Academic journal article Houston Journal of International Law

The Expansion of the Biological Weapons Convention: The History and Problems of a Verification Regime

Academic journal article Houston Journal of International Law

The Expansion of the Biological Weapons Convention: The History and Problems of a Verification Regime

Article excerpt


The threat of biological warfare is real. The September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. and the letters contaminated with anthrax that have killed five Americans and infected many others, show the willingness of terrorists to murder large numbers of people arbitrarily. Theoretically, however, there should be no threat of biological warfare, in light of the Biological Weapons Convention ("BWC")--signed April 10, 1972 and entered into force three years later on March 26, 1975 (1)--which bans the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons for purposes other than preventive or peaceful reasons. (2) The BWC also forbids developing, producing, stockpiling, acquiring, or retaining delivery systems, munitions, and other equipment used to launch biological weapons. (3) The BWC, supported by both the United States and the former Soviet Union, (4) is remarkable in the fact that it is the first international treaty to prohibit an entire class of weapons. (5) As of April 2002, 162 nations have signed and 144 countries have ratified the BWC. (6)

However, the BWC is a weak agreement, and nations continue to develop, produce, stockpile, and use deadly biological agents for purposes other than preventive or peaceful reasons. (7) Non-compliance with the BWC was made evident in 1992 when, then Russian President, Boris Yeltsin admitted that the former Soviet Union had possessed an offensive biological weapons program for twenty years. (8) The world's confidence in the effectiveness of the BWC in banning biological weapons was further shaken in 1995 when Iraq was found to have a biological weapons program. (9) More recently, North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Sudan, along with Iraq, were accused by the United States of violating the BWC. (10)

One of the main reasons the BWC is such a weak agreement is because it does not have a verification regime. (11) Only according to Article VI does any party, "which finds that any other State Party is acting in breach of obligations deriving from the provisions of the Convention[, have the right to] lodge a complaint with the Security Council of the United Nations." (12) When this occurs, "[e]ach State Party to this Convention [must] cooperate in carrying out any investigation which the Security Council may initiate...." (13)

To strengthen the BWC, review conferences have been held in Geneva approximately every five years since the BWC went into effect. (14) Overall, these conferences have reemphasized the basic prohibitions of the BWC and have attempted to resolve issues and problems that arise between the State Parties. (15) Most importantly, the conferences have continually grappled with the absence of a verification regime. (16) More recently, on December 7, 2001, the State Parties to the BWC adjourned the Fifth Review Conference in disarray and planned to meet again November 11-22, 2002 to continue the Fifth Review Conference. (17)

Section II of this article examines the history of biological warfare leading to the BWC and the basics of biological warfare. Section III discusses the BWC's elimination of the weaknesses of prior attempts to ban biological warfare, and inspects some of the key provisions contained in the BWC. The measures currently taken to correct the problems associated with verification of the BWC and the issues that affect verification of the BWC are addressed in Section IV. Lastly, Section V discusses the scope of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty that has had ample influence on the verification regime of the BWC.


A. History

The use of disease as a weapon of war can be traced back to ancient history. A handbook issued in 2001 by the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases reports that biological weapons were used as early as the sixth century B.C. …

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