Biological Weapons Convention

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Biological Weapons Convention
BWC Participation.svg
Participation in the Biological Weapons Convention
Signed10 April 1972
LocationLondon, Moscow, and Washington, D.C.
Effective26 March 1975
ConditionRatification by 22 states
Parties182 as of September 2018
(complete list)

The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (usually referred to as the Biological Weapons Convention, abbreviation: BWC, or Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, abbreviation: BTWC) was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the production of an entire category of weapons. [1]


The Convention was the result of prolonged efforts by the international community to establish a new instrument that would supplement the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The Geneva Protocol prohibits use but not possession or development of chemical and biological weapons.

The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, usually called the Geneva Protocol, is a treaty prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflicts. It was signed at Geneva on 17 June 1925 and entered into force on 8 February 1928. It was registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on 7 September 1929. The Geneva Protocol is a protocol to the Convention for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms and Ammunition and in Implements of War signed on the same date, and followed the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.

A draft of the BWC, submitted by the British [2] was opened for signature on 10 April 1972 and entered into force 26 March 1975 when twenty-two governments had deposited their instruments of ratification. [3] It commits the 182 states which are party to it as of September 2018 to prohibit the development, production, and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons. However, the absence of any formal verification regime to monitor compliance has limited the effectiveness of the Convention. An additional five states have signed the BWC but have yet to ratify the treaty.

The scope of the BWC's prohibition is defined in Article 1 (the so-called general purpose criterion). This includes all microbial and other biological agents or toxins and their means of delivery (with exceptions for medical and defensive purposes in small quantities). Subsequent Review Conferences have reaffirmed that the general purpose criterion encompasses all future scientific and technological developments relevant to the Convention. It is not the objects themselves (biological agents or toxins), but rather certain purposes for which they may be employed which are prohibited; similar to Art.II, 1 in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Permitted purposes under the BWC are defined as prophylactic, protective and other peaceful purposes. The objects may not be retained in quantities that have no justification or which are inconsistent with the permitted purposes.

Chemical Weapons Convention international treaty banning chemical weapons

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an arms control treaty that outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors. The full name of the treaty is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction and it is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an intergovernmental organization based in The Hague, The Netherlands. The treaty entered into force on 29 April 1997. The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the large-scale use, development, production, stockpiling and transfer of chemical weapons. Very limited production for research, medical, pharmaceutical or protective purposes is still permitted. The main obligation of member states under the convention is to effect this prohibition, as well as the destruction of all current chemical weapons. All destruction activities must take place under OPCW verification.

As stated in Article 1 of the BWC:

"Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain:

The United States Congress passed the Bioweapons Anti-Terrorism Act in 1989 to implement the Convention. The law applies the Convention's convent to countries and private citizens, and criminalizes violations of the Convention. [4]


Biology is the natural science that studies life and living organisms, including their physical structure, chemical processes, molecular interactions, physiological mechanisms, development and evolution. Despite the complexity of the science, there are certain unifying concepts that consolidate it into a single, coherent field. Biology recognizes the cell as the basic unit of life, genes as the basic unit of heredity, and evolution as the engine that propels the creation and extinction of species. Living organisms are open systems that survive by transforming energy and decreasing their local entropy to maintain a stable and vital condition defined as homeostasis.


The BWC has 182 States Parties as of September 2018, with the Central African Republic the most recent to become a party. The Republic of China (Taiwan) had deposited an instrument of ratification before the changeover of the United Nations seat to the People's Republic of China.

Several countries made reservations when ratifying the agreement declaring that it did not imply their complete satisfaction that the Treaty allows the stockpiling of biological agents and toxins for "prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes", nor should it imply recognition of other countries they do not recognise.

Of the UN member states and UN observer which are not a party to the treaty, five have signed but not ratified the BWC while a further 10 have neither signed nor ratified the agreement.

Verification and compliance issues

A long process of negotiation to add a verification mechanism began in the 1990s. Previously, at the second Review Conference of State Parties in 1986, member states agreed to strengthen the treaty by reporting annually on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) to the United Nations. (Currently, only about half of the treaty signatories actually submit these voluntary annual reports.) The following Review Conference in 1991 established a group of government experts (known as VEREX). Negotiations towards an internationally binding verification protocol to the BWC took place between 1995 and 2001 in a forum known as the Ad Hoc Group. On 25 July 2001, the Bush administration, after conducting a review of policy on biological weapons, decided that the proposed protocol did not suit the national interests of the United States.

