Arms Control:

Efforts to Strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention

GAO-02-1038NI: Published: Sep 30, 2002. Publicly Released: Oct 28, 2002.

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Joseph A. Christoff
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The proliferation of biological weapons--like nuclear and chemical weapons--has been a matter of great international concern. Attempts to prohibit the use of biological weapons include the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the Biological Weapons Convention, which went into effect in 1975. The Geneva Protocol bans the use of biological weapons but not their possession, while the Biological Weapons Convention bans the development, stockpiling, acquisition, and retention of these weapons. For more than 25 years, countries that agreed to the Biological Weapons Convensiton have recognized its shortcomings and discussed ways to strengthen it, including most recently a comprehensive draft protocol designed to improve compliance. In July 2001, the United States rejected this draft protocol asserting it would not deter would-be proliferators. Despite its rejection of the draft protocol, international efforts to deter the proliferation of biological weapons continue, driven by the suspected development of biological weapons in several nations and the anthrax attacks in the United States. The key strength of the Geneva Protocol and the Biological Weapons Convention lies in the international norm they have established against the use of biological weapons and an emerging norm against their development and possession; however, these treaties have no means of verifying compliance. The treaties are limited because they lack provisions for verifying compliance and have weak enforcement measures. Since 1994, member nations have developed and negotiated a comprehensive draft protocol to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention and improve its implementation. The draft protocol attempted to do this by requiring countries to list biological facilities and activities, providing for random site visits, and enabling the investigation of suspected violations, among other procedures. It also would have created an international organization to carry out these activities. The United States rejected the draft protocol, asserting that it would not deter countries that sought to develop biological weapons and that it could compromise national security information and proprietary business information. In the absence of protocol, the United States, the United Kingdom, and several experts and nongovernmental organizations proposed several measures for strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention, including (1) improving existing but weak mechanism to investigate alleged uses of biological weapons; (2) providing for voluntary information exchanges, visits, and clarification of concerns about compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention; (3) enhancing global infectious disease surveillance and response; (4) criminalizing violations by individuals of actions prohibited by the Biological Weapons Convention; and (5) establishing standards for access to and handling of dangerous pathogens and genetically engineered organisms.

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