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Support of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Biological Weapons

The Geneva Protocol and the Biological Weapons Convention

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 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.

The United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism

The United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism (UNSGM) for the investigation of alleged use of chemical, biological or toxin weapons provides the framework for an 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 and laboratories 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 team members may face language barriers, have different fields of competence and level of further training, and work according to different national procedures and guidelines.

To prepare the experts for a potential mission an overview of needed trainings is constantly created by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affaires (UNODA) and the Members States under the overall coordination of UNODA.

The first training course for experts was conducted by Sweden in cooperation with UNODA in 2009. The second was offered by France in 2012. To overcome the limitations of the individual expert approach, in 2013 Denmark proposed the use of Functional Subunits (FS) for specific tasks. 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. This approach is not pursued further at the moment.

Robert Koch Institute’s Commitment

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.

On behalf of the German Federal Foreign Office, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) was organising a ten-day comprehensive field exercise in Berlin, Germany, in 2014 for the investigation of fictional alleged use of biological weapons. A main objective of the exercise was to obtain practical experience with the Functional Subunit approach and to practice cooperation between the individual subunits.

Since 2017 RKI supported by the Federal Foreign Office and in collaboration with UNODA is organising various workshops to discuss the use of different methods for identification and characterization of bacteria and viruses as biological agents as well as the review of achieved results. Additionally, result based professional recommendations for Member States were worked out, which they can use for selecting nominated reference laboratories (see: RefBio - German Contribution to Strengthen the Reference Laboratories Bio in the UNSGM).

Not only since the last UNSGM mission in Syria in 2013, it is clear, that an investigation mission can be physically and psychologically challenging for experts, because of close hostilities, terroristic assassinations or other threats - for example the danger of a potential kidnapping. To prepare the UNSGM nominated experts best possible for such situations and to show them action options, they should participate in a so called HEAT (hostile environment awareness training). The modules of that training are focused on UN demands and requirements for emergency task forces abroad.

On 14th September 2019, the training started in Frankfurt, Germany. Representatives of the Federals Foreign Office and UNODA as well as Robert Koch Institute employees were onsite to welcome the participating experts. During the next two days in the AKNZ (Academy of crisis management, emergency planning and civil protection) in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler the basics of the training were taught or rather refreshed in small groups by presentations, practical trainings and workshops. The participants were divided into four teams at six persons and assigned to an experienced team trainer who accompanied them until the end of the course on Friday. Team building played a leading role and is essential especially during a real mission. At first, the experts were practicing “first aid in the field”, the handling of navigation devices and RT units as well as the use of maps. They were discussing how to prepare a mission best possible and developed a procedure for numerous dangerous situations. The topics risk awareness, management and mitigation and behaviour in complex hazardous situations played a central role during the whole training. The theoretical knowledge was tested afterwards. Every team had to fulfil a fictional mission in a fictional crisis region. The experts were confronted with different scenarios and roles for example as team leader, radio operator or navigator and need to cope them as a team and to reflect in the end. The team trainers were valuable mentors and gave feedback to the conduct and approach. The experts were requested to leave their personal comfort zone and to stay in the simulated mission. An automotive check, off road driving training and a module about land mines and missiles rounded off the HEAT training.

Practical Exercise 2020

If an UN Members States suspects the use of biological weapons, an expert team, selected of the mentioned roster, is called together after the activation of the UNSGM for preparing the mission. For this the team collects information about the current security, political and health situation, the background of the alleged attack, regional studies, necessary equipment and professional experts. After that, the experts travel to the affected region and start the fact-finding mission in the form of collecting samples, investigating and interviewing potential victims and witnesses. As a real mission can take several weeks, it is not possible to simulate all steps in real time during one exercise.

Due to this, the exercise planned by RKI was divided into two parts. In November 2020, a virtual preparation meeting of several days took place in which the experts got familiarized with the scenario and had time to prepare their mission. The scenario for the practical exercise is set in a fictional 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 has been preliminarily identified.

The second part of the exercise will simulate the mission on site. The experts will collect samples on a training ground, get in touch with “locals” and face the potential physiological and psychological challenges of a mission. In the end, a report shall be written which settles the question if the observed disease outbreak is of natural origin or was released deliberately.

Date: 08.02.2021