The Biological Weapons Convention

The Biological Weapons Convention

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Jenni Rissanen

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and On Their Destruction (known as the Biological Weapons Convention, or BWC) forms the foundation of the international biological arms control regime. The BWC was designed to ban biological weapons by prohibiting the development, production, and stockpiling of biological agents as well as related equipment and delivery systems that are intended for hostile use.

The BWC:

  • forbids States Parties from developing, producing, stockpiling, or otherwise acquiring biological agents or toxins that have no justification for peaceful or defensive purposes;
  • forbids States Parties from developing, producing, stockpiling, or otherwise acquiring equipment to deliver biological agents or toxins for hostile purposes;
  • obligates States Parties to destroy or divert to peaceful purposes their existing stocks of prohibited items;
  • forbids States Parties from transferring prohibited items to anyone or otherwise helping in the manufacture or acquisition of biological weapons;
  • protects the rights of States Parties to exchange equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information for peaceful purposes in order to avoid hampering their economic and technological development;
  • commits States Parties to cooperate in solving any problems through consultation and in carrying out any investigation initiated by the UN Security Council; and
  • commits States Parties to provide assistance to others that have been attacked using biological weapons.

The BWC was opened for signature on April 10, 1972, and took effect on March 26, 1975 after 22 states had joined the Convention, including its three depositary governments: the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation), the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Convention is of unlimited duration. As of December 2002,more than 30 years after it opened for signature, the BWC has 147 members. An additional 16 countries have signed the Convention but have not yet ratified it, including Egypt and Syria. Some 30 countries still remain outside the BWC, including Azerbaijan, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, and Tajikistan.

The BWC is important because it represents the international community's will to prevent biological warfare and the deliberate use of disease as a weapon. It is the first disarmament treaty to completely ban an entire class of weapons. The Convention is an indispensable legal and political instrument that reinforces the widespread condemnation of biological weapons. The BWC complements the Geneva Protocol, which banned biological warfare methods in 1925. Although the BWC (in its title and in Article I) does not explicitly prohibit "use" of biological weapons, the Final Declaration of the 1996 Treaty Review Conference reaffirmed that, although "use" is not explicitly prohibited under Article I of the BWC, it is still considered to be a violation of the Convention.

By representing a global will and establishing an international standard, it has built confidence and helped to deter countries from acquiring biological weapons for more than 30 years.

History of the Biological Weapons Convention

The use of biological weapons dates back to as early as 1346, when the Mongols catapulted corpses contaminated with plague over the walls of the Crimean city of Kaffa. The legal framework banning both chemical and biological warfare began to develop 500 years later, in the late 19th century. The 1899 Hague Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land declared that it is "especially prohibited…to employ poison or poisoned arms." Nevertheless, chemical weapons (which are quite different than biological weapons) were used extensively during World War I by several countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France. On a much smaller scale, biological weapons were used during the war by German agents who attempted to infect livestock destined for the Allied forces.

After the war, France proposed at the 1925 Geneva Conference for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms and Ammunition, that the use of poisonous gases be prohibited by a law (a protocol). Poland suggested that bacteriological (biological) weapons also be included. The conference adopted a Convention for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms, Munitions and Implements of War (which has not entered into force) and, as a separate document, a Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. The agreement, known as the Geneva Protocol, was signed in Geneva on June 17, 1925. Upon ratification or accession to the Protocol, some States declared that it would cease to be binding on them if their enemies, or the allies of their enemies, failed to respect the prohibitions of the Protocol. In recent years, however, many of the reservations have been withdrawn, especially following the entry into force of the BTWC and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

During World War II, several countries became increasingly interested in the research and development of biological weapons. Domestic programs addressing both defensive and, in some cases, offensive aspects of biological warfare were initiated in Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (The German and Japanese programs ended upon their defeat in 1945; Canada, France, and the United Kingdom shut down their programs in the 1950s; the United States got rid of its offensive biological warfare program in 1969; and the Soviet Union supposedly closed down its program in 1992.)