Review conferences

States Parties have formally reviewed the operation of the BWC at quinquennial review conferences held in 1980, 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001/02, 2006, 2011, and 2016. During these review conferences, States Parties have reaffirmed that the scope of the Convention extends to new scientific and technological developments, and have also instituted confidence-building data-exchanges in order to enhance transparency and strengthen the BWC. Review conferences, other than the Fifth, adopted additional understandings or agreements that have interpreted, defined or elaborated the meaning or scope of a BWC provision, or that have provided instructions, guidelines or recommendations on how a provision should be implemented. These additional understandings are contained in the Final Declarations of the Review Conferences. There has been an increase in the percentage of delegates from States Parties who have been women since the first review conference, with just 7 percent in 1980 to 26 percent in 2011. [5]

Fifth Review Conference

The Fifth Review Conference took place in November/December 2001, not long after 9/11 and the anthrax scare. Disagreement over certain issues, especially the fate of the Ad Hoc Group, made agreement on any final declaration impossible. The Conference was suspended for one year. When it was reconvened in November 2002, the Fifth Review Conference decided to hold annual meetings of States Parties over the inter-sessional period leading up to the Review Conference in 2006 to discuss and promote common understanding and effective action on a range of topics. [6]

Agreement was reached on convening annual one-week-long "Meeting of States Parties" that would be preceded earlier in the year by a two-week "Meeting of Experts" who would look at specific list of topics:

Sixth Review Conference

In the final document of the Sixth Review Conference, held in 2006, it simply "notes" that the meetings "functioned as an important forum for exchange of national experiences and in depth deliberations among States Parties" and that they "engendered greater common understanding on steps to be taken to further strengthen the implementation of the Convention". The Conference "endorses the consensus outcome documents" from the Meeting of States Parties.

The Sixth Review Conference agreed to establish a second Inter-Sessional Process. The topics agreed upon were:

i. Ways and means to enhance national implementation, including enforcement of national legislation, strengthening of national institutions and coordination among national law enforcement institutions.

ii. Regional and sub regional cooperation on BWC implementation.

iii. National, regional and international measures to improve biosafety and biosecurity, including laboratory safety and security of pathogens and toxins.

iv. Oversight, education, awareness raising, and adoption and/or development of codes of conduct with the aim to prevent misuse in the context of advances in bio science and bio technology research with the potential of use for purposes prohibited by the Convention.

v. With a view to enhancing international cooperation, assistance and exchange in biological sciences and technology for peaceful purposes, promoting capacity building in the fields of disease surveillance, detection, diagnosis, and containment of infectious diseases: (1) for States Parties in need of assistance, identifying requirements and requests for capacity enhancement, and (2) from States Parties in a position to do so, and international organizations, opportunities for providing assistance related to these fields.

vi. Provision of assistance and coordination with relevant organizations upon request by any State Party in the case of alleged use of biological or toxin weapons, including improving national capabilities for disease surveillance, detection and diagnosis and public health systems.

Topics i and ii were dealt with in 2007, iii and iv in 2008, v in 2009, and vi in 2010. For the second Inter-Sessional Process, the Meetings of Experts for each year was reduced to one week.

Seventh Review Conference

The Seventh Review Conference was held in Geneva from 5 to 22 December 2011. The Final Declaration document affirmed that "under all circumstances the use of bacteriological (biological) and toxin weapons is effectively prohibited by the Convention" and "the determination of States parties to condemn any use of biological agents or toxins other than for peaceful purposes, by anyone at any time." [7]

See also

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  1. The text of the Convention, as well as the key documents from recent meetings can be found on the BWC Implementation Support Unit website.
  2. "History – World Wars: Silent Weapon: Smallpox and Biological Warfare". BBC. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  3. Trakimavicius, Lukas (24 May 2018). "Is Russia Violating the Biological Weapons Convention?". Atlantic Council. Retrieved 24 May 2018.
  4. Coen, Bob (2009). Dead Silence: Fear and Terrorism on the Anthrax Trail. Berkeley, California: CounterPoint. p. 205. ISBN   978-1-58243-509-1.
  5. Danskin, Kathleen (2014-06-23). "Women as Agents of Positive Change in Biosecurity". Science & Diplomacy. 3 (2).
  6. BWC document BWC/CONF.V/17 (2001 and 2002), available via the BWC Implementation Support Unit website or the UN Official Documents System.
  7. "Final Document of the Seventh Review Conference" (PDF). BWC/CONF.VII/7. United Nations. 13 January 2012. Retrieved 28 February 2016.