-agents. The distinction between chemical and biological agents is losing its meaning, and one should be prepared for new emerging agents. For example, the recreator of the Polio virus called it an ‘animate chemical’.

The problem is that the current international arms-control treaties are not capable of protecting against these emerging threats. Disease weapons should be distinguished from conventional weapons and explosives. Disease weapons must be disseminated in the wider population. They can be contagious or spread through contacts, wind, water, etc. It remains unknown that a weapon has been used until people fall ill on a large scale. Perpetrators need scientific equipment to synthesize the weapons. The challenge is how to incorporate the disease into particles that will spread in a desired way. There is an infinite number of potential disease weapons and each disease must be treated in a unique, distinct way.

It is not enough to make the use of such disease weapons a war crime, because if a non-state actor is the perpetrator, it is not an act of war. States and the international community have the responsibility and legal obligation to protect and prevent crimes against humanity, such as use of disease weapons, disconnected from the question who is the perpetrator. The governance of science is more and more an international challenge, imposing limits on State sovereignty regarding detection, diagnosis and sharing of information on disease agents. Law enforcement should be harmonized internationally and no longer based on State sovereignty. The private sector is already global; their perspective should be engaged in the global discussion of international peace and security. States should no longer have the monopoly of diplomacy.