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Rules prohibiting poisoning and deliberate spread of disease


 Biological weapons and international humanitarian law  




For many centuries poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease has been the subject of public abhorrence; they are proscribed in diverse cultures, religions and military traditions.

Despite the existence of these well-established norms, there are ample reasons for vigilance. Developments in the life sciences, and the wider spread of knowledge in these fields, are proceeding at a rapid pace. This, and the use of anthrax to spread terror in late 2001, validates concerns that long-standing restraints on the use of biological weapons may be ignored or eroded. Allegedly, offensive biological weapons programmes continue clandestinely in a number of States.

The ICRC considers any use of biological agents to cause illness, death or fear to be utterly repugnant and abhorrent. Such acts deserve universal condemnation, especially as they are banned by the 1925 Geneva Protocol1972 Biological Weapons Convention . The Biological Weapons Convention, moreover, comprehensively bans any development, production or stockpiling of biological weapons.

 International efforts to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention  


Renewed international momentum developed to tackle the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons after the end of the Cold War and the 1991 Gulf War. There was a final push for successful completion of a comprehensive and verifiable Chemical Weapons Convention in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, where lengthy negotiations had become moribund during the 1980s. This treaty was signed in 1993 and entered into force in 1996.

Biological weapons were to prove a trickier challenge, however. The Geneva Protocol and Biological Weapons Convention constitute a total ban on poison and deliberate spread of disease. But unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention, these international agreements do not contain verification measures to ensure confidence in compliance. In addition, as international inspections in Iraq during the 1990s were to discover, biological weapons programmes can be very difficult to detect because of the nature of the technologies involved. Nevertheless, an international group of Verification Experts (VEREX) mandated by the States parties to the Biological Weapons Convention reported that devising an effective scheme would, in principle, be f easible.

Consequently, States party to the Biological Weapons Convention set up an Ad Hoc Group to develop a legally binding protocol to the Convention containing a verification regime in order to check compliance with its prohibitions. The international community envisaged that such a treaty would contain measures such as mandatory annual declarations by countries of certain biotechnology activities, routine-type onsite activities to check the accuracy of these declarations and provision for full scale investigations of facilities thought to be used for the production of biological weapons or areas where unusual or suspicious outbreaks of disease had occurred. In addition, provision was to be made for technical assistance and cooperation for peaceful purposes as well as protective assistance to States attacked with biological weapons.

Under the leadership of its Chairman, Ambassador Tibor Toth of Hungary, the multilateral Ad Hoc Group process in Geneva laboured throughout the 1990s. There were many technical and political problems, especially as the life sciences themselves were rapidly evolving at the same time. By 2000 the draft protocol consisted of two volumes totaling several hundred pages, with several thousand sets of square brackets in the text. Each set of square brackets represented a specific point of disagreement between the negotiators.

By mid-2001, however, this had been boiled down into a Chairman’s ‘composite text’; a document purged of square brackets by Ambassador Toth and replaced by final language based upon his judgment about what the market could bear in a final product. The hope was that this composite text would be near enough the mark that the international community would agree to settle their specific differences in favour of the overall compromise it represented.

This was not to be. In July 2001 the United States, a key country in the negotiations, rejected th e Chairman’s ‘composite text’ and the square-bracketed draft protocol ‘rolling text’. The United States told the Ad Hoc Group it saw no reason to continue the protocol negotiations. Without the prospect of the United States'participation the Ad Hoc Group negotiations collapsed.

 The Fifth Review Conference and beyond  

The Biological Weapons Convention provides for a review meeting every five years, and in December 2001 its Fifth Review Conference was held. This meeting was fraught, partly because of the recent failure of the protocol negotiations, and was unable to agree on a Final Report. On its final day, the Fifth Review Conference was suspended for a year, to be reconvened in November 2002.

The ICRC in the meantime, prompted by these difficulties as well as broader concerns about the risk of poison and the deliberate spread of disease, launched a public appeal on ‘Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity’. One aim of this appeal is to draw more public and high-level political attention to multilateral processes to strengthen norms against poison and deliberate spread of disease, including the Biological Weapons Convention.

In November 2002, States parties to the Biological Weapons Convention were able to achieve a final outcome at the resumed review meeting. There was agreement to set up annual meetings of States Parties each year, until the next review meeting in 2006, as well as a deliberative Expert Meeting process to discuss various types of measures that could be of use in minimizing the proliferation of biological weapons. Many of the elements outlined above were included in the mandate of this group.

The Conference decided, by consensus, “to discuss and promote common understanding and effective action on:

  • the adoption of necessary national measures to implement the prohibitions set forth in the Convention, including the enactment of penal legislation;

  • national mechanisms to establish and maintain the security and oversight of pathogenic microorganisms and toxins;

  • enhancing international capabilities for responding to, investigating and mitigating the effects of cases of alleged use of biological or toxin weapons or suspicious outbreaks of disease;

  • strengthening and broadening national and international institutional efforts and existing mechanism for the surveillance, detection, diagnosis and combating of infectious diseases affecting humans, animals and plants;

  • the content, promulgation, and adoption of codes of conduct for scientists.”

The Expert Meeting process met for the first time in Geneva in August 2003, and discussed (i) and (ii). In addition, the 2002 resumed review meeting agreed to hold annual meetings of States parties to the Biological Weapons Convention, beginning in November 2003, until the Sixth Review Conference in 2006.

For documents relating to the Biological Weapons Convention and the Expert Meeting process, visite Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention website.