Movement towards biological disarmament began in earnest in 1969 when the British presented the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Conference (ENDC) with a draft convention calling for the elimination of biological warfare. With this proposal, the British were taking a new approach to biological disarmament by separating biological and chemical weapons within an international agreement. The British draft contained a prohibition of the production and acquisition of biological agents in types and quantities that had no justification for peaceful purposes and equipment designed for hostile purposes. The British also proposed the creation of a complaint and investigation mechanism to address the issue of non-compliance and an obligation for all member countries to assist a state that was attacked with biological weapons.

According to Ambassador James Leonard, head of the U.S. delegation, the British proposal initially received a cold reaction from most delegations. However, reactions shifted following the unilateral renouncement of biological weapons by U.S. President Richard Nixon on November 25, 1969. The U.S. Department of Defense was ordered to sketch out a plan to dispose of existing stocks of biological agents and weapons. This move was welcomed internationally and the U.S. began to rally support for an international treaty based on the British proposal.

Several states, including the Soviet Union and many neutral and non-aligned countries (states without a specific Cold War allegiance) opposed the separation the British had proposed. The Soviets argued that chemical and biological weapons had been treated together in the Geneva Protocol and in General Assembly resolutions and that they should continue to be dealt with within the same instrument. They warned that a convention that deals exclusively with biological weapons might intensify the chemical arms race. However, Moscow suddenly reversed its earlier position and on March 30, 1971, the Soviet Union and its allies introduced a revised draft convention limited to biological weapons and toxins. On August 5, the United States and Soviet Union drafted and submitted a joint draft text to the UN General Assembly.

The United Nations adopted a resolution commending the text and the BWC was opened for signature on April 10, 1972. When U.S. President Nixon submitted the BWC to the U.S. Senate on August 10 for ratification, he called it "the first international agreement since World War II to provide for the actual elimination of an entire class of weapons from the arsenals of nations." The BWC entered into force two years later, on March 26, 1975, after 22 states had joined (signed and ratified) the Convention.

Rights and Obligations

Under the BWC, all States Parties have the same rights and obligations. This is different from the structure of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which divides States Parties into two categories (nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states). The rights and obligations of the States Parties to the BWC were first described within the 25 articles of the Convention.

The basic prohibitions of the BWC are contained within Article I, which bans States Parties from activities surrounding the possession of biological weapons and their components. The Convention's drafters, however, recognized that this prohibition was problematic, as these items also have a number of legitimate peaceful purposes. Therefore, Article I also includes the right of States Parties to maintain items that can be justified for "prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes." For example, States Parties can develop medicines and vaccines to combat naturally occurring outbreaks of diseases as well as defensive measure to combat the effects of biological weapons. The distinction between which items are prohibited and those that are allowed is a matter of purpose.

The remaining 24 articles of the Convention support the rights and obligations contained in Article I in various ways.

The issue of the transfer of materials and equipment is addressed both within Articles III and X. Article III prohibits States Parties from transferring or assisting anyone, either states or non-state organizations, to produce or acquire prohibited items. The purpose of this article is to obstruct the spread of biological weapons by curbing the supply of materials and technology for hostile purposes. The right of States Parties to exchange these same items, when they are intended for peaceful purposes, is protected under Article X. This article states that the Convention should be implemented in a way that will "avoid hampering" economic and technical development as well as international cooperation of peaceful projects.

In the event of any disputes about the objective or application of the Convention, States Parties agreed, in Article V, to consult one another and cooperate in order to reach a solution. Article V was invoked by Cuba in 1997, when it accused the United States of biological aggression and formally requested a consultative meeting of States Parties to address the allegations. Cuba alleged that on October 21, 1996 an American crop spraying plane, destined for Colombia as part of efforts to eradicate illegal drugs, was witnessed releasing an unknown mist into the air. A few months later the Cuban National Pest Control Centre announced that the insect Thrips palmi, which feeds on many agriculturally important crops, had been identified for the first time in Cuba. On April 29, 1997, the Cuban government issued a complaint against the United States and requested that the incident be investigated in accordance with Article V of the BWC. A formal consultative meeting was held on the issue in August 1997 where Cuba and the U.S. each presented evidence supporting their view of the events. After reviewing the evidence from both countries, States Parties submitted reports to the Chairman of the meeting, Ambassador S. I. Soutar of the United Kingdom. Of the 12 States Parties that made submissions, 9 remarked that the information did not support the Cuban allegations and 2 (China and Vietnam) said that no definite conclusion could be drawn.

