Can this treaty be saved?

When the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was first signed in the 1970s, it was hailed as a step forward in disarmament. There was no effective enforcement mechanism, but at least the major powers had agreed to outlaw germ warfare. In the years since, it has became clear that the lack of enforcement left gaping ...

Getty Images/Dimas Ardian
Getty Images/Dimas Ardian
Getty Images/Dimas Ardian

When the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was first signed in the 1970s, it was hailed as a step forward in disarmament. There was no effective enforcement mechanism, but at least the major powers had agreed to outlaw germ warfare. In the years since, it has became clear that the lack of enforcement left gaping holes. The agreement failed to prevent the Soviet Union, aparthied-era South Africa and Saddam Hussein's Iraq from pursuing secret biological weapons programs. Jonathan B. Tucker, the author of Scourge and War of Nerves, and professor at Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany, says the treaty “lost a good deal of credibility."

Tucker has written a thorough and illuminating piece for Arms Control Today about the next review conference of the treaty, due this December. He points out that suspicions persist about noncompliance. The State Department's 2010 report to Congress noted that China and Russia have been less than full in disclosing past biological warfare programs, and suggesting that offensive programs may exist in Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria. Also, the treaty has only 163 member states, compared to 189 for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and 188 for the Chemical Weapons Convention. Tucker also says that fewer than half of the members participate in the annual confidence-building declarations. These forms were supposed to help boost transparency, since there is still no mandatory inspections or effective verification. But the confidence-building forms haven't even been revised since they were first instituted in 1991.

In the late 1990s, there was an effort to stiffen the treaty with a more forceful, legally-binding inspection procedure. This fell apart in 2001 when the Bush administration rejected it and the talks collapsed. The Obama administration has also shied away from the legal approach, and instead offered a "strategy" document on biological threats. Tucker criticizes the measures as "conceptually flawed or too weak to make much of a difference."

When the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was first signed in the 1970s, it was hailed as a step forward in disarmament. There was no effective enforcement mechanism, but at least the major powers had agreed to outlaw germ warfare. In the years since, it has became clear that the lack of enforcement left gaping holes. The agreement failed to prevent the Soviet Union, aparthied-era South Africa and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from pursuing secret biological weapons programs. Jonathan B. Tucker, the author of Scourge and War of Nerves, and professor at Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany, says the treaty “lost a good deal of credibility."

Tucker has written a thorough and illuminating piece for Arms Control Today about the next review conference of the treaty, due this December. He points out that suspicions persist about noncompliance. The State Department’s 2010 report to Congress noted that China and Russia have been less than full in disclosing past biological warfare programs, and suggesting that offensive programs may exist in Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria. Also, the treaty has only 163 member states, compared to 189 for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and 188 for the Chemical Weapons Convention. Tucker also says that fewer than half of the members participate in the annual confidence-building declarations. These forms were supposed to help boost transparency, since there is still no mandatory inspections or effective verification. But the confidence-building forms haven’t even been revised since they were first instituted in 1991.

In the late 1990s, there was an effort to stiffen the treaty with a more forceful, legally-binding inspection procedure. This fell apart in 2001 when the Bush administration rejected it and the talks collapsed. The Obama administration has also shied away from the legal approach, and instead offered a "strategy" document on biological threats. Tucker criticizes the measures as "conceptually flawed or too weak to make much of a difference."

But Tucker says there is a chance to improve the treaty and make a difference at the review conference. He urges the United States to take good advantage of it, and offers a useful list of ideas. The treaty entered into force 35 years ago, and looks dog-eared. Not only has it been repeatedly violated with impunity, but the rapid pace of change in biotechnology is making it seem less and less relevant. Can it be saved?

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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