The Biological Weapons Convention Turns 40 — Are we any safer? – Janet Phelan

This year, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) celebrated its 40th birthday in Geneva, at the Palais Nacions. Amidst speeches and backslapping within the coterie of the BWC crowd, the question that hangs in the air is—Are we really any safer?

The Biological Weapons Convention was signed by the three depositary countries—Russia, Great Britain and the United States—in 1972 and entered into force in 1975. The announcement by the Nixon administration in 1969 that the US would unilaterally renounce the use of biological weapons and discontinue its biological weapons program provided an impetus towards the establishment of the treaty. 

Is this a treaty or what?

Unlike other disarmament treaties, the BWC has no verification protocol. What this means is that there is no way for the Convention to check to see if those who have signed and ratified the Convention are in fact abiding by its dictates.

In 2001, after several years of meetings and consultations, an Ad Hoc Committee presented to the Convention a verification protocol for approval. The US delegation walked out, boycotting the protocol. Due to the refusal of the US to approve the verification mechanisms, the BWC remains a paper tiger. It is, in reality, a treaty in name only, with no way to check on compliance and no way to deal with violations.

The US team boycotted the protocol only months before the attacks of September 11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks. Based on what turned out to be false statements that Iraq was hosting an offensive biological weapons program, the US invaded Iraq in 2003. The FBI subsequently allocated responsibility for the anthrax attacks to a Fort Detrick researcher, Dr. Bruce Ivins, who conveniently committed suicide on the eve of his probable arrest. Subsequent reports have cast doubt on the likelihood that Ivins was the culpritIn fact, the weaponized anthrax most likely came from a Battelle lab or from Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. 

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