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Practical Exercise in Support of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Biological Weapons, with Special Consideration of the Functional Subunit Approach

Biological Warfare Agents

The deliberate use of infectious agents as a weapon is not a modern invention, but actually as old as the history of war itself. Biological warfare agents can be directed against humans as well as against animals or plants. Past examples for the use of pathogens as a means of warfare are diverse. Traditions from the ancient world already suggest the directed use of certain infectious or toxic biological agents, for example by poisoning the water wells of enemies. During medieval times, plague-infected corpses were catapulted into besieged cities, and in the 18th century smallpox-virus-infected blankets were given away to Native Americans. Later, after the development of a method for culturing bacteria in the 19th century, many countries began to systematically investigate the military use of biological weapons.

The Geneva Protocol and the Biological Weapons Convention

The Geneva Protocol or Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare has been the basis for worldwide prohibition of chemical and biological weapons since 1925. However, it does not contain any requirements related to their development, production, stockpiling or proliferation. On behalf of the UN General Assembly, the United Nations Disarmament Commission worked out an internationally binding follow-on agreement to complement and substantiate the regulations of the Geneva Protocol. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (Biological Weapons Convention, BWC) was completed in 1972 and entered into force in 1975. With this convention, an entire category of weapons was outlawed for the first time, with no restrictions. The contracting parties undertake to never in any circumstances develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain microbial or other biological agents or toxins. Furthermore, every state party to the convention is committed to not transfer such weapons to any recipient whatsoever, directly or indirectly, and to destroy such weapons which are in its possession or under its jurisdiction or control.

The United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism

The United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism (UNSGM) for investigation of alleged use of chemical, biological or toxin weapons provides the framework for objective and scientific investigation of alleged violations of the Geneva Protocol or of other relevant rules of customary international law. At the request of any Member State, the Secretary-General (SG) is authorised to launch an investigation, dispatch a fact-finding team, and report to all United Nation Member States. As a key part of the mechanism, the Secretary-General maintains a roster of experts and laboratories provided by Member States, as well as Guidelines and Procedures for conducting investigations.

Graphical illustration of the Secretary-General´s Mechanism (UNSGM)for investigation of alleged use of chemical and biological weaponsGraphical illustration of the Secretary-General´s Mechanism (UNSGM)for investigation of alleged use of chemical and biological weapons

Regarding investigations into the alleged use of biological weapons, the current concept stipulates that individual experts from the roster be assigned the task of fact-finding. In the event of an actual investigation, these experts are expected to cooperate as members of multinational teams with specific sub-tasks. The interdependence of individual experts may, however, present certain challenges: The team members may face language barriers, have different levels of competence and training, and work according to different national procedures and guidelines.

According to the current Guidelines and Procedures, “any interested Member State may designate to the Secretary-General relevant specialized training or courses available to qualified experts in support of their possible role on his behalf in carrying out investigations of possible use of chemical, biological and toxin agents, in order to facilitate achievement on a common basis of understanding and operation”. The first training course for experts was conducted by Sweden in cooperation with the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) in 2009. The second was offered by France in 2012.

The Functional Subunit Approach

In order to strengthen the UNSGM and to overcome the limitations of the individual expert approach, in 2013 Denmark proposed the use of Functional Subunits (FS) for specific tasks, as opposed to teams of individual experts from different countries.

Under this Functional Subunit approach, small teams of ideally 2 to 5 persons would contribute selected functions and skills to an investigation within the framework of the UNSGM. These teams should already be established at a national level with their own duties and responsibilities and should receive ongoing training and preparation. The role of Functional Subunits is to complement the actual procedure – which so far involves solely individual experts from different countries with specific professional expertise cooperating in a fact-finding mission – rather than to replace the individual experts. Forming Functional Subunits and nominating them for the roster should strengthen the UNSGM, since the team members are already well attuned to one another, their equipment is compatible and language barriers can thus be avoided. These conditions would presumably result in faster operational readiness and a higher level of sustainability for the roster. This new approach is particularly suitable for specific functions, such as “sampling”, “field laboratory work” and “explosive ordnance disposal”. Communication within the team and compatibility of equipment is particularly crucial in these fields.

So far, the suggestion to implement Functional Subunits has only been discussed theoretically during two workshops, the first one hosted by Denmark in 2013, and the second by Germany in January 2014. Now Germany is offering a practical follow-up exercise with a special focus on the use of Functional Subunits in November 2014.

Practical Exercise

On behalf of the German Federal Foreign Office, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) is organising a comprehensive field exercise in Berlin, Germany, for the investigation of fictional alleged use of biological weapons, with a special focus on the Functional Subunits approach. The Robert Koch Institute is the main institution in Germany at the federal level that is responsible for disease control and prevention. As such, it is the central institution for both applied and response-oriented research, as well as a key public health sector authority. One of its tasks is to identify biological hazards caused by accidents or intentional release of biological agents, as well as natural outbreaks involving highly pathogenic agents with a bioterror potential.

The ten-day exercise will combine practical training – including a detailled scenario – and discussions, as well as further information about the UNSGM, with the goal of drafting recommendations regarding the mechanism for the investigation of alleged use of biological weapons. A main objective of the exercise will be to obtain practical experience with the Functional Subunit approach and to practice cooperation between the individual subunits. During previous workshops, participants identified a number of tasks that could be performed by Functional Subunits. The upcoming exercise will therefore cover:

  1. Sampling (environmental, non-clinical),
  2. Medical Investigation (clinical sampling, epidemiology, pathology, potential effects of biological weapons),
  3. Field Laboratory Work, and
  4. Epidemiological Investigation.


    Furthermore, previous participants have expressed an interest in the following additional functions, and have stressed their importance:

  5. Decontamination,
  6. Bio-Reconnaissance,
  7. Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and Ammunitions Expertise, as well as
  8. Production Equipment and Process Technology Expertise.

The scenario for the practical exercise is set in a fictional Western European industrialised country (UN Member State) which has seen a major outbreak of an infectious disease with severe symptoms. The source of the infection will be under investigation, the causative agent will have been preliminarily identified. Additionally, the European country concerned will be having difficult political relations with a fictional neighbouring country. Certain peculiarities of the agents causing the outbreak and information provided by national intelligence services will indicate that the pathogen has been released deliberately. Therefore, the government of the affected country will request an investigation by the Secretary General to prove the alleged use of biological agents.

During the exercise, information provided will include epidemiological records, laboratory records from a local routine diagnostic laboratory (applied methods, results), advanced strain typing data from the reference laboratory, and clinical records. The elements provided for the exercise will include the potential site of contamination/infection for further investigation/confirmation, interviews with patients as well as with civilians and police, meetings with local authorities and governmental representatives, clinical sampling, environmental sampling, and media background.

Date: 24.06.2014

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