Commemorating the 45th Anniversary of the Biological Weapons Convention

45th Anniversary of the Biological Weapons Convention

In addressing the global threats posed by Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and in the context of the prohibition and elimination of such weapons, the international community has adopted three key legal instruments, viz, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC, 1972), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC, 1992), and the Treaty on the Prohibition Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, 2017).

This week, the international community has been commemorating the 45th anniversary of the BWC - ‘Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction’. The BWC, which opened for signature on 10 April 1972, and entered into force on 26 March 1975, is regarded as the cornerstone of the international efforts in preventing the development and use of biological agents and toxins, and their elimination.

The BWC recognises the importance of, and builds upon, the 'Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare', signed at Geneva on 17 June 1925.

Currently, 183 States are parties to the BWC, and it is hoped that the 9th Review Conference, to be held in 2021, will create the impetus for the remaining few UN Member States - notably Egypt, Israel and Somalia - to accede to the Convention. Achieving universality would enable the international community to effectively address the global threat to international peace and security posed by biological and toxin weapons. Universality would, also, support the aim of the UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (UNSCR 1540) in preventing the proliferation of WMD to non-state actors, and in preventing the acquisition and use of such weapons by terrorist groups. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the risk of using biological agents in a bioterrorist attack is increasing.

Equally important is the national implementation of the provisions of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and of the UNSCR 1540, in the absence of which biological agents and toxins may be acquired for malicious use by terrorists. Under Article III of the BWC, States Parties are prohibited from transferring biological weapons, or assisting, encouraging or inducing other States or international organisations to manufacture or acquire them. Moreover, Article IV requires each State Party to take necessary measures to prohibit and prevent the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition or retention of biological agents and weapons in its territory, under its jurisdiction, or under its control.

It is noteworthy that, to achieve universality and to assist in national implementation of the BWC, the UN has established an Implementation Support Unit (ISU) for the Convention within the Geneva Branch of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Accessions to the BWC provides a number of benefits for a given State, inter alia, capacity building and training; enhanced emergency response to biological incidents; the ability to mitigate risks associated with biological terrorism; and improvement in resilience to natural disease outbreaks affecting fauna, flora, and the public health.

The current Corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic demonstrates the devastating impact such outbreaks can have on public health and the global economy. The pandemic further demonstrates the need for capacity building, the strengthening of emergency preparedness and resilience at both national and global levels, and for effective co-operation at the trans-national level in countering both proliferation of biological agents, and in preventing bioterrorist attacks.

Bahram Ghiassee is a Principal Associate of GSDM, specialising in CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological & Nuclear) weapons, and proliferation issues. His formal qualifications encompass Chemical Engineering, Nuclear Science & Technology, and International Law. To get in touch with Bahram email [email protected]

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