Harvard Sussex Program
on chemical and biological warfare armament and arms limitation

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC)

Text of the Convention

List of States Parties

The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, also known as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention or BWC, prohibits the development, production, stockpiling and acquisition of these weapons. The BWC thus supplements the prohibition on use of biological weapons contained in the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

Opened for signature on 10 April 1972 and entering into force on 26 March 1975, the BWC is commonly portrayed as the first international treaty to ban an entire class of weapons. The United Kingdom, the United States and the Russian Federation are the depositaries of the Convention.

Article I of the BWC reads as follows: "Each state party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain: (1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes [emphasis added]; (2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict." Those emphasized words set out the general purpose criterion that the treaty uses to define its scope: the device whereby peaceful applications of pathogens (for example in vaccine production) are not obstructed by the BWC.

Article II is the disarmament provision of the BWC, requiring the destruction of banned items, or their conversion to peaceful purposes, within 9 months of entry into force. Article III is the non-transfer provision whereby, implicitly, states parties undertake to establish export controls on items that might not otherwise satisfy the general purpose criterion. Article IV requires each state party to "take any necessary measures in accordance with its constitutional processes" to prohibit and prevent activities contravening the Convention within its territory. Article V requires states parties "to consult one another and to cooperate" in the event of problems about compliance. Article VI provides for a complaints procedure whereby a state party may seek investigation by the UN Security Council of apparent violation of the treaty. In Article VII states parties undertake to provide assistance to any state party endangered by treaty violation. Article VIII in effect reaffirms the Geneva Protocol. Article XI commits states parties to the negotiation of what, two decades later, became the Chemical Weapons Convention. Article X requires that states parties facilitate the exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the use of biological agents and toxins for peaceful purposes, and also that the Convention shall be implemented in a way that does not hamper the economic or technological development of states parties. Articles XI-XV set out modalities for amendment, review conference, withdrawal, entry into force and deposit.

States parties reviewed the operation of the BWC in 1980, 1986, 1991 and in 1996. During these Review Conferences, states parties reaffirmed that the scope of the Convention extended to new scientific and technological developments, and they also instituted voluntary confidence-building data-exchanges in order to enhance transparency and strengthen the BWC. Nevertheless, the BWC still has important limitations, notably a lack of provision for an international mechanism for monitoring compliance.

Since 1991 there have been efforts to strengthen the BWC in this last regard. Governmental experts evaluated possible verification measures from a scientific and technological standpoint during the VEREX process of 1992-93. The resulting report was considered during a Special Conference in 1994, which established the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) of States Parties to engage in preliminary negotiations on what is now thought of as a BWC protocol. In order to "strengthen the effectiveness and improve the implementation" of the Convention, the AHG was mandated to "consider appropriate measures, including possible verification measures, and draft proposals [...] to be included, as appropriate, in a legally binding instrument, to be submitted for the consideration of the States Parties". This led, in 1995, to the opening of negotiations for an agreement among state parties on a legally binding instrument that would strengthen the treaty by providing for compliance monitoring and transparency mechanisms and for procedures for investigating violations.  These negotiations collapsed during the Fifth Review Conference in 2001, which was suspended and reconvened the following year.  At the resumed conference it was agreed to establish the so-called BWC New or Intersessional Process, a series of annual meetings of States Parties and Experts examining specific issues, which ran during 2003-2005.  Following assessment at the Sixth Review Conference in 2006, the Intersessional Process was renewed for 2007-2010.  The Seventh Review Conference will consider the work and outcomes of these meetings and decide on any further action.  In addition, it was agreed during the Sixth Review Conference to establish an Implementation Support Unit within the Geneva branch of the UN to provide administrative support to these meetings, as well as support to the implementation and universalization of the Convention and the exchange of Confidence-Building Measures.