CBMTS Industry I – 1998

Zagreb and Dubrovnik, Croatia 25 – 30 October 1998

CBMTS Overview and OPCW Considerations

by Dr. Brian Davey, M.D.


General Cosic, distinguished guests, friends and colleagues,

It gives me great pleasure to be here, and to have the opportunity to address you at this first CBMTS Industry Symposium. My view of this Symposium originates from three different but complementary perspectives. As an individual who has attended the full series of CBMTS Symposia, I have watched with interest as the diversity and scope of participation has increased from modest beginnings to a series of meetings with international standing. As a representative of the Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, I convey our Director General’s wishes for a successful meeting, and express the Technical Secretariat’s strong interest in the theme, content, and conclusions of the meeting. Lastly, as a scientist working in the field of chemical weapons disarmament and defence, I have full expectation of taking home and applying many new ideas from the impressive range of papers that has been collected for presentation.

I would like to share some thoughts with you from each of those three perspectives. I will start by reflecting for a few moments on the origins and concept of the CBMTS series of meetings which is, as most of you know, very much the brainchild of Richard and Barbara Price.

It was early in 1994 that I was contacted by Richard Price, with a request to assist him in a project he was doing, writing an overview on current priorities and state of the art in medical research for defence against chemical weapons. He had developed a questionnaire, which was sent to everyone we could think of who was working in the field. The results were disappointing. Although there were some responses, the feedback was generally poor, and the article remained unwritten. While considering the next step, Richard and Barbara came up with the idea to attend a meeting where this particular family of professionals is gathered, and to decide together what the priorities and important directions are.

There was one problem however – there was no such meeting available. There were indeed NBC medical defence meetings in particular regions, or of particular political or geographical interest groups, but there was no truly international forum concentrating primarily on the medical issues. In their inimitable fashion, the Prices’ answer was easy: “let’s create one!”. The CBMTS concept, and the idea for the first symposium was born.

Richard first approached Battelle Memorial Institute’s Thomas Sizemore and Fran Crimmins and working the details with them, received Battelle’s full support. He then approached the Director of the Swiss NC Laboratory at Spiez, Doctor Bernhard Brunner, who also fully supported the concept and agreed to host the meeting in their magnificent facility. Dr. Rudolf Portmann was appointed as the Swiss project officer, and was invaluable in the planning and execution of the concept. With Richard and Barbara’s energy and world-wide network of contacts generating valued sponsors and participants, the first meeting commenced in December 1994 in the incomparably beautiful surroundings of Spiez, Switzerland.

The special feature of this meeting was the wide range of international participation it generated. Richard and Barbara used every resource to generate funds to assist those with financial difficulties to attend. There were medical professionals present from across the political and geographical spectrum, many of them attending such a meeting for the first time.

I vividly remember the intense interest as scientists from Iran described their experiences in managing the tragically large numbers of chemical casualties originating from their war with Iraq, and the fascinating glimpses of alternative Chinese therapeutic approaches to nerve agent poisoning. These took place alongside more traditional presentations describing the state of the art in all the major aspects of medical defence against chemical and biological warfare.

Everyone took home something of value, ranging from fresh ideas for research programs, to a better understanding of how professionals from other parts of the world go about their business. And most importantly, everyone gained new friends and colleagues from around the world.

Testimony to the success of the event was the follow-up. Not only was there a repeat plenary meeting in Switzerland in July 1996, but a supplementary series of regional symposia occurred. Members of the CBMTS group had decided that there were subjects of particular regional interest, towards which entire meetings could be usefully directed, addressing these specific subjects in more detail than a general meeting can allow. Such regional symposia have occurred in the Czech Republic, Egypt, and now in Croatia.

I would like to turn my attention for a few moments to the rather unusual title of this Symposium – “Ecoterrorism: Chemical and biological warfare without chemical and biological weapons”. It is a topic that raises a number of questions, and that can be interpreted in various ways.

One of the manifestations is clear – the potential during military actions for purposeful or accidental release of chemical or biological agents from facilities where they were being used for peaceful purposes. This could have devastating consequences for the environment and for surrounding populations, and is the main theme of this meeting. There is another more subtle manifestation of the same concept, which is the use of the threat of release of chemical or biological agents as an end in itself.

There are many strategies we can adopt to defend against chemical and biological warfare, including a variety of ways to protect ourselves effectively against exposure. However this protection comes with immense cost psychological, physiological, logistic, and financial.

When a force that has given up the right to use chemical weapons confronts an aggressor who may use them, it has no choice but to adopt a variety of threat assessment strategies, usually culminating in standby posture at various graded protection levels. The moment chemical defence strategies start, the difficulties associated with them also begin. Routine tasks become extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible to achieve. The physiological stress of wearing protective clothing can produce its own casualties long before a chemical weapon is ever used. The fear that most humans have of being poisoned is often far greater than for other forms of injury. We have developed a revulsion for this form of combat that has resulted in almost universal international condemnation.

