The Trench


BTWC — A weird kind of 40th anniversary

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Four decades have passed since the entry into force of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). The 173 states parties happily blew out the 40 candles on 26 March.  Rejoice we all did, and tomorrow, 30 March, a special commemorative event will take place at the United Nations in Geneva. In the very same room where the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (the forbear of the current Conference on Disarmament) negotiated the document. (For a brief overview of the birth of the BTWC, check out the dedicated web page prepared by the BTWC Implementation Support Unit.)

Yet, there is something weird about this anniversary.

First, in the United States a researcher published a commentary on the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists expressing his deep concern about the impact of a nuclear winter on the future of humanity following the use of this class of weapons. He argued that most of the the nuclear devices currently in the military arsenals should be replaced with other weapon categories that possess an equivalent deterrence value. In passing he mentioned non-contagious biologicial agents. The biological weapons (BW) community reacted strongly, and several academics have responded that BW are and should remain beyond the pale. Rightly so.

One can say many things about the BTWC, but one cannot deny that today not a single state — whether a party to the convention or not — will admit to possessing BW or maintaining an offensive BW programme. The treaty may have its intrinsic flaws, but the norm it embodies is strong. So, yes, it was strange to read on the eve of the 40th anniversary of a global disarmament treaty that an academic could still discern a future role for this class of weaponry.

Second, friends of the treaty sent out congratulatory messages via Twitter, blog postings or newspaper Op-Eds. The British daily The Guardian managed to publish two contributions on a single day. James Revill and Caitríona McLeish of the Harvard-Sussex Program, University of Sussex let the bells ring out (Happy birthday to the bioweapons convention), before warning on the possibility of creeping legitimisation of BW for deterrence purposes, as proposed by the US scholar mentioned earlier.

The other piece was written by Alex Spelling and Brian Balmer of University College London and entitled ‘Remembering an Overlooked Treaty‘.

An overlooked treaty? Since 2 March 2015, 173 states are party to the BTWC. This makes it the third most universal agreement regulating the acquisition, possession and use of weaponry after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (191 parties, including the State of Palestine) and the CWC (190 states parties).

Later in the piece, the authors ask: So, why has this disarmament treaty been neglected? This is a remarkable question, considering that the community of states parties has met twice or more annually in Geneva since the third review conference in 1991 and continuously engages in various regional or bilateral activities to strengthen regulatory frameworks or capacities to address challenges identified in the Geneva meetings.

The authors, of course, zoomed in on one formal characteristic of an arms control or disarmament treaty lacking in the BTWC: a verification machinery to systematically monitor compliance and detect treaty violations. However, neither they nor any of the commentators on the zany idea of BW deterrence offer an idea on how to remedy this deficiency — and I agree, it is a major one — in the near future.

2016 will be the year of the 8th review conference and the states parties will gather to plot the course of the BTWC for the ensuing five years and beyond. Now is really a time for bright ideas and thinking out of the box. Otherwise, on the 50th anniversary of the convention, people will still be lamenting an imperfect past or happily consider future roles for prohibited weapons.

Yes, happy anniversary to the BTWC. The future is challenging, but there is a future. People willing.

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