The pandemic has been a defining experience which has touched us all with its devastating human toll and societal and economic disruption. As COVID-19 continues to recede and governments around the world consider how to prevent future pandemics, we should be mindful of the mass destruction that would be caused by the deliberate use of infectious disease as a biological weapon – a threat that we must take seriously to prevent potentially more devastating consequences than those we have seen since 2020. Fortunately, there is an international norm against the weaponization of biology. Upholding this norm keeps us all secure and safe. The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) bans all such weapons and its 183 member states will meet in Geneva at the end of November for the purpose of reviewing that Convention, providing an opportunity for the international community to learn from the pandemic and address the threat of BW use by states and terrorists.
So, what needs to be done at the upcoming Ninth BWC Review Conference to make this happen? BWC Member States should responsibly embrace this moment to chart a new course which adapts the Convention to the evolving scientific, technological, and threat landscape and advances international measures to detect and deter biological weapons use. Canada and the Netherlands have proposed a path forward to achieve these goals – an initiative co-sponsored by the United States and 27 countries – which seeks the counsel of experts to adapt a 20th century treaty to the new realities and risks of the 21st century.
This year the world watched in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine and unleashed a campaign of lies and disinformation which included false and shameless claims that Ukraine with U.S. support was producing biological weapons in its public health facilities. Having failed dismally to persuade the UN Security Council to investigate its allegations, it is expected Russia will now seek to disrupt, and potentially derail, the review conference with its continued disinformation campaign. There is a dark and unmistakable irony to such allegations as Moscow falsely accuses others of the very transgressions Russia itself is perpetrating. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited a vast biological weapons program which it never declared or destroyed.
Treaty review conferences traditionally adopt a final report by consensus. At the recent Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in August 2022, no final report was achieved because only one country stood in the way of all nearly 150 others who had diligently negotiated, compromised, and agreed to a final document, with the exception of one, Russia. Now we head into the BWC Review Conference with the intention to diligently work with the other member states to reach a consensus, amidst a backdrop of political and other challenges.
Whatever the outcome of the BWC Review Conference, it is crucial that the international community heed the serious threat posed by biological weapons to the health of populations, the prosperity of economies, and the security of states. The U.S. will approach the BWC Review Conference with a spirit of cooperation, collaboration, and seek real discussions with States Parties. All States Parties should come to the upcoming Review Conference in good faith and together embrace our shared interests as countries and, more deeply, our common humanity as biological weapons respect no borders.
The preamble to the historic Biological Weapons Convention condemned the use of such weapons as “repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” We must condemn as a crime against humanity those who would use diseases as a weapon and impose severe consequences on any such perpetrators. The United States is committed to achieving a world free of biological weapons and we call upon all countries to join us.