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In 2011-2012, the Global Agenda Council on Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Weapons sought to leverage and augment the efforts of governments, international organizations, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations to reduce and, ultimately, to eliminate weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Council brought together experts and practitioners from three fields – nuclear, biological and chemical weapons – and offered them a space to exchange ideas, insights and advice in a loose but supportive coalition at a global level. As a result, members of the Council participated in the major conferences and discussions on WMD in 2011-2012, including the 7th Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention, the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, the First European Union Non-Proliferation Conference, and the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN), among others. Moreover, Council members tapped into each other’s networks to explore new opportunities for strengthening regional dialogues and the role of business in non-proliferation of WMD.

State of Play for WMD 2011-20121

After a rash of treaties and the creation of novel mechanisms to reduce the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons in the 1980s and 1990s, efforts to reduce such threats were stymied post 2000. Many post-Cold War policy-makers became complacent about the WMD threat until Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 sarin attack in Tokyo’s subway, and the 2001 anthrax attacks heightened worries that WMD were no longer solely the domain of nations.2 Though these two terrorist attacks did not cause mass casualties, they were nonetheless chilling reminders of the horrific death tolls that unconventional weapons can inflict.

Matters that are politically and technically complex are often resistant to unilateral or multilateral action, and the added security dimension of the agenda to reduce the threat of WMD makes these issues particularly difficult for the international community to address. Added complications are recent advances in science and technology, and the global diffusion of these capabilities, which provide great benefits for health, the economy and the environment, but also make WMD more accessible to state and non-state actors alike.

To achieve further progress, leaders must be motivated to actively pursue the non-proliferation agenda, rather than wait until nuclear-armed opponents are on the brink of war, or for another terrorist. These same leaders must also have a sufficient grasp of the issues to devise ways to strengthen existing tools, to create new tools to fill gaps in the current non-proliferation regimes, and to grasp any new useful initiative that deserves their support. Recognizing that the threat of proliferation of WMD can be misrepresented, and is often under-appreciated, in 2011-2012 the Council created new communications tools to promote awareness and understanding of the risks and consequences of WMD proliferation and use.

Assessing the Risks of WMD Proliferation:

The Council deliberated the risks of WMD proliferation and terrorism attacks globally.

The absence of the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in the past 20 years reflects strong international norms regarding proliferation that are embodied in a range of legal restrictions. With the participation of states, industry, scientists, and NGOs, more than a dozen international agreements and other initiatives have been created to reduce the threats of the development, possession and use of WMD. Yet, for a variety of reasons, not all nations have ratified or adhere to the treaties against WMD, which adds to the global risk that the proliferation of these weapons still poses.

In addition, regional tensions in politically troubled areas can undermine legal norms and treaties, especially when the perception of a threat to national security becomes a justification for the pursuit of WMD capability. Concerns about secret nuclear weapons development in Iran and North Korea continue to raise questions about whether non-proliferation norms can hold, as they must, for the sake of global security. Current events in the Middle East provide a vivid illustration of the risks associated with WMD proliferation. Libya had given up chemical weapons, but throughout 2011 there were uncertainties about the remnants of its arsenal. Syria may have the largest operational chemical stockpile in the region, and the regime could use it against its own population. In the event of civil war or other political breakdown, Syria’s chemical weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists or be transferred to other countries.

Dwarfing these potential crises is the Iranian nuclear problem, which is connected to the most strategic issues of our time: nuclear proliferation; the right of any state to enjoy nuclear energy; the risk of nuclear accidents; terrorism and religious fundamentalism; sectarian conflicts; and access to crucial oil and gas supplies. Whether triggered by Iran or another nation, a big crisis in the Persian Gulf has the potential to threaten the fragile global economic recovery by sharply elevating energy costs for weeks, months, or even longer.

The Risks of Terrorism through WMD: After the end of the Cold War, the use of WMD by terrorists emerged as a significant new threat and an important policy issue. “Loose nukes”, poorly monitored chemical stockpiles, technological diffusion, the complexities of global manufacture, and advances in science, could all be exploited for hostile purposes by groups or individuals operating outside the law.

