Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention


The Biological Weapons Convention (also more properly, but less widely known as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention) is an international agreement that prohibits the development and stockpiling of biological weapons. The language of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)—drafted in 1972—describes biological weapons as "repugnant to the conscience of mankind."

According to the United States Bureau of Arms Control, as of December, 2003, there were 147 countries that were parties to the Biological Weapons Convention. An additional 16 countires were listed as signatory countries who had signed but not yet ratified the BWC.

The BWC broadly prohibits the development of pathogens—disease causing microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria—and biological toxins that do not have established prophylactic merit (i.e., no ability to serve a protective immunological role), beneficial industrial use, or use in medical treatment.

The United States renounced the first-use of biological weapons and restricted future weapons research programs to issues concerning defensive responses (e.g., immunization, detection, etc.), by executive order in 1969.

Although the BWC disarmament provisions stipulated that biological weapons stockpiles were to have been destroyed by 1975, most Western intelligence agencies openly question whether all stockpiles have been destroyed. Despite the fact that it was a signatory party to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the former Soviet Union maintained a well-funded and high-intensity biological weapons program throughout the 1970s and 1980s that worked to produce and stockpile biological weapons including anthrax and smallpox agents. U.S. intelligence agencies openly raise doubt as to whether successive Russian biological weapons programs have been completely dismantled. In June, 2002, traces of biological and chemical weapon agents were found in Uzbekistan on a military base used by U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan. Early analysis dates and attributes the source of the contamination to former Soviet Union or successive Russian biological and chemical weapons programs that utilized the base.

Evidence of continued biological weapons development and use in Iraq and Iran—both BWC signatory countries—became widely evident during their war in the 1980s. In the wake of the Gulf War, evidence of Iraqi development of prohibited biological weapons mounted throughout the 1990s. Although some weapons were subsequently destroyed by United Nations mandate, in January 2003 the United States Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented to the United Nations Security Council alleged evidence of Iraq's continued development of prohibited biological weapons.

As of February, 2003, intelligence estimates compiled from various agencies provide indications that more than two dozen countries are actively involved in the development of biological weapons. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment and the United States Department of State have identified a list of potential enemy states developing biological weapons. Such potentially hostile nations include Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, North Korea, and China.

The BWC prohibits the offensive weaponization of biological agents (e.g., anthrax spores). The BWC also prohibits the transformation of biological agents with established legitimate and sanctioned purposes into agents of a nature and quality that could be used to effectively induce illness or death. In addition to offensive weaponization of microorganisms and/or toxins, prohibited research procedures include the concentrating a strain of bacterium or virus, altering the size of aggregations of potentially harmful biologic agents (e.g., refining anthrax spore sizes to spore sizes small enough to be effectively and widely carried in air currents), producing strains capable of withstanding normally adverse environmental conditions (e.g., disbursement weapons blast), and/or the manipulation of a number of other factors that make biologic agents effective weapons.

Although there have been several international meetings designed to strengthen the implementation and monitoring of BWC provisions, BWC verification procedures are currently the responsibility of an ad hoc commission of scientists. Broad international efforts to coordinate and strengthen enforcement of BWC provisions remains elusive.



Cole, Leonard A. The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare. New York: WH Freeman and Company, 1996.

Dando, Malcolm. Biological Warfare in the 21st Century. New York: Macmillan, 1994.

Roberts, Brad. Biological Weapons: Weapons of the Future? Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1993.


DaSilva, E., "Biological Warfare, Terrorism, and the Biological Toxin Weapons Convention." Electronic Journal of Biotechnology. 3(1999):1–17.

Dire, D. J., and T. W. McGovern. "CBRNE—Biological Warfare Agents." eMedicine Journal 4(2002):1–39.


United States Department of State. "Parties and Signatories of the Biological Weapons Convention" December 11, 2002. < > (February 25, 2003).


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