BWC States Parties also have the right to request a formal investigation through the UN Security Council if they believe that another state has violated the Convention. This provision is contained within Article VI of the BWC, which also obligates States Parties to cooperate with any investigation initiated by the Security Council. No State Party has used Article VI to lodge a complaint with the Security Council, although many allegations have been made that some States Parties are involved with hostile biological warfare programs. One disincentive for States Parties to use Article VI is the highly political nature of formally accusing another State Party of non-compliance. States Parties seem to prefer addressing violations of the BWC through channels other than Article VI.

The BWC also includes an assistance provision, which obligates States Parties to assist one another in the event of an attack in which biological weapons were used. According to Article VII, the UN Security Council is responsible for determining whether the State Party, that will be given assistance, has been exposed to danger as a result of the violation of the Convention. No State Party has ever requested assistance under Article VII.

In order to evaluate the operation of the BWC, the States Parties agreed to hold a review meeting five years after the entry into force of the treaty. The purpose of the meeting was to ensure that the Convention's goals were being realized and to consider any new scientific and technological developments that would be of relevance to the Convention. The First Review Conference of the BWC was held in 1980. Additional review conferences have been held, at approximately five-year intervals. Through the review process, the rights and obligations of States Parties under the BWC have been elaborated.

Regime Evolution

At the review conferences, which typically last from two to three weeks, States Parties examine how the Convention has operated since the last review, discuss various relevant issues and developments, negotiate further commitments, and document them in a final declaration. The review conferences are important gatherings at which States Parties come together to express common political will and to agree on further steps to address the threat of biological weapons through the framework of the BWC. The following sections outline the major developments and agreements that have taken place at the five conferences held so far.


The First Review Conference took place March 3-21, 1980 five years after the BWC had entered into force. The BWC then had 87 members. Although progress was modest due to tension between Cold War adversaries, States Parties succeeded in introducing several key elements that would be expanded upon at later conferences. In the Final Declaration, States Parties were encouraged to submit voluntary declarations outlining three issues: past possession of items relevant to the BWC, efforts that had been taken to destroy or divert these items to peaceful purposes, and national legislation enacted to support the Convention. In addition, the cooperation under Article X of the BWC was expanded upon with the inclusion of specific types of cooperation that could contribute to the development of peaceful programs. These included the exchange of information, training of personnel, and the transfer of materials and equipment.


The Second Review Conference took place September 8-26, 1986. The membership of the BWC had grown to more than 100, including all five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Advances in science and technology raised questions about the scope of the Convention. Allegations of non-compliance dominated the Conference. In particular, there were many lingering questions about the outbreak of anthrax that had taken place in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk in 1979 and the allegations of the use of the toxin "yellow rain" in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. The United States accused the Soviet Union of operating an offensive biological weapons program within its territory, as well being involved in the development, production, transfer, and use of toxins for hostile purposes elsewhere.

One of the important outcomes of the Conference was the expansion of voluntary data exchanges among States Parties. The objective of these confidence-building measures (CBMs) was described within the Final Declaration as being "to prevent or reduce the occurrence of ambiguities, doubts and suspicions, and in order to improve international co-operation in the field of peaceful bacteriological (biological) activities…." In order to increase the level of trust that States Parties were not cheating on their commitments under the BWC, they agreed to exchange information on research centers and laboratories that work with high risk biological materials, and abnormal outbreaks of infectious diseases. States Parties also agreed to encourage the publication of research relevant to the Convention in widely-available scientific journals, and promote contacts and research exchanges between scientists.

Another important outcome of the Conference was the strengthening of Article V. States Parties agreed that a consultative meeting would be held promptly after being requested by a State Party in order to address an alleged violation of the Convention. It was also agreed that the assistance of technical experts may be sought in order to clarify any unresolved or ambiguous issues. Several aspects of the consultative meetings were not addressed such as who would chair such a meeting or how decisions would be made.

Discussions at the Second Review Conference were also focused on ways to organize the cooperation that was to take place under Article X. Many developing countries addressed this issue at length, although there was considerable variation in proposals. They ranged from holding a conference of States Parties to discuss the issue to establishing an institutional mechanism. The final declaration contained a more ambiguous recommendation that a discussion should take place on this issue within the United Nations, that would include the World Health Organization (WHO) and other UN specialized agencies.


