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Biological Weapons Convention
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Participation in the Biological Weapons Convention

  Signed and ratified
  Acceded or succeeded
  Unrecognized state, abiding by treaty

  Only signed

Signed 10 April 1972
Location London, Moscow, and Washington, D.C.
Effective 26 March 1975
Condition Ratification by 22 states
Signatories 179
Parties 170 as of April 2013
(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 prohibited use but not possession or development of chemical and biological weapons.

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. It currently commits the 170 states which are party to it 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. As of April 2013, an additional 10 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.

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:

  • (1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes;
  • (2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict."


  • Article I: Never under any circumstances to acquire or retain biological weapons.
  • Article II: To destroy or divert to peaceful purposes biological weapons and associated resources prior to joining.
  • Article III: Not to transfer, or in any way assist, encourage or induce anyone else to acquire or retain biological weapons.
  • Article IV: To take any national measures necessary to implement the provisions of the BWC domestically.
  • Article V: To consult bilaterally and multilaterally to solve any problems with the implementation of the BWC.
  • Article VI: To request the UN Security Council to investigate alleged breaches of the BWC and to comply with its subsequent decisions.
  • Article VII: To assist States which have been exposed to a danger as a result of a violation of the BWC.
  • Article VIII: To do all of the above in a way that encourages the peaceful uses of biological science and technology.


The BWC has 170 States Parties. 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 have declared reservations, in that their agreement to the Treaty should 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 the Treaty imply recognition of other countries they do not recognise.

There are currently 16 UN member states that have not signed or ratified the BWC and a further 10 states that have signed but not ratified the BWC.

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, 2001/2002 and 2006. 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.[3]

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.[4]

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:

  • 2003: National mechanisms to establish and maintain the security and oversight of pathogenic micro-organisms and toxins.
  • 2004: Enhancing international capabilities for responding to, investigating and mitigating the effects of cases of alleged use of biological or toxin weapons or suspicious outbreaks of disease.
  • 2004: Strengthening and broadening the capabilities for international institutions to detect and respond to the outbreak of infectious diseases (including diseases affecting plants and animals).
  • 2005: Codes of conduct for scientists.

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."[5]

See also


  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. Danskin, Kathleen (2014-06-23). "Women as Agents of Positive Change in Biosecurity". 
  4. BWC document BWC/CONF.V/17 (2001 and 2002), available via the BWC Implementation Support Unit website or the UN Official Documents System.
  5. "Final Document of the Seventh Review Conference". BWC/CONF.VII/7. United Nations. 13 January 2012. Retrieved 10 January 2013. 

External links

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