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Source: UN Chronicle, Fall 2000 v37 i3 p18.

Title: Is a Strong, Workable Biological Weapons Convention
Feasible?(Brief Article)
Author: Ian R. Kenyon

Full Text COPYRIGHT 2000 United Nations Publications

The fact that this question needs to be asked is a sad reflection on the state of international law as it relates to arms control and disarmament. The old-fashioned view enshrined in the legal concept pacta sunt servanda (treaties are observed) is unfortunately not seen as a strong enough basis for States to use for important decisions relating to their national security m the twenty-first century.

Following the extensive use of chemical weapons in the First World War, the members of the League of Nations signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, prohibiting "the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare". This simple prohibition of use, weakened as it was by reservations limiting its application to conflicts between signatories, and lacking controls on production of such weapons, has proved remarkably effective, and only a handful of instances of breach have been recorded in its 75 years of existence.

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972 was designed to complement the 1925 Protocol by banning their development, production and stockpiling. This instrument, negotiated immediately following a decision by the United States in 1969 to renounce biological weapons, is also very simple, containing no verification provisions other than a requirement to consult over problems and leaving to the United Nations Security Council the question of how to respond to any breach. This simple approach was accepted at the time because of the perception that biological weapons had little battlefield utility and that nuclear weapons could act as an adequate deterrent to all "weapons of mass destruction". The disclosure 10 years ago that the Soviet Union, a depository power of the Convention, had maintained a massive, secret development and production programme exposed the flaws of this scheme.

Meanwhile, the international community had taken a much more cautious approach to the prohibition of chemical weapons. The Paris Convention of 1993 is complete in itself, reiterating the prohibition of use as well as of the development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons, and requiring their destruction within a fixed time-frame. It has elaborate provisions for verification, including declarations by a State Party and inspections by a new international agency--the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons--of both weapons and related facilities and civil chemical industry. The ultimate check is the right of any Party to request a challenge inspection anywhere on the territory of another Party.

The logical approach to strengthening the BWC regime is, of course, to apply the lessons of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the BWC States Parties have in fact been engaged for the last five years in negotiation of a Protocol to the BWC for this purpose. The difficulties are twofold.

Firstly, the technologies are very different. Chemical weapons for use in a military, battlefield situation are required in large quantities. (The stockpiles declared by the United States and the Russian Federation were of the order of 30,000 and 40000 tons of agent, respectively.) Typically, they have utilized chemicals that have little if any commercial use. They are made in sizeable factories with recognizable characteristics such as enhanced safety features and can be detected in tiny trace amounts by modern analytical equipment. Biological agents, on the other hand, occur in nature as the causative agents of disease, can be effective in much smaller quantities and grown in equipment of modest size. If necessary, a batch of bacteria can be killed in a very short time by, for example, mixing with sodium hypochlorite (domestic bleach), and the resulting residue becomes extremely difficult to identify. Also, whilst the chemical industry is sensitive to the possible loss of commercially valuable information through the inspection process, the biotechnology industry has even greater concern.

Secondly, there is the problem of a growing scepticism, particularly in the United States Senate, of the value of international arms control treaties as a means of enhancing national security. The argument is expressed that no verification system can be effective enough to catch the determined cheater; the United Nations has yet to find an effective means of reacting to non-compliance; and the real countries of concern do not sign such treaties in the first place. Striking evidence of this situation was given by the very small margin by which the Senate gave its consent to ratification of the CWC in 1997 and the recent rejection of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty.

[Graphic omitted]The first set of problems described are largely technical and the Ad Hoc Group in Geneva is well on the way to their solution. Given the political will on the part of participating States to achieve a good result, this could be obtained in time for next year's BWC Review Conference. The real challenge is to revive belief in arms control and disarmament as a viable component of national security. The evidence is there for anyone who can be persuaded to look. The real successes of multilateral arms control, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the CWC, create powerful norms of international behaviour. As more and more States adhere, they create a form of received international law which even States that try to stay outside the regime find very difficult to ignore.

The NPT, in its 25 years of existence, has reached the stage where only a tiny handful of States remain outside, and even those have to take account in their external relations of the fact that they have chosen to flout an over-whelming international consensus on the importance of containing the spread of nuclear weapons. The predictions of the 1960s that the turn of the century would see a world with 20 to 30 nuclear-weapon States are now a barely remembered nightmare. By the same token, it is within our power to create a world where biological weapons are no longer an acceptable option, but to do it we need to start by completing the BWC Protocol and bringing it rapidly to a high level of universality of adherence.

Ian R. Kenyon is Visiting Fellow at Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, University of Southampton, United Kingdom, and formerly Executive Secretary, Preparatory Commission for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

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