Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Compliance Protocol

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) bans the development, stockpiling, transfer, and use of biological weapons (BW) worldwide, but it does not include formal measures to ensure compliance by its 144 member-states. This lack of an enforcement mechanism has undermined the effectiveness of the BWC, as it is unable to prevent systematic violations by the Soviet Union/Russia and others.Although the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) prohibits the acquisition and possession of biological arms, it lacks a formal inspection system to ensure that the treaty's 144 member-states are complying with their obligations. Instead, Article VI of the BWC offers only the ineffective option of appealing to the United Nations Security Council in cases of suspected noncompliance.

Over the more than 25 years since the BWC entered into force, the number of countries possessing or actively pursuing biological weapons has more than doubled, from five to roughly a dozen today—including some member-states of the Convention. The spread of these weapons has increased the risk that they will be used or will fall into the hands of terrorists. Even if biological agents are not employed deliberately, they could escape from a clandestine production plant and cause a deadly epidemic in the civilian population. In 1979, for example, anthrax bacteria leaked from a bioweapons plant in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk, triggering a serious outbreak of the disease.

In an effort to strengthen the BWC, member-states to the Convention held a special conference in September 1994 at which they established a new forum, the Ad Hoc Group, to negotiate a legally binding Protocol that would increase the transparency of treaty-relevant biological facilities and activities and thereby help to deter violations of the BWC. Over the ensuing six-and-a-half years, the Ad Hoc Group convened periodically in Geneva, although the negotiations progressed at a slow pace. One reason for the difficulty is that the BWC is more difficult to monitor than international treaties controlling nuclear or even chemical arms:

  • Although chemical weapons must be produced in multi-ton quantities, relatively small amounts of BW agents can be militarily significant.
  • Whereas chemical warfare agents (such as sarin and mustard gas) have no legitimate uses and can be banned outright, dangerous biological pathogens or toxins have a number of peaceful or defensive applications. In addition to the use of pathogens and toxins to make protective vaccines, several toxins with a history of military development are employed as tools in biomedical research, and a few toxins (such as botulinum) have therapeutic value in medical practice.
  • Since the BWC prohibits the possession of biological agents for offensive military ends while permitting their use for peaceful scientific, therapeutic, or defensive purposes, judgments of treaty compliance may hinge on a subjective assessment of intent.
  • As fermentation technology continues to improve, detecting the clandestine production of BW agents at dual-capable facilities, such as vaccine plants, will become even more difficult. Continuous fermentation tanks can produce militarily significant quantities of a pathogen from a seed culture in a matter of days.
  • Advanced biopharmaceutical plants use "clean-in-place" systems that flush fermenters and pipes with microcidal chemicals and hot water. Such systems could eliminate all traces of a BW agent in a few hours. Thus, even short-notice inspections may not turn up conclusive evidence of illicit production.

Because of these dual-use dilemmas, the BWC Protocol was not designed to be capable of detecting violations with a level of confidence comparable to that of verification systems for treaties controlling nuclear or chemical arms. Instead, the primary aim of the Protocol was to provide greater information about, and access to, dual-capable facilities and activities that could potentially be misdirected for BW purposes. Such increased transparency was believed to provide a useful deterrent by complicating any efforts of countries attempting to defraud their BWC obligations.

The monitoring regime contained in the draft BWC Protocol has three basic elements:

  • mandatory declarations of dual-capable activities and facilities;
  • routine visits to declared facilities, without specific evidence of a treaty violation; and
  • short-notice challenge investigations, requested by a member-state, of a suspect facility, an alleged use of biological weapons, or a suspicious outbreak of disease, so as to address concerns about possible noncompliance.

As a quid pro quo for accepting these requirements, a number of developing countries demanded expanded transfers of technology and liberalization of trade to promote the peaceful uses of biotechnology. 

The "golden rule" of multilateral arms control is that the rights and obligations established by a treaty must apply equally to all participating states. If the U.S. government wishes to inspect bioindustrial sites in countries of proliferation concern, such as Russia and Iran, it must be willing to accept the same types of monitoring activities at plants on American soil. Thus, a key challenge facing the BWC Protocol negotiators in Geneva was to design an on-site inspection system that was intrusive enough to give member-states a reasonable level of confidence in compliance, while reassuring private biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies that their commercial interests would be protected.

Progress in the BWC Protocol negotiations was hampered by major differences between national positions and skepticism from private industry groups toward the proposed regime. In June 2001, in an effort to move the talks forward, Ad Hoc Group chairman Tibor Tóth compiled a 210-page "composite text" that attempted to finesse many of the outstanding issues. Under the rules of the negotiations, the draft Protocol would have to be adopted by a consensus of all 56 participating countries, only one of which could block approval.

After the Bush administration took office in January 2001, a U.S. government interagency committee undertook a comprehensive review of the draft BWC Protocol and identified 37 serious problems with the chairman's text. In deciding to reject the draft Protocol and withdraw from the negotiations, U.S. officials concluded that the proposed regime would compromise legitimate biodefense research and commercial trade secrets, yet would be ineffective in stopping would-be proliferators from acquiring a biological weapons arsenal. Other participating countries, however, contend that the draft Protocol, while flawed, offers a reasonable balance between on-site inspections intrusive enough to increase confidence in compliance, and the protection of legitimate national security and trade secrets.

Initially, some members of the Ad Hoc Group recommended approving the BWC Protocol without the United States. But chairman Tóth decided that it did not make sense to continue the negotiations without the United States, which has one of the world's largest biotechnology industries.

At the Fifth Review Conference of the BWC, which was held in Geneva from November 19 to December 7, 2001, the United States proposed that the Ad Hoc Group's mandate be terminated, thereby blocking the consensus needed to adopt the politically binding Final Declaration. To prevent the outright failure of the Review Conference, the chairman suspended the meeting until November 2002.

