Securitization of International Public Health: Implications for Global Health Governance and the Biological Weapons Prohibition Regime

Article excerpt

This article analyzes the extent to which international public health has become securitized and what effects this has on global health governance and the biological weapons control regime. Attempts to securitize public health are traced in the two multilateral discursive spaces of greatest relevance to biological weapons arms control and international public health; the community of state parties to the Biological Weapons Convention, and the World Health Organization. The conclusion is that with respect to public health, the identified securitization moves have led to a strengthening of the state as actor in the provision of international public health. For biological weapons arms control, the impact of the identified securitization moves depends largely on the overall development of the biological weapons control regime. KEYWORDS: securitization, international public health, health security, biological security, biological weapons.


Public health and biological weapons arms control would appear to be two distinct policy arenas with little, if any, overlap in terms of actors involved, problems to address, and solutions to be proposed to better the human condition. Traditionally, security from biological weapons and security from disease were pursued by different actors on both the domestic and the international level. For the former, biodefense and biological weapons (BW) arms control policies were formulated by the military and diplomatic communities, while responsibility for disease prevention and mitigation fell to the public health sectors of states, or to international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). This strict separation has become increasingly blurred.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the possibility of terrorism with biological and chemical weapons has evolved into the number one security threat for military planners and decisionmakers in many countries, most notably the United States. This dramatic shift in threat perception, which was fueled first and foremost by the Aum Shinrikyo 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system and the 2001 anthrax letters sent through the US postal service, had two effects that so far have not been thoroughly analyzed. First, it shifted the balance between biodefense and BW arms control in the fight against biological warfare toward biodefense. The process of readjusting this equilibrium in favor of biodefense has brought with it the second effect: the drafting of public health to fight bioterrorism. (1) While biodefense activities had in the past been geared toward hostile states employing BW, and thus had focused on troop protection in the field by the military forces themselves, this approach was no longer deemed valid in the age of global bioterrorist threats. Those who are "at risk from biological warfare" are no longer a subsection of the population--the armed forces--but are now the population as a whole. Consequently, protective measures had to extend to whole populations as well: enter the public health infrastructure. To better capture and analyze the processes related to this "drafting" of the public health sector, or parts thereof, the concept of "securitization" will be applied. As I have argued elsewhere, such securitization moves have been successfully employed in the United States over the past decade. (2)

The term securitization was introduced into the security studies discourse during the 1990s by a group of scholars, including Ole Waever and Barry Buzan. (3) The development of the concept has to be seen in the context of a more general trend to move beyond a focus on the nation-state and on the provision or analysis of military security issues only. (4) To overcome the shortcomings of some competing approaches to broadening the concept of security, Waever and his colleagues proposed to concentrate on the specificity of security studies and reformulate the concept of security on that basis. …


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