The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is a disarmament treaty to control biological weapons in warfare. It can be considered the most important arms control treaty of the 20th century.
The treaty is also known as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). It aims to ban biological and toxin weapons and prohibit its development, research, production, acquisition, transfer and stockpiling.
The original and official name of the treaty is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction.
BWC is the first multilateral treaty to ban and prohibit an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. The treaty was opened for signature on April 10, 1972. The Convention entered into force on March 26, 1975, after the 22 state parties signed and submitted the instruments of ratification to the depository.
The Convention is registered under the Depositary Governments pursuant to Article 102 of the Charter of United Nations.
Unlike other treaties, the treaty’s depository is designated to three member states–the United Kingdom, United States of America, and Russian Federation (successor to the Soviet Union).
The Convention is of unlimited duration and is open for accession and ratification to states which haven’t signed the treaty before. According to the data, 183 states have become a party to the treaty and Convention.
Four states have signed the treaty but have not yet ratified or acceded to it, while another ten states have never signed, ratified, or acceded to the treaty and Convention.
The treaty has a preamble and 15 articles that draw upon the Convention’s aims, rules, and regulations.
The treaty’s preamble states that biological weapons are “repugnant to the conscience of mankind”. The preamble also states the aim and target of BWS.
The Convention has successfully set strong norms against the use and development of biological and toxic weapons. The work and efforts of BWS are commendable since not a single state today declared possessing any biological warfare weapons and agreed to use them as illegitimate.
The advancement in biotechnology has increased the chances of biological weapons. BWC played a significant role in controlling that development, turning it into weapons.
One of the major drawbacks of the treaty is that it doesn’t have any formal verification team or authority to look at accusations and complaints raised by member states. The lack of intelligence information and lack of monitoring over state parties limits the treaty’s effectiveness.
The origins of BWC can be traced back to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which bans the use of chemical and biological weapons in war but does not restrict or prohibit the development of the same.
The parties of the Geneva Protocol had made their reservations regarding the use of biological weapons. Most of them followed a no-first-use agreement and opted to use it in retaliation against the enemy attack.
The protocol, however, only banned the use and allowed research and development of biological and chemical weapons. Hence, powerful states worldwide started large-scale biological weapon research programs and armed up their biological arsenal.
The BWC was drafted and seen as a successor to the Geneva Protocol. The treaty was first negotiated in the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament held at Geneva from 1969 to 1972.
The British government proposed to separate biological and chemical weapons and argued for the creation of a convention for biological weapons control immediately.
The negotiations gained momentum with the U.S. terminating its biological weapons program in 1969 and the Soviet Union and its allies drafting their treaty to ban the biological weapons of mass destruction.
On August 5, 1971, the U.S. and Soviet Union submitted identical drafts. BWC combined those and opened the final draft for signature on April 10, 1972. After 22 independent states submitted the ratification to the depositary states, the treaty entered into force.
The Convention lacks a written and organizational solid structure like CWC.
The creation of the Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW) was a failed effort from BWC. The treaty would have been stronger with an overseeing agency if it had happened.
Currently, the organization is run by State Parties in collaboration. An Implementation Support Unit (ISU) was established in the 2006 review conference. The unit is located in Geneva under United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.
The UN Security Council is the responsible agency that undertakes investigations and allegations raised by member states against other states and handles the complaints according to the articles of BWC.
The treaty was enforced from March 26, 1975, and closed for signature from that day. The non-signatory states can be a part of the Convention through accession. The membership to the Convention is open for any state who is ready for accession to the treaty.
At present, 183 countries in the UN acceded to the Convention. Four states have signed the treaty but have not yet ratified or acceded to it. Those four states are Egypt, Haiti, Somalia, and Syria.
Another ten states have never signed, ratified, or acceded to the treaty and Convention; Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Israel, Kiribati, Micronesia, Namibia, South Sudan, and Tuvalu.
Compared to other treaties on arms control, BWC is relatively low performing in universal acceptance behind the Chemical Weapons Convention and Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The conference of state parties allows UN agencies and other national and international NGOs to sit in the conference as observers. The UN security council is the major observer party overseeing the Convention.
ISU conducts dialogues with non-member states to destroy their biological and toxin weapons and stockpile. ISU uses the UN agencies and other such bodies as dialogue partners to communicate with non-parties. As of now, three non-parties are in the process of acceding to the treaty.
The various intergovernmental and NGOs are invited as guest participants to the conference of state parties.
Future membership possibilities
The BWC is a convention without any time limit. Any state ready for accession or succession of the treaty can be a member of BWC. They have to agree to ban and prohibit all kinds of Biological and toxin weapons.
Activities of the Biological Weapons Convention
The Convention negotiates between member states and finds a solution regarding disputes on the development of biological weapons. The second review of the conference in 1986 set up the Confidence Building Measures Programme (CBM) to strengthen the partnership and exchange help for better prevention of biological weapons.
Cooperation on Security
The organization is responsible for cooperation and overseeing security in member states’ biological production facilities.
The organization is also responsible for cooperating and coordinating exchanging the knowledge for the welfare of state parties on economic gains.
BWC is an organization for disarmament, and the treaty is for arms control and doesn’t have any cultural cooperation.
A periodic review conference is held by member parties every five years to review the effectiveness and further plans of BWC.
List of Summits
Nine reviews of conferences have been held till now. The latest conference was held in Geneva in 2021.
The Convention successfully reduced the use and development of biological and toxin weapons and forced the states to drop their biological warfare development programs.
The drawback of the Convention is the lack of an overseeing agency like OPCW in the case of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The lag and inaction on complaints caused disputes and failed the missions of BWC in the past.
Importance to India
India signed the Convention in 1973 and ratified it only in 2015. The membership of India and the neighboring countries China and Pakistan is encouraging since this eliminates threats and dangers to India from these kinds of weaponry.