Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention prohibited the production, possession, and use of biological weapons. The convention was historic because it was the first modern treaty to prohibit the possession and use of an entire class of weapons.

Summary of Event

In the twentieth century, the use of chemical and bacteriological agents in warfare was unusual. The scale of destruction that resulted from these types of agents hardly compares to the loss of life inflicted in armed conflict by conventional weapons. The first large-scale use of these types of agents in warfare occurred in World War I. In 1915, German troops changed the nature of the conflict when they released chlorine gas against Allied forces in France. The Allies quickly retaliated. The human cost of this type of warfare in World War I totaled approximately one million casualties, 10 percent of which were fatal. These experiences led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, Geneva Protocol which prohibited the use of poisonous gases and biological agents in warfare. This convention, concluded among the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, was an attempt to strengthen the 1899 Hague Gas Declaration, which had prohibited the use of “projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” By the mid-1980’s, this convention had 108 signatories, including all members of the United Nations Security Council. Biological weapons Weapons;biological Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (1972) Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (1972) [kw]Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons (Apr. 10, 1972) [kw]Biological Weapons, Nations Agree to Rules on (Apr. 10, 1972) [kw]Weapons, Nations Agree to Rules on Biological (Apr. 10, 1972) Biological weapons Weapons;biological Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (1972) Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (1972) [g]North America;Apr. 10, 1972: Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons[00680] [g]Europe;Apr. 10, 1972: Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons[00680] [g]Soviet Union;Apr. 10, 1972: Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons[00680] [g]United States;Apr. 10, 1972: Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons[00680] [g]United Kingdom;Apr. 10, 1972: Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons[00680] [g]England;Apr. 10, 1972: Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons[00680] [g]Russia;Apr. 10, 1972: Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons[00680] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 10, 1972: Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons[00680] [c]Human rights;Apr. 10, 1972: Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons[00680] [c]United Nations;Apr. 10, 1972: Nations Agree to Rules on Biological Weapons[00680] Nixon, RichardM. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;Biological Weapons Convention Kissinger, Henry [p]Kissinger, Henry;Biological Weapons Convention Brezhnev, Leonid [p]Brezhnev, Leonid;Biological Weapons Convention Merck, George W.

It is important to understand the basic differences between chemical weapons Chemical weapons Weapons;chemical and biological weapons. Chemical weapons are chemical compounds, smoke, and other materials which are designed to produce confusion, incapacitation, or death. Most chemical weapons fall into the categories of choking agents, blood agents, blistering agents, or incapacitating agents. Many experts would also include the use of nonlethal agents on populations and the use of herbicides to destroy forests or agriculture as examples of chemical warfare.

Biological warfare, often referred to as bacteriological or germ warfare, is the dissemination of pathogenic microorganisms in an attempt to incapacitate or kill military or civilian populations, animals, or plants. The primary difference from chemical weapons is that biological compounds kill humans by fostering diseases among entire populations. Biological weapons utilize pathogenic microorganisms that enter the body and produce illness through the ability of the microorganisms to replicate inside the body of the person exposed to these agents. Microorganisms that can be utilized in these weapons are bacteria, viruses, and parthenogenetic microscopic fungi.

Epidemics are possible with these types of weapons because the individuals that come into direct contact with contagious microorganisms are capable of transmitting these diseases to unaffected populations. Disease can also be spread through food contamination and insect bites. Examples of bacteriological agents that can produce incapacitation are viruses that can induce influenza and diphtheria. Potentially lethal agents that can be used in biological warfare are microorganisms that cause cholera, typhoid, and smallpox. Occupying a middle ground between chemical and biological agents are toxins, microorganisms produced originally by living organisms or manufactured synthetically that are not capable of multiplying inside infected individuals.

Efforts to control the production and possession of these types of weapons were not specifically addressed in the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Although the first use of asphyxiating or poisonous compounds was banned, poison gas was used by Italian forces in 1936 against Ethiopian forces who did not possess chemical capabilities. There is also evidence that gas was used by Japan in the late 1930’s against the Chinese.

Poison gas was not used extensively in World War II, apparently because of fears on both sides that chemical warfare would escalate, as it had in World War I. Both sides seemed to be reluctant to be the first to violate the Geneva Protocol in attacking states with chemical warfare capabilities. By the 1940’s, advances in chemical weapons and tactics had also made the potential costs of this type of warfare enormous.

Fearing German advances in biological warfare, in 1942 the United States began research into the production of weapons that utilized anthrax, botulism, and other biological agents. Although few biological weapons were produced by the United States, and later evidence established that Germany had done little to establish a biological arsenal, Allied forces inoculated approximately 100,000 soldiers against botulism toxins to convince the Axis Powers that biological retaliation was possible.

Research on and production of chemical and biological weapons by the Soviet Union and the United States escalated soon after the end of World War II. Citing the failure of the United States to ratify the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the Soviet Union falsely charged the United States with the use of biological weapons in Korea. In response to Soviet research and development, the United States increased its expenditures on chemical and biological weapons nearly twentyfold between the early 1950’s and 1969. There are also indications that by the mid-1950’s, official U.S. policy on the use of chemical and biological agents had been modified to decouple the United States from any treaties that prohibited first use.

In the 1960’s, there was increased international support for stronger controls on the development and possession of chemical and biological weapons. A 1966 resolution of the United Nations General Assembly called for continued observance of the 1925 Geneva Protocol and urged the acceptance of its principles by all states. The use of defoliants by the United States during the Vietnam War began to focus worldwide attention on the environmental risks involved in the development and testing of chemical and biological weapons. In response to congressional criticism, President Richard M. Nixon directed National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to review U.S. policy with regard to chemical and biological weapons. A 1969 National Security Council report recommended dividing the issues of chemical and biological weapons as well as maintaining the renunciation of the first use of chemical and biological agents as a separate issue. Nixon announced in November, 1969, that the United States would unilaterally destroy its biological weapons, would confine biological research to strictly defensive purposes, and would submit the 1925 Geneva Protocol to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification.

