The independent resource on global security

12. Chemical and biological security threats


Overview, Caitríona Mcleish and Filippa Lentzos [PDF]

I. Allegations of use of chemical weapons in Syria, Caitríona Mcleish [PDF]

II. Use of novichok agents, Caitríona Mcleish [PDF]

III. Chemical arms control and disarmament, Caitríona Mcleish [PDF]

IV. Biological weapon disarmament and non-proliferation, Filippa Lentzos [PDF]

Allegations of chemical weapon use in Syria and the United Kingdom

Allegations of chemical weapon use in Syria continued to be investigated by the Organ-isation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2019. The Fact-Finding Mission in Syria reported in March 2019 that there were ‘reasonable grounds’ for believing that a chemical weapon attack occurred in Douma in April 2018. Some of the report’s findings proved controversial and were challenged by a few states. Outside of Syria, investigations were ongoing into the use of a toxic chemical from the novichok nerve agent family in the United Kingdom in March 2018. 


Attribution of responsibility for chemical weapon use 

Divisions continued in 2019 among states parties to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) over the decision adopted in 2018 to establish an Investigation and Identi-fication Team (IIT) to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons. These divisions placed high levels of institutional stress on the OPCW. Nonetheless, the IIT became fully operational in March 2019 and is focusing on nine incidents of use. 


The main conference of the year, the 24th Session of the Conference of States Parties to the CWC, agreed for the first time to additions to the lists of chemicals that come under routine verification. The families of chemicals that have been added include the novichok agent used in the UK in 2018.


Destruction of chemical weapons

As of 31 October 2019, 97.3 per cent of declared Category 1 chemical weapons had been destroyed under international verification. The USA remains the only declared possessor state party with chemical weapons yet to be destroyed, but is expected to complete its remaining destruction activities within the planned timeline.


Biological arms control

Key biological disarmament and non-proliferation activities in 2019 were carried out in connection with the second set of 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) intersessional Meetings of Experts (MXs), the BWC Meeting of States Parties (MSP) and the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. The 2019 MSP meeting considered the reports of each MX, but as in 2018 the MSP report simply noted that ‘no consensus was reached on the deliberations including any possible outcomes of the Meetings of Experts’. However, the chair proposed and initiated a new process to circumvent the reporting impasse and feed substantive MX work into the MSP and the 2021 Review Conference. The process encourages states parties to establish continuity between the work of the three intersessional years, to synthesize the work and identify areas of convergence, and to avoid a confrontational approach. 


One of the developing trends in the field is the rise of civil society as a major contributor to shaping global dialogues around biological threats and appropriate responses to them. This could have significant implications for the direction of the biological disarmament and non-proliferation field in the years to come. 

Dr Filippa Lentzos and Caitriona McLeish