When soldiers are faced with the prospect of facing toxic chemicals, along with the discomfort and difficulty of chemical defence drills, morale and function can be severely disrupted. This effect alone could be perceived as an effective military objective, achievable only by threatening or pretending to use chemical weapons. This is indeed “chemical warfare without chemical weapons”.

The immense danger of this phenomenon is the proliferative stimulus that accompanies it. A military force will soon tire of being put at a disadvantage, both functional and psychological, and the temptation will be strong to develop a weapon allowing a retaliatory threat against the original aggressor. This is a spiral that could easily soon lead to the actual use of chemical weapons, with all their horrific consequences.

This is but one of the reasons that the ambitious objectives of the Chemical Weapons Convention are so important. It is not enough to limit the size, range, or number of chemical weapons, as has been done in disarmament treaties for other types of weapons. Chemical weapons must be eliminated entirely, so that even the threat of their use also disappears.

Returning to the main Symposium theme (accidental or intentional release of chemicals from industry or other sites), the question is often asked whether this should be considered as chemical warfare or not. Would an attack on a chemical industry, releasing chemicals that damage the environment or poison nearby populations, constitute a breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention?

The text of the Convention provides no specific guidance on this issue, so it becomes a matter of interpretation. It is a question that has already been debated on a number of platforms without firm conclusions, and I doubt that it would be possible to obtain international consensus at this time on this question – especially if the debate took place across political divides. There are many factors that would be relevant to the discussion, one of the most important being intent to cause the effects that result. Unfortunately, intent to cause release would almost certainly be extremely difficult to demonstrate.

I have been asked a number of times whether the OPCW would respond in such cases. In addressing this question, I would like to remind you of the distinction between the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW and the OPCW itself. The Secretariat is the international organisation in The Hague that has been formed to implement the Convention’s provisions (including conduct of inspections, investigations of alleged use or threat of use, and coordination of technical co-operation and assistance).

The OPCW (and it highest level organ, the Conference of States Parties) is a higher level collective body made up of representatives from all its Member States. Its Executive Council meets regularly to address operational issues, and is made up of representatives of 41 Member States who rotate on a regular basis. In the absence of clear guidance from the Convention itself, an appeal for assistance in the case of such an attack would almost certainly be heard in the first instance by an emergency meeting of the Executive Council, and the resultant action by the Secretariat or others would depend on its decision. In other words it is not only the nature of the incident, but also the collective political attitude of the Organisation’s Member States at the time of the incident, that will be key factors in determining the response.

As a purely personal opinion, I feel that the name, classification, or legal status of such an attack are of considerably less importance than the reality of the human and environmental devastation that it could cause. Legal and political arguments should not preclude the possibility (and even probability) of a sympathetic response by the international community to such an event. Depending on the circumstances at the time, response would of course include the provision of assistance and expertise, including that of the OPCW. I look forward with great interest to the papers in this Symposium that will address the international legal aspects of this topic.

Finally I would like to reflect briefly on some of the themes that have emerged from previous symposia in this series.

Each symposium has seen a lively debate on the treatment of nerve agent poisoning, and in particular, the role and efficacy of the various oximes. In fact, the majority of papers at the Czech symposium addressed this topic. This discussion will continue during this symposium, with a number of papers addressing therapy and the ever present problem of methodology for acetylcholinesterase activity determination.

Long term and low dose exposure effects have also received prominent attention at our symposia, this being of particular interest to those of us working in the area of occupational health, and the protection of workers in chemical storage and demilitarisation facilities. I am delighted to see this topic surfacing at yet another international meeting.

No medically oriented symposium would be complete without discussions of detection and decontamination technology, as they are critical elements of patient management. Papers outlining new developments in these areas have been prominent during previous symposia, and will be supplemented this week.

On a more general level, however, there has been a growing awareness expressed during our previous meetings of the changing nature of the international threat of chemical and biological weapons. We have moved from an era of superpower confrontation to one where regional and undeclared low level conflict is more prominent, and an era where non-state group involvement and terrorist activity is a major feature. The manner in which this subject has been addressed in the symposia is an illustration of the relationship of the regional to the plenary CBMTS meetings. While the topic was raised at the meetings in Switzerland, the present regional seminar in Croatia addresses it in depth. There are always frightening consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction, but the prospect of terrorist use is grim indeed. The challenge of meeting this threat is massive, and there is a general realisation that no country can do it alone. The diffuse nature of the modern threat makes it incumbent on all nations to band together to counter it.

Co-operative ventures of this kind, with truly international participation, are crucial for sharing the concepts and technologies we need to move forward together against modern manifestations of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

I would like to close by briefly sharing an experience I had last week. I was privileged to visit the medical centre in Teheran where Iranian physicians are still dealing with the long term effects of chemical weapons experienced during their war with Iraq. To see the endless suffering of young men fighting for every breath through lungs destroyed by mustard gas was sobering indeed. One commented that he would give up all his worldly goods for just one night of complete rest. It was a sad reminder of the reality of chemical weapons, and the reasons why the international community has found almost universal agreement in condemning them outright.

Thank you for this opportunity to address you, and I wish you every success for a stimulating and fruitful week of scientific exchange.