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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Out of the Valley: Advancing the Biological Weapons Convention After the 2006 Review Conference
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Jez Littlewood

At 6:15 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 8, 2006, the Sixth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was brought to a close with smiles, handshakes, and the resounding applause of 103 delegations in Geneva. Less audible was a collective sigh of relief that the conference ended amicably, unlike its predecessor five years ago. Without opening up old wounds, states-parties reached an agreement that reaffirmed the basic prohibitions against biological weapons and endorsed decisions on further work to strengthen implementation of the convention.

The outcome of the conference, which had begun three weeks earlier, unequivocally signaled for more than 100 states that biological weapons remain illegitimate and illegal. Triumphant, the president of the conference, Ambassador Masood Khan of Pakistan, said that, “without any exaggeration, this is a historic moment, both for the Biological Weapons Convention and for multilateral security and disarmament.”[1]

Nongovernmental observers were more circumspect, referring to the outcome as a “modest success” at best.[2] Others went further, noting that “the set of accomplishments was meager and far from commensurate with the gravity and urgency of the biological weapons threat.”[3] Even The Economist reflected that it is both a puzzle and a worry that the bar for measuring progress in the BWC has dropped so low, given the scale of scientific developments relevant to biological weapons and the threat of terrorism.[4]

These divergent assessments reflect differing expectations for the review conference and, more fundamentally, differing perceptions of what such a conference can actually do to counter the biological weapons threat. A review conference does not solve problems; if successful, it lays the ground for additional work in a wide variety of areas to address difficulties. This review conference, by healing past wounds and opening up channels for discussion, has created new opportunities for more progress. The key question for the outcome of this conference is not a debate over whether the outcome should be judged a “modest” or “historic” success, but whether states-parties and civil society will take advantage of the opportunities created between now and 2011.

Successes of the Review Conference

The review conference scored some tangible achievements.[5] The obvious successes include the establishment of an implementation support unit to provide administrative and other support to facilitate implementation of the convention as well as an agreement on a work program from 2007 to 2010 to advance the convention. Member-states also pledged greater efforts to achieve universal adherence to the convention, which would require 16 signatories and 24 non-states-parties to join the 155 states that have signaled their rejection of biological weapons under any circumstances.[6]

Just as important, however, agreement was reached in other areas critical to the day-to-day management of biological disarmament. These include the reaffirmation that the use of biological or toxin weapons is effectively a violation of the convention and a clear statement against terrorism and any terrorist use of biological weapons. Linked to these was a renewed signal from the states-parties to provide support and assistance to each other in the event of biological weapons use, regardless of such use being by another state-party, a state not party to the convention, or a nonstate actor such as a terrorist group. The reaffirmation of the scope of the convention’s prohibitions and its application to all scientific and technological developments is also not insignificant. There was continued emphasis on the requirement for effective national implementation efforts, including export controls and penal legislation to implement the BWC. Small but potentially important successes can also be found in the call for the establishment of national points of contact in each state-party to facilitate communication and coordination of efforts and in the acknowledgement of the need to increase the quality and quantity of submissions under the annual confidence-building measures (CBMs).

Finally, the states-parties recognized the convention does not stand alone as a bulwark against biological weapons but is supported by other international agreements and regional and international organizations. States, therefore, endorsed other steps taken to raise the bar against the acquisition or use of biological weapons. These steps included bolstering public health capabilities to cope with possible deliberate biological weapons attacks, enhancing biodefense efforts, and strengthening supply-side controls on materials and equipment that could be used for biological weapons.

This list of tangible achievements is neither short nor without substance. Still, the degree of success in reaching agreement on these decisions in 2006 will and should be judged not by the actual words in the final declaration, but the extent to which these decisions and recommendations are implemented between now and the seventh review conference in 2011.

