Wmds: The Term and Its Political Implications

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Riaz Muhammad Khan*

‘Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)’ has entered the UN Security Council lexicon and, following 9/11, been given a legal definition by the US criminal law codes. WMDs lump together formally in the UNSC resolutions as well as in popular perception biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear weapons. Regardless of the reprehensible nature of these and for that matter any weapon systems, bringing the three (or four) distinct categories of weapons under one umbrella of WMDs raises questions about the justification of such a treatment and the underlying political impulses that have lent currency to this nomenclature. I had first raised these issues at a UN-sponsored conference on disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control matters, held in Cheju Island, Republic of Korea in early December 2002 just a few months before the US-led military intervention against Iraq. The argument I had made was twofold: first, nuclear weapons were the only category that could justifiably be described as WMD and as strategic weapons; secondly, it would be extremely difficult for a moderately developed country accused of possessing chemical or biological weapons to disprove the charge through the UN or international inspections or verification procedures. These arguments had relevance to the mandates of IAEA Director General, El Baradei and Executive Director of UNMOVIC, Hans Blix who were respectively asked by the Security Council to verify non- possession of nuclear weapons and chemical and biological weapons by Iraq. On 7 March 2003, El Baradei was able to confirm that Iraq did not possess nuclear weapons while Hans Blix understandably asked for many more months.  The intervention in Iraq is a clear example of how the notion of WMDs formally adopted by the UN Security Council was episode underscores the need to rethink the use of the term in future resolutions of the United Nations especially when they are adopted by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

opular usage to a Formal Definition

The phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’ gained currency during the Cold War and referred specifically to nuclear weapons that were unprecedented in their destructive power and had spawned new strategic doctrines of deterrence and mutually assured destruction that underpinned the tense, but relatively stable,  global environment in which a direct conflagration between the two superpowers of the day was unthinkable. Nuclear weapons were considered to be the only weapons of decisive strategic import. Several other categories of weapons, including biological and chemical weapons, were variously considered as particularly inhumane and ‘excessively injurious’ and efforts were made to develop conventions to proscribe their development, possession and use. Neither the Convention on Biological weapons nor the Convention on the Prevention of Chemical Weapons carried any description of these weapons as ‘weapons of mass destruction.’

The  transformed  global  security  environment  with  the  end  of the Cold War by the late 1980s imparted a new meaning to the term ‘WMDs’ with President George H.W. Bush for the first time using the phrase in the context of chemical weapons. The US security concerns over the Soviet nuclear threat had attenuated giving rise to new anxieties over acquisition and possession of chemical and possibly biological weapons by countries like Iraq. With the first Gulf war in early 1991, the concern became pronounced and the term WMDs became slowly acceptable to refer to alleged pursuit by  Iraq of  nuclear, chemical and possibly biological weapons.  The term was promoted during the Clinton administration and generally by the Western media whenever referring to the dismantling of the Iraqi weapons’ programmes. The first mention of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in an UNSC resolution appeared in resolution 687 adopted on 3 April 1991 soon after the defeat of Iraq and enlisting demands on Iraq under Chapter VII including the dismantling of its chemical and biological weapons programmes and not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. The resolution carried only one general reference in the preamble to “the threat that all weapons of mass destruction pose to the area.” The operative paragraphs did not make such  a reference and delineated Iraq’s obligations under the respective protocols and conventions on chemical and biological weapons and those under the NPT relating to its nuclear programme. UNSC resolution 1284 of 17 November 1999 that established the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) also did not refer to the term WMDs and instead defined the mandate in the areas of the alleged chemical and biological weapons programmes and referred separately to the issue of verification that Iraq was not pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.

Reference  to  WMDs  returned  to  UNSC  resolution  1441  of  8 November 2002 that provided the ostensible legal basis for the US and the ‘coalition of the willing’ to launch military attack against Iraq. In its preamble, the resolution “deplored the absence in Iraq of international monitoring, inspection, and verification, as required by the relevant resolutions, of weapons of mass destruction…” This was an explicit linkage of WMDs to Iraq which was only implied and general in the Middle East context in resolution 687 (1991). In establishing this linkage, the sponsors of the resolution were helped by the turn of events since 9/11 which gave rise to a new international concern over WMDs falling in the hands of non-state actors. Theoretically, it was easy to argue that non- state actors could lay their hands on chemical and biological weapons. Public fears on the other hand were easily aggravated by positing the possibility of WMDs in the hands of terrorists, who operated as non-state actors. Following 9/11, the US adopted legal definition for weapons of mass destruction to include “chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, and chemical, biological, and nuclear materials used in the manufacture of such weapons.”

