via New Scientist
Chemical warfare is centuries old, but rapid advances in science could create deadly new weapons. We must act now
SYRIA, AD 256: Persian forces are under siege by the Romans. The attacking forces seek to tunnel under the Persian fortifications, but are met by a toxic mix of fumes from burning sulphur and bitumen. Syria, 2013: as yet unsubstantiated claims and counterclaims abound that chemical weapons have been deployed in the country.
The abhorrent effects of chemical warfare were unequivocally demonstrated during the first world war. This year, we mark the 25th anniversary of the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Halabja in northern Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s leadership.
Most governments now regard such weapons as militarily redundant, as demonstrated by their membership of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which prohibits the production and use of chemical weapons, commits them to destroying all existing stocks, and prevents reacquisition. Yet advances in a range of scientific fields – such as neuroscience and nanotechnology – and the growing convergence of chemistry and biology, while offering the hope of benefits to medicine and civil society, also bring the potential for a new era in chemical warfare.
There is an intrinsic connection between the military and civilian scientific communities; the military’s need for innovation has long been a driving force in research. But the potential for the adaptation and exploitation of scientific discovery for military advantage has rarely been greater.
Pursuing legitimate research while minimising the risk of misuse is a challenge for all. In 2011, I wrote in this magazine that the world needed to do more to guard against the growing threat of biological weapons. Now, I want to make the same case with regard to chemical weapons.
These issues are being discussed this month at the Third Review Conference of the CWC at The Hague in the Netherlands. The UK was a key player in negotiating agreement for the convention, which came into force in 1997, and although the threats we now face are very different from those that preoccupied the original negotiators, our commitment to it is undiminished. It remains a fundamental part of the international legal framework to tackle the threat of chemical weapons and has resulted in the destruction of four-fifths of the world’s declared stockpiles.
This is welcome, but we cannot afford to be complacent. The international community must ensure it is equipped to meet new challenges and prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons.
The latest threat comes on several fronts. Consider the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience, in particular neuropharmacology. The potential benefits for treating neurological impairment, disease and psychiatric illness are immense; but so too are potentially harmful applications – specifically the development of a new range of lethal, as well as incapacitating, chemical warfare agents. Nanotech also has the potential to transform medical care, but could be used to bolster chemical weapon capabilities.
We should not allow threats to hinder scientific progress. But we should do all we can to minimise the misuse of knowledge, materials, expertise and equipment for hostile purposes.