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 Biological Weapons
 - Fact Sheet

 

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Page  2  of  2

Biological Warfare - Some Facts

(cntd.)

History of Biological Weapons Control 

The use of biological agents in war has been rare, but dates back hundreds of years. One of the first known instances occurred in 1346 and 1347 when Mongols catapulted corpses contaminated with plague over the wall into Kaffa, a city in Crimea, which forced the besieged Genoans to flee the city. Other states took notice of these methods, and between 1456 and 1767 there were cases of biological warfare involving Belgrade, Russia, and Britain. Aware of the devastating effects of biological weapons, on April 24, 1863, the United States War Department issued General Order 100, which proclaimed the use of poison to be excluded from all modern warfare. However, it was not until July 29, 1899 that the Hague Convention with Respect to Laws and Customs of War on Land was signed, prohibiting the use of poisoned arms. This marked the first true step towards biological arms control.

Despite the passage of the Hague Convention, from 1916 to 1918, Germany used anthrax and equine disease to infect livestock being exported to Allied forces. This prompted a discussion on further measures to be taken to prohibit the use of biological weapons. Following the conclusion of World War I, on June 17, 1925, the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare was signed. Japan, however, failed to sign it and the United States did not ratify the protocol.

On April 10, 1972, a critical day for biological arms control, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BWC) was opened for signature. Three years later, the United States ratified the 1925 Geneva Protocol along with the BWC.

Despite the ratification of the BWC, a handful of states continued to conduct illegal research on weaponized uses of biological agents. In 1979,an anthrax breakout in the Soviet Union occurred, which later was learned to have been caused by an accidental release of spores from one of its military facilities. Iraq has been known since 1985 to be developing an offensive biological weapons capability, work that is believed to continue today. 

 

Summary of the Biological Weapons Convention

The Biological Weapons Convention, an expansion of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, was the first treaty to formally outlaw an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. The treaty was opened for signature on April10, 1972 and entered into force upon ratification on March 26, 1975. The Biological Weapons Convention is unlimited in duration. To date, there are164 signatories and 146 ratifications and accessions. The Convention bans the "development, production, stockpiling, and acquisition of biological agents and toxins of types and quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes" in addition to "all weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict." The Biological Weapons Convention also prohibits the transfer of or assistance in obtaining any of the previous listed agents, toxins, weapons, and equipment.Though the Biological Weapons Convention was the first treaty to formally ban an entire category of weapons, it is far from a comprehensive solution to the threats presented by biological weapons. One major drawback is that the Convention does not include any measures for enforcing compliance.

Over history, the Convention has proven itself unable to prevent violations by its member states. Members that have breached the Convention include Russia and Iraq, and it is suspected that Cuba, North Korea, Iran,Libya and Syria may have as well. Over the 27 years since its entry into force, the number of countries that possess or are actively pursuing biological weapons has increased from 5 to an estimated 11, which includes several member-states to the Convention.

One of the major challenges faced by the Biological Weapons Convention is that biological weapons, by their design, are much more difficult to monitor than nuclear or chemical weapons. Absolute verification of the peaceful use of biological agents is virtually impossible because many of the materials have a dual-use that makes them effective for both biological weapons programs or for legitimate commercial uses.

Why BWC is difficult to monitor

The following is a list of explanations for why the BWC is more difficult to monitor and enforce than both nuclear and chemical weapons treaties.

1. Chemical weapons need to be produced in multi-ton quantities for use as weapons, whereas biological weapons require only a minuscule amount of material to be militarily significant.

2. Chemical warfare agents, such as mustard gas and sarin, have no commercial use and can therefore be banned. Biological pathogens and toxins, however, have a variety of peaceful and defensive functions such as protective vaccines and tools in biomedical research for the military. Toxins such as botulinum, used in Botox, has therapeutic applications in medical practice as well.

3. The Biological Weapons Convention forbids the possession of biological agents for military purposes but it does allow for their peaceful scientific, therapeutic, and defensive purposes. Compliance therefore depends on subjective assessment of intent.

4. Most advanced biopharmaceutical plants use a "clean-in-place" system, which rinses pipes with chemicals and hot water, thus eliminating all traces of biological agents within just a few short hours. Short-notice inspections, therefore, may have difficulty discovering evidence of unauthorized production.

5. Improvements in fermentation technology make discovery of covert production of biological agents at dual-capable facilities increasingly difficult. Modern fermentation facilities are capable of producing significant quantities of pathogens in only a few days.

 

The BWC Protocol

In April 2001, a draft of the Biological Weapons Convention Protocol was completed. The draft of the Protocol focused on two issues. First, it addressed the need to bolster confidence in compliance with the Convention. Second, the draft dealt with the need to strengthen provisions regarding biological-related cooperation for peaceful objectives. The Protocol attempts to improve cooperation by providing states that do not perceive a biological weapons threat with many incentives to join the Convention. The compliance elements of the Protocol involve the creation of a monitoring regime. There are four major components outlined by the regime:

1. Mandatory declarations of facilities and activities that could mosteasily be misused to develop biological weapons.

2. Consultation procedures to clarify questions that might arise fromthese declarations, including the possibility of on-site inspections.

3. Randomly selected transparency visits to promote accurate declarations.

4. Challenge investigations to pursue concerns that a country isdeveloping, producing, or using biological weapons.

 

Courtesy: Council for a Livable World.

 

 

 

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