War without tears

December 12, 2000

Should 'non-lethal' chemical and biological weapons be allowed?

MILITARY advisers in the US want to rewrite the treaties banning chemical and biological weapons so they can develop "non-lethal" versions. To safeguard the lives of American troops in peacekeeping operations, they want to use weapons that, for instance, will allow whole rebel armies to be put to sleep-or perhaps disable their vehicles and weapons.

But arms control experts are already condemning the idea as "disastrous". They believe the crucial treaties could unravel if they are renegotiated to allow new weapons to be developed.

In the past few years, the US marines have become very interested in non-lethal weapons for the complex peacekeeping operations they are often involved in, such as that in Somalia. Such munitions could also help minimise the "CNN effect"-the growing need to justify military actions to politicians who watch them live on television.

Military and police forces already have dozens of weapons designed not to kill, including rubber and plastic bullets, electric stun guns, sticky foam and tear gas. But the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate of the US Marine Corps also wants chemical and biological agents such as sleeping gases, tranquillisers and oil-eating microbes which would incapacitate without injury. "For example, I would like a magic dust that would put everyone in a building to sleep, combatants and non-combatants," the directorate's head, Colonel George Fenton told New Scientist. But he says that this type of technology would mean reviewing the agreements aimed at ending chemical and biological warfare.

Russell Glenn, a senior analyst from the Rand Corporation, which advises the US Department of Defense, also argues that the ban on chemical weapons should be "updated" so researchers can develop gases that could, for example, calm crowds rather than kill them. "Chemicals can be our friends," he told Jane's Non-lethal Weapons conference in Edinburgh last week. Although the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention outlaws both lethal and non-lethal weapons, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention is more ambiguous. It bans the use of non-lethal weapons against enemy troops, but permits the use of chemicals against property, provided they do not harm people or animals.

David Fidler, a legal expert on non-lethal weapons from Indiana University, says that renegotiating these treaties would fatally undermine them, re-igniting some countries' desire for weapons of mass destruction. "It would be disastrous," he says. The intergovernmental Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons warns that the chemical convention is under attack. Rewriting it would endanger world security, says the OPCW's head of government relations, Ralf Trapp, "creating a spiral of increasing risk".

There are also doubts within the US Department of Defense. Joseph Rutigliano, an attorney with the US Marine Corps in Washington DC, says that unleashing these new weapons on less technologically advanced nations could provoke them to reply with nerve gas or other lethal agents.

But retired Colonel John Alexander, who researched non-lethal weapons at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, argues that the chemical and biological treaties are already "doomed" because they are, or will be, broken by rogue states or groups. If the US abandoned the treaties it could deploy weapons which could, for example, destroy plastic engine fittings or make rubber tyres brittle, he says. "There is almost nothing that some bug won't eat."
Author: Rob Edwards, Edinburgh

New Scientist issue: 16 December 2000


New Scientist

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