Progress on abolishing weapons of mass destruction


 The idea of a general agreement for an effective international ban on a weapon of mass destruction was born with the entering into force of the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC) on 26th March 1975.  Pretty much all the world signed up, the US, the UK and the Russian Federation were amongst those nations most prompt to sign and ratify the agreement.  Of non-signatories (only 23 nations) most are tiny states, such as the Cook Islands, Samoa, Guinea, which have not signed apparently because they could not conceive that the convention applied to or needed them.  The only non-signatory world power is Israel – perhaps a measure of the siege mentality in which that nation lives today.


The way in which the Convention has been drawn up and monitored is impressive.  Signatories, ‘determined for the sake of all mankind to exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological agents being used as weapons, convinced that such use would be repugnant to the conscience of mankind, and that no effort should be spared to minimise this risk’, agreed inter alia the following provisions:

1      To destroy ‘all agents, toxins, weapons equipment and means of delivery’.

2      Never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire’ microbial or other biological agents or toxins, or weapons, equipment or means of delivery.


States may only withdraw from the convention if ‘extraordinary events . . . have jeopardised their supreme interests’ [i.e., their ‘very survival’, to borrow a famous phrase from the ICJ judgement on the legality of nuclear weapons], and must give notice and an explanation to the UN Security Council of their intention to do so.


Regular reviews of the Convention are held at Geneva to check its efficiency in the light of modern developments.  Production and use of bacteriological and toxic agents for the prevention of disease is of course permitted.


The BTWC does not cover chemical weapons.  The Chemical Weapons Convention came into force much later, in 1997.  Member states represent an impressive 98% of the global population, and 98% of the worldwide chemical industry.  Its provisions are as strict as those for the BTWC.  Similarly, member nations undertake to destroy existing stocks or convert to peaceful purposes. An infrastructure including regular updating Conventions, legal experts to advise on possible breaches, technical support agencies to advise on environmentally sound destructive techniques etc. has been put into place.  The only non-signatories are Angola, North Korea, Egypt, Lebanon, Somalia and Syria.


The outstanding weapon of mass destruction not yet subject to a worldwide ban is of course the nuclear bomb.  In view of the outstandingly successful international cooperation evidenced by the biological and chemical weapon Conventions, it is natural to expect a similar agreement on the banning of these much more destructive weapons, and there is a growing international campaign with a Nuclear Weapons Convention as its aim.  Launched this year by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) focuses on the root causes of the problem – the possession of nuclear weapons by a small   minority of countries, who put the rest of the world at risk whether by accident, design, miscalculation or terrorist acquisition. 

Given that the international community has shown its ability to ban other weapons of mass destruction, what now stands in the way of a similar ban on nuclear weapons? So far, the few nuclear nations have resisted the pressure from the great majority to give up their weapon of mass destruction.


As far as the UK government is concerned, the official view is that we would willingly give up Trident provided other nations would give up their nuclear weapons.  Perhaps this is a genuine stance, and if so, it ought not to be beyond the wit of man to rid the world of the nuclear menace.  The BTWC proves it, and provides a model.