BioWeapons Prevention Project

BioWeapons Prevention Project
Civil society preparations for the 7th BWC Review Conference 2011 The Authors

Do we need verification for the BWC and how could it look like?

Concluding Summary

This discussion is finished. Click here to download the concluding summary.

VERTIC - "BWC Verification: This is not the time to forget the gap" - 16 March 2011 ↓expand↓

Verification remains a missing component for a sturdy international prohibition on the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological weapons. This year, the parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) will hold their seventh review conference. In the lead-up to this event, key state parties may want to review their positions on whether and, if so, how this treaty could be verified.

Beyond doubt, it will be challenging to build a fool-proof verification regime. But at least the nature of the challenge is well defined. The two main questions contained in the mandate of the Ad-Hoc Group of Governmental Experts to Identify and Examine Potential Verification Measures from a Scientific and Technical Standpoint (VEREX) remain valid. A verification system should be able to answer:
  • Whether a State Party is developing, producing, stockpiling, acquiring or retaining microbial or other biological agents or toxins, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or peaceful purposes; and
  • Whether a State Party is developing, producing, stockpiling, acquiring or retaining weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict (BWC, 1993).

It is possible to verify some aspects of compliance with a greater degree of assurance than others. For instance, verifying that a state has used a biological agent may be more difficult to verify than that a state is not stockpiling such agents. Several known verification problems persist: how can you attribute the use of a biological agent to a state? How can you ensure that the state has accurately and truthfully declared all its stocks of biological agents? While difficult, these questions are not unique to biological weapons. Similar questions face most verification regimes.

The primary function of a verification system is to detect instances of non-compliance. However, the system also serves other important roles: the risk of detection may deter a state from engaging in non-compliant behaviour. Indeed, experience has shown that even very low detection probabilities (in many cases less than five per cent) may act as a deterrent, if verification activities are carried out regularly. It is also important to keep in mind that the verification regime may help build confidence that the other parties are behaving in a compliant fashion.

According to most of the literature, getting agreement on verification for the BWC has always faced and still faces three main hurdles:
  1. Many of the materials and technology concerned are ‘dual use’, which means that they can be used for both civilian and military purposes. For instance, botulinum toxin has both proper medicinal uses but also has potential as a biological weapon (Arnon, 2001).
  2. The availability of suitable materials and equipment for biological weapons production makes verification difficult. Hospitals, universities, and other suitably equipped laboratories may all have the material and equipment to produce banned items (Wilson, 2001).
  3. Attribution of an act of non-compliance with the BWC is complicated by the ease with which unlawful activities can be hidden. There is no need to stockpile weapons. Biological facilities may be ‘cleaned up’ easily or disguised into seemingly peaceful centres of activity. Advances in biological science and technology are fast and often unpredictable making it tough for both law enforcement and policy-making officials to keep pace (Tucker, 2010).

At present, any effort to arrive at a system of verifiable compliance as part of the BWC must be realistic about the current US position on the topic. As Ellen Tauscher announced in 2009, ‘The Obama Administration will not seek to revive negotiations on a verification protocol to the Convention. We have carefully reviewed previous efforts to develop a verification protocol and have determined that a legally binding protocol would not achieve meaningful verification or greater security’ (Tauscher, 2009).

Tauscher’s comment reflects the view that monitoring compliance through a verification protocol may be difficult without excessive intrusion that would risk commercial and national secrets and interests. The US may also feel that a verification regime would undermine defensive programmes in their research against offensive biological weapons. However, a closer investigation of this assumption may be called for—especially against a backdrop of recent research that suggests that existing US regulations already impede research (Dias, 2010).

Until political issues are resolved, however, a modular approach to strengthening the treaty should be undertaken. This involves addressing distinct areas of weakness within the treaty—including through the continued exploration of verification measures. According to Nicholas Sims, the key priorities for the Seventh Review Conference would be to:
  • Renew the mandate of the ISU for a further five years;
  • Enhance ISU funding;
  • Plan the establishment of a Standing Secretariat;
  • Formalise a BTWC Annual Meeting;
  • Create a Scientific Advisory Panel;
  • Establish a Legal Advisory Panel;
  • Clearly Identify National Contacts (Sims, 2009).