The U.S. support for controls on biological weapons closely resembled an existing resolution in the United Nations that dealt with the prohibition of the possession of biological weapons. In 1970, the head of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Gerald Smith, stated that the best hope for an international convention on biological weapons was contained in the British resolution to the U.N. Conference of the Committee on Disarmament that dealt with the prohibition of the production and possession of biological weapons, with chemical agents treated separately. By 1971, the Soviet Union and its allies reversed their previous position and agreed to treat the issue of biological arms separately from that of chemical weapons. The separation of the two issues drew criticism from a number of states in the U.N. General Assembly, which favored a comprehensive convention that would address both chemical and biological weapons.

The actions of the Soviet Union greatly facilitated flexibility in the negotiations on the possession and use of biological weapons. Although the 1972 treaty was intended to be a first step in an overall agreement that would limit the possession of chemical weapons, some toxic agents previously defined as chemical weapons were included in the 1972 agreement. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, also known as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention or simply the Biological Weapons Convention, declared that the forty-six signatory states would refrain from developing or stockpiling “microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production.” The convention was historic because it was the first modern treaty to prohibit the possession and use of an entire class of weapons.

Significance

Because biological weapons have not been used extensively in warfare, it is difficult to estimate the precise impacts of the 1972 convention. Critics have frequently referred to the lack of verification procedures as a major weakness in the 1972 convention. By the mid-1970’s, Western observers identified sites inside the Soviet Union as facilities capable of producing biological weapons. In 1979, Western intelligence sources pointed to an anthrax epidemic in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg, Russia) as evidence of military research and possible production of offensive biological weapons. The Soviets did not deny that the anthrax outbreak occurred but attributed it to the consumption of contaminated meat. Although many in the West used the epidemic at Sverdlovsk as proof of Soviet noncompliance with the 1972 convention, the evidence was far from conclusive.

Additional Western criticism of the Soviet Union was related to the controversy over “yellow rain.” Yellow rain In 1981, U.S. defense officials announced that Western intelligence sources had identified traces of biological material related to the trichothecene toxin in Southeast Asia. American officials charged the Soviet Union and its allies with the use of bacteriological weapons in Laos, Cambodia (Kampuchea), and Afghanistan. Although there was considerable debate about these charges, many leading scientists in the West concluded that these reports of yellow rain were not examples of biological warfare but rather naturally occurring environmental changes related to bee droppings.

In 1984, the United States proposed building a $1.4 million laboratory to conduct secret research on “substantial volumes of toxic biological aerosol agents.” Citing continuing Soviet research into biological agents in the 1980’s, the United States expanded its research on biological warfare. Congressional critics of the funding of biological research by Ronald Reagan’s presidential administration introduced legislation that suggested continued U.S. compliance with the 1972 convention.

It should be understood that the 1972 protocol did not prohibit research on or the possession of biological agents for protective or peaceful purposes. The problem with research of this kind is that similar processes are employed to develop offensive biological weapons and defensive vaccines. Research into these agents also makes it possible for governments to develop bacteriological weapons quickly in periods of international crisis. More than three-quarters of the world’s governments are party to the treaty. Biological weapons Weapons;biological Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (1972) Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (1972)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Valerie. Chemical Warfare, Chemical Disarmament. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. An excellent introduction to the subject of chemical and bacteriological weapons by a specialist in defense and arms control issues who has worked in the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense. Includes notations, tables, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawler, William. “Progress Towards International Control of Chemical and Biological Weapons.” The University of Toledo Law Review 13 (Summer, 1982): 1220-1253. Written by a senior political affairs officer in the United Nations Centre for Disarmament. An excellent history of U.N. efforts to promote the establishment of controls on biological and chemical weapons. Includes notations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lederberg, Joshua S. Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. Explores the history of attempts to control the use of biological weapons.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Littlewood, Jez. The Biological Weapons Convention: A Failed Revolution. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2005. A thorough assessment of the BWC from the early 1970’s to the early twenty-first century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mangold, Tom, and Jeff Goldberg. Plague Wars: The Terrifying Reality of Biological Warfare. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. An authoritative and exhaustive report on biological weapons and the biological warfare situation at the end of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seagrave, Sterling. Yellow Rain: A Journal Through the Terror of Chemical Warfare. New York: M. Evans and Company, 1981. An account of research and stockpiling of chemical and biological agents by the United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries. Examines in detail allegations of noncompliance with the 1972 convention. Includes notations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sims, Nicholas A. The Diplomacy of Biological Disarmament: Vicissitudes of a Treaty in Force, 1975-1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. An excellent account of the 1972 convention and its impact on the international community. Includes notations, appendixes, charts, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Study of the Historical, Technical, Military, Legal, and Political Aspects of CBW, and Possible Disarmament Measures. Vols. 3-4. New York: Humanities Press, 1973. A detailed account of the Geneva Protocol and other international efforts to outlaw chemical and biological warfare. Includes notations, a number of appendixes, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zilinskas, Raymond, ed. Biological Warfare: Modern Offense and Defense. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2000. Includes an assessment of how to stop the augmentation of biological weapons on an international level.

SALT I Is Signed

SALT II Is Signed

“Yellow Rain” Hearing

Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against Kurds

U.S.-North Korea Pact

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