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Strengthening Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention
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By Abhinav Dutta

The BTWC is only five pages long with fifteen articles, and has no provisions for verification or for monitoring compliance. After its entry into force in 1975, there was evidence that some states (most notably FSU) were engaged in biological weapons development program despite being parties to the convention. Also, with the revolution in the field of genetics and biotechnology, dangers posed by newly developed biological agents have increased rapidly. The heightened international concerns of proliferation of biological weapons by states and even non-state actors and the lack of verification regime in BTWC have reduced confidence in the effectiveness of the convention.[1] A number of countries are suspected of having a biological weapons program in contemporary scenario, which, in turn, pose immense challenges to international security.

State parties have convened review conferences once in every five years to improve upon the treaty’s implementation. To further enhance compliance to the convention, numerous confidence-building measures (CBMs) have been prescribed by the state parties at various review conferences (the earliest CBMs can be dated back to the second review conference in the year 1986). The CBMs include: domestic implementation measures when necessary; to consult and cooperate with other state parties (bilaterally or multilaterally); request for investigation of biological weapons program in a suspected country to the UNSC; and incentives, such as assistance to victims.[2] Also, since 1991, there have been efforts to negotiate a verification protocol so as to strengthen provisions for international mechanism to monitor compliance. However, with the emergence of new threats such as those of non-state actors, it became extremely challenging to develop effective verification measures.

An Ad Hoc group was created in 1994 that aimed to develop protocols for state parties to submit treaty-relevant facilities and activities to an international body, and to conduct on-site inspections on declared and suspected facilities. The Ad Hoc group met from 1995 to 2001, and at the last scheduled meeting in July 2001, the US rejected the draft and further protocol negotiations citing its own national security concerns, just before the commencement of the fifth review conference in November the same year. At the fifth review conference (November 2001), the US revoked the Ad Hoc group’s mandate (the only country to do so), and therefore, the conference failed to reach on any consensus on verification measures.[3]

At the sixth review conference in 2006, there was an agreement on final document, the first successful review conference since 1996. The conference saw a significant development with the establishment of Implementation Support Unit (ISU), which provides administrative support for BTWC and facilitating CBMs between state parties. The ISU serves to ease communication among state parties, and compile and disseminate CBMs submitted from state parties. It is interesting to note that the US had originally objected to the proposal on the grounds that it will increase pressure on ISU, and also increase its responsibilities. The issue was resolved after a statement that stressed on the fact that ISU will have three staff members, and contributions to the staff members by the state parties are only to assist the ISU in completing its mandate.[4]

The last review conference was held in the year 2011. It extended the mandate of ISU until the eight review conference in late 2016. The final document of the review conference of 2011 concluded that “under all circumstances the use of bacteriological (biological) and toxin weapons is effectively prohibited by the Convention and affirms 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] Over the years at the review conferences, state parties have continued to review the operation of objectives and the provisions of the BTWC, review latest scientific and technological developments, assess the work of inter-sessional meetings and decide on action if needed, and analyze the necessary steps and measures to strengthen the implementation and the effectiveness of the convention.

Abhinav Dutta is currently working on his MA in Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, Karnataka, India.  He holds a B Sc in Geology (Honors) from the University of Delhi, Delhi, India. His research interests are International Relations Theory, International and Strategic Negotiations, Political Thought and Theory, and US Foreign Policy.


[1] “Strengthening the Regime”, The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, see http://www.opbw.org/strength/strength.html, accessed on 14 February 2016.

[2] “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons (BTWC)”, Nuclear Threat Initiative (Washington D.C.), see http://www.nti.org/treaties-and-regimes/convention-prohibition-development-production-and-stockpiling-bacteriological-biological-and-toxin-weapons-btwc/, accessed on 14 February 2016.

[3] “The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) at a Glance”, Arms Control Association (Washington D.C.), see https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/bwc, accessed on 14 February 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Final Document of the Seventh Review Conference”, The United Nations, see http://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B8954/(httpAssets)/3E2A1AA4CF86184BC1257D960032AA4E/$file/BWC_CONF.VII_07+(E).pdf, accessed on 14 February 2016.

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