Created August 9, 1994

BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS CONVENTION:
THE SPECIAL CONFERENCE AND BEYOND

The Biological and Toxin Weapons* Convention (BWC), which entered into force in 1975 and to date has been signed and ratified by 138 countries, seeks to eliminate this entire class of weapons of mass destruction by prohibiting the development, production, and stockpiling of pathogens and toxins "of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes." The BWC also bans munitions, equipment, or means of delivery designed for using biological or toxin agents for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.

During the two decades since the BWC entered into force, there have been increasing concerns about biological weapons proliferation and the ability of the Convention to deter it. At the Third Review Conference of States Parties to the BWC, held in Geneva in September 1991, the participating countries recognized the need to strengthen the implementation and effectiveness of the Convention, particularly given its complete lack of verification provisions. At the same time, the end of the East-West confrontation held out the prospect of greater international cooperation in the nonproliferation and disarmament fields.

In an effort to strengthen the BWC, the Third Review Conference reaffirmed and extended the voluntary confidence-building measures that had been agreed at the Second Review Conference in 1986. The Third Review Conference also mandated the convening of an Ad Hoc Group of Government Experts, open to all States Parties, to identify, examine, and evaluate from a scientific and technical viewpoint potential measures for verifying compliance with BWC prohibitions. This group was tasked to adopt by consensus a report of its work before the end of 1993, for consideration by all State Parties.

During four sessions held in Geneva between March 1992 and September 1993, the Ad Hoc Group (also known as "Verification Experts," or VEREX) assessed 21 potential off-site and on-site verification measures against six mandated evaluation criteria. In addition, the Group examined some illustrative examples of measures taken in combination. The Group's Final Report concluded that, because of the dual-use nature of nearly all biological weapons-related facilities, equipment, and materials, no single approach could fulfill the mandated criteria for a stand-alone verification measure. Nevertheless, the Group found that some measures, either singly or in combination, have the potential to strengthen the Convention by helping to differentiate between prohibited and permitted activities and thus to reduce ambiguities about compliance.

The Final Report of the Ad Hoc Group was circulated to all States Parties to the BWC for consideration. Consistent with the mandate, a majority of these countries requested the convening of a Special Conference to discuss the Final Report and decide on further actions. The Special Conference took place in Geneva on September 19-30, 1994.

To help deter violations of the BWC, and to enhance compliance with its prohibitions, President Clinton has announced that the United States will promote new measures to increase the transparency of activities and facilities that could have biological weapons applications. Accordingly, the U.S. objective for the Special Conference is a mandate to establish an Ad Hoc Committee to draft a legally binding protocol specifying a set of mutually reinforcing off-site and on-site measures. The United States would like the draft protocol to be completed in time for consideration and adoption at the Fourth Review Conference of the BWC scheduled for 1996.

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*Biological weapons are disease-causing microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, viruses, rickettsia, and fungi) an toxins (poisonous chemicals synthesized by living organisms), which could be used against humans, crops, or livestock to cause massive casualties or economic damage as a means of warfare or terrorism.