The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

Biological and chemical weapons are banned by two international treaties: the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1975, with 178 State Parties, and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1997, with 189 State Parties. In both cases, dual-use creates a particular difficulty: the same chemicals and biological agents can be applied for beneficial purposes, or serve as the core components of deadly weapons.

The CWC, negotiated with participation of the chemical industry, defines a chemical weapon by its intended purpose, rather than lethality or quantity. It allows for stringent verification of compliance: acceding to the CWC means mandatory destruction of all declared chemical weapons as well as their production sites – to be subsequently verified by appointed inspectors. 

The BWC is less prescriptive, which results in ambiguities and loopholes. Research is permitted under the Convention, but it is difficult to tell the difference between legitimate and potentially harmful biological research. States are required to “destroy or to divert to peaceful purposes” their biological weapons, but no agreed definition of a biological weapon exists. In addition, there is no secretariat to monitor and enforce implementation, except for a small support unit in Geneva, and no mechanism exists to verify destruction or diversion, despite efforts since 1991 to include legally-binding verification procedures in the BWC. Some lesser steps have been taken, including confidence-building measures on which State Parties are to report each April, and management standards on biosafety and biosecurity, but implementation is voluntary. 

States are required to “destroy or to divert to peaceful purposes” their biological weapons, but no agreed definition of a biological weapon exists.

Under the BWC, complaints can be lodged with the UN Security Council – which can investigate them – but no complaint has ever been made, and enforcement mechanisms do not exist. The CWC includes a provision for “challenge inspections” in case of suspected chemical weapons use – but again, it has never been invoked, not even in the case of Syria, though doubts about a chemical weapons program are regularly debated at the Security Council. Over the last three and a half years, 28 visits by the “Declaration Assessment Team” have not been able to clarify discrepancies and determine if Syria’s declaration is accurate and complete. Additionally, the security context and shifting territorial control present significant challenges in ensuring that prohibition is fully implemented within the country. In case of alleged use of chemical or biological weapons in countries not party to the conventions – like Syria in 2013 – investigations can be requested through the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons, concluded in 1988.

Only four UN countries are not State Parties to the CWC (Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan). The highest concern among those is North Korea, said to possess large quantities of chemical weapons which could be sold or traded to unscrupulous non-State actors. It also needs to be mentioned that neither the United States nor Russia have destroyed their large chemical arsenal, due to the cost and environmental challenges of chemical disposal. Both countries requested extensions of the deadlines imposed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, yet the existence of large stocks remain a risk.

In the 55 years since the BWC was negotiated, rapid advances in biotechnology have been made, which challenge our current governance models. The pharmaceutical and medical industries possess the tools and knowledge to develop biological weapons, and the Internet spreads this know-how to those who might use it for nefarious purposes. Biological threats do not respect borders and, as global travel increases, could quickly have a regional or even global impact. Terrorists could contaminate the water supply or release deadly bacteria, but it is also possible that the lack of lab safety could result in the inadvertent release of a virus or disease. The first step towards a solution would be to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. But leadership is also needed to place this issue at the right place on the global agenda, and may come from the UN Security Council, the G7 or the G20, coalitions of government and industry bodies, civil society groups, or one or more nations acting as global champions. 

Angela Kane

Senior Fellow, Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation; visiting Professor, Sciences Po Paris; former High Representative for Disarmament Affairs at the United Nations