Biological Weapons Review Conference: ICRC statement

08 November 2016

Eighth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, Statement by Christine Beerli, vice-president of the ICRC.

Poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease are unacceptable in any circumstances, and we must do everything possible to ensure that the life processes at the core of human existence are never manipulated for hostile purposes.

Society has long rejected poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease as abhorrent means of warfare. The prohibition of the use of biological weapons – embodied in the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) – is a rule of customary international humanitarian law. It is binding on all parties to all armed conflicts, be they States or non-State armed groups. The ban is absolute and far-reaching, covering everything from the hostile use of biological agents by individuals or groups for criminal or terrorist ends, to the penal sanctions that States Parties are required to impose nationally.

As emphasized in the final documents of past Review Conferences, and especially in light of continuing scientific developments, the absolute prohibition on use of biological weapons ‒ encompassing all biological agents, whatever their origin – must be reaffirmed by this Review Conference.

States Parties should not become complacent; it remains their collective and individual responsibility to ensure that the treaty is implemented effectively. Over the past five years of annual meetings, a great deal of information has been shared and many proposals have been made on how to implement the treaty and improve its effectiveness. Disappointingly, however, there has been little collective agreement.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) urges States Parties to seize the opportunity of this Review Conference to agree on concrete and practical measures, including an effective programme of work for 2017 and beyond, to reduce the risks to life and health posed by biological weapons and, ultimately, protect humanity from the horrific effects of these weapons.

 We have only to consider the devastating impact that outbreaks of diseases, such as Ebola, have had on public health, economic well-being, and national and international security to appreciate how important it is to prevent the deliberate, and even accidental, spread of disease.

Meanwhile, scientific and technological advances could make biological weapons cheaper to obtain, easier to use, deadlier in their effects and harder to detect. Scientists have pointed out that, in the five years since the last Review Conference, the technological barriers to developing and using biological weapons have been significantly lowered.

The ICRC proposes five concrete actions to strengthen the prohibition of biological weapons ‒ many of them contained in the working papers submitted by States Parties ‒ that should be taken as a result of this Review Conference.

First, States Parties should develop effective means to monitor and assess compliance with the BWC. Fifteen years after negotiations on a verification protocol failed, this fundamental issue deserves renewed attention. It is now time to explore the full range of ideas on and approaches to compliance monitoring. As a first step, the ICRC encourages this Review Conference to establish a working group – or similar process – to take this issue forward from 2017.

Second, States Parties must remain prepared to respond and assist each other in the event that biological weapons are used. Shared efforts to increase preparedness should focus on enhancing capabilities to assist victims of any such attack.

Practical support is therefore crucial to ensuring that the measures under Article VII on the provision of assistance are implemented. This Review Conference should establish a working group – or similar process – to agree on how to build up response capacity where it is lacking, improve coordination among those who may be involved, address current obstacles to providing an effective response and, ultimately, limit the repercussions in humanitarian terms of any use of biological weapons.

The ICRC has in the past drawn attention to the lack of international capacity to assist victims in the event biological weapons are used. The challenges made evident by the international humanitarian response to the outbreak of Ebola from 2014 to 2016 underscore the urgent need for progress in this area. Lessons learned from this natural outbreak can be used to improve the capacity to respond in a deliberate attack, as outlined in Working Paper 39, submitted by the ICRC to the August Preparatory Committee.

Third, the ICRC urges this Review Conference to establish an effective mechanism for assessing the implications of developments in science and technology for the BWC. States Parties must remain up to date with fast-moving scientific and technological developments and their potential risks in order to prevent the development and use of biological weapons while ensuring that biological research for peaceful and beneficial purposes remains unhindered.

Fourth, States Parties must continue their efforts to promote universal ratification or accession to the BWC. There is no reason why any State should not be party to the treaty. The ICRC welcomes the four new States Parties for 2016, Côte d'Ivoire, Angola, Liberia and Nepal and we urge all States that have not yet done so to ratify or accede to the BWC without delay. We also call on States still holding reservations to the Geneva Protocol to withdraw them.

Fifth, sustained effort is needed on effective domestic implementation of the treaty. Legally, as well as for public-health and security reasons, States Parties must ensure that their domestic laws reflect international obligations, and that appropriate biosafety, biosecurity, export-control and enforcement measures are in place. Because this is such a key area, the ICRC convened a meeting in early October of this year to facilitate sharing of best practices among government experts in the South Asia region.

Poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease are unacceptable in any circumstances, and we must do everything possible to ensure that the life processes at the core of human existence are never manipulated for hostile purposes.

In joining the BWC, States Parties have made a solemn commitment “for the sake of all mankind, to exclude the possibility of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins being used as weapons”. The world will be watching closely to see whether this commitment will be translated into action.