Moreover, the conference did not achieve everything it might have. Issues that were politically contentious or offered little chance of agreement were sidestepped. The degree to which this matters is open to interpretation. For some states-parties, however, and many nongovernmental observers, issues such as verification, biodefense programs, transparency, and the scale of scientific developments relevant to the convention are important.[7]

The question of verification is perhaps the most obvious failure. The prospect of a verification mechanism for the convention still enthralls some states-parties, appalls others, and is used adeptly by still others for political gains. Residual concerns about the possibility of a standoff between those states-parties that feel strongest about verification proved unfounded. It is clear to any observer that a number of states-parties remain committed in principle to the idea of developing a verification mechanism for the convention. Some, such as the members of the European Union, remain committed to the idea “in the long term.”[8] Others, such as the members of the Nonaligned Movement, reiterated their conviction that a legally binding, multilaterally negotiated, and nondiscriminatory agreement was the only sustainable way to strengthen the convention.[9] Still others noted their views that some kind of verification or compliance framework retained their support. None, however, turned verification into the issue of 2006. Thus, although the idea of verification is far from dead in the BWC, it lacks political viability. Indeed, the concept of verification of the convention received its most vocal support from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) rather than states-parties.

Those for whom verification of the BWC is a serious long-term objective need new thinking on how that might be made to work. Fortunately, such thinking has already begun. Some scholars have put forward fresh ideas on governing technology. Others have challenged the twin poles of the conventional argument about verifiability, that either the BWC is “inherently unverifiable” or that verification of the convention will automatically flow from a return to negotiations in Geneva.[10]

Still, such thinking has yet to mature, and it has not filtered down to all states-parties. Thus, verification in the BWC context is now a project that will take at least a decade, if not an additional quarter-century, to reach fruition, if it ever can.

Enhancing transparency of biodefense work and scientific research and development that might be particularly applicable to offensive biological weapons programs also did not receive the kind of attention for which outside observers might have wished. Detailed debates and discussions on subjects such as global biosecurity standards, international oversight of potentially contentious research, or the need for specific codes of conduct for biodefense scientists are not suited to the work of review conferences. Discussions on these issues are highly technical, politically complex, and take time to mature in the international diplomatic arena. If detailed debates on these issues had been attempted, the differences of opinion and the strength of those differences would have posed significant risks to reaching any outcome. External observers may perceive the failure to address these kinds of issues in detail as a serious shortcoming, but political realities dictate what is possible. If such debates are to be had within the context of the BWC, the groundwork for them will have to be laid out very carefully. Indeed, these debates might be more fruitfully held outside the convention.

Perhaps the most obvious shortcoming of the conference was the lack of detailed agreement for enhancing existing transparency mechanisms, such as CBMs. In the run-up to the review conference, there were hopes among civil society and within some states-parties for a revitalization of the CBMs.[11]

As the conference drew near, however, the many different views on CBMs held by states-parties presented clear signals that any agreement to go beyond their existing scope and modalities would be hard won. More than 45 states-parties indicated their preference to undertake some work on CBMs, but others believed that after 20 years a fundamental review of their operation was required before new, additional, or revised CBMs could be devised.[12] In simple terms, a four-way stalemate developed among states-parties in favor of new and increased commitments, states-parties in favor only of existing or even fewer CBM commitments, states-parties in favor of a fundamental review of CBMs before any new decisions were taken, and states-parties in favor of addressing only technical and procedural issues. Such differences of opinion meant very little substantive work on CBMs could occur at the review conference.

More important in some ways than tangible achievements or failures was the intangible outcome, the psychological effect that the perceived success of the review conference will have on states-parties. In the run-up to the conference, the states-parties were in a metaphorical valley. Behind them lay the failure of 2001 and the verification protocol that cast its shadow over all work undertaken since then. Before them lay the mountain they had to climb to escape this shadow: the sixth review conference. Failure in 2006 would have further undermined confidence in the ability of states-parties collectively to address any of the problems with the convention. With this in mind, those states-parties that undertook some planning for the outcome did so with an eye on what was achievable rather than what was ideal. The steps forward may appear to be small or even inconsequential, but they were chosen carefully and after much deliberation.

As a result, any successful outcome was always going to be modest. There was never going to be a great leap of faith or an attempt to resolve known differences about the past. Now that the conference has passed, states-parties are freer to consider much broader issues, including those that remain politically contentious. The impact of such freedom may not be felt immediately, but new ideas for the BWC will begin to enter into play in the next few years.