Thus far, the unfamiliarity of terrorists with WMD technology and logistics seems to be a barrier to their use, but the intent of some to overcome this impediment cannot be discounted. Before the sarin attack in Tokyo in 1995, its lead biologist experimented with anthrax spores released against public targets, attempts which failed for technical reasons only. As another example, according to an intensive FBI investigation, a lone US military scientist launched the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, killing victims and creating mass havoc. Other terrorists groups, notably Al Qaeda, have declared their desire to acquire WMD technology and some have made attempts to do so. President Barack Obama has stated that “the single biggest threat to US security, in the short, medium and long term, is the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon”. In the short and long term, the economic consequences of a terrorist nuclear attack would be calamitous. A study by the RAND corporation estimated that, if a nuclear weapon were detonated in a US port, the direct immediate economic costs to the global economy could reach US$ 1 trillion.

Council members agreed that even if nuclear weapons remain out of the reach of terrorists, inexpensive and more technically feasible weapons may prove accessible. For example, a low-casualty radiological “dirty bomb” attack, or a biological or chemical event, could have disastrous consequences. Some analysts have asserted that the catastrophic use of such weapons is almost inevitable in the near future. The 2003 spread of the naturally-caused SARS virus, which originated in China, demonstrated the calamitous international consequences that the intentional spread of a similarly dangerous disease might have. In recent months, US-funded projects intended to improve defences against the H5N1 bird flu have raised concerns about the vulnerability of laboratories conducting research on lethal emerging infectious diseases to accident or theft. Even apparently minor, or successfully contained, bioterrorist incidents can do great damage. Over the years, the 2001 anthrax letter attacks have cost billions in building decontamination, business relocation, lost working hours, opportunity costs, US mail shortfalls, compensatory law suits, and a lengthy criminal investigation. In the aftermath of the attacks, the US Government invested even more billions in biodefence initiatives to protect the public against similar terrorist microbial attacks.

A better understanding of where the most pressing WMD-related security risks lie is essential to designing and implementing effective ways to prevent their proliferation and use. The Council created two new products to help audiences readily grasp the risks and consequences of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

  • A brochure provides an overview of the risks of unconventional weapons, likely scenarios for their use, and constructive steps that industry can take to help reduce the threat that these weapons will be acquired in the first place.
  • A more extensive risk assessment: (i) describes the hazards of state-level and terrorist proliferation of WMD; (ii) summarizes the costs of proliferation and use of these weapons to governments, businesses, the public, the environment, and global institutions; (iii) reviews the efforts under way to address the dilemmas presented by WMD; and (iv) presents a roadmap of the extent of the problem, the global policy responses, the other initiatives being implemented, and gaps in the current non-proliferation regimes that need to be filled.
  • In addition, the Council assisted the risk analysis process of the World Economic Forum by updating its more technical risk matrix, and through Amy Smithson’s participation in the 20 July 2011 risk assessment workshop in New York City.

Regions: Given heightened tensions in certain regions, the Council devoted significant attention to regional non-proliferation problems.

Some of the most vexing WMD-related security problems are rooted in longstanding regional disputes. In the two decades since international inspectors caught North Korea in the pursuit of plutonium, Pyongyang has vacillated between temporary concessions and accelerating its nuclear weapons programme, jeopardizing regional security and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty regime. India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear weapons, continue to clash in Kashmir, increasing worries that the conflict may escalate and that Pakistan’s arsenal may become less secure amid Islamabad’s domestic turmoil. Several countries in the Middle East, a region rife with tension and civilian uprisings, are known to possess, or are believed to be in pursuit of, WMD. Naturally, the Council decided these WMD “hot spots” deserved considerable effort to defuse regional tensions.

The Council endorsed the use of confidence-building measures to nurture cooperation on these points, to gradually progress towards the central security issues involved in WMD threat reduction. The inauguration of collaborative civilian activities, such as multilateral disease surveillance and sharing best practices on disaster response, could be followed by gradual introduction of regional collaborations on military-to-military activities such as joint exercises on naval search and rescue, and the observation of army exercises. In the three regions in question, tensions are so high that it may prove problematic even to establish civilian confidence-building activities. Nonetheless, Council members are banking on the repetition of history, which demonstrates that confidence-building measures can nudge opposing parties, step-by-step, toward direct WMD threat-reduction mechanisms.

Industry engagement: Finally, the Council targeted industry as a high-potential, but hitherto largely untapped, resource for non-proliferation efforts

Many companies make “dual-use” goods intended for peaceful uses, but which also have utility in WMD programmes. Some governments and terrorists have employed front companies, middlemen, and other illicit means to acquire dual-use products to advance their WMD programmes. Corporate interests lie in ensuring that aspiring proliferators do not divert their products for malicious purposes while preserving a free, active marketplace. Often, however, companies do not screen new customers for security risks. Moreover, industrial leaders rarely think about the topic of WMD until regulations mandate compliance with the monitoring provisions of treaties or export controls.