The Anomalies Implicit in the Concept of WMDs Bringing together under the rubric of WMDs, chemical and biological weapons together with nuclear weapons, is mixing oranges with apples in the qualitative and strategic sense.

system, with destructive power ranging from tens of thousands to millions of tons of TNT packed in a single weapon, capable of destroying entire cities and wiping out large population centers.  No nation-state adversaries can ever afford to inflict on each other such destruction, hence the value of the weapons as deterrent. The decisive strategic value, notwithstanding the issue of morality, was established by the first and last ever use that precipitously brought about Japan’s surrender towards the end of World War II. Mutually assured destruction was the principal factor that held the two superpowers at bay and prevented them from engaging in direct confrontation for more than four decades of the Cold War. In comparison, let us consider the strategic worth and lethal quality of the chemical and biological weapons.

Chemical weapons had been used during the two World Wars and most recently in the Iran-Iraq conflict by the Saddam regime. These weapons did not make any significant impact on the course of the conflict and their tactical worth on a battle-front could also be debatable. During the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iraq used chemical in more than a dozen fronts. Though this resulted in large scale casualties, it did not break the fighting spirit of the Iranian forces and only earned Iraq international opprobrium. The most lethal use of these weapons was against the Kurdish population in Halabjah in March 1988 which resulted in the death of several thousand civilians. This was an attack by the government to terrorize its own unsuspecting civilian population; however, in terms of lethality, similar numbers and even more have perished through the use of conventional weapons in civil wars. The relevant issue is not condoning a reprehensible crime, but to bring out the qualitative distinction and difference between chemical weapons and nuclear weapons as weapons of mass annihilation.

The same can be stated about biological weapons that had been banned first under the Geneva Protocol of 1927 and then the Convention of 1972. There is no recorded use of biological weapons in recent warfare and therefore it would be difficult to comment on their impact in a conflict situation. However, an analysis is possible given the known agents for such weapons and the contemporary experience of countries in containing epidemics. Anthrax and smallpox are regarded as among the most deadly and dreaded agents that can be theoretically used to debilitate a population.

The November 2002 issue of the well-respected and popular National Geographic Magazine published an article by Lewis M. Simons on WMDs that began with an hypothetical apocalyptic ‘war game’ scenario of how an attack by three persons masquerading as workers with plant sprayers contaminated a mall in Oklahoma city with smallpox that could kill more than one million Americans and infect another three million within less than two months with no end of the crisis in sight. Notwithstanding the timing of the article coinciding with the accusation of Iraq continuing to possess WMDs and its non-cooperation with UNMOVIC, we need to look into this claim. Smallpox was a menace until the early 1950s but was effectively controlled. There have since been a few reported cases but certainly these did not explode into a crisis of any magnitude. As for anthrax, around the world, especially in parts of Asia and Africa, there have been incidents of its outbreak which are contained. The recent example of pandemics, such as SARS in 2003 and the recent Swine Flu, even though initially untreatable, did not result in large scale casualties. Apart from nature’s own defence mechanisms to regress the potency of a biological agent in the environment, today the quarantine methods and public awareness is highly developed to contain the evil of a potential pandemic and avert dooms day predictions.

Lastly, the radiological weapon deserve a brief comment as these are also sometime described part of the WMD rubric. This weapon by definition is dispersal of radioactive material with the help of a conventional explosive device. The immediate victims of such a weapon would be those affected by the explosive device, in the long term the radioactive particles would contaminate the site in a more localized sense and have an injurious impact on those exposed to them. These weapons are also known as ‘dirty bombs.’ An issue of considerable controversy has been the use of depleted uranium used in armour-piercing bombs.

Separate treaties or conventions have been negotiated over the years to proscribe or control these weapons specific to the nature and technical issues involved with each weapon system. Biological weapons were first banned under a 1925 Geneva protocol that was shaped into a convention on prohibiting biological and toxins weapons signed in 1972 and effective in March 1975. The convention on prohibition of chemical weapons was adopted in 1993 and came into effect in April 1997. There are two treaties in force for control of nuclear weapons: the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 (effective October 1963) and the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty of 1968 (effective 1970). The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is yet to come into force.

The  question arises  about  the  underlying impulse for  lumping these categories of weapons together with the nuclear weapons under the single description of ‘weapons of mass destruction:’ whether there were genuine technical reasons for promoting the new nomenclature or the effort was linked to political motivation.  As the evolution of the definition shows, none of these weapon-systems were unknown during the Cold War when the term was applied almost exclusively to nuclear weapons. The term began to take a broader meaning with the end of the Cold War, a change in global security paradigm and more specifically the post-9/11 concerns. Accordingly, the explanation does not appear to owe to any new technological revelation and cannot be divorced from political circumstances and agenda. The monolithic term‘weapons of mass destruction’ can evoke far greater fear and trauma in public minds than chemical or biological weapons and thus create a more powerful justification for the eradication of the source of threat. The Bush administration settled on the threat of WMDs as the reason for military action against Iraq because on this everyone could agree on. This brings us to the issue that was my main argument at the Cheju UN Conference in December 2002.

