Plugging Holes Over Bioweapons

As a December conference approaches, pressure grows to tackle holes in the Biological Weapons Convention.

J. Berkshire Miller

This December, the picturesque city of Geneva will host the Seventh Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The BWC, which 163 countries are state parties to, prohibits the use, development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons. In advance of the Review Conference, international delegates to the Convention met from April 13 to 15 at Preparatory Committee meetings to discuss the way forward.

The latest round of meetings essentially created the basic architecture shaping the agenda items to be discussed in December. The outcomes of the preparatory meeting didn't raise any red flags, and delegates agreed to review the Convention’s operations and take into account scientific and technological developments. In addition, it was agreed that the ‘implementation’ of BWC needs to be strengthened by further action. But it's the ambiguity of that last point that has been plaguing the Convention since its inception.

Despite being the first multilateral disarmament treaty that took the step to ban a weapon of mass destruction, the BWC is riddled with holes. Since the BWC entered into force, in 1975, the number of states possessing or actively pursuing biological weapons has more than doubled. Moreover, there’s a very real threat that biological agents could fall into the hands of terrorist groups that aim to weaponize them for use in an attack.

One of the central areas of disagreement between Convention members revolves around the issue of dual-use. Scientific research depends on the study of biological materials, but from an international security angle, there’s the potential that dual-use research could be diverted into a biological weapons programme.

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The BWC continues to lack an international verification mechanism, which emboldens its critics to look at other ways to secure biological sources. After years of negotiations on an inspection regime, the US withdrew its support in 2001, claiming that the proposed system would be ineffective and a financial drain on its current bio-defence efforts as well possibly jeopardizing the biotechnology industry. The Obama administration continues to maintain a similar—albeit slightly nuanced—policy.  

The sitting president of the BWC, Dutchman Paul van den Ijssel, has made a calculated gamble during his term. He calls it ‘ambitious realism’—aiming to make the Convention universal, while simultaneously recognizing that some wrinkles (such as verification) will remain. As December approaches, the international pressure will continue to mount as it becomes clearer how important it is that this platform succeeds.