Forging an Effective Biological Weapons Regime

Arms Control Today, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Forging an Effective Biological Weapons Regime

In September, signatories to the 22-year-old Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) will gather in Geneva to carefully study scientific and technical evaluations of measures by a panel of international governmental experts that are designed to strengthen the convention's implementation and verification regime. Before that meeting, it is timely to examine these evaluations and the goals and underlying approach of proposed measures to strengthen the BWC in the context of the threat posed by such weapons and earlier efforts to establish an effective regime.

During the past five years, the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact has resulted in a shift from bipolar tension to an increase in potentially destabilizing regional conflicts. As President Bill Clinton said in his speech to the United Nations on September 27, 1993:

For, as we all now know so painfully, the end of the Cold War did not bring us to the millennium of peace. Indeed, it simply removed the lid from many cauldrons of ethnic, religious and territorial animosity....Thus, as we marvel at this era's promise of new peace, we must also recognize that serious threats remain...As weapons of mass destruction fall into more hands, even small conflicts can threaten to take on murderous proportions.

As President Clinton indicated, there is increased urgency in establishing measures and regimes that keep weapons of mass destruction out of conflicts when proliferation of both chemical and biological weapons and the means to deliver them is on the rise. The British Defence White Paper of 1992 notes that some 20 countries have, or are seeking, chemical weapons and about 10 have, or are seeking, biological weapons. The United States and Russia make similar estimates.(1)


The Gulf War of late 1990 and early 1991 served to emphasize the dangers to national and international security resulting from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. The war also increased awareness of the potential vulnerability of the coalition forces to biological warfare, as noted in a U.S. Defense Department report to Congress on the Gulf War, which said the United States was ill prepared for biological warfare.(2) That conflict also served as a reminder that biological weapons can be used as strategic weapons; in the late 1930s and during World War II, the feasibility and utility of biological warfare had been proven in the old retaliatory programs of Britain and the United States to a greater extent than had nuclear weapons before their use at Nagasaki and Hiroshima.(3) As two recent studies by the Office of Technology Assessment underscore, biological weapons may have a significantly greater impact than chemical weapons because they can affect a much larger area of operations and they can be delivered by terrorists who would require less sophisticated means of delivery.(4) And while the report by the secretary-general to the United Nations entitled "Chemical and Bacteriological (Biological) Weapons and the Effects of their Possible Use" is now 25 years old, it left no doubt as to the dangers posed by biological warfare--dangers which have not diminished during the past 25 years.(5)


The extensive use of chemical weapons in World War I prompted serious efforts to create the Geneva Protocol, which was signed in 1925 and prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons. But several states entered reservations, retaining the right to retaliate in kind, which had the effect of making the protocol a multilateral pledge of no-first-use. In more recent years several states, including Britain, have given up their reservations with respect to biological warfare.

The end of World War II saw renewed efforts to negotiate a comprehensive chemical and biological weapons convention. A British initiative in 1968 resulted in a decision to separate the consideration of biological weapons from chemical weapons and, after negotiations between Washington and Moscow, a revised text for the BWC was sent to the United Nations in 1971. …

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Forging an Effective Biological Weapons Regime


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