Insight Outcome of the Sixth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention, November-December 2006 By
David P. Fidler
February 23 , 2007
Volume 11, Issue 3
From November 20 to December 8, 2006, the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and On Their Destruction of 1972 (BWC) held their Sixth Review Conference. With the aim of excluding completely the possibility of biological agents and toxins being used as weapons, the BWC prohibits States Parties from developing, producing, stockpiling, or otherwise acquiring or retaining biological weapons. BWC States Parties convene every five years to review the operation of the BWC and to take into account political, scientific, and technological developments relevant to the treaty. BWC States Parties and non-governmental experts on biological weapons control considered the Sixth Review Conference important given events at and since the Fifth Review Conference. This Insight provides the background to the Sixth Review Conference and describes the outcome of the Conference.
The BWC Protocol, the Fifth Review Conference, and Changes Affecting Arms Control for Biological Weapons
Significant concern about the BWC emerged in the early 1990s after revelations about the biological weapons programs of the former Soviet Union and Iraq. In the mid-1990s, BWC States Parties began negotiating a protocol to the BWC that would create verification machinery to strengthen compliance with the treaty’s prohibitions. The negotiation process neared completion in 2001 as BWC States Parties prepared for the Fifth Review Conference. In July 2001, the United States announced its opposition to the BWC Protocol and attempted to terminate the Protocol negotiation process at the Fifth Review Conference in December. Other BWC States Parties responded angrily to the U.S. move, and the Fifth Review Conference was suspended without the States Parties issuing a final declaration. The States Parties reconvened in 2002 and agreed to hold a series of meetings from 2003-2005 on issues important to the BWC. Experts began referring to these intersessional meetings as the BWC’s “New Process” agenda.
As the BWC process pursued the BWC Protocol and then experienced difficulties after the Fifth Review Conference, the scientific, technological, and political context of biological weapons control changed significantly. Rapid advances in the biological sciences and biotechnology created more powerful tools for manipulating microbial life, raising concerns about terrorist exploitation of new scientific capabilities. The globalization of the biological sciences and pharmaceutical research presented traditional arms-control verification strategies with increasing difficulties. The anthrax attacks in the United States in October 2001 accelerated changes in U.S. policy on biological weapons the Bush administration had started to make.
These and other developments produced actions that altered the international legal environment concerning biological weapons. The Security Council adopted legally binding resolutions concerning terrorism generally (Resolution 1373 (2001)) and proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their means of delivery to non-State actors specifically (Resolution 1540 (2004)), both of which had impact on biological weapons policies. Resolution 1540, in particular, overlapped with obligations in the BWC concerning the adoption and implementation of effective national laws prohibiting non-State actors from developing, possessing, and acquiring biological weapons and their means of delivery. The World Health Organization’s new International Health Regulations, adopted in May 2005, included within their scope responses to public health emergencies of international concern caused by the intentional use of biological, chemical, or radiological agents. In addition, other international organizations, such as Interpol, became more active on biological weapons issues. Strategies to address the biological weapons threat expanded beyond the BWC, making the governance context more complex in terms of the number of actors involved and approaches taken.
The Sixth Review Conference
The failures of the BWC Protocol negotiations and the Fifth Review Conference and the transformations in the policy environment concerning biological weapons increased the significance of the Sixth Review Conference. Many proposals to strengthen the BWC were made in advance of the Conference, such as universalizing the BWC’s membership, strengthening the existing system of confidence-building measures (CBMs), improving national implementation, establishing more intersessional meetings, providing the BWC process with more independent scientific advice on developments in the biological sciences, enhancing public health preparedness and response capabilities, and creating permanent institutional support for the BWC.
On December 8, 2006, the Sixth Review Conference issued its Final Report, which contained the Conference’s Final Declaration and the decisions and recommendations the States Parties reached. The primary achievements of the Sixth Review Conference were (1) completion of an article-by-article review of the BWC, the first time the States Parties completed this task since the Fourth Review Conference in 1996; (2) agreement on promoting universalization of BWC membership; (3) establishment of intersessional meetings from 2007-2010 on topics of importance to the BWC (see Table 1); and (4) creation of an Implementation Support Unit to provide administrative assistance for the BWC process.
• Ways and means to enhance national implementation, including enforcement of national legislation, strengthening of national institutions and coordination among national law enforcement institutions.
• Regional and sub-regional cooperation on BWC implementation.
• National, regional and international measures to improve biosafety and biosecurity, including laboratory safety and security of pathogens and toxins.
• Oversight, education, awareness raising, and adoption and/or development of codes of conduct with the aim to prevent misuse in the context of advances in bio-science and bio-technology research with the potential of use for purposes prohibited by the Convention.
With a view to enhancing international cooperation, assistance and exchange in biological sciences and technology for peaceful purposes, promoting capacity building in the fields of disease surveillance, detection, diagnosis, and containment of infectious diseases: (1) for States Parties in need of assistance, identifying requirements and requests for capacity enhancement, and (2) from States Parties in a position to do so, and international organizations, opportunities for providing assistance related to these fields.
Provision of assistance and coordination with relevant organizations upon request by any State Party in the case of alleged use of biological or toxin weapons, including improving national capabilities for disease surveillance, detection and diagnosis and public health systems.
The Sixth Review Conference did not, however, reach agreement on an action plan for improved national implementation of the BWC because of disagreements between developed and developing countries about how to reconcile BWC obligations against proliferation with provisions on facilitating exchange of information, materials, and technology for peaceful purposes. The States Parties also did not change significantly the system of CBMs, beyond authorizing creation of an electronic system for CBM submissions. Nor did the Sixth Review Conference address the contentious issues of verifying compliance and increasing transparency of national biodefense activities.
The President of the Sixth Review Conference praised the outcome, arguing it produced historic results. Non-governmental experts were, however, more guarded in their assessments. Pearson argued, for example, that the Sixth Review Conference’s outcome represented only “very modest” progress, while Tucker argued that “the fact that the modest accomplishments of the Sixth Review Conference were hailed as a ‘success’ suggests how dysfunctional the biological arms control process has become.”
Debate and concern about the BWC’s role in countering the threat of biological weapons will, therefore, continue and intensify, particularly as more initiatives in this area, such as the UN forum on biotechnology proposed by Kofi Annan in 2006, affect policy and governance strategies.
About the author
David P. Fidler, an ASIL member, is Professor of Law and Harry T. Ice Faculty Fellow, Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington and Member of the ASIL Insights Editorial Board.
 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and On Their Destruction, Apr. 10, 1972, 11 ILM 309 (1972).
 For information and coverage of the Sixth Review Conference, see United Nations, Sixth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention, at
Copyright 2006 by The American Society of International Law ASIL
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