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Governance or Arms Control? The Future of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

Author: Oliver Meier, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
Oct 26, 2016

African Union Expert Brief Employees of the Research Institute for Protective Technologies, Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection (WIS) inspect an infected dummy sample during a demonstration in Munster October 15, 2013. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)


The world is a safer place thanks to the effective implementation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). The convention, which was opened for signature in 1972, prohibits the development, production, acquisition, and storage of biological weapons. While chemical weapons are being used in Syria and it is uncertain whether the Iran nuclear agreement will continue to block Tehran’s path to the nuclear bomb, all seems quiet on the biological weapons front.

No biological weapons have been used in conflict since World War II. United Nations Special Commission inspectors dismantled Iraq’s biological weapons program in the early 1990s. The huge Soviet biological weapons program was officially shut down in 1990. There have been zero fatalities from biological weapons since the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States Anthrax attacks in the United States. Furthermore, no country admits to having a biological weapons program. Most importantly, there is a strong feeling that the deliberate use of disease for hostile purposes is abhorrent. The taboo against biological warfare remains intact.


Given the nonuse of biological weapons over the years and widespread state disinterest in pursuing them, it should follow that the eighth BWC review conference, to be held November 7–25, should be an unremarkable affair. However, three structural problems threaten to undermine existing international norms against the use of bioweapons and biological warfare.

First, the assumption that biological weapons, when compared to chemical or nuclear weapons, are militarily unattractive should be reassessed. A surprising finding of the international investigation into Syria’s chemical weapons program was that Damascus, which is a signatory to the BWC but has not ratified it, had a production facility for ricin, a toxin whose misuse is prohibited under the BWC and Chemical Weapons Convention. This was the first time in twenty years that a state had been found to be working on biological weapons. While Syria claims that its ricin program had served peaceful purposes and its failure to declare the program was an oversight, there is insufficient information to know the real rationale for the program. However, Syria’s unconventional uses of chemical weapons, as a tool of terror, coercion, and influence in its civil war, should lead the BWC states parties to consider the possibility that states might be open to using biological weapons beyond deterrence and intrastate warfare. Keep in mind that North Korea may also be working on biological weapons.

Second, biotechnology is making tremendous leaps forward, and emerging technologies, such as CRISPR, could increase the military attractiveness of biological weapons. Future biowarfare may be less about infecting people with deadly or debilitating diseases than manipulating the way humans function. Thus, future misuse of biotechnology may differ from what the original BWC drafters imagined as the primary role of bioweapons. For example, state-sponsored bioterrorism similar to South Africa’s biological weapons program in the 1980s, which was aimed at the development of toxins to kill the regime’s political opponents, could be among the threats that at this moment do not appear prominently on decision-makers’ radars.

Third, the threat of nonstate actors using biological weapons is growing. Until recently, the risk of a bioterrorism attack by nonstate actors appeared to be greatly exaggerated. However, well-funded and -organized groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State may now hold sufficient territory for long enough to enable them to develop and use biological weapons.

Forum or Treaty? Different Visions for the BWC

Seen by themselves, none of these challenges are new, but their convergence multiplies the risk that biological weapons might be considered weapons of war. Yet the responses of BWC states parties to these trends are similar to what they had been in the past. Since the collapse in 2001 of talks on a BWC verification and compliance protocol, two evolving visions for the BWC have framed discussions at meetings of states parties.

Broadly speaking, the United States and other Western states see the convention primarily as a forum where states can discuss and elaborate joint measures to address the deliberate or accidental spread of disease. For Washington, the BWC is part of its broader global health security agenda. According to this view, the convention should be a place to set standards for national measures; discuss best practices on issues such as biosecurity; and facilitate assistance for states that have insufficient capacities to establish stricter domestic checks on dangerous pathogens. To be sure, these are important measures, but they are insufficient to address the dangers of military misuse of biotechnology by governments or international terrorist networks.

