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The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention—approaching a mid-life crisis?

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) is one of the most widely ratified multilateral treaties concerning armed conflict since the Geneva Conventions. Its core principle has not been challenged: no country argues that the use of biological weapons is legitimate. Nevertheless, advances in science and technology are changing the very nature of ‘biological agents’ and the ways in which they can be produced and manipulated. As the BTWC approaches 40, is it still up to its primary task of preventing biological warfare?

The tests of time

The BTWC was the first international treaty to prohibit the development, production and stockpiling of an entire class of weapons. Today there are 165 states parties to the BTWC and another 12 have signed the convention but not yet ratified it. It remains a key legal instrument in efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). 

While the spirit of the BTWC has never been openly questioned, criticism has rather focused on weaknesses in the BTWC regime. The most obvious target has been the lack of a permanent implementing body that could, among other things, confirm countries' claims that they have destroyed their biological weapons, along with the associated infrastructure, and are not researching new ones. Also, the BTWC does not have a legally binding data submission mechanism.

Such measures were placed on the back-burner following the Fifth BTWC Review Conference, in 2001/2002, partly out of concern that they would be ineffective against a state that was determined to cheat and that they would put at risk confidential business information as well as sensitive information from permitted national protective programmes.

Nevertheless, the BTWC regime has managed to work around these problems to some extent. Politically binding agreements were introduced in the 1990s for states parties to exchange information on their national implementation annually. These exchanges are meant to act as confidence-building measures to help strengthen the treaty regime and have served as a basis for informal clarification and consultation among the parties. Not all of the parties submit them, and many others submit them only irregularly, but the number, consistency and quality of submissions is improving.

In addition, the temporary BTWC Implementation Support Unit began operating in 2007 to help with administrative matters, to support national implementation of the convention, to collect and disseminate national submissions, and to promote universal membership of the BTWC.

Innovated into obsolescence?

One of the most pressing challenges facing the BTWC regime today is to remain relevant in the face of scientific and technological advances. The BTWC was negotiated based on the experience of how large-scale state military biological weapon programmes operated, including the criteria for evaluating and selecting a relatively limited number of pathogens for filling into munitions.

Much has since changed. Among the critical questions for the BTWC regime is how the parties have been seeking to integrate it into a broader international health context, including surveillance of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Another important question is how to respond to advances in genetics. In October 2011 the journal Nature published a draft genome of Yersinia pestis—the causative agent of the Black Death, the disease which killed somewhere between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe's population in 1348–50—derived from the teeth of victims. Technological advances mean that the capability to deploy disease agents like Yersinia pestis—or ‘made-to-order’ gene sequences, which can be used to modify existing microorganisms or even create organisms de novo—no longer requires a stock of the living microorganism, or a large, state-run biological weapon programme. Thus production of microorganisms using computer-based ‘genetic blueprints’ may become increasingly feasible.

Another challenge lies in the fact that it is increasingly possible to affect human physiology without infecting humans with a given pathogen. This means that the effects that the BTWC is intended to prevent no longer require the whole 'microbial or other biological agents, or toxins' that it explicitly prohibits. Many such innovations may cause incapacitation rather than death and could therefore slip into military or civil defence use without states even making the connection to biological warfare risks.

Hopes for the Seventh Review Conference

In December, the states parties of the BTWC will meet in Geneva for the seventh five-yearly BTWC Review Conference, under the chairmanship of Paul van den IJssel of the Netherlands. Ambassador van den IJssel has already indicated that 'the need to monitor and assess science and technology (S&T) developments' is on the agenda.

The United States, which has played a pivotal role in previous BTWC Review Conferences, has also signalled its awareness of the S&T challenge and the importance of working on the issue in Geneva. In October, Rose Gottemoeller, US Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, told the UN General Assembly, 'We see the conference as an opportunity to bolster the Biological Weapons Convention, to take on the challenge of encouraging scientific progress, but constraining the potential for misuse of science' and stressed a need for the BTWC regime ‘to counter the threat of bioterrorism, and to detect and respond effectively to an attack should one occur’.

The Review Conference will likely agree on a mechanism to review the implications of S&T that, in turn, may include consultation with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Scientific Advisory Board. It is fundamentally important, however, that the states parties maintain and strengthen a framework through which they can inform themselves about, and respond to, political, scientific and technical developments that can affect the full implementation of the BTWC—in word and in spirit.

The main objective of the Seventh Review Conference will be to ensure that the multilateral prohibition against biological warfare is not undermined through neglect or inattention.



Dr John Hart was an Associate Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme.