Treaties relating to biology

The Geneva Protocol

International agreements to restrict the use of biological weapons in military disputes have a long history. After the First World War, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 ratified by Switzerland was aimed at prohibiting the use of asphyxiating warfare agents, poisons or other gases (i.e. chemical warfare agents) as well as the use of bacterial warfare methods. Although the Geneva Protocol is regarded as one of the most important multilateral agreements in chemical and biological warfare, its weak points are clearly evident: the prohibition only applies to their use, not to their development and production.

During the Second World War, the threat of biological weapons being used increased briefly. However, with the exception of Japanese operations in Manchuria, no biological weapons were deployed. Although production was arrested and arsenals were reduced, several countries ran offensive biological weapon projects until the 1970ies. End of the sixties, preliminary disarmament efforts were initiated, whereas the time appeared to be more mature for actions in the biological than in the chemical field; a fact that finally led to separate treatment of the two categories of weapons of mass destruction which had originally been jointly addressed in the Geneva Protocol.

Biological Weapons Convention

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972 and ratified by Switzerland was aimed at establishing a comprehensive ban on biological weapons, including toxins (Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction). The prohibition includes development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, retention and transfer of biological agents and toxins in kind and amounts that do not serve for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes. Furthermore, the convention requires the complete destruction of biological weapons within nine months at the most after the convention has entered into force. The BWC is thus the first multilateral treaty that comprehensively prohibits and bans an entire category of weapons. Its weakest point is the absence of a verification instrument to evaluate compliance with the provisions laid down by the BWC. Efforts to this effect failed in 2001after several years of negotiations. Credible verification is impeded by the multiplicity of possible interpretations regarding the distinction between defensive and offensive (i.e. legal and illegal) activities. Such uncertainty could jeopardise the entire treaty. To this day we have but confidence-building measures that require a certain measure of transparency between States Parties.

Every five years, a review conference is held. Until now, these conferences have always confirmed that the wording of the BWC is sufficiently open to also include future developments in science and technology. But joint discussions are increasingly being conducted on issues that also relate to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC); areas where biology and chemistry overlap, known as areas of convergence between the two fields.


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