Operationalising Article VII of the Biological Weapons Convention

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Article VII of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) foresees in the provision of assistance by States Parties to another State Party in case the latter has been exposed to a danger as a consequence of a violation of the Convention. However, the one-sentence provision does not provide any guidance on how a State Party should submit an assistance request, what type of evidence should accompany its request, or how other States Parties should respond to such a request.

Since the BWC’s entry into force in 1975, no State Party has triggered Article VII. However, rising concerns about possibilities of acts of terrorism involving biological weapons and increasing cases of natural epidemics requiring coordinated international responses, States Parties began looking at the concrete operationalisation of Article VII ahead of the Seventh BWC Review Conference (2011) . They decided to make the matter one of the key topics for the annual Meetings of Experts and Meetings of States Parties in between review conferences. When they first took up the topic of emergency assistance in 2014, the Ebola crisis in West Africa was peaking. And the issue became an important point of consideration at the Eighth Review Conference in 2016.

Even though BWC Article VII addresses incidents involving the deliberate release of pathogens, the COVID-19 pandemic ensures that States Parties will continue to seek ways of operationalising Article VII at the Ninth Review Conference. The publication reviews the origins of Article VII and how States Parties have interpreted the provision through common agreements and shared understandings reached at review conferences. Other chapters discuss possible procedures for submitting an assistance request and types of evidence a State Party exposed to a danger following exposure to a BWC violation could present. States Parties can also prepare for biological incidents. Africa has made great strides in this respect since the Ebola epidemic. In addition, other States Parties can also contribute to preparedness through cooperation and offers of assistance under BWC Article X. Finally, response to a BW attack may involve many international organisations and agencies whose primary mandates are public health and not the many security implications of deliberate disease in armed conflict or as a consequence terrorism. Coordination of their expertise and capacities conform their respective mandates after a BWC Article VII request is a challenge still awaiting not just BWC States Parties, but also each one of those organisations and agencies.