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Forty years of banning biological weapons: lessons learnt and challenges for the future

April 13, 2015

On 30 March, in celebration of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)’s 40th anniversary, WILPF attended a commemorative event at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, followed by an academic seminar on the current challenges and future options for the BTWC.

Bacteria, viruses or toxins killing humans, animals and plants

Biological weapons use bacteria, viruses, or toxins to kill humans, animals, or plants. Exposing environments to these deadly agents can cause mass deaths or severe disease. There are a huge variety of genetically or traditionally modified bacteria, viruses, and toxins that are able to withstand antibiotics and could be used as biological weapons.

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) entered into force on 26 March 1975 and thereby became the first multilateral treaty to effectively prohibit an entire class of weaponry. The Convention bans the development, production, stockpiling, or acquisition of biological agents or toxins of any type or quantity that do not have protective, medical, or other peaceful purposes, or any weapons or means of delivery for such agents or toxins.

Major issues concerning the BTWC

Even though the BTWC takes the grand step of prohibiting an entire category of weapon of mass destruction, it is far from perfect. The Convention requires that states parties reassure one another that they are honouring their obligations. However, as noted throughout the event, this reassurance is currently one of the major weaknesses of the BTWC.

A major reason for this is that in the past 40 years there has been a significant progress in the areas of biological science and technology, resulting in an increasing gap between the BTWC and the risks it was designed to address.

Further complicating the issue of reassurance is the fact that states are not the only users of bio-technology. There are a wide range of users, mainly private companies, which form part of a global multi-billion dollar market. This increases the potential for violations within states, thereby making the processes of compliance, verification, and reassurance for states parties all the more difficult.

How could the BTWC be strengthened?

Participants identified the increased and improved utilisation of confidence-building measures as critical for strengthening the BTWC. They highlighted transparency as being the main source of confidence and emphasised the need for states parties to be at the forefront of transparency and confidence-building on the civil, national, and international levels.

Enhancing dialogue between all parties, especially those in the fields of science, regulation, safety and security, is another crucial confidence-building measure.

Enhancing verification of compliance with the obligations states parties are subject to under the BTWC is another key confidence-building measure. Considering the absence of a formal verification process in the BTWC, some participants suggested that implementing an independent verification mechanism would be beneficial.

Also, while it is widely agreed that there needs to be greater national and international oversight regarding certain bio-science and bio-industry activities, states are still unable to agree on the list of activities.

Finally, participants emphasised the potential for civil society to play a greater role in biological arms control. It was suggested that the most promising way to incorporate civil society would be through identifying new formats in which they can address the public and states parties, as well as building networks and gathering information collectively.

An example of what could be done with nuclear weapons

Despite its shortcomings, the BTWC exists as an example of what could and should be done in nuclear disarmament. The Convention includes the legal recognition and institutionalisation of the illegality of biological weapons, which strengthens the case for and will eventually lead to the total elimination of these weapons. The same would be true for a nuclear weapon ban treaty.

Writing about the 40th anniversary of the BTCW, Rose Gottemoeller, the US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, highlighted the Convention’s importance “in establishing and implementing the strong international norm against biological weapons, which rank among the darkest manifestations of human ingenuity.” We believe that a nuclear weapons ban treaty should be the next step in codifying “humanity’s consensus” that nuclear weapons are likewise illegitimate for all.

WILPF has joined the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in calling for a ban on nuclear weapons. We believe that the development of an international legally-binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons could bridge the gap between long-held aspirations for nuclear disarmament and the seemingly intractable legal and political landscape that exists today.

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