However, while the convention is shored up in this gradual but steady manner, it would be a disservice to the BWC membership to outright dismiss verification considerations. The debate may have prematurely moved from the technical to the political. The verification debate is not forgotten, but it is often not seen as a suitable, or politically sensible, time to raise the issue anew. Clearly, a verification system can be conceptualized, and discussed. However, despite the work done by VEREX and other groups, the issue does not seem to be well understood. The verification debate today appears to be based on opinion. The word ‘verification’ carries with it an unjustified stigma.

Verification of the BWC has come to be seen by some as something impossible, almost unachievable. Those on that side of the debate argue that compliance cannot be verified with absolute certainty. Therefore, any system put in place only serves to lull the member states into a false sense of security. However, the same can be said about almost every verification regime in place today. Consider the debate in the Conference on Disarmament on whether a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) can be verified. Here, some argue that any verification regime will be too costly and too intrusive to be appetizing. They add seasoning to their argument by remarking that the system, indeed any system, also cannot verify compliance conclusively. Yet, this group of thinkers often also supports the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards system—without reflecting that this system will in all likelihood form the basis for any FMCT verification regime.

Certain aspects of verification may not, in fact, be impossible. Critically examining what the verification requirements would be for development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use would be useful (essentially revisiting the mandate of the VEREX group). The BWC membership may not necessarily need to construct a protocol that adequately addresses all items and activities contained in the main prohibition. Instead, the verification system could rephrase the verification objective in another, functionally subordinate document. Again, inspiration could be drawn from the nuclear safeguards system. It ought to be recalled that no organization is verifying compliance with Article I of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Instead, the International Atomic Energy Organization verifies compliance with their own safeguards agreements. As noted above, few query the usefulness of this—seemingly imperfect—system.

The time to discuss verification may not be here yet. But the issue should not be forgotten. Without a government debate on the matter, it remains with organizations such as the BioWeapons Prevention Project, to keep the discussion alive.

  • Stephen S. Arnon et al., Botulinum Toxin as a Biological Weapon, The Journal of the American Medical Association, 28 February 2001, available at
  • BWC, Ad Hoc Group of Governmental Experts To Identify And Examine Potential Verification Measures From a Scientific and Technical Standpoint, Biological Weapons Convention, United Nations, Geneva, 24 September 1993, BWC/CONF.III/VEREX/8, available at
  • M. Beatrice Dias, Leonardo Reyes-Gonzalez, Francisco M. Veloso and Elizabeth A. Casman, Effects of the USA PATRIOT Act and the 2002 Bioterrorism Preparedness Act on select agent research in the United States, Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the United States Of America, 10 May 2010, available at
  • Nicholas A. Sims, Midpoint Between Review Conferences: Next Steps to Strengthen the BWC, Disarmament Diplomacy 91, Summer 2009, available at
  • Ellen O. Tauscher, Address to the Annual Meeting of States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention, Geneva, 9 December 2009, available at
  • Jonathan B. Tucker, Seeking Biosecurity Without Verification: The New U.S. Strategy on Biothreats, Arms Control Today, available at
  • Henrietta Wilson, The Biological Weapons Convention Protocol: Politics, Science and Industry, Vertic Research Report 2, available at


Amy E. Smithson - "What does industry say on verification?" - 30 March 2011 ↓expand↓

The assertions of official sources should be critically examined, particularly when the officials have vested interests in the outcome of a policy debate that has implications for national security or business profits. Such is the case with assertions that monitoring of commercial biological facilities for the purposes of assessing compliance with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention’s prohibitions would be a futile endeavor that results in the loss of confidential business information. According to a July 1998 position paper from PhRMA, the principal trade association for the US industry, providing data about and allowing on-site inspections of US pharmaceutical companies “entail risks to commercial facilities including the potential loss of proprietary information, risks to commercial reputations, and added regulatory expenses that ultimately affect the cost and availably of medicines and other widely-used products.” In rejecting the composite text for a BWC verification protocol in on 25 July 2001, US Ambassador Donald Mahley said that “the draft Protocol would put national security and confidential business information at risk.”

