Harvard Sussex Program
on chemical and biological warfare armament and arms limitation


Accommodating bio-disarmament to bio-technological change: the issue of dual use


Abstract of doctoral dissertation, December 2002

There exists an ancient cross-cultural norm that the use of disease for hostile purposes is always wrong. This norm forms the heart of a regime that has governed international responses to the biological warfare problem, and the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BWC) has become the backbone of that regime. Entering into force in 1975, the BWC is a treaty of its time.

Thirty years have passed since that treaty entered into force and in that time the perception both of threat from biological warfare, and of conceivable benefit from it, has changed. This has led states parties to embark upon efforts to strengthen the BWC, for example by including a series of voluntary confidence building measures and more recently by negotiating an obligatory compliance-verification mechanism. The reasons that can be offered to explain why strengthening efforts were judged necessary are many and varied, including treaty design, heightened perception of threat, including the restructuring of the general threat framework, evidence of the norm being transgressed, increasing availability of civilian technology applicable also to biological armament and removal of some technical obstacles associated with production of these weapons.

At the heart of many of these explanations is the theme of 'dual-use' and the control of dual-use technologies applicable also to biological armament.This dissertation seeks to understand what these concerns are by breaking them down into component questions that can be studied serially, so that answers to one question illuminate examination of the next. Examining governmental efforts to include the biological industries - the civil sector most closely associated with proliferation of these dual-use technologies - in their strengthening efforts, questions are posed that ask what is the dilemma associated with dual-use technology control, how might these technologies be misused and how have two separate actors - government and industry - responded to the framing of the biotechnological control problem in terms of dual-use.

This dissertation finds that these two actors understand these strengthening efforts differently and so respond differently to the concerns raised over dual-use technologies. This indicates that the characteristic of 'dual-use' is not just an inherent property of a technology but is instead dependent upon the system and its context. This conclusion has implications for how to reconcile the interests involved.

Caitríona McLeish