Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 01/2009

chemical and Biochemical Non-lethal Weapons: Political and Technical Aspects

ronald g. sutherland

November 2008

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute


The possibility that chemical or biological substances might be used for hostile purposes or as a method of warfare is of concern to those involved in ensuring that the international prohibition against chemical and biological warfare (CBW) is effectively implemented. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) are the principal international legal instruments against CBW. If any chemical or biological substance— including toxins and, in principle, various pharmacologically active drugs—were used for ‘hostile purposes or in armed conflict’ or as a ‘method of warfare’ it would constitute a violation of the BTWC and the CWC, respectively. The BTWC has weak verification mechanisms, while the CWC has quite strong verification mechanisms and procedures which are implemented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), located in The Hague. This Policy Paper therefore focuses on the CWC. It also introduces the basic rationale behind the development and use of non-lethal weapons (NLWs), including to support counterterrorism and peacekeeping operations. Chemical and biochemical NLWs pose a fundamental policy challenge: how to reconcile the use of such weapons—which can reduce the number of deaths and casualties— with various other legal, ethical and political concerns. Such concerns include the possible misuse of NLWs to facilitate the killing of targeted individuals and the use of NLW research and development programmes as a cover for an offensive CBW capability or programme. The Policy Paper analyses various terminology and provides an overview of select activities to develop NLWs and also of the development of standard riot control agents and criteria for their use. In some quarters there is concern that NLWs present a ‘back-door’ loophole (actual or potential) to the international prohibitions against CBW and this Policy Paper examines that concern. The paper concludes by recommending politically feasible steps for clarifying and responding to NLW-related issues. The CWC will remain central to consideration of issues related to non-lethal weapons.