The Third Review Conference took place September 9-21, 1991. The BWC had more than 115 members. The Conference took place against the backdrop of the end of the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and revelations about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs and the establishment of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM). Scientific and technological developments again received significant attention at the Conference, with many member states believing these developments were making previously unrealistic projects feasible and enabling large-scale development of biological weapons. States Parties were also concerned with the possibility that the end of the Cold War may lead to an increase in the spread of biological weapons technology. The Conference was characterized by the increased participation of groups that were not official state delegations. Some of the contributions made from these members of civil society were proposals, publications, and seminars. An observer from WHO attended the Conference for the first time.

One of the most significant outcomes of the Conference was the further elaboration of CBMs. By March 1, 1991, only 33% of States Parties had submitted information despite the emphasis on data exchange at the Second Review Conference. Many States, which had never been involved with biological weapons, failed even to submit null returns. To address this problem, States Parties agreed to create new forms in order to facilitate the prompt submission of declarations. In addition, three new CBMs were added to the existing four. The new CBMs included: the declaration of legislation, regulations, and other measures; the declaration of past activities related to both offensive and defensive programs; and the declaration of vaccine production facilities.

Another significant outcome of the Conference was the establishment of an expert group on verification (VEREX) to strengthen the Convention. VEREX's mandate was to identify and examine potential measures, from a scientific and technical standpoint, to determine whether a State Party had violated the BWC. In the Final Declaration, it was agreed that the report from VEREX would be examined at a separate conference if a majority of States Parties requested that such a conference take place.

Despite the attention paid to Article X at the Second Review Conference, there had been very little improvement in the implementation of international cooperation commitments. At the Third Review Conference, few States Parties submitted voluntary information about their activities and the UN did not prepare a background paper outlining activities that had taken place since the last review. Several proposals were presented at the Conference on actions that could be taken to enhance the implementation of Article X. However, there was no coherent theme linking the proposals. The Final Declaration noted a few of the proposals such as an international program of vaccine development to prevent diseases.

In the Final Declaration, States Parties also reaffirmed their commitments under Article VI by specifying that investigations can be requested not only through the Security Council, but also through the Secretary-General. The importance of the investigation mechanism contained within Article VI was reinforced in the late 1980s when several UN investigations were conducted into the use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.


A Special Conference was held September 19-30, 1994 after a majority of States Parties requested that it take place to consider the final report of VEREX. In 1992 and 1993, VEREX had held four sessions and identified 21 potential measures to contribute to strengthening the verification of the Convention. These included both on-site and off-site measures and ranged from monitoring publications and legislation to inspections of facilities. At the Special Conference, States Parties decided to continue the process of strengthening the Convention by establishing an Ad Hoc Group that would negotiate a legally-binding instrument. This Protocol could include verification measures, CBMs, lists of materials and equipment, and measures to implement Article X. The Special Conference was important in the development of the biological weapons regime because it focused the efforts of States Parties on some difficult issues, in particular the absence of a legally-binding verification mechanism.


The Fourth Review Conference, held November 25-December 5, 1996, took place amidst contrasting circumstances. On one hand, there had been great progress in international arms control and disarmament, particularly with regard to other weapons of mass destruction: the NPT had been extended indefinitely in 1995 and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was about to enter into force, four years after negotiations had been concluded in 1993. On the other hand, the BWC itself had suffered from negative developments: concerns about non-compliance were on the rise, particularly after the 1992 admission by Russian President Boris Yeltsin that the former Soviet Union had been operating a massive offensive biological weapons program from the early days of the BWC through early 1992. Furthermore, UNSCOM's work in Iraq had revealed that Iraq, a signatory to the BWC, had both produced and weaponized large quantities of biological agents and deployed biological weapons in bombs and missiles.

At the Conference, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States named both the former Soviet Union and Iraq as being non-compliant with the BWC. These non-compliance developments highlighted the BWC's major deficiency–lack of verification measures–and made verification a major theme at the Conference. One of the most prominent discussion points at the Conference was the work of the Ad Hoc Group, which had begun its work on a compliance protocol in 1995.

