Reducing humanitarian harms of conflict

Exeter research has looked at how to reduce the harms of conflict. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Over the last 15 years Professor Brian Rappert has conducted research on how to reduce the humanitarian harms of conflict, focusing on encouraging novel disarmament initiatives and more rapid response to new developments in science and technology.

He has evaluated emerging policy initiatives by governments, international agencies, science academies and non-government agencies; leading to the establishment of new networks of interaction between scientists, policy-makers, Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) and others and influencing professional standards and training. In addition, his work has facilitated international debate, shaped international diplomatic agendas and successfully advocated a strategy for negotiating a major disarmament treaty.


Professor Rappert found little engagement among life science practitioners with concerns about the potential use of their research-generated knowledge and techniques in the development of weapons systems. As a result, a central feature of his work has been to conduct workshops for bioscientists regarding the possible implications of their research and the appropriateness of suggested policy responses.

At Professor Rappert’s instigation around 130 workshops across 16 countries, attended by more than 3,000 practicing scientists have been conducted to address the scientists’ lack of familiarity with security-related policy initiatives and encourage them to give serious consideration – in many cases for the first time – to the issue of how to avoid the hostile use of their findings, methods, and techniques.

These workshops have been hosted in partnership with government agencies and professional science organisations such as the US National Academy of Sciences and the Japanese National Institute of Infectious Diseases. Professor Rappert has also advised national science academies in the organisation of national and regional biosecurity meetings in Ukraine, Israel, Uganda, and the Netherlands.


Professor Rappert’s outreach work formed an integral component of a submission to the Preparatory Committee of the Seventh Review Conference of the United Nations Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Put forward by Australia, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland, the submission cited the importance of Professor Rappert’s contribution to ‘a stimulation of debate and reflection among researchers on life sciences, security and the potentially destructive application of their activities’, and described how many of those who took part in Professor Rappert’s seminars spoke of them as ‘an eye-opener’. The submission concluded that Professor Rappert’s research helped ‘provide the base for possible ways forward, such as the inclusion of educational modules on biosecurity for biosafety officers in research facilities or the encouragement to introduce educational modules on biosecurity in academic courses for future life scientists’. In December 2011, the 164 governments of the BWC agreed a five-year plan which references Professor Rappert’s work.

A number of individual governments have also acknowledged the importance of his advice and evaluations. A 2008 report by the Netherlands’ Biosecurity Working Group, which successfully established a code of conduct for the country’s bioscientists at the request of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, credited Professor Rappert with helping raise awareness of the potential risks of research which could be put to hostile use.

A 2012 report by the US Government’s National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity highlighted the significance of Professor Rappert’s work in assessing codes, as well as noting his ‘extensive educational engagement efforts’.

Convention on Cluster Munitions

Another aspect of Professor Rappert’s work investigated the controls governing the appropriateness of force in armed conflict. He has sought the redefinition of how the effects of weapons on civilian populations can inform the international humanitarian rules on armed conflict. Much of this activity has focused on the use and acceptability of 'cluster bombs’.

He formulated and advocated an intellectual strategy for agreeing what should be defined as prohibited under the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. This treaty was adopted in May 2008, and has so far been signed by more than 110 nations.

These states held in excess of 140 million explosive submunitions which are now prohibited from use, with more than 64 million already destroyed. The lead negotiator for a group of more than 300 NGOs said the ‘change of approach that Rappert initiated was central to the dynamic of the subsequent campaign and provided a framing for the negotiation of definitions that allowed the Convention on Cluster Munitions to achieve a significantly greater level of humanitarian protection than would have otherwise been possible’.