The Fifth Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC)

The Fifth Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC)

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Jonathan Tucker

Director, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) bans the development, production, stockpiling, and transfer of biological and toxin weapons, but it lacks any formal measures to ensure that the 144 member-states are complying with their treaty obligations. Every five years since the BWC entered into force in 1975, members of the treaty have held a Review Conference to assess the implementation of the BWC and develop measures to strengthen it.

The Fifth BWC Review Conference convened in Geneva from November 19 to December 7, 2001. Because the conference took place four months after a negotiating forum of member-states—known as the "Ad Hoc Group"—had failed to agree on a legally binding Protocol for checking compliance with the BWC, a key objective of the Review Conference was to identify alternative strategies for strengthening the Convention. At the eleventh hour, however, the United States tabled a proposal to eliminate the Ad Hoc Group that was rejected by other delegations, blocking consensus on the Final Declaration. To prevent the outright failure of the Review Conference, the chairman suspended the meeting for one year. Negotiations will resume on November 11-21, 2002.

The Fifth Review Conference of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) convened in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 19, 2001, at the same time that anthrax-tainted letters were terrorizing the United States. The meeting was the fifth in a series of BWC review conferences, which are held at five-year intervals to assess the implementation of the Convention and to devise measures for strengthening it. In attendance were 91 of the 144 states parties to the BWC. Many of the member-states had hoped that the Fifth Review Conference would approve a formal mechanism for checking compliance with the BWC, but that was not the case.

Because of persistent concerns about noncompliance, member-states of the BWC decided in 1994 to create a body called the "Ad Hoc Group" to develop new measures to strengthen the Convention, including a legally binding Protocol. In April 2001, after six years of multilateral negotiations, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Group proposed a compromise text of the Protocol that sought to bridge the remaining gaps among national positions. This text contained a number of key elements:

  • mandatory declarations of facilities and activities that could be diverted most easily to develop or produce biological weapons;
  • consultation procedures to clarify questions that might arise from declarations, including the possibility of on-site visits;
  • randomly selected transparency visits to check the accuracy of declarations; and
  • challenge investigations to pursue allegations that a country is developing, producing, or employing biological weapons.

Nevertheless, the BWC Protocol negotiations collapsed in July 2001 after the United States rejected the compromise text prepared by the Ad Hoc Group chairman on the grounds that the Protocol would be ineffective at preventing cheating yet would impose undue burdens on the U.S. biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries and on U.S. government biodefense programs. Calling the draft Protocol "unfixable," the United States withdrew from further Ad Hoc Group deliberations.

In view of these events, a key objective of the Fifth Review Conference was to develop alternative strategies for strengthening the BWC. At the outset of the conference, the head of the U.S. delegation, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, accused six states of violating the BWC: Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea (all parties to the Convention); Syria (which has signed but not ratified); and Sudan (which has neither signed nor ratified). Bolton insisted that the Conference’s Final Declaration refer to the problem of noncompliance, but several countries, led by Iran, objected to the U.S.-proposed language.

As an alternative to the BWC Protocol, which Bolton stated bluntly was "dead, and is not going to be resurrected," the United States offered a package of nine measures that could be implemented through national legislation. The U.S.-proposed measures included:

  • criminalizing the acquisition and possession of biological weapons;
  • restricting access to dangerous microbial pathogens and toxins;
  • supporting the World Health Organization’s global system for disease surveillance and control;
  • establishing an ethical code of conduct for scientists working with dangerous pathogens;
  • contributing to an international team that would provide assistance in fighting outbreaks of infectious disease; and
  • strengthening an existing United Nations (UN) mechanism for conducting field investigations of alleged biological weapons use so that BWC member states would be required to accept investigations on their territory.

A number of the U.S.-proposed measures were included in the draft Final Declaration, although agreement was not reached on the creation of a strengthened UN field investigation mechanism. Other contentious issues included a proposal by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) countries to establish a committee to monitor trade and cooperation among BWC member-states, and a bid by the radical NAM states (Iran, China, India, and Pakistan) for a mechanism to overturn denials of requested technology transfers. Western countries strongly opposed both NAM proposals.

Another unresolved question during the Review Conference was how to move forward with a mechanism to monitor BWC compliance. Whereas the United States strongly opposed resuming the Ad Hoc Group negotiations, the NAM countries insisted that discussion of measures to strengthen the BWC should continue in a multilateral forum. In an attempt to develop a compromise formula, the European Union proposed annual meetings of BWC member-states and the creation of governmental "expert groups" that would assess the implementation of strengthening measures agreed by the Review Conference and consider new ones.

The EU proposal appeared to offer a workable compromise. Nevertheless, late in the afternoon on the last day of the conference, December 7, 2001, the United States said it would accept the EU formula only on the condition that the mandate of the Ad Hoc Group was "terminated." European diplomats responded angrily to the U.S. move. Because preservation of the Ad Hoc Group mandate (and hence the possibility of restarting the multilateral negotiations when the political climate improved) had long been a bottom line for many delegations, the last-minute U.S. proposal blocked the consensus needed to adopt the politically binding Final Declaration. In a desperate bid to prevent the Review Conference from failing completely, Chairman Tibor Tóth suspended the meeting for a year. The Review Conference will reconvene in Geneva on November 11-21, 2002.

Whether progress can be achieved before the conference resumes this fall remains to be seen. One problem is that the United States continues to resist any formal multilateral negotiations to develop the ideas it has presented, creating a split between Washington and other Western countries. Creative thinking will be needed to find a way out of the current impasse.


  • University of Bradford, "BWC Review Conference Final Documents,"
  • VERTIC, "News Release: Bioweapons Conference Fails," December 7, 2001,
  • Seth Brugger, "BWC Conference Suspended After Controversial End," Arms Control Today, January/February 2002, pp. 34-35,
  • Jenni Rissanen, "BWC Review Conference Report," Disarmament Diplomacy,

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