In view of these widely publicized positions, many may be surprised to learn of the radically different position advanced by a group of senior scientists with decades of experience in drug discovery and management of laboratories and production facilities for the US pharmaceutical industry, unhampered by the conflicting policy interests that handicap trade associations and governments. Specifically, industry experts argue that BWC compliance inspections of pharmaceutical facilities will be viable-that a facility engaged in legitimate peaceful commercial activities can be distinguished from one that is masking a bioweapons program-and that the inspection process will not compromise trade secrets. The highlights of the views of industry experts below are elaborated in the following trio of reports:

When polled about whether it would be possible to detect areas of inconsistency with a commercial site’s stated purpose, these industry veterans projected that in seven areas the expected efficiency of an inspection would be high or very high (e.g., downstream processing, supplies), in three areas it would be medium to high (e.g., animal facilities, degree of concern with product integrity), in three areas it would be medium or low to medium (e.g., waste handling and treatment systems without a sample), and in one area it would be low (e.g., procedures). On the whole, in other words, a team of appropriately skilled inspectors would be able to sniff out signs that a facility is engaged in activities prohibited by the BWC. To achieve effective inspections, the industry experts banked on the tools typically found in an inspectors’ toolkit, namely site tours with observation, document review, interviews, checking of the culture collection, and sampling. Of note, the industry experts said that legitimate companies would have no objection to providing a sample of a site’s finished product(s). In the event that inspectors uncovered noteworthy inconsistencies with a site’s stated purpose(s), the industry veterans proposed that the inspectors take samples anticipated to clarify the matter, store them under the appropriate conditions in a lockbox on site, and attempt to resolve discrepancies via other inspection methods. Should efforts at resolution fail, then the samples would be analyzed using validated assays. In short, rather than shy away from sampling, the industry experts advocated using sampling as necessary with procedures that balance the interests of the inspected site and the inspectors’ need to ascertain compliance. Their philosophy is reminiscent of the balancing done with managed access procedures in the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Of note, significant experience underpins the monitoring approach that the industry experts espouse. Having been on the receiving end of countless visits from potential business partners and other visitors, not to mention inspections from the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory authorities, these scientists were extremely well versed in the procedures needed to protect trade secrets from prying eyes and with the rigors of an inspection process. FDA inspectors can appear on the doorsteps of pharmaceutical companies with no notice, exhaustively look into records and any nook and cranny of a site, and stay as long as they would like until the aims of their inspection are satisfied. Thus, when the industry experts were showed the 2001 draft protocol provisions after they had devised their own inspection approach, the group recoiled at the small number of inspectors proposed and the brevity of the site tour, among other inspection parameters contained in the composite text. These no-nonsense scientists gave the draft protocol a “D,” quipping that an “F” sometimes denotes creativity. More to the point, the industry argued that a more rigorous inspection protocol would be needed if the inspectors were to have a fighting chance to discern whether illicit activity was taking place at a large, complex pharmaceutical facility.

One sure sign that advocates of a proposal are confident they are right is when they are also willing to put their proposal to the test. In the last of their trio of reports, Resuscitating the Bioweapons Ban, the industry experts designed a detailed roadmap for trial inspections to test their proposed inspection approach. Their trial inspection game plan included procedures for auditing the culture collection, review of documentation, cross-checking between various inspection processes, and final product and in-process sampling, not to mention various forms that the inspectors could employ to facilitate their activities. Regrettably, the US government has not seen fit to resume trial inspections. The administration of George W. Bush declared the BWC “inherently unverifiable,” while Barack Obama’s has concluded that a monitoring protocol would be incapable of achieving “meaningful verification or greater security.”

Before anyone simply accepts the claims of unverifiability and compromise of trade secrets, one should consider the richly detailed proposal of seasoned industry insiders who approached the quandary of BWC inspection of pharmaceutical facilities in a pragmatic, problem solving fashion that counterbalanced the needs of compliance monitoring with the protection of their industry’s confidential business information. The industry experts approach is bound to make those who would be content to close the book on any effort to negotiate an effective verification protocol for the BWC uncomfortable because it resonates with scientific rigor and common sense and it is based on extensive, genuine experience. Given prominent examples where states have hidden bioweapons program behind the façade of industrial facilities, the industry experts’ proposal deserves to be field tested. Just as was the case with the Chemical Weapons Convention, who better to provide critical assistance to craft a workable, meaningful verification protocol for the BWC than industry?