The Ad Hoc Group reported to the Conference that it had met four times in 1995 and 1996 and had made progress towards fulfilling the mandate given to them by the Special Conference. The Group's work, however, was not completed. In the Final Declaration, States Parties welcomed the intensification of the work of the Ad Hoc Group in order to submit its final report as soon as possible before the Fifth Review Conference.

On the topic of confidence-building measures, the Fourth Review Conference did not continue to expand CBMs as had taken place at the Third Review Conference. This was in part because States Parties wanted to avoid complicating the work of the Ad Hoc Group on this issue. In the Final Declaration, it was noted that efforts to make the submission of information easier had increased the level of transparency, but participation was still far from universal.

Another event of interest at the Conference was a proposal made by Iran to amend the BWC to include the "use" of biological weapons in the Article I prohibitions. The Iranian proposal did not receive wide support, mainly as a result of concerns that one amendment to the Treaty could lead to more amendments. As a compromise, the States Parties, in the Final Declaration, reaffirmed that, although "use" is not explicitly prohibited under Article I of the BWC, it is still considered to be a violation of the Convention.


The Ad Hoc Group negotiations began in January 1995 under the chairmanship of Ambassador Tibor Tóth of Hungary. The first two-and-a-half years of negotiations were spent identifying elements that should be included in the Protocol. In July 1997, a "rolling text" was introduced, capturing the proposals that had been made so far and becoming the basis of the Group's work for the next four years. Negotiations on the "rolling text" eventually slowed down, and States Parties began the difficult process of resolving the outstanding issues. Two issues that were particularly difficult were the use of on-site inspections to verify whether declared peaceful facilities were being used for the illicit production of biological weapons and the impact of the Protocol on existing agreements that limit the export of dual-use materials and equipment.

The Protocol negotiations proceeded slowly in part because of the inherent difficulties of monitoring a treaty involving biological weapons. In contrast to chemical and nuclear weapons, only small quantities of biological agents are initially needed to produce amounts that have great military significance. Even the most dangerous pathogens and toxins cannot be banned outright because of their dual-use nature, including the development of vaccines as well as other peaceful uses such as the employment of botulinum toxin for cosmetic and medical therapy. Therefore, compliance is measured in terms of intent rather than strictly on the basis of possession of banned equipment or materials. Lastly, biological agents can be produced rapidly and eliminated rapidly (sometimes in a matter of hours), limiting the efficacy of short-notice inspections for determining whether facilities are being used for illicit production. Because of these difficulties, the Protocol was intended to increase trust by providing States Parties with more information about each other's facilities that have the potential to be used for the development of biological weapons. It was not designed to detect violations of the Convention with the same level of confidence as treaties involving chemical and nuclear weapons.

On March 30, 2001 Tóth issued a 210-page "composite text" designed to resolve some of the outstanding issues. Under the "composite text," several new aspects would be added to the biological weapons regime, including:

  • the establishment of an Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW), with relevant bodies to monitor the implementation of the Convention and the Protocol;
  • mandatory declarations of all relevant facilities and activities, including those in the area of biodefense;
  • inspections that would take place at random, in order to make clarifications, and following allegations of noncompliance

The initial reactions of States Parties to the text were promising. At the first meeting of the Ad Hoc Group that took place following the introduction of the "composite text" (April 23-May 11, 2001), the majority of delegations welcomed the initiative and stood ready to bring the negotiations into a fruitful conclusion. One key player, the United States, remained silent on the text, leading to speculation about what stance the administration of the newly elected President George W. Bush would take on the Protocol following a major policy review.

The Ad Hoc Group convened for its final session on July 23, 2001. On the third day of the session, the U.S. delegation announced that the text was unacceptable as it would not increase confidence in compliance or deter violations of the Convention. Several specific reasons were cited for this rejection. The U.S. stated that rather than increasing confidence in compliance, the proposed system of declarations and on-site inspections would enable a proliferator to conceal illicit activities while potentially threatening the security of legitimate commercial and biodefense activities. The U.S. said that it would develop alternative approaches to strengthen the Convention in the months prior to the Fifth Review Conference that was scheduled to take place in November 2001.

