Preventing Biological Violence

The Program

Bioviolence could inflict enormous harm; prevention efforts are warranted. With bioscience progress, lethal weapons shrink and become easier to make; they also spread, eroding borders and raising unpredictable threats from any direction. Here is a harbinger for the future of security challenges: ever greater threats from ever smaller devices from anywhere on Earth with comparably expansive consequences.

Bioviolence is used here instead of the more common term bioterrorism because the meaning of terrorism is ambiguous. There is no globally accepted definition of terrorism. The term suggests conduct of a non-State actor that is motivated by a political or religious agenda, but not deployment of military capabilities nor criminality or idiosyncratic lunacy. The aim here is to prevent all hostile plots to cause mass catastrophe with disease; the term violence applies without regard to who is the actor or what is the cause of his malevolence.

Although there are strategies that can substantially reduce risks, positive initiatives are not coherently pursued. Data about bioscience must be collected and analyzed. Law enforcers' detection and interdiction powers, medical resistance to attack, public health response capabilities, and multilateral nonproliferation mechanisms - all these must be substantially strengthened. Laboratory standards must be implemented everywhere and authoritatively incorporated within peace and security agendas. If not, if inertia prevails, the threats will grow larger and more uncontrollable rendering huge populations especially throughout the developing world vulnerable to any terrorist, criminal, or lunatic who realizes pathogens' unparalleled potential to de-stabilize the modern era.

The question is: why are progressive strategies not moving forward? There are two answers. First, bioviolence prevention efforts are untethered to agendas for promoting bioscience throughout the developing world. These efforts do not address the health needs of most of the world, leave aside development communities, and put the priority of preventing bioviolence at odds with the imperative of advancing bioscience. Second, progressive strategies for preventing bioviolence require global governance. Security policy, scientific progress, and law are twisted into a gordion's knot without a worldwide institution that can unravel competing interests. There is no strategic agenda to guide policy implementation; massive and critical constituencies are disengaged; and there is no meaningful capacity to induce recalcitrant States or persons to meet their responsibilities. Any approach that does not confront this condition is short-sighted. Simply stated, there is a compelling need here for international law.

Conceptual Foundations

Bioscience is a social good; it is extremely important to meeting global challenges posed by food insecurity, industrial underdevelopment, environmental degradation and disease. Yet it poses inherent and unavoidable dangers. Therefore, with the commitment to encourage the global spread of bioscience comes an obligation to undertake bioscientific activities according to international standards that appreciate the unfortunate but non-trivial potential that a fraction of those so engaged could wreak disaster out of all proportion to their numbers or resources.

The concept to be advanced can be visualized as a Venn Diagram comprised of three sets of policies: (1) to promote bioscience; (2) to establish favorable conditions for bioscience and biotechnology as a tool for sustainable development; and (3) to prevent bioviolence.


The global synthesis of these policies requires a broad international commitment to the spread of legitimate bioscience especially in developing regions; recognition that countering bioterrorism must be a facet of that commitment; establishment and implementation of international legal standards and measures as a prerequisite of global bioscience guardianship. Addressing bioviolence concerns inappropriately could undermine development of bioscience and technology with catastrophic effects. Developing bioscience but failing to address bioviolence concerns could lead to catastrophe and undermine confidence in science. Addressing all these concerns in harmony is mandatory for humanity's security.