Margaret E. Kosal - "Scope and structural challenges to effective verification and the BWC" - 2 May 2011 ↓expand↓

Creating, implementing, and executing effective verification entails two critical challenges, in this commentator’s view, and they are not the usual ones cited. The two main challenges are scope and structure. How the first, scope of verification, is to be resolved will directly affect the challenges of the second.

Is the scope of BWC verification constrained to mid-twentieth century technology, biological weapons, and weaponization techniques? Are we just looking for that handful of traditional microbiological species that are CDC Category A, B, & C agents? Should verification efforts be limited to the traditional pathogenic bacterial and viral-based weapons? The risks associated with weaponized Bacillus anthracis, etc. have not gone away. Rather, in terms of likelihood of biological weapons proliferation, they remain arguably the largest risks and the mid-twentieth century capabilities have arguably diffused the furthest.

Some would look to the BWC text and assert that a verification regime unequivocally could not be limited in any such way. At the same time, the most intrusive verification regime agreed upon by the international community is based on a delineation of inspection targets. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) has its Schedules of Chemicals as a critical part of its inspection and verification regime. That argument can only go so far, however. From a realist perspective, the stronger counter-argument against articulation of CWC-like Schedules of biological agents, materials, and equipment is that it would effectively provide a list of what to avoid if one wanted to cheat to potential proliferators.

Globalization and the information revolution have made new technological developments accessible and relatively inexpensive to many nations and within the grasp of non-state actors. Advanced technology is no longer the domain of the few. In the 21st century, both nation-states and non-state actors may have access to new and potentially devastating dual-use technology.1 Advances in biotechnology and information technology have been driven by needs for improved biomedical products, public health, or industrial applications. The Internet and other communication leaps have led to much greater visibility into the availability and potential for technology. Either intentionally or not, these advances have also fostered the proliferation of knowledge, as well and spurred interest in the creation of novel non-traditional offensive uses of advanced technology.2 Without a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) or institutionalized means to provide advice on truly emerging technologies with implications for biological proliferation, how would a BWC verification protocol avoid becoming an artifact of, at best, late 20th Century microbiology and engineering?

The most effective institution to achieve verification for 21st Century challenges of biological weapons proliferation is not likely to resemble the dominant – & often quite effective – institutions of Cold War era nuclear verification. That is most certainly a model from which biological weapons nonproliferation community has and should continue to learn, but it should not be one on which the international community relies too heavily or on which any nation rests its confidence for securing any emerging technology, biological or otherwise. The perils – owned as this commentator’s characterization – of modeling approaches to limiting biological weapons proliferation too closely to nuclear approaches have been eloquently discussed previously.3 Too often, policymakers have given into the temptation (or been pushed) to incorporate approaches to biological agents under the auspices of strategies associated with nuclear weapons, particularly with respect to material control. Yet this undermines and simplifies many distinct and differing characteristics of biological agents and nuclear material. One such method often attempted is focusing on pathogen security, or securing and denying access to the materials necessary to develop biological weapons. With nuclear weapons, securing and safeguarding fissile material is a reasonable goal because of key characteristics of the ingredients, notably the distinct uses of highly enriched uranium, the origin of the substance, and the technologies associated with the processes. Those same characteristics that make nuclear weapons amenable to tracking are make biological weapons material difficult to monitor and verify. These characteristics include presence in nature, production costs, diversity of material, and other legitimate uses. While many active members of the biosecurity and biological nonproliferation communities recognize this,4 one does not have to travel far to encounter someone espousing a biological agents variants of “Materials, Protection, Control, and Accountability.” The structure should learn from but not be wedded to nuclear models.