The U.S. rejection of the "composite text" became a turning point in the process of strengthening the BWC. Other States Parties had little willingness to continue finalizing the agreement without the United States, so the whole process came to a halt. The future of the Protocol remains uncertain, and it is increasingly likely that the Ad Hoc Group will not reconvene to complete its work any time soon, if ever.


The first part of the Fifth Review Conference took place November 19-December 7, 2001. The circumstances surrounding the Conference were difficult, as it took place just three months after the Ad Hoc Group negotiations on a compliance protocol had derailed in their final session in July/August 2001. Questions about the future of the Ad Hoc Group and its mandate loomed over the Conference even before it began. In addition, the international environment had been significantly altered by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the fatal anthrax attacks that took place in the United States in the following months.

The Conference was dominated by the derailment of the Ad Hoc Group process and allegations of non-compliance. The United States accused six countries, including four States Parties to the BWC, of operating clandestine biological weapons programs. Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan (not a signatory), and Syria (a signatory) were all named directly by the U.S. as being in non-compliance.

The Conference was characterized by a large number of proposals on how to address the threat of biological weapons, including bioterrorism. The proposals were varied in their approach to strengthening the Convention and included:

  • promotion of universal membership of the BWC,
  • greater efforts in disease surveillance, detection, and diagnosis and countering infectious diseases,
  • greater control of access to dangerous pathogens and toxins,
  • codes of conduct for scientists,
  • oversight of genetic engineering and high-risk scientific experiments,
  • national legislation to criminalize the acquisition and possession of biological weapons and extradition of violators or an international Convention on Criminalization of Chemical and Biological Weapons,
  • revision of existing CBMs and the establishment of new ones,
  • investigations into non-compliance,
  • annual meetings of member states, and
  • establishment of a scientific advisory panel.

Despite the increased urgency to address the threat of biological weapons and the large number of proposals aimed at doing so, States Parties failed to respond collectively. The Conference came to an abrupt and inconclusive halt just two hours before its conclusion, when the United States proposed the termination of the mandate of the Ad Hoc Group–a proposal that was unacceptable to other States Parties. To avoid complete failure, States Parties agreed to suspend the meeting for a year's time.

States Parties reconvened the Conference on November 11, 2002. As a result of several months of consultations with key State Parties and political groups, President Tóth presented a proposal on the first day of the session, intended to break the impasse among States Parties that remained from the first session of the Conference. Tóth tabled the proposal as a full package, rather than a text to be discussed, revised, or negotiated. It was a take it or leave it offer. After four days of extensive deliberations, States Parties agreed unanimously to adopt Tóth's proposal, with the stipulation that group statements would be read and therefore included in official record of the Conference.

By adopting the decision, States Parties agreed to hold annual one-week meetings each year leading up to the Sixth Review Conference in 2006. The agenda for each meeting was also set by the decision. In 2003, States Parties will discuss national measures designed to implement the prohibitions of the Convention and national mechanisms to ensure the security of dangerous pathogens and toxins. The agenda in 2004 will include enhancing the international capabilities of responding to and investigating instances of alleged use of biological weapons or suspicious disease outbreaks. In 2005, States Parties will discuss the role of scientists and the adoption of codes of conduct for the scientific community. A two-week meeting of experts will take place prior to the meeting of States Parties in order to prepare for the upcoming agenda items.

The adoption of this decision played an important role in maintaining the momentum of States Parties in working collectively to address the challenges faced by the BWC. Although there are deep divisions among states about how best to address these challenges, the importance of a collective response has been preserved.


Throughout its 30-year existence, the BWC has faced a number of challenges. The challenges include:

  • lack of universality–many countries still remain outside the Convention,
  • lack of verification–the BWC contains no measures to check for compliance,
  • a history of non-compliance–some States Parties have violated the BWC and others are suspected of operating illegal biological weapons programs, and
  • advances in biosciences and biotechnology–developments in these areas are rapid and increase the risk that biological weapons will spread.


Although the BWC membership has grown impressively to 147 states, many countries still remain outside of the Convention. Some have signed but not yet ratified the BWC. These include many African countries, Egypt, and Syria. Others have neither signed nor ratified the BWC. Most significantly, these include Azerbaijan, Israel, Sudan, and the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Growth of membership has been slow in recent years, despite repeated calls by member states for others to join.