Obstacles To Progress

  1. In view of the enormous opportunities for policy progress, too little is being done to make it hard to prepare and commit bioviolence. Right now, legions of experts know how to keep dangerous pathogens and equipment out of the hands of strangers. These experts make rules for conducting bioscience. The question is whether everyone is complying. The overwhelming body of science today operates according to these rules, but there are holes. Accordingly, the international community should consider how should bioscience standards be best universalized -- that is, how should law help to fill gaps through which bioviolence can too easily emerge.
  2. There is too much that we do not know about. We do not know where is every well-equipped laboratory; we suspect that not all weapons-quality pathogens can be accounted for; we have inadequate systems for tracking the movement of pathogens and equipment; and we have grossly inadequate capabilities of putting information together to give us the best chance to detect and stop bio-offenders. Even if only a handful of people are sufficiently hateful to commit a catastrophic bioviolence attack, we should improve the odds of finding and stopping them.
  3. We are insufficiently taking advantage of the many law enforcers worldwide who should serve as the first and most important line of detection. Many of these law enforcers are inadequately trained and equipped to pursue bioviolence. There are too many flaws in law enforcement's readiness whether from the conceptual level - how should international legal assistance modalities work effectively to ensure cooperation to discover and interdict bioviolence? -- or at the most operational level - how should police be trained to use protective gear. Not enough is being done by specialized organizations, Interpol excepted, to introduce bioviolence concerns to their constituents; not only do we lose the benefit of local police, we lose those organizations' capabilities for taking decisive action as necessary.
  4. Intelligence, diplomatic, and military communities are responsible for ensuring that extremely serious threats do not materialize, but the disengagement of the legal apparatus for addressing threats to international peace and security - the United Nations Security Council - weakens us substantially. There needs to be an investigative capability at the highest level - a capability that should be exercised judiciously but is not a paper tiger. There need to be developed criteria of threats, and there needs to be a process by which responsible persons can get facts and decide whether there is a violation of law.
  5. Global distribution of capacities to prevent bioviolence are woefully unjust. Not enough is being done to consider how making people safer from biothreats can be accomplished with benefits to professional communities and national economies throughout the developing world. Indeed, at this time there is insufficient (essentially nil) serious discussion about how to best enable developing countries to prevent bioviolence. There has been no systematic effort whatsoever to link compliance with bioviolence prevention measures to measures for stimulating indigenous bioscience. Major policy discussions about bioscience development are entirely separate from major policy discussions about biothreats to international peace and security.
  6. There's nobody in charge. No one is responsible; no one is accountable. With regard to bioviolence, no international authority defines relevant prohibitions and responsibilities. Over the years, it is remarkable how many good ideas have not been rejected but have died for lack of a responsible official who has authority to act. There is no focal point for new initiatives and no one who has obvious capacity to carry out prevention responsibilities, evaluate who might be failing to meet their responsibilities, and instigating inquiry into emerging problems. Even well-regarded ideas have nowhere to grow. No body exists to promote reasonable initiatives to advance progressive policies. International alarms of bioviolence ring nowhere!

For every obstacle, there is an organization, expert, NGO, professional association, or government agency that is vigorously trying to do something positive. But these efforts are disaggregated. In regard to bioviolence prevention, the issue is: how can we create effective synergies among what many people are doing -- how can activity be organized into strategy?

Meeting Emerging Security Challenges

International law can weave many policies and measures together into an intricate policy tapestry. Today, there are vast opportunities to strengthen the role of international law that are not adequately pursued. Our effort builds upon the Interpol Program for Preventing Bio-Terrorism which, in two years, has proven to be among the most important global initiatives to reduce bio-threats.

Six questions comprise the focus of our effort:

  1. Can/should international biosecurity guidelines concerning access to pathogens, equipment, and laboratories be legally binding? How can compliance be assessed?
  2. What steps might be useful to generate a census of bio-science - i.e., where is bio-science of concern taking place? What are the criteria for identifying such locations? What should be the methodology of this census?
  3. What information gathering and analysis modalities are appropriate to help detect covert bioviolence preparations? How can these modalities be developed and implemented consistent with national sovereignty and protections for privacy and intellectual property?
  4. What are appropriate modalities of investigation and cooperation between science & law enforcement to cope with situations that demand intense inquiry? What body should supervise such investigations?
  5. How can capacity be strengthened, nationally & regionally, to address malevolent threats and address ubiquitous natural disease? What should be immediate priorities?
  6. What institutional frameworks (the United Nations?) are appropriate for sustaining discussion among scientific, development, and law enforcement communities?
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