Some of this new thinking will emerge organically as the program of work takes shape. Between 2003 and 2005, the codes of conduct debate blossomed beyond all expectations, yet its impact was not solely in the BWC context but in the sense of responsibility it injected into life scientists and the constructive debate between scientific communities and states-parties it engendered. Under the new work program, the discussions on peaceful cooperation offer the opportunity to move beyond rhetoric and platitudes about the relationship between disarmament and development and engage in some substantive discussions. Likewise, the question of assistance and support may open the door to progress on the issue of investigating incidents of noncompliance or violations of the convention. It is highly unlikely that states-parties will agree to new undertakings or additional understandings to provide assistance and support or protection in the event of biological weapons use without also finding a better means of investigating the perpetrators of such acts and bringing them to account for their actions.

Equally, the broad nongovernmental community and civil society actors may find a new lease of life in contributing to efforts by states-parties. For example, an international agreement or lack thereof does not present the largest obstacle to verification. Rather, it is a willingness to think about what verification of biological disarmament actually entails that is missing from many of the civil society and NGO debates. The undertakings in the convention are national undertakings within an international agreement. Compliance with the BWC is the responsibility of each state-party, and verification of compliance ought therefore to begin at home. The final declaration of 2006 includes a number of action points, from establishing points of contact to the submission of CBMs, from maintaining effective national implementation measures to promoting universal adherence by those 40 states that retain the option of biological weapons in their armories. The final declaration, along with its predecessors, is not a complete checklist, but a blueprint exists for what states-parties are expected to do to implement this convention. The expectations for implementation have been set by states-parties; are they going to meet them between now and 2011? Assessing what is being done and how does not rely on an internationally negotiated multilateral framework but on questioning national governments and inculcating a culture of demonstrating compliance through national transparency and action. There is plenty of scope to begin making each state more accountable for and transparent in its undertakings without a verification protocol modeled on Cold War arms control.

Those interested in seeing the global biological disarmament regime strengthened need to consider what it actually means, how it is managed in the real world, and where further work is still required. Space and time for thinking and action has now been created by the outcome of the sixth review conference. Whether that freedom is used creatively and to maximum effect or to rerun old debates that offer little prospect of resolution remains to be seen.

So What Does the Outcome Mean?

Contrary to some observations, the BWC is not in crisis. The convention is not about to break down, and its provisions have not been openly violated by any state. Furthermore, no state-party is threatening to withdraw from the convention. Although the United States continues to identify some, but not all, states it believes are in noncompliance with their obligations, the United States is not alone in its compliance concerns, even if it is the only one to publicly voice them. Despite this, the convention is not prone to collapse under the weight of unresolved noncompliance allegations. The scope of the convention is also not in doubt as there is agreement that the BWC covers all biological and toxin weapons, and its basic prohibitions are comprehensive enough to include all relevant scientific and technological developments regardless of the field of science from which they emerge.

Still, more work is required on actual implementation mechanisms, how to increase the quality and quantity of existing transparency mechanisms, and efforts to share information to demonstrate compliance with all obligations under the BWC.

The outcome of 2006 reflects what was possible at this conference. There is a danger with all review conferences of international conventions, not just the BWC, that such meetings become overburdened with issues, expectations, and demands. Review conferences, however, are a discrete form of international diplomacy. Their task is to review the operation of the agreement to ensure its purposes are being met. If the purposes of the agreement are not being met, then the task at hand is to attempt to reach agreement on collective actions that will steer implementation of the convention back on track. The task of a review conference is not to resolve all known problems, rectify all the deficiencies, remold the agreement every five years, or necessarily to increase or decrease the number of legally or politically binding obligations undertaken by states-parties. Just as an unsuccessful review conference does not signal the demise of a treaty, a successful review conference does not signal the fulfillment of all the treaty’s obligations or agreement on all known differences. To expect solutions to all known problems is to be wildly optimistic.

