BTWC @ 40: Morning impressions

On 30 March 2015 the 40th anniversary of the entry into force of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) was celebrated in the Council Chamber at the United Nations in Geneva, the same room in which the treaty had been negotiated.

In the morning the formal commemoration took place. About 100 people attended the celebration. Below are some impressions of that session (Please click for full-size images).

The full programme and texts of remarks are available from the website of the BTWC Implementation Support Unit.

(All pictures by myself.)

The general setting of the 40th anniversary event

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Opening speeches

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Addresses by the three Depository States: Russia, UK and USA

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Guests of honour: Amb. Masood Khan and Dr Caitriona McLeish

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(Civil society academic session to follow.)

Flashback: 30th anniversary of the BTWC (2005)

On 24 March 2005 the BioWeapons Prevention Project  (BWPP) and the Geneva Forum co-organised a seminar in the Palais des Nations in Geneva to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

It was a tense time: the 5th review conference in 2001 had basically failed and following a one-year suspension, the states parties were able to agree on a work programme that eventually became known as the ‘intersessional process’ — a series of meetings of experts followed by meetings of states parties. In 2005 people began looking towards the 6th review conference that was to take place the next year. Expectations were not very high: saving a troubled treaty was back then the primary goal, The BTWC Implementation Support Unit did not yet exist; the small unit was to be one of the positive outcomes of that review conference.

For the meeting the BWPP and the Geneva Forum invited three speakers to highlight the (then) past, present and future of the BTWC: Erhard Geißler (Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine), Nicholas A. Sims (London School of Economics and Political Science) and John Borrie (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research).

Today, a commemorative event will take place in Geneva; the academic session in the afternoon jointly organised by the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP) of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) will revisit some of the themes raised 10 years ago.

It is a good moment to reflect on what the issues were back then. The BWPP published an Occasion Paper with the three presentations: 30 Years of the BTWC: Looking Back, Looking Forward (June 2005), which is here now again available for download.

BTWC — A weird kind of 40th anniversary

Four decades have passed since the entry into force of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). The 173 states parties happily blew out the 40 candles on 26 March.  Rejoice we all did, and tomorrow, 30 March, a special commemorative event will take place at the United Nations in Geneva. In the very same room where the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (the forbear of the current Conference on Disarmament) negotiated the document. (For a brief overview of the birth of the BTWC, check out the dedicated web page prepared by the BTWC Implementation Support Unit.)

Yet, there is something weird about this anniversary.

First, in the United States a researcher published a commentary on the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists expressing his deep concern about the impact of a nuclear winter on the future of humanity following the use of this class of weapons. He argued that most of the the nuclear devices currently in the military arsenals should be replaced with other weapon categories that possess an equivalent deterrence value. In passing he mentioned non-contagious biologicial agents. The biological weapons (BW) community reacted strongly, and several academics have responded that BW are and should remain beyond the pale. Rightly so.

One can say many things about the BTWC, but one cannot deny that today not a single state — whether a party to the convention or not — will admit to possessing BW or maintaining an offensive BW programme. The treaty may have its intrinsic flaws, but the norm it embodies is strong. So, yes, it was strange to read on the eve of the 40th anniversary of a global disarmament treaty that an academic could still discern a future role for this class of weaponry.

Second, friends of the treaty sent out congratulatory messages via Twitter, blog postings or newspaper Op-Eds. The British daily The Guardian managed to publish two contributions on a single day. James Revill and Caitríona McLeish of the Harvard-Sussex Program, University of Sussex let the bells ring out (Happy birthday to the bioweapons convention), before warning on the possibility of creeping legitimisation of BW for deterrence purposes, as proposed by the US scholar mentioned earlier.

The other piece was written by Alex Spelling and Brian Balmer of University College London and entitled ‘Remembering an Overlooked Treaty‘.

An overlooked treaty? Since 2 March 2015, 173 states are party to the BTWC. This makes it the third most universal agreement regulating the acquisition, possession and use of weaponry after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (191 parties, including the State of Palestine) and the CWC (190 states parties).

Later in the piece, the authors ask: So, why has this disarmament treaty been neglected? This is a remarkable question, considering that the community of states parties has met twice or more annually in Geneva since the third review conference in 1991 and continuously engages in various regional or bilateral activities to strengthen regulatory frameworks or capacities to address challenges identified in the Geneva meetings.

The authors, of course, zoomed in on one formal characteristic of an arms control or disarmament treaty lacking in the BTWC: a verification machinery to systematically monitor compliance and detect treaty violations. However, neither they nor any of the commentators on the zany idea of BW deterrence offer an idea on how to remedy this deficiency — and I agree, it is a major one — in the near future.

2016 will be the year of the 8th review conference and the states parties will gather to plot the course of the BTWC for the ensuing five years and beyond. Now is really a time for bright ideas and thinking out of the box. Otherwise, on the 50th anniversary of the convention, people will still be lamenting an imperfect past or happily consider future roles for prohibited weapons.

Yes, happy anniversary to the BTWC. The future is challenging, but there is a future. People willing.



Conference Report from IAI Conference on Coercive Diplomacy, Sanctions and International Law

I just received today a link to a very fine conference report of the excellent conference on coercive diplomacy, sanctions and international law in which both I and Marco Roscini participated last month at the Instituto Affari Internationali in Rome. This conference report is remarkably thorough, providing an excellent summary of the presentations, including mine beginning on pg. 24.  I’m currently revising my paper, which will be published along with the other conference papers in a volume under contract with Brill.

I again wish to thank my friends at the IAI for including me in this very successful conference. In particular, Professor Natalino Ronzitti, Nicoletta Pirozzi, and Elisabetta Farroni.