Others still see the BWC through the lens of a classical arms control instrument. Russia, for example, has recently revived ideas to negotiate a legally binding protocol to the BWC. Nonaligned states emphasize the need to close the verification gap, which sets the BWC apart from the Chemical Weapons Convention and Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Those behind the push to resume talks on a BWC verification protocol may not be pursuing the idea seriously. They know that Western states hold divergent ideas on how to move forward. For example, the EU still maintains that verification “remains a central element of a complete and effective disarmament and nonproliferation regime,” while the United States has rejected the notion that compliance with the BWC can be effectively monitored. By pushing such proposals, Russia and nonaligned states may hope to expose such differences. But even if there are no ulterior motives behind these ideas, such a course of action is not well suited to take into account the transnational and technological dynamics that threaten the foundations of the BWC.

What to Expect

It is far from clear that states parties' representatives at the November review conference will be able or willing to bridge these fundamental differences on the future of the BWC. The antagonism between Russia and the West, the uncompromising position of some key nonaligned states, and the lack of willingness of moderate groupings, such as the European Union, to play a lead role in refreshing and bolstering the convention make it unlikely that there will be a coordinated push for a major overhaul of the BWC.

The timing of the conference is also a complicating factor. The opening of the review conference coincides with the U.S. presidential elections. News about the next U.S. administration will not only be a distraction, but could also make it harder for the U.S. delegation to commit to any new, substantive measures.

Given this complicated picture, it is difficult to conceive of a scenario in which BWC states parties would be willing to agree to a thorough review of the threats and urgently needed measures to update the regime’s instruments. States parties at the review conference should therefore aim first at refocusing the convention on its core purpose, prohibiting the hostile use of biotechnology. Secondly, representatives should strengthen the treaty’s decision-making procedures so that the regime becomes more operational and less deliberative. Four measures would be useful toward these ends.

First, the most important task of the review conference is to reconfirm the comprehensive prohibition of all types of misuse of biological agents and toxins based on the “general-purpose criterion,” which defines the scope of the convention. States parties must make it clear that gray zones do not exist. They should clearly state that tinkering with genes and developing novel means of biological-agent delivery and other burgeoning biological technologies are all prohibited unless they serve prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes. Moreover, additional transparency measures would be useful to reduce the risk of misperception about the intentions behind biodefense programs.

Second, states parties should exercise caution when tinkering with the scope of the BWC. Russia has recently proposed creating a new convention to suppress acts of biological and chemical terrorism. It is unclear whether this proposed convention would compete with or complement the BWC. Likewise, the U.S. approach of discussing the BWC as one of many instruments to tackle threats at the intersection of security and global health may also be problematic. It could lead to a loss of focus, particularly because other scientific communities have begun to see the BWC as a useful platform to advance their own agendas.

Third, numerous state parties have expressed support for a regular, independent review of scientific and technological developments. The review conference could launch a scientific advisory committee comprised of experts that report annually on scientific developments relevant to the BWC.

Fourth, institutional reform of the treaty’s bodies is urgently needed. Currently, binding decisions can only be made at the review conference, which is only held every five years. This snail’s pace of diplomacy is an anachronism. It suits only those that are opposed to flexible and strong international control mechanisms. Among other things, the review conference should empower annual meetings of states parties to address compliance concerns and to make decisions, including on additional transparency measures and the applicability of the treaty’s prohibitions to new technologies. Such an annual review would make the BWC more adaptable and could trigger higher-level diplomacy. To support this process, states parties should upgrade the Implementation Support Unit, which is a meagerly staffed, three-person secretariat already strained by providing necessary support for BWC implementation by states parties.

Unfortunately, the above measures would still be insufficient to address the need of a BWC compliance mechanism. Monitoring treaty compliance is hampered by the lack of a dedicated permanent organization to implement the convention. This major deficiency sets the BWC apart from treaties like the Chemical Weapons Convention, which has the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. In the long term, a mix of tried and tested instruments and methods as well as new ones will have to be created to verify BWC compliance, follow up on violations of the treaty, implement the convention, and foster the further evolution of the regime. At the very least, states parties at the eighth review conference in November should begin to work toward this goal. 

Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.