The greatest weakness of the Convention has been its lack of mechanisms to verify the compliance of the States Parties. Unlike the NPT and the CWC, the BWC does not contain verification mechanism. As a result, there is less confidence that all members are in compliance, eroding the overall trust in the effectiveness of the BWC regime.

Several approaches have been taken to address this problem. CBMs have been developed and expanded at several review conferences; however, the level of participation in these politically binding measures) has not been high. Another approach was to negotiate a compliance protocol through the Ad Hoc Group at the Special Conference in 1994.


Because of the difficulty in verifying compliance, concerns about the violation of BWC prohibitions have persisted throughout the Convention's history. At several review conference States Parties have openly accused others of cheating. Thus, during the Third Review Conference, in 1991, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States accused the Soviet Union of having developed biological weapons, and at the first session of the Fifth Review Conference, in 2001, the United States made allegations against four States Parties–Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Libya. There have been a few high-profile cases where states have developed biological weapons even after making commitments under the BWC.


The Soviet Union is the most striking example of noncompliance, as it is known to have operated a massive biological weapons program, despite its status as a BWC State Party, since before 1972. The Soviet Union began its biological weapons program in 1928 under the Red Army. In the early 1970s, around the time that the BWC was concluded and signed, the Soviet leadership decided to substantially expand its program by exploiting advances in science and technology, conducting further research, and creating infrastructure for the production of biological weapons. These activities were organized under an institution called Biopreparat, which was established in 1973 and served as a civilian cover for military research. At its height, the program involved hundreds of facilities, as many as 60,000 people, and a large budget of hundreds of billions of rubles. The Soviet program succeeded in weaponizing a number of dangerous pathogens, including those that cause smallpox, plague, tularemia, glanders, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, anthrax, Q fever, and Marburg fever. Furthermore, it did research on other highly dangerous viruses such as the Ebola and yellow fever viruses.

Although the West suspected that the Soviet Union was not in compliance with the BWC, they were not aware of the details of Biopreparat and its work. The suspicions of many nations were heightened after a strange outbreak of disease in 1979 in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk, when 70 people were infected with anthrax, many of them fatally. The Soviets claimed the incident was due to tainted meat. However, in reality, there had been an accident at a nearby military microbiology facility, that resulted in the escape of anthrax spores, which drifted downwind through the town.

The allegations of Soviet non-compliance persisted throughout the Cold War, with the Soviets repeatedly denying that they were violating their commitments under the BWC. Shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted in a television speech that the allegations of Soviet non-compliance with the BWC were true. On April 11, 1992, Yeltsin issued a presidential decree outlawing any activities within the Russian Federation that were not in accordance with the Convention.

Although Yeltsin promised to end funding for biological weapons research, concerns about compliance remained. Therefore, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia agreed to begin a trilateral process that would help to alleviate suspicions and build confidence. One aspect of the trilateral process was a series of visits to non-military facilities in each of the three countries. Site visits were conducted in all three countries, but failed to alleviate concerns. There were plans to extend the visits to military facilities, but these never materialized due to the differences. The trilateral process came to a halt in 1994 and no visits have taken place since. The concerns surrounding secret Russian activities in its military biological laboratories continue.


Iraqi non-compliance with the BWC is well documented due to an international process that was established following the Persian Gulf War in 1991. UN Security Council Resolution 687 signified the conclusion of the war and initiated an important disarmament process. The resolution required Iraq to declare all of its weapons of mass destruction and ordered their destruction. The UN Security Council established a special body, UNSCOM, to carry out inspections of Iraq's chemical, biological, and missile capabilities and to provide for their destruction. UNSCOM worked from 1991 to 1998, uncovering Iraq's BW program, which dated back to the early 1970s.

It is now known that Iraq's biological weapons program produced botulinum toxin, anthrax bacteria, aflatoxin, ricin, and wheat cover smut fungus, and initiated a program on several viral agents. To deliver the weaponized agents, Iraq produced bombs, missile warheads, aerosol generators, and spray systems. It is also known that Iraq imported Western technology and that many of its researchers acquired their knowledge in Western countries. Iraq spent an estimated $200 million on its program.

