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On June 29 Russia formally triggered article V of the Biological Weapons Convention, the half-century old multilateral treaty that prohibits the development, production and use of biological weapons. 

The treaty’s 184 member states will convene from September 5-9 in Geneva to hear Russia’s allegation that Ukraine and the US have funded a network of military biological laboratories in Ukraine and elsewhere.

However, the UN Security Council has already met not once but three times this year to respond to Russia’s allegations, and did not find any of the claims to have substance. The UN representative for disarmament affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, responded to the initial allegation by saying “the UN is not aware of a biological weapons programme in Ukraine”.

Using the Biological Weapons Convention to air false accusations serves to damage the integrity of this important treaty, the only agreement the world has to protect us against the use of materials and weapons of biologically induced mass destruction.

As far as I can ascertain there is no penalty for frivolous allegations. However, the convention comes under review in December, providing an important moment member states can use to reform the treaty and introduce such penalties.

South Africans should take note. As Russia vies for influence on the African continent we must not let our hard-earned gains and future opportunities in health security suffer as a consequence. 

What is at stake here? As the adage goes, truth is one of the first victims of war. In addition to traditional warfare, Russia is waging a disinformation campaign to rally support for its actions in Ukraine. This campaign centres on repeated, unsubstantiated allegations that Ukrainian laboratories are developing biological weapons with US and German backing, which the US is supposedly covering up.

While Africa is not directly implicated in these claims, it is frequently a target of Russian-sponsored disinformation. Moreover, many African nations have benefited from the same type of health-security capacity-building assistance — delivered in accordance with article X of the Biological Weapons Convention— that is now under assault by Russia in the context of Ukraine. 

South Africans should take note. As Russia vies for influence on the African continent we must not let our hard-earned gains and future opportunities in health security suffer as a consequence.

Allegations of secret Western-funded bioweapon labs in Ukraine and other former Soviet states have increased geopolitical tensions at a time when international co-operation has never been more critical. Heightened global tensions threaten the world’s ability to respond effectively to the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as other threats. 

Disinformation tactics aim to sow division and reduce political trust in the communities they target. Russia is the chief sponsor of disinformation campaigns in Africa, with at least 16 known operations. Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, has brought disinformation campaigns to every African nation where the group operates.

Russia may pay lip service to the horrors of colonialism in Africa and the dangers of neocolonialism, but it regularly undermines African sovereignty through its targeted disinformation efforts. These are often aimed at “state capture” and propping up internationally isolated leaders and regimes — especially those with access to natural resources — who are then obligated to support Moscow’s geopolitical interests.

The messaging of these campaigns is profoundly antidemocratic, encouraging citizens to see democracy as weak and ineffectual. A politically apathetic citizenry is far more likely to accept leadership co-opted by Russian interests.

Post-Soviet Russia

Many of SA’s ANC leaders have an affinity with Russia born from the erstwhile USSR’s assistance in the struggle against apartheid. But post-Soviet Russia is not a communist country. The richest 10% of Russians own 87% of the nation’s wealth, making Russia the most unequal of the world’s major economies. Under apartheid many ANC leaders experienced what it was like to live in a closed society where the rule of law did not apply and where detention without trial was routine, yet these are practices today’s Russia tolerates and encourages both at home and in its client states. 

Many African countries have benefited from biosecurity capacity-development partnerships with the US, Germany, Canada, the UK and other European partners. SA is a critical driver of the Africa CDC Biosafety & Biosecurity Initiative, which leverages the efforts of the G7-led Global Partnership’s Signature Initiative to Mitigate Biological Threats to ensure Africa remains safe from potentially catastrophic biological events.

Russia’s disinformation campaigns threaten to disrupt this important work, and to undermine article X of the Biological Weapons Convention and therefore the potential for future health-security capacity building assistance in Africa.

SA’s leaders have an opportunity to prevent this disinformation campaign from wreaking havoc at home. Russia has used its platform at the UN to further promote its disinformation campaign, alleging that work in US-funded and German-run biolabs in post-Soviet states violate the convention.

The convention prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons, but certainly does not prohibit biolabs used for research purposes and the development of therapies that save lives. The real question to answer here is whether Russia itself complies with the convention.

Biowarfare capabilities

On March 11 the UN Security Council convened to evaluate Moscow’s claim that Ukraine undertook “an emergency cleanup” of a US-funded military biological programme. These allegations were based on a 2021 World Health Organization (WHO) report that recommended the Ukrainian government destroy biological samples under threat from war.

While Russia claimed this was evidence that biowarfare capabilities existed, destroying samples is standard practice when the security of a high-containment biomedical research facility is threatened, to prevent accidental spill. 

The UN concluded that there was no evidence of Russian claims that US-funded research in Ukrainian biolabs violate the Biological Weapons Convention. Russia then announced that it would trigger articles V and VI of the convention. Under the framework of article V, states annually submit information about relevant facilities and activities on their territory to prevent or mitigate suspicions about their capabilities. Unlike Russia, Ukraine makes annual reports to the convention on its activities publicly available. 

SA has a strong and credible voice within the Biological Weapons Convention and needs to be an ongoing partner in strengthening multilateral systems to prevent disinformation campaigns from being used as tools and weapons of war, particularly in the biosecurity space.

Bolstering the architecture of the convention may prevent situations like this from occurring in future and protect us all along the way.  

• James is a senior research scholar and chair of the Pandemic Research Centre in the College of Arts & Sciences at Columbia University in New York, and co-chair of the National Frameworks sub-working group of the Signature Initiative to Mitigate Biological Threats in Africa.

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