So far, the industrial sector is a virtually untapped asset in strengthening nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons non-proliferation regimes. An added advantage of working with the private sector is that companies can introduce new policies and practices quickly, whereas treaties take decades to negotiate, and regulations years to enact. Therefore, the Council has focused on energizing the industry’s voluntary involvement in the WMD non-proliferation agenda. Mobilizing industry would help to fill gaps in non-proliferation initiatives, from the swift pace of scientific discoveries to the global spread of dual-use materials, technologies, and know-how.

To engage the industrial sector, we will first have to overcome the lack of awareness of the WMD proliferation problem among senior corporate officials. Companies do not want to see headlines reporting that their products enabled a terrorist attack or were diverted to a state WMD programme. Industry can be expected to respond positively to initiatives that help prevent their products from being diverted to hostile purposes. It makes good business sense, fosters a level business playing field, is easy and low-cost to implement, and constitutes a genuine contribution to non-proliferation objectives. Fukushima showed the the nuclear industry everywhere the implications of a nuclear accident. A nuclear terrorist attack could put the entire nuclear industry in jeopardy, and this should serve as a wake-up call to industry more widely.

The Council advises that industry involvement begins by raising awareness among businesses about the severity of the WMD risks, the capabilities and limitations of the mechanisms available to address these risks, and the subsequent initiation of industry policies and practices to strengthen key gaps via practical threat-reduction strategies. Some companies in the nuclear, biological, and chemical industries are already applying important risk-reduction initiatives that have genuine benefits for industry and the global public, including:

  • Preventing “insider threats” by educating physicists, life scientists, chemists, and other technical specialists about their civic and ethical responsibilities as individuals working with “dual-use” materials, equipment, and know-how, which can be used for civilian and military purposes
  • Installing “push-pull” sales and or procurement policies that pledge only to buy from, and sell to, businesses that screen customers for security risks. Training relevant company personnel to recognize the telltale signs of suspicious domestic or international entities or individuals attempting to purchase dual-use products that could abet state or terrorist acquisition of WMD
  • Evaluating advances in science and technology, and changes in business practices, that could directly impact effective risk reduction
  • Working proactively with government agencies (e.g., customs and law enforcement) and with international non-proliferation forums to prevent smuggling and illicit sales of sensitive goods
  • Working cooperatively with domestic and international organizations involved in the development of the highest standards of security, safety, and oversight of research and production activities in all nuclear, biological, and chemical facilities

To facilitate the engagement of companies that manufacture all types of dual-use goods, the Council prepared a paper and an accompanying briefing reviewing the reasons why industry should want to initiate voluntary non-proliferation measures, and the options that companies might consider implementing to prevent their products from being misused.


To advance the risk assessment, regional threat reduction and industry engagement agendas more efficiently and effectively, the 2011-2012 Council subdivided into three working groups:

  • Risk assessment: Working group chair -Jeanne Guillemin; members – Tibor Toth, Bruno Tertrais, Lynn Klotz, Graham Allison, and Makio Miyagawa.
  • Bilateral and regional threat reduction: Working group chair – Abdullah Toukan; members – Gareth Evans, Li Bin, Pervez Hoodbhouy, and Council co-chair, Rogelio Pfirter.
  • Industry engagement: Working group and Council chair – Amy Smithson; members – Gary Burns, Jo Husbands, Rene van Sloten, and Alan Hanson.

The working groups met virtually to agree on priorities for Council action before the 2011 Global Agenda Summit, where the Council exchanged views and sought collaborative synergies with 12 issue Councils: Terrorism, Emerging Technologies, Illicit Trade, Advanced Manufacturing, Conflict Prevention, Catastrophic Risks, Genetics, Energy Security, Robotics & Smart Devices, Space Security, Healthcare, and Insurance. The Council also had exchanges with the Korea, Japan, and Pakistan Councils.

In addition to the three risk products developed by the Council, member Graham Allison actively facilitated preparations for the second Nuclear Security Summit held in Seoul in March 2012, and proposed, as a first order of business, that the risks of nuclear terrorism be reduced by securing all nuclear weapons and fissile materials to a “gold standard”.

