The Protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention Is within Reach

By Pearson, Graham S. | Arms Control Today, June 2000 | Go to article overview

The Protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention Is within Reach


Pearson, Graham S., Arms Control Today


It is possible to reach compromise on the protocol's outstanding issues while accounting for different statesparties' concerns and still meeting the group's mandate to strengthen the BWC.

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) prohibits all use of disease as a weapon of war to attack humans, animals, or plants. The convention, which opened for signature in 1972 and entered into force in March 1975, currently has 143 states-parties and 18 signatories. However, it lacks any provisions for monitoring compliance, and concern about biological weapons has increased since it entered into force.

In 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted that the Soviet Union, despite being a codepositary of the BWC along with the United Kingdom and the United States, had continued an offensive biological weapons program until that year. Subsequently, detailed information about the size and scope of the former Soviet program has become available, largely through the disclosures of individuals such as Ken Alibek, a defector who was extensively involved in the program.

Fears about biological weapons programs in so-called rogue states were magnified when the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) gradually uncovered significant elements of the Iraqi biological weapons program, which had succeeded in filling missile warheads and aircraft bombs with biological agents. These weapons were deployed during the Persian Gulf War with predelegated authority for use had allied coalition forces attacked Iraq with nuclear weapons.1 Putting global biological weapons development in perspective, John Holum, then director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency noted in a statement to the 1996 fourth BWC review conference that twice as many states had or were seeking biological weapons as in 1975.

At the second BWC review conference in 1986, states-parties took the first steps to strengthen the BWC by agreeing on politically binding confidence-building measures, which were then extended and enhanced in 1991. These measures require states-parties to annually declare their maximum containment facilities, biodefense programs, past offensive and defensive programs, human vaccine facilities, information related to the outbreak of disease, and information on national legislation and regulations implementing the BWC. However, only about one-half of all states-parties have made a single declaration and only 11 have made annual declarations. Moreover, the information provided in these declarations has been patchy and has not contributed to building confidence in compliance.

At the third BWC review conference in 1991, the BWC states-parties, "determined to strengthen the effectiveness and improve the implementation of the Convention and recognising that effective verification could reinforce the Convention," decided to establish an Ad Hoc Group of Governmental Experts (known as VEREX) to identify and examine potential verification measures from a scientific and technical standpoint. Under the leadership of Ambassador Tibor Toth of Hungary, VEREX met twice in 1992 and twice in 1993 and produced a final report evaluating 21 off-site and on-site verification measures. A special conference in September 1994 considered this final report and established another Ad Hoc Group to negotiate a legally binding protocol "to strengthen the effectiveness and improve the implementation of the Convention." This Ad Hoc Group, also chaired by Toth, first met in January 1995. Now, over five years later, it has held 19 sessions and has met for about 50 weeks.

In July 1997, the Ad Hoc Group successfully transitioned to negotiation of a rolling text of the draft protocol, the 12th version of which was issued in April 2000. This text contains a preamble and 23 articles, together with annexes and appendices. Although the draft protocol is approaching its final form and many of its key provisions are agreed upon, some important outstanding issues remain. …

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