Forty years ago today, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, better known as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), entered into force. It was the first multilateral treaty to ban an entire category of weapons.
The BWC continues to be an essential element in the international community’s efforts to prohibit and eliminate these weapons, the use of which the treaty declares “would be repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” 173 countries have joined the Convention, a significant accomplishment, but still not enough. Universal membership in the treaty would demonstrate humanity’s consensus that biological weapons are illegitimate and that all states have a responsibility to prevent anyone from obtaining them.
Since the BWC entered into force, the tremendous advances in science and technology that have made it easier to diagnose and treat diseases have also made it easier to develop biological weapons, including by terrorists. The same equipment and technical knowledge used to save lives can also be used to weaponize pathogens. This is not just a theoretical concern. We experienced this horror in 2001 when anthrax was sent in letters to Members of Congress and others, killing six Americans. The threat is continues today, as the technology to develop biological weapons is widespread and disguising such efforts is surprisingly easy.
Fortunately, the BWC requires States Parties to take measures not only to prohibit these weapons, but to implement this prohibition in their laws, regulations, policies and practices. This makes the Convention vital to the effort to stop the development of biological weapons by both state and non-state groups.
The BWC also facilitates preparedness for disease outbreaks, regardless of the cause. Of course, much of the critical infrastructure, technology and research needed to prepare for and respond to a biological attack are also necessary for the prevention of and response to natural outbreaks of disease. In fact, the recent Ebola outbreak is providing insights on how to prepare not only for both future naturally occurring health crises, but also for possible biological attacks. That is why the work of the BWC is and will continue to be so closely tied to global efforts to prepare for any type of public health emergency. Should the UN Security Council identify a biological weapons attack, the Treaty also obligates its Parties to provide assistance.
As we celebrate this anniversary, the United States is working to strengthen the BWC’s capacity to combat bioweapons proliferation and terrorism. Every five years, progress is assessed at a Review Conference. The next such meeting will take place in December 2016. At the Review Conference, we will emphasize the importance of effective national implementation and of transparency in conducting biological activities. Such efforts will help give Parties confidence in each other’s compliance. The United States also will press for greater international cooperation in managing the risks of “dual-use” research, that which can be applied to both constructive and destructive uses. And we will promote agreement among Parties on better ways to apply the lessons learned from managing disease outbreaks to preparations for international assistance in the event of the use of biological weapons.
For the last forty years, the BWC has been essential in establishing and implementing the strong international norm against biological weapons, which rank among the darkest manifestations of human ingenuity. The United States and other Parties must now look to the next forty years. Reaching universal adherence, ensuring strong and transparent national implementation, effectively managing dual-use capabilities, and preparing to deal with any use of biological weapons will not be easy. But strengthening the Convention to meet these challenges is a critical means of addressing the evolving threat of biological weapons.