History of the Biological Weapons Convention

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which effectively prohibits biological and toxin weapons, was opened for signature on 10 April 1972 and entered into force on 26 March 1975.

Historical context

The Geneva Protocol (formally known as the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare), was signed in Geneva in June 1925 and entered into force in February 1928. It represented the first important milestone towards a comprehensive ban on biological weapons by prohibiting their use. However, several States ratified the Protocol with reservations, both with respect to the Protocol’s applicability and regarding the use of chemical or biological weapons in retaliation. These reservations effectively rendered the Geneva Protocol a no-first-use agreement only.

Disarmament talks after the Second World War originally addressed biological and chemical weapons together. However, these discussions remained inconclusive for many years. Soon after States finalized the negotiations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, a UK initiative helped pave the way to overcome the impasse in the discussions on chemical and biological weapons. The UK submitted a working paper, which proposed to separate consideration of biological weapons from chemical weapons and to concentrate first on the former.

Negotiating the BWC

The BWC was negotiated in Geneva, Switzerland, within the Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament (ENDC) and the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (CCD) from 1969 until 1971.

On 5 August 1971, the USA and USSR tabled separate but identical versions of a draft BWC in the CCD. Agreement between the two superpowers marked the final stage of the negotiation of the Convention. The negotiation of the BWC was concluded by the CCD on 28 September 1971. The Convention was commended by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1971.

The BWC was then opened for signature at ceremonies in London, Moscow and Washington on 10 April 1972.

Entry into force

Article XIV of the BWC states that the Convention shall enter into force after the deposit of instruments of ratification by twenty-two Governments, including the Governments designated as Depositaries of the Convention (the Governments of the UK, USA and the USSR). After the deposit of the required instruments of ratification, the Convention entered into force on 26 March 1975.

Upon signing both the instruments of ratification of the BWC and the 1925 Geneva Protocol on 22 January 1975 in Washington, D.C., US President Gerald Ford stated that “This is a very auspicious occasion. I am signing today the instruments of ratification of two important treaties that limit arms and contribute to lessening the horror of war.” Subsequently, the USSR ratified the BWC on 11 February 1975 in Moscow and the UK ratified the Convention on 2 March 1975 in London.

On the day of the BWC’s entry into force, ceremonies were held in London, Moscow and Washington, DC. At the London ceremony, Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, David Ennals, said:

“The Biological Weapons Convention is significant as the first measure, reached since the Second World War, involving the destruction of existing weapons. Biological warfare was potentially a most frightening method of armed conflict. From today over 40 states are parties to this Convention, and have both renounced this entire class of weapons and undertaken to prevent their future development, by appropriate national measures. All governments for whom this Treaty formally enters into force today should gain satisfaction from having taken a step which will reduce the possibility of biological weapons being used in some future conflict.”