Arms Experts Offer Recommendations to Bolster Biological Weapons Ban at Critical Review Conference

For Immediate Release: November 17, 2006

Press Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball ([email protected]), +1-202-463-8270 x107 (Washington, D.C.); Oliver Meier ([email protected]), +49-30-4372-3970 (Berlin, Germany).

(Washington, D.C.): On Nov. 20, representatives of many of the 155 states-parties to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) will gather in Geneva for three weeks of deliberations on strengthening the treaty’s prohibitions against biological weapons. This will be the first opportunity for states-parties to conduct a full review of the accord since a fractious meeting of states-parties in 2001 dissolved after the United States blocked further negotiations on adding a verification protocol to the treaty.

To help foster greater understanding among the delegates and those following the upcoming review conference of the challenges facing the biological weapons ban, the independent nonpartisan Arms Control Association has released an Arms Control Today Reader. It includes six articles by leading experts in the field that first appeared in a special Arms Control Today series of BWC-related articles published this year, as well as three other recent articles on the impact of the rapidly changing life sciences field. The reader is available online at <>.

The reader also features an in-depth, exclusive interview with Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan, president-designate of the review conference. Khan outlines his perspectives on the challenges and possible solutions to the prevention of biological weapons proliferation in the 21st century. The ambassador says that he “will not use the lowest common denominator as the yardstick for success, but the median point that represents common ground.”

The upcoming review conference comes at a time when the enormous growth in biotechnology capabilities may make it easier for states and even non-state actors to acquire biological weapons. Meanwhile, growing concerns about the threat of bioterrorism following the anthrax attacks of 2001 have led many governments to substantially increase spending on biodefense research programs. In particular, the secretive U.S. biodefense programs undermine transparency and may involve experiments that could blur the line between offensive and defensive research.

Discord between the United States and other key states about the role of the BWC and arms control in general has led to uncertainty about how the treaty should adapt to these changes. Yet, the authors featured in the ACT Reader—and many diplomats—see the possibility for at least modest progress at the conference.

In recent years, the United States has pushed for implementing the treaty’s rules and prohibitions only at the national level. But the expert contributors to the reader assert that the response to the potential misuse of the life sciences for hostile purposes must be multilayered. In the long run, they say, the BWC must be strengthened through collective action by governments, industry, and scientists.

“Creating such a multilateral framework would strengthen the sense of ownership of all states-parties and reverse the current trend to portray biological weapons proliferation as a problem limited to a few ‘states of concern,’” writes Oliver Meier, international representative of the Arms Control Association, in the reader’s introduction.

The articles in the Arms Control Today Reader cover the full-range of issues and challenges facing the BWC and offer practical proposals for strengthening the treaty. These include:

  • Strategies for Accomplishing Modest Progress at the Upcoming Review Conference. John Borrie of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research and Nicholas Sims of the London School of Economics suggest strategies to avoid the acrimony of the last review conference.
  • A New Look at Verification and the BWC. Trevor Findlay of the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance looks at the future of verification issues and the BWC, including improving the UN Secretary-General’s ability to investigate alleged use of biological weapons.
  • Improving Transparency Among States-Parties. Nicolas Isla and Iris Hunger of Hamburg Center for Biological Arms Control examine the BWC’s confidence-building measure regime and suggest ways to improve states-parties' participation.
  • Addressing Biodefense Research. Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute for International Studies’ Center for Nonproliferation Studies warns that the secrecy surrounding biodefense programs may raise concerns that these programs are illicit offensive biological weapons programs. Roger Roffey of the Swedish Defence Research Agency and John Hart and Frida Kuhlau of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute suggest creating a code of conduct for biodefense scientists.
  • Harmonizing International Biosecurity Measures. Jonathan Tucker also looks at tightening biosecurity measures to prevent the misuse of dangerous pathogens.
  • Controlling the Threats Posed by the Rapidly Changing Life Sciences Field. Mark Wheelis of the University of California at Davis and Christopher Chyba of Princeton University look at how rapid technological advances may make it easier to produce and develop biological weapons or even create deadlier new pathogens.

The November issue of Arms Control Today also includes a detailed news analysis by Oliver Meier on the positions and proposals of key states on the issues likely to be on the conference agenda. The news story is available online at <>.

The Arms Control Association also maintains a subject resource page on biological weapons on its web site at online <>.

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The Arms Control Association (ACA) is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to promoting effective arms control policies. ACA publishes the monthly journal Arms Control Today.