Bilateral and Regional Hot Spots

As noted, the Council readily agreed that aside from the terrorist-level proliferation problem, which has no distinct geographic boundaries, existing and nascent WMD programmes in three regions merit urgent attention. The Council began drafting overview papers that describe the proliferation problems specific to the Middle East, India and Pakistan, and the Korean Peninsula, the steps taken thus far to address these problems, and the Council’s recommendations for the next steps to resolve the respective security dilemmas, particularly the initiation of a variety of confidence-building measures. To compliment these summaries and recommendations, the Council completed an umbrella paper that explains the history and objectives of non-proliferation and disarmament efforts.

2011 also saw the establishment of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN), a new high-level lobby group working with the region’s policymakers on these issues, and in which Council member and former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, played a key role.

Moving into 2012, Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava will convene a meeting of Middle Eastern governments to consider the establishment of a regional WMD-free zone, and the Council will concentrate its activities on that region. To promote awareness of the security problems and the opportunities presented by the 2012 conference, Toukan participated in the World Economic Forum summit in Amman, Jordan, in October 2011. In addition, Council members participated in several meetings with senior officials and technical experts from the Middle East to generate constructive ideas and momentum leading into the Finnish-hosted conference. For example, Council members Rogelio Pfirter and Bruno Tertrais participated in a preparatory meeting in Brussels, while Smithson made presentations at similar meetings in Malta, Como and Paris, and met with Laajava in Washington DC to share news of activities being launched to help lay the groundwork for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Amy Smithson is assembling chemists from the Middle East to craft a code of conduct on the safe, ethical, secure and accountable conduct of chemical industries, and she is involved in the construction of a similar code with life scientists from the region. Both codes will be underpinned by best practices to be recommended throughout the region, which will require considerable interaction among participating scientists.

In Europe, Pfirter and Tertrais contributed to the organization of the First European Union Non-Proliferation Conference held in Brussels in February 2012 with the collaboration of IISS. At this event, Tertrais spoke to the EU Non-proliferation Consortium about the nuclear and WMD risks from Pakistan.

Finally, Pfirter, who played a significant role in successfully transforming potentially destabilizing nuclear competition between Argentina and Brazil into a cooperative nuclear alliance between the two countries, became involved in 2011 in preliminary efforts to create bilateral cooperation on biosafety standards between Argentina and Brazil.

Industry Engagement

With respect to the third area of concentration, the 2011-2012 Council initiated several activities to engage industry in the WMD non-proliferation agenda. The Council’s industry working group noted that the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries were in need of engagement. For over a decade they have not generally been involved in discussions and activities associated with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), which bans germ weapons. To begin reversing this trend, Husband and Smithson approached the Biotechnology Industry Organization to co-host a panel at the December 2011 BWC Review Conference. In addition to Burns, this panel, co-chaired by Smithson and BIO staffer Phyllis Arthur, featured senior representatives of three BIO companies at its meeting on 8 December. Also on that day, Burns and a representative of XOMA, LLC (a BIO member company), spoke about industry’s interests and concerns in a plenary session involving the delegations of all states participating in the Review Conference. The Council and staff of the BWC’s Implementation Support Unit also arranged for BIO companies to speak privately with over a dozen national delegations. This Council-BIO collaboration has blossomed into continued interaction toward the participation of BIO companies in upcoming BWC activities, a solid step in cementing regular industry participation in the BWC arena

Also at the BWC Review Conference, Guillemin, Husbands, and Smithson, respectively, presented in-depth studies on bioterrorism, the dual-use quandary in the life sciences, and the international inspection effort that unmasked Iraq’s covert bioweapons programme in the mid-1990s. While participating in the Review Conference, Smithson also met with the staff of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, a step towards involving this organization in BWC-related activities. The blogs of Burns and Guillemin from the Review Conference can be found at .

During the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum 2012 in Davos-Klosters, Smithson met privately with chief executive officers from several pharmaceutical companies to explore their willingness to consider upgrading their corporate policies and practices in view of the security quandaries inherent in life sciences work and the proven past and present intent of state-level and subnational actors to acquire biological weapons. These chief executives subsequently designated subordinates to re-evaluate their policies and practices, and these individuals continue to work with Smithson with that objective in mind.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) convened an important meeting in February 2012 to examine issues that could have a negative impact on the integrity of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Husbands helped to organize the meeting, van Sloten arranged the participation of chemical industry representatives, and Smithson chaired a panel of industry representatives. Conversations with the industry officials at this meeting helped to identify areas where the Council might work with industry to strengthen chemical non-proliferation. OPCW chief Ahmet Üzümcü and his staff have since consulted with Smithson and Husbands on how the OPCW could more effectively engage industry.


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual Members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.