In September 2002, Bush administration officials advised its allies that its views on an enforcement protocol differ so significantly from proposals under discussion, that a meeting would not be productive. The United States recommended that the parties hold a very brief meeting in November, or no meeting at all, and reconvene in 2006 when the next review conference is scheduled. U.S. officials have threatened to identify publicly suspected treaty violators unless the November 2002 session avoids discussion of the creation of a mechanism for treaty verification and monitoring.

Critics of the U.S. approach to the BWC believe Washington's rejection of the Protocol is flawed and is undermining the Convention. Whether states parties are able to find other ways to strengthen the BWC in November 2002 despite U.S. opposition remains to be seen.


The Biological Weapons Convention

  • Text of the BWC,
  • Final Declaration of the Fourth Review Conference, November 25- December 6, 1996,
  • Chairman's Text of BWC Protocol, April 3, 2001,


  • Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, Preventing Biological Warfare: Strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention,
  • Federation of American Scientists, Chemical and Biological Arms Control Program, Biological Weapons Convention and Documents,
  • The Acronym Institute's BWC Website,

Articles and Reports

  • Graham S. Pearson, Malcolm R. Dando, and Nicholas Sims, "The US Rejection of the Composite Protocol: A Huge Mistake based on Illogical Assessment," Table 1, Table 2, University of Bradford Department of Peace Studies, Evaluation Paper No. 22 (August 2001),
  • Daniel Feakes, "The BWC Protocol: Dissecting The Composite Text," VERTIC Briefing Paper No. 01/01 (July 2001),
  • Graham S. Pearson, "The Regime To Prevent Biological Weapons: Opportunities For A Safer, Healthier, More Prosperous World," University of Bradford Department of Peace Studies (June 2001),
  • Graham S. Pearson, "Why Biological Weapons Present The Greatest Danger," University of Bradford Department of Peace Studies (June 2001),
  • Michael Moodie, "The BWC Protocol: A Critique," Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, Special Report No. 1 (June 2001),
  • Jenni Rissanen, "BWC Update: US Jeopardises BWC Protocol," Disarmament Diplomacy 57 (May 2001),
  • Stimson Center, "House of Cards: The Pivotal Importance of a Technically Sound BWC Monitoring Protocol," Report No. 37 (May 2001),
  • Michael Moodie, "The Soviet Union, Russia, and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention," Nonproliferation Review 8 (Spring 2001), pp. 59-69,
  • Marie Isabelle Chevrier & Iris Hunger, "Confidence-Building Measures for the BTWC: Performance and Potential," Nonproliferation Review 7 (Fall-Winter 2000), pp. 24-42,
  • Annabelle Duncan and Kenneth G. Johnson, "Strengthening the BWC: Lessons from the UNSCOM Experience," Nonproliferation Review 4 (Winter 1997), pp. 49-54,
  • Brad Roberts, "Controlling the Proliferation of Biological Weapons," Nonproliferation Review 2 (Fall 1994), pp. 55-59,
  • Daryl Kimball and Kerry Boyd, "Briefing Paper on the Status of Biological Weapons Nonproliferation," Arms Control Association Fact Sheet, September 2002,

Op-Eds and Opinion Pieces

  • Christopher F. Chyba, "Microbe Warfare Hides the Enemy," The New York Times, August 10, 2001,
  • Jenni Rissanen, "BWC Protocol Update: Uncertain Future as AHG Drafts Report," The Acronym Institute, August 10, 2001,
  • Jonathan B. Tucker, "Another Chance to Join is Wasted," International Herald Tribune, July 30, 2001,
  • Jenni Rissanen, "BWC Faced With a Major Challenge," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 28, 2001,

Official Documents and Reports

  • Chemical and Biological Weapons Proliferation, Executive Order No. 12735, November 16, 1990,,.U.S.-China Joint Statement on BW, June 27, 1998,
  • The Biological Weapons Convention, United Nations: Weapons of Mass Destruction Branch, Department of Disarmament Affairs, April 10, 1972,

Congressional Testimony

  • U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform, Written Testimony of Graham S. Pearson, July 10, 2001,
  • U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform, Group Written Testimony, July 10, 2001,
  • Statement by Amy E. Smithson to the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform: Biological Weapons Convention, Protocol: Status and Implications, June 5, 2001,


  • Graham S. Pearson, "The US Rejection of the Composite Protocol: A Huge Mistake based on Illogical Assessments," summarizing Evaluation Paper No. 22, broadcast on University of Bradford, August 14, 2001,
  • Robin Oakley, "U.S. Opposes Germ Warfare Ban," broadcast on CNN News, July 25, 2001.
  • Sackur, Stephen, "The US is Under Fire for Failing to Cooperate," broadcast from Washington, D.C. on BBC News Online, July 25, 2001,
  • Composite Text, Address by the Chairman of the Ad Hoc Group Ambassador Tibor Toth, broadcast on University of Bradford, April 10, 2001,


  • Raymond A. Zilinskas, ed., Biological Warfare: Modern Offense and Defense (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000).
  • Graham S. Pearson, The BTWC Protocol: Proposed Complete Text for an Integrated Regime, Dept. of Peace Studies, University of Bradford Evaluation Paper No. 17, (Bradford, UK, 2000).
  • Joshua Lederburg, ed., Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).
  • James Lewis, Handshake with the Dragon: Engaging China in the Biological Weapons Convention (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 1998).
  • Michael Schiller, Verifying the Biological Weapons Convention: The Role of Technology in Biological Arms Control (Monterey, CA: NavalPostgraduate School, 1998).
August 1, 2001

Jonathan Tucker examines the troubled history of negotiations on a compliance protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

Jonathan Tucker

Director at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2019.