At its core, the sixth review conference was about putting past disputes behind the states-parties and laying the groundwork for further work to strengthen the anti-biological weapons regime. The BWC is the foundation of that work, and in 2006 those foundations were strengthened. The outcome creates both a political climate that can be wisely exploited and the conditions for additional work against biological weapons for the future gain of all. It is also an outcome that reflects the minimal expectations for implementation of the BWC between now and 2011 for 155 states-parties. The outcome may be modest, but it is a base from which to conduct more work collectively and not a ceiling or a proscribed limitation on what each state-party might do to implement the convention. Each state-party can go farther, do more, and undertake additional actions to strengthen the BWC over the next five years, and it can do so nationally, with its neighbors, with its allies, in concert with others, and with its BWC partners.


Another Pendulum Swing?

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) entered into force in 1975, and perceptions of the usefulness of the convention have oscillated between seeing it as a beacon of multilateral arms control and viewing it as irrelevant.[1] The last two decades have seen particularly significant shifts in international perceptions of the treaty.

During the 1990s, states-parties attempted to develop a legally binding compliance protocol to strengthen the convention.[2] In 2001 this effort fell apart. That failure, along with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and the later anthrax attacks led certain governments and sections of civil society to damn the convention as weak, ineffective, and out of step with the demands of the contemporary security environment.[3] The result was a widespread view that “something must be done” to enhance efforts at preventing biological weapons use. Disagreement on what that something was and how it was to be done resulted in very different political and practical approaches to bolstering the convention.

Some, such as the United States, believed that efforts to prevent the use of biological weapons had to be undertaken outside the convention through activities such as the Proliferation Security Initiative. Others, such as the hard-line members of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), believed that the events in 2001 underlined the need to return to multilateral negotiations on a compliance protocol without delay. A third group, including European countries, moderate NAM members, Australia, and New Zealand, favored a less-ideological approach to countering biological weapons that sought to make use of national and multilateral efforts, as well as everything in between.

The third group carried the day. The political fallout of 2001 was patched over in 2002 at the resumed session of the fifth review conference. An agreement laid out a work program over three years (2003 to 2005) on five topics, with the outcome of that work program to be considered in 2006 at the sixth review conference.[4]

During the intervening period, the work program, which began with very low expectations, developed into a serious and useful forum for considering how the convention should be implemented and which mechanisms had to be adopted by states-parties to fulfill their obligations. The success of the work program was such that, at the recent review conference, states agreed to a similar program for the next five years.[5]

International efforts also continued external to the convention. In 2004 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1540, requiring all states to take efforts to prevent biological and other weapons from falling into the hands of terrorist groups. In 2006 the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Counter Terrorism Strategy, which, inter alia, encouraged the secretary-general to improve the mechanism for investigating alleged use of biological and chemical weapons.[6]

Moreover, threat perceptions have changed. Although some nonstate actors have openly claimed biological weapons capabilities and threatened to use them,[7] fears of terrorists using sophisticated biological weapons have shifted from worst-case scenarios to a more measured assessment of the threat such groups posed in the immediate future.[8] Moreover, states do not appear to have taken advantage of perceived weaknesses in the BWC and recent scientific and technological developments by bolstering their armories with new weapons. Indeed, no state, whether party or not to the BWC, openly boasts of an offensive biological weapons program. The norm against state use of biological weapons and the legal embodiment of that norm, the BWC, are strong.[9]

Amid these changes, by early 2006 it was clear that a successful outcome to the sixth review conference was possible through agreement on a modest final document that aimed to consolidate the convention as the basis for action against biological weapons across a broad front.[10]



1. “Second Review Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction: Final Document,” BWC/CONF.II/SR.3, September 18, 1986, p. 6; Douglas J. Feith, “Biological Weapons & the Limits of Arms Control,” The International Interest, Winter 1986/87, p. 39; Iris S. Portny, “U.S. to Oppose Efforts to Change Biological, Toxin Weapons Treaty,” Washington Times, June 9, 1986.

2. Jez Littlewood, The Biological Weapons Convention: A Failed Revolution ( Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).