Biological Weapons Convention 40th Anniversary Event – Programme

In my previous blog posting I noted the organisation of a special event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the entry into force of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC / BWC) on 30 March. The event takes place in the Council Chamber of the United Nations in Geneva and prior registration is required.

The programme consists of two parts:

A light lunch will be available and the afternoon session will be followed by a reception.



Academic Session

14:00–15:15 Making progress in strengthening the BWC

Chair: Dr Jean Pascal Zanders, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP)

  • Dr Ursula Jenal, Jenal & Partners Biosafety Consulting, Biorisk management: awareness, responsibility and codes of conduct
  • Dr Gary Burns, Independent Consultant, Development of an ISO Laboratory Biorisk Management Standard – can ISO/AWI 35001 help in supporting the BTWC?
  • Dr Piers Millett, BioSecure, Science, Technology & the BWC: staying relevant for the next 40 years

15:15–15:45 Coffee break

15:45–17:00 Future challenges for strengthening the BTWC

Chair: Ms Kerstin Vignard, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research

  • Mr Nicholas Sims, Emeritus Reader in International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science, What Future for Biological Disarmament?
  • Dr Gunnar Jeremias, Research Group for Biological Arms Control, The future of confidence building in biological arms control
  • Dr Iris Hunger, Robert Koch Institute, A new international order for extraordinary public health risks? Norms, actors, modes of interaction

17:00–18:00 Reception

Location: Council Chamber, United Nations, Geneva

Invitation: Biological Weapons Convention 40th Anniversary Event

Forty years ago, on 26 March 1975, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC)—the first multilateral treaty to effectively prohibit an entire class of weaponry worldwide—entered into force.

The Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP) of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) would like to invite you and your colleagues to a seminar to mark the 40th anniversary of this Convention on Monday 30 March 2015.

This academic seminar is convened by the CCDP, GCSP and UNIDIR from 14:00 to 17:00 to reflect on the current challenges and future options for the BWC. It is organised with the support of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This event will take place in the Council Chamber of the Palais des Nations, Geneva. This venue has historical significance as it is the room in which the BWC was negotiated by the Committee of the Conference on Disarmament before being finalized in 1971. Prior to the seminar, there will be a formal commemorative event organised by the BWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) with the assistance of the Chairman of the 2015 BWC meetings and the Depositary Governments of the BWC, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. An invitation from the Chairman of the 2015 BWC Meetings and more details can be found here.

A light lunch will be available to participants and a reception follows the afternoon session.

If you would like to attend the seminar, please register here  by 25 March 2015. Attendees without passes to access the Palais des Nations will need to complete the attached registration form [download here] in order to be cleared through UN security. You will have to present it together with valid identification.

Updated information on the programme will be available from a dedicated page by the BWC Implementation Support Unit.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Keith Krause, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP)

Dr Gustav Lindstrom, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP)

Mr Jarmo Sareva, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research


Point of contact: Mr Marc Finaud, GCSP (

LA Times Reports the IAEA is Unlawfully Sharing Safeguards Information with the U.S. Government

I saw this story in the LA Times from yesterday, entitled “Top-Secret U.S. Replica of Iran Nuclear Sites Key to Weapons Deal.” After talking with friends, the paragraph that strikes me most in this story is this one, with my added emphasis:

U.S. officials won’t comment on the classified research, which is being conducted at an undisclosed location in the United States. But former officials and private analysts say American agencies have constructed models of the Iranian facilities, relying on informants in Iran, information from foreign governments and voluminous data about Iran’s program collected by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

So to cut to the chase, this new replica enrichment facility – which I can’t help thinking of as a Madurodam for US nuclear engineers (“Bill, look at the little Iranian nuclear scientist, he’s going into the centrifuge hall. And look, there’s a little Mossad figure on a motorcycle outside, waiting to kill him when he goes home from work.”). Ok, that got too tangential and too weird to continue. Let’s start that sentence again.

So to cut to the chase, this new replica enrichment facility that the US has built, was based inter alia on “voluminous data” that the US obtained from the IAEA. What?!? But Article 5(b) of the Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA provides that:

The Agency shall not publish or communicate to any State, organization or person any information obtained by it in connection with the implementation of this Agreement . . .

So how did the US government get this “voluminous data” from the IAEA? And isn’t it not OK that this happened?

This isn’t the first time that concerns have been raised about the IAEA’s inability to keep confidential information obtained through safeguards implementation in Iran. Iranian officials have complained of exactly this sort of thing happening before. And, coincidentally, the IAEA just today released a statement by Iran communicated to the agency, which on page 3 contains an entire section devoted to expressing Iran’s concerns about the IAEA’s  inability to keep information gained through safeguards implementation confidential.

But while it isn’t the first time these concerns have been raised by Iran, it is the first time I know of that a major news outlet has reported this inappropriate information sharing by the IAEA as a fact.

If what the LA Times has reported is accurate, then it’s hard to see how this isn’t a serious violation by the IAEA of its safeguards agreement with Iran. Maybe there are other explanations for how the US government got this information from the IAEA, that don’t involve bad faith by the IAEA. I don’t know. But I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

Suspicions of arms control inspection agencies being used as tools of Western espionage are not new. Allegations of this type are basically what killed UNSCOM, the first incarnation of the UN’s arms control inspection agency in Iraq after the first gulf war.

It is an absolute imperative for the IAEA to be seen as above reproach when it comes to its ability to keep confidential information obtained through safeguards implementation. If it is not so perceived, its credibility as an independent monitoring and verification body, and its effectiveness in performing this role, will be seriously undermined.