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Biological Weapons

Biological warfare is the deliberate spreading of disease amongst humans, animals, and plants. Biological weapons introduce bacterial or viral agents into an environment for hostile purposes. Such agents can be very effective at killing plants, livestock, pets, and humans. There are a huge variety of bacteria and viruses which can be genetically modified to withstand antibiotics, for use as biological weapons. Other types of commonly used weapons agents include, rickettsiae, toxins, and fungi.

When compared to the cost of a nuclear and chemical weapon programs, biological weapons are extremely cheap. It is estimated that 1 gram of toxin could kill 10 million people. Any nation with a reasonably advanced pharmaceutical and medical industry has the capability of mass producing biological weapons. Moreover, nearly all biological agents have legitimate uses for human needs. These facts reveal the difficulties in determining which countries might have programs. Anything from a piece of fruit to a ballistic missile could be used to deliver a biological weapon to a target.

The use of biological and chemical weapons has been condemned by international declarations and treaties, notably by the 1907 Hague Convention (IV) respecting the laws and customs of war on land. Efforts to strengthen this prohibition resulted in the conclusion of the 1925 Geneva Protocol which banned the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, usually referred to as chemical weapons, as well as the use of bacteriological methods of warfare. The latter are now understood to include not only bacteria, but also other biological agents, such as viruses or rickettsiae which were unknown at the time the Geneva Protocol was signed. (On 1 January 1997, 132 States were party to this Protocol.) However, the Geneva Protocol did not prohibit the development, production and stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons. Attempts to achieve a complete ban were made in the 1930s in the framework of the League of Nations, but with no success.

The prohibition of chemical and biological weapons appeared on the agenda of the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament in Geneva (now called the Conference on Disarmament) in 1968. One year later, the United Nations published an influential report on the problems of chemical and biological warfare, and the question received special attention at the UN General Assembly. The UN report concluded that certain chemical and biological weapons cannot be confined in their effects in space and time and might have grave and irreversible consequences for man and nature. This would apply to both the attacking and the attacked nations. Due to interest in the topic in the end of the 1960s, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was signed in 1972 and entered into force in 1975.

The BWC was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. The Convention, about four pages long, bans the development, production stockpiling, or acquisition of biological agents or toxins of any type or quantity that do not have protective, medical, or other peaceful purposes, or any weapons or means of delivery for such agents or toxins. Under the treaty, all such material is to be destroyed within nine months of the treaty's entry into force. However, unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention the BWC lacks any provision for verification, like accounting of research facilities or inspections.

Recognizing this dangerous flaw BWC member states began negotiations in 1995 on a supplementary agreement which would contain verification provisions. After seven years this effort resulted in a draft protocol. In July 2001 the United States rejected the draft protocol and announced it would not participate in the negotiations. As a result, the other member states declined to proceed with further negotiation. At the November 2001 Review Conference of the BWC, the US introduced a proposal to formally terminate negotiations of the protocol. The member states eventually decided to defer the matter until the next Review Conference, scheduled to convene in 2006.

For more information:

Biological Weapons Resources Page