Biological weapons are indiscriminate killers, posing an existential threat to humans, animals, plants, and the environment. Fifty years ago, on April 10, 1972, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) opened for signature. This treaty marked an important milestone in nonproliferation and was the first ever to ban an entire category of weapons.
The BWC prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling, and retention of biological and toxin weapons. The BWC enshrines into law the global community’s longstanding conviction that biological and toxin weapons are fundamentally immoral and unacceptable. It entered into force on March 26, 1975. Over the fifty years that have followed, the BWC has been quite successful in its mission, despite drastic changes in science, technology, and geopolitics. Today, more than 180 countries have become party to the BWC and no state has used biological weapons for many years.
Over the past fifty years, BWC States Parties have taken numerous steps to strengthen responses to this existential threat. For example, they have affirmed that animals, plants, and humans can all be targets of biological weapons; elaborated what steps States Parties can take in the event of an alleged violation of the Convention; and developed confidence-building measures to increase transparency and confidence. By promoting the exchange of relevant equipment, materials, and information, BWC States Parties have helped improve their capabilities to combat infectious disease and other biological threats. They have also worked together to ensure that the Convention is implemented without hindering economic and technological development.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake up call to the world that we that must act together to prevent and mitigate future biological threats.
Over the past two years, the global COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our shared vulnerability to emerging infectious diseases. This has been a wake up call to the world that we that must act together to prevent and mitigate future biological threats. This is especially important because international collaboration has contributed to revolutionary advances in life sciences and technologies in recent years, and we have in turn become cognizant that such advancements can create opportunities not only for progress, but also for the use of diseases as weapons. This makes it even more urgent that States Parties to the BWC work together now to address potential challenges posed by this rapid evolution of science and technology.
As the threat of both biological weapons persists and disinformation about them grows, the time has come to breathe new life into the BWC. Nations must break out of old mindsets and take concrete, actionable steps to revitalize it. The United States strongly believes that the current political stalemate surrounding the Convention, one that has stymied progress for two decades, cannot continue.
We will have a prime opportunity to strengthen the BWC and address present-day biological threats at its Ninth Review Conference, scheduled to take place later this year. The United States is unwavering in our support for the Convention and eagerly anticipates working with our fellow States Parties to meet the moment and ensure that this critical nonproliferation treaty can guard us against the biological threats of the 21st century.
Kathryn Crummitt is an intern in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.