The Sting in the Definition

The point at that time was that it was extremely difficult for Iraq to come clean of the charge of possessing (hiding) WMDs through verification inspections or procedures. Iraq may be sui generis both in terms of political circumstances and the adversarial leadership in Baghdad and Washington. Yet, the argument can apply to any moderately developed country accused of the same charge in the future. Again the example of Iraq would illustrate the point.

Apart from the mandate of UNSCOM, resolution 1284 (1999) demanded  two  separate  verifications:  the  IAEA  chief  El  Baradei was required to verify that Iraq had destroyed all infra-structure and equipment contributing to its capability to develop nuclear weapons, whereas  the  Executive Director  of  the  newly  created  UNMOVIC, Hans Blix, was required to prove the same in respect of chemical and biological weapons. After three years of hundreds of inspections and interviews by international inspectors and UNMOVIC teams, on 7 March 2003, both El Baradei and Hans Blix presented their quarterly reports, the last before the launch of military attack against Iraq later in the same month.

El Baradei was able to state that there were no indications of resumption of nuclear activity, attempt to import uranium by Iraq since 1990 or equipment for enrichment, or of “the revival of a nuclear weapons programme.” Hans Blix was not in a position to make a categorical statement with regard to his mandate. Instead, his report largely spoke of the extent of Iraqi cooperation with inspections and access to personnel and papers and how to reinforce monitoring and verification of “key remaining disarmament tasks” necessary to draw conclusions that in his view would have required many more months, not weeks. The problem lay in the nature of two mandates.

Pursuit of a nuclear weapons programme requires large infrastructure with telltale signature verifiable with aerial photography. A chemical weapons programme is much harder to detect and would require tracing the trail of precursors and intrusive inspection of every chemical plant to disprove the charge. On the other hand to disprove with complete authority the existence of storage of biological agents can at best be based on extrapolation, it is almost impossible to physically establish it. A graphic example of the difficulty was evident from the presentation given to the Security Council by US Secretary of State Colin Powell on 3 February 2003.

Colin Powell showed to the open session of the UN Security Council slides of certain aerial photographs of trucks and sheds on the ground as well as sketches of container trucks with concealed cylinders stating that this was how Iraq was using mobile units to maintain its stockpile of chemical weapons. Then he showed to the Council members a model vial of anthrax, just a couple of inches long glass test tube, to illustrate how lethal biological material was stored. Clearly, to the untrained eyes of most of the audience in the Security Council chamber, these illustrations were no proof for Iraq’s culpability and possession of the alleged stockpiles; but they pointed to the enormity of the task of proving that no such trucks or vials existed throughout the length and breadth of a country of Iraq’s size. It was more than the search for the proverbial needle in a haystack. It was after the US forces and hundreds of UN agents scoured an occupied Iraq for months with complete freedom to access every corner and track every possible lead that the US-led coalition gradually admitted its failure to find any active WMD programme in Iraq. The inescapable conclusion is that Iraq would have found it impossible to prove the truth about the status of the alleged programme, even if it were more forthcoming in its cooperation with UNMOVIC. Any moderately developed country would find itself in the same situation if faced with the charge of possessing WMDs, even though the chances of such a recurrence have now become considerably low.

Iraq had a history of using chemical weapons and was already in the trap of a mandatory UNSC resolution for verifiable destruction of its “WMD programmes.” Given the rigorous implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention that came into force in 1997 with stockpiles of declared chemical weapons states in the process of supervised destruction, the possibility of another state emerging and using these weapons is almost non-existent. There is one possible scenario that requires comment.

The world community remains concerned over the possibility of WMDs falling in the hands of non-state actors. In that hypothetical situation, given sufficiently credible evidence, the question would be how the Security Council should act. Most likely, the Council would want to work in cooperation with the state(s) that becomes the locale for such non-state actors and that the required cooperation would be available on the part of the state(s) concerned.  The important point is to avoid arbitrary action. The post-Iraq global environment has trudged towards multi-polarity and has also exposed the limitation of the use of force and would therefore induce greater caution on the part of the Council members.   However, it is worth bearing in mind the Iraq experience and emphasizing that the Council must not place an inordinate demand propelled by a political agenda on a country under its mandatory resolutions.