Iraq ratified the BWC in 1991 as a condition of the cease-fire agreement ending the Persian Gulf War. Although, Iraq claims to have ended its biological weapons program in 1991, it is widely believed that Iraq maintained the program throughout the 1990s. These beliefs are supported by Iraqi efforts to try to conceal its program from UNSCOM inspectors. In 1998, Iraq suspended cooperation with UNSCOM leaving many issues unresolved. The group was disbanded and replaced with the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). In 2002 the United States and United Kingdom released detailed reports about Iraqi non-compliance, charging that Iraq is using dual-use facilities and mobile laboratories to continue its work on biological weapons. On November 8, 2002 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1441 requiring Iraq to grant unrestricted access to UNMOVIC inspectors. Inspections resumed on November 27. As of this writing, it is quite clear that Iraq has failed to disclose many details of its biological weapons program to UNMOVIC.


In contrast to the biological weapons programs of the Soviet Union and Iraq, only limited information is available on other BWC States Parties that have been suspected of being in non-compliance, including South Africa that is believed to have had a smaller scale program. Although no allegations of non-compliance were ever made against South Africa, recent research has suggested that some government officials were involved in illegal activities. Much of what is now known has been learned from the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as part of their effort to reconcile with South Africa's apartheid past.

South Africa began its program in 1981 under the apartheid regime, under the auspices of the South African Defence Force. South Africa had signed the BWC in 1972. Documentary and testimonial evidence shows that the program was both defensive and offensive in nature and it was carried out both for external (regional security) and internal purposes (domestic opposition). Although the program is thought to have involved anthrax and cholera, it is also believed to have included work also with other agents, including plague, salmonella, and botulinium toxin. The program also included also a fertility project, aimed at producing contraceptives that could be administered to women without their knowledge. The program ended in 1993 under considerable pressure from the U.S., UK, and others, around the time of a regime change.

Several other States Parties to the BWC have been accused by other states or have been under suspicion of conducting research, developing, and/or producing biological weapons. These allegations have been made in a variety of settings, including formal meetings of States Parties (review conferences), public speeches, and reports published by the accusing country or non-governmental entities. Because of the lack of publicly available evidence, it is difficult to determine the true extent of activities and whether they cross the line from being legitimate defensive programs to violations of the Convention. However, it is certain that the history of non-compliance and the real possibility that prohibited activities are continuing are perhaps the most significant threats to the BWC.


The revolution in biosciences and biotechnology poses a serious challenge to the BWC. The advances have been both horizontal and vertical: an increasing number of countries have access to biotechnology and want to benefit from the opportunities in these areas. Furthermore, the pace of advances in biosciences and biotechnology continues to quicken, creating possibilities that were unimaginable just a few years ago. However, with these developments also come the risk of the misuse of biological agents, materials, technology, and knowledge for hostile purposes. Recognizing these potential problems, BWC State Parties have made clear during the First and Second Review Conferences that genetically engineered microorganisms are covered under the provisions of Article 1.

Future of the BWC

The recent years have been turbulent for the BWC. Revelations in the early 1990s of non-compliance by Iraq and the former Soviet Union emphasized the Convention's major deficiency–lack of verification mechanisms. In addition, the perception of the threat posed by biological weapons, particularly in the hands of terrorists, has increased significantly following the fatal anthrax attacks that took place in the U.S. in fall 2001. These attacks served as dramatic illustrations of how destructive biological weapons can be, even on a small scale.

Throughout the 1990s, States Parties worked to strengthen the Convention, first through VEREX and then negotiation of a legally-binding Protocol. The momentum of these efforts remained until 2001, when negotiations broke down and the Fifth Review Conference had to be suspended for a year. States Parties stood at a crossroads. They all agreed that the BWC sets an important international prohibition and that it needed to be reinforced. However, they differed in the ways they wanted to achieve a strengthened BWC.

The agreement that was reached at the second session of the Fifth Review Conference in November 2002 is a modest one. It also signals a shift away from the comprehensive legally-binding approach of the Ad Hoc Group towards a more gradual, subject-specific approach that will be comprised of a combination of national and international measures. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Ad Hoc Group and its mandate, some momentum has been maintained through the establishment of the annual meetings leading up to the Sixth Review Conference. The urgent question is whether this shift in approaches will enable States Parties to better address the remaining threat posed by biological weapons.



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