3. For the views of states-parties in 2001, see Graham S. Pearson, “The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention: Report From Geneva,” The CBW Conventions Bulletin, No. 54 (December 2001), pp. 13-26; John R. Bolton, Remarks to the 5th Biological Weapons Convention RevCon Meeting, Geneva, November 19, 2001; The Royal Society, “Controls of Biological Weapons Critically Weakened,” January 19, 2004 (media release); Carolyn M. Leddy, Remarks to “Future Measures for Strengthening the BWC Regime,” Tokyo, February 14, 2006.

4. “Fifth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction: Final Document,” BWC/CONF.V/17, 2002, pp. 3-4.

5. “Council Common Position 2006/242/CFSP of 20 March 2006 Relating to the 2006 Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention” (hereinafter March 2006 EU Common Position); “Intervention of Canada on Behalf of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, Sixth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention Preparatory Committee,” April 26-28, 2006 (hereinafter April 2006 Canada intervention); “Joint Declaration, Preparatory Committee for the Sixth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction,” April 26, 2006 (hereinafter April 2006 joint declaration.)

6. UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/60/288, September 2006.

7. Julie Stahl, “Palestinian Threat to Use Biological, Chemical Weapons Just a Bluff, Expert Says,” CNSNews.com, June 26, 2006.

8. Milton Leitenberg, “Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat,” U.S. Army War College, 2005; Malcolm Dando, “The Bioterrorist Cookbook,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December 2005.

9. John C. Rood, Remarks to the Sixth Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference, Geneva, November 20, 2006.

10. See March 2006 EU Common Position; April 2006 Canada intervention; April 2006 joint declaration.



Jez Littlewood is a research fellow at the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, University of Southampton, and a research associate at the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. Since 2005 he has been a part-time adviser on the Biological Weapons Convention to the Arms Control and Disarmament Research Unit of the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. He is author of The Biological Weapons Convention: A Failed Revolution (2005). The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.


1. Ambassador Masood Khan, “Closing Remarks of Ambassador Masood Khan of Pakistan, President of the Sixth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention,” Geneva, December 8, 2006.

2. Alan Pearson, “Modest Progress at the Sixth Review Conference,” BWC Observer, December 11, 2006.

3. “The Sixth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention: Success or Failure? An Interview With Jonathan B. Tucker,” CNS Research, January 4, 2007.

4. “Can the Line Against Bio-Terror Hold?” The Economist, December 16-22, 2006, pp. 60-61.

5. “Sixth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction,” BWC/CONF.VI/6, Geneva, December 8, 2006.

6. Oliver Meier, “States Strengthen Biological Weapons Convention” Arms Control Today, January/February 2007, pp. 27-29.

7. See Trevor Findlay, “Verification of the BWC: Last Gasp or Signs of Life?” Arms Control Today, September 2006, pp. 12-16; Roger Roffey et al., “Crucial Guidance: A Code of Conduct for Biodefense Scientists,” Arms Control Today, September 2006, pp. 17-20; Jonathan B. Tucker, “Preventing the Misuse of Pathogens: The Need for Global Biosecurity Standards,” Arms Control Today, June 2003, pp. 3-10; Christopher F. Chyba, “Biotechnology and the Challenge to Arms Control,” Arms Control Today, October 2006, pp. 11-17.

8. “European Union Council Common Position 2006/242/CFSP of 20 March 2006 Relating to the 2006 Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.”

9. “Statement by H.E. Ambassador Juan Antonio Fernández Palacios, Permanent Representative of Cuba, on Behalf of the Group of the Non-Aligned Movement and Other States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention at the Sixth Review Conference of the States Parties to the BWC,” Geneva, November 20, 2006.

10. Findlay, “Verification of the BWC”; Chyba, “Biotechnology and the Challenge to Arms Control.”

11. “Meeting the Challenges of Reviewing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention: Summary Report,” The Geneva Forum, March 2006; Nicholas Isla and Iris Hunger, “Building Transparency Through Confidence Building Measures” Arms Control Today, July/August 2006, pp. 19-25; “A New Strategy: Strengthening the Biological Weapons Regime Through Modular Mechanisms,” Verification Matters: VERTIC Research Reports, No. 6 (October 2006).

12. For a range of different views on confidence-building measures made public at the sixth review conference, see the opening statements by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, India, South Africa, and Russia, which are available at www.unog.ch.