An effective verification regime for reducing the threat of biological weapons in the 21st century is more likely to resemble an intelligence agency than a traditional arms control office. The structure to take on the potential full scope of biotechnology has to be able to absorb and respond to uncertainties to be most effective, particularly if it is to have a deterrent effect on potential proliferators. While the BWC, and other international mechanisms, does help create international “norms” that condemn the use of biological agents for state or non-state use as a weapon, alone it does not constitute a deterrent. A verification regime could provide the global support for deterrent strategies if credible attribution were achieved. For it to be credible, the uncertainties have to be acknowledged and methods to address them to be formulated, tested, and institutionalized. While intellectually provocative and useful in strategic planning contexts, delineating lists of likely future biological weapons threats is a risky game at best. The reasonable and acceptable uncertainties of biological verification need to be explored and in more than a cursory way. The devil and the real work are ultimately in the details of resolving the scope and structure.

  1. National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences, National Academies Press, 2006.
  2. National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism. National Academies Press, 2004.
  3. Marc Ostfield, “Pathogen Security: The Illusion of Security in Foreign Policy and Biodefense,” Int. J. Risk Assessment and Management, 2009, 12, p. 205.
  4. Susan B. Martin “The Role of Biological Weapons in International Politics: The Real Military Revolution,” The Journal of Strategic Studies, 2002, 25, pp 63-98.

VERTIC - "A focus on intent and data protection will move the verification debate forward" - 20 June 2011 ↓expand↓

Amy Smithson’s and Margaret Kosal’s contributions highlight important and interesting features of the verification debate as it relates to the BWC today. In an atmosphere in which compliance mechanisms seem so far away, and where some commentators consider the previous attempt at a BWC protocol text to be fundamentally flawed1, it is necessary to consider the options anew, from first principles. This includes both the role of industry and the scope of possible verification.

Concerns over proprietary information loss are considerable, and understandable. Relevant industries such as pharmaceutics are particularly research-intensive, with medicines taking typically over a decade to develop at huge cost, and with only a tiny fraction of chemical and biological compounds discovered coming into use after testing and development.2 The value of information and the need to protect it is a legitimate one, and provisions must be found to accommodate this. Back in 2004, Trevor Findlay bemoaned the fact that there has been no ‘large-scale, transparent exercise to demonstrate the case either way.'3 The US has conducted two trial inspections in 1995 and 1996, which concluded that information loss was a problem. The UK has also conducted trials, concluding that managed access techniques could offset these problems.4 The evidence is therefore currently unsatisfactory.

It seems that the UK envisaged the possibility that some kind of workaround to the risks of leaked information could be developed since it was prepared to push for managed access arrangements to be included in the draft text of the protocol (before the Bush administration pulled out of the process in 2001).5 Today, the Obama administration, having determined against pursuing a legally binding protocol, has not offered the danger of commercial information loss as a reason for this stated position, instead focusing on the difficulty of effectively verifying compliance in ‘the rapidly changing nature of the biological weapons threat.’6 With US leadership so crucial in this regard, it may be that this omission, if intentional, could open possibilities for future negotiations to move beyond this issue. The examples of careful handling of restricted data at the OPCW (which works closely with industry) and the IAEA Department of Safeguards over many years may also serve to strengthen the argument for managed access.7

As the US position has remained steady in the transition from the Bush to Obama administrations, despite the journey across the political spectrum and the relative enthusiasm for international engagement in the new leadership, it seems clear that any progress in negotiations must begin from a refreshed base. The scope of any future monitoring process is one of the most important issues to consider, and as Kosal points out, the unique properties of the components of offensive BW programmes may require the formulation of an entirely new kind of verification. This ‘dual-use’ problem, in which the knowledge and equipment needed to grow and weaponise biological agents can be legitimately developed in a large array of civilian activities, may force the focus of a regime more on intent than on capabilities. More study into this will probably be needed: as Henrietta Wilson has pointed out for VERTIC, many states have concluded that indeed ‘despite the dual-use factor, experts can distinguish between licit and illicit activities’ with an adequate degree of confidence.8

Such a determination likely depends on not only degrees of confidence but also degrees of acceptable uncertainty combined with degrees of deterrence achieved. Further interactions between nations and between government and industry can only help bring a consensus closer.

  2. Henrietta Wilson, VERTIC, Verification Matters Number 2.
  7. and
  8. Henrietta Wilson, VERTIC, Verification Matters Number 2

Johannes Rath - "Experiences from UNSCOM/UNMOVIC1,2" - 24 June 2011 ↓expand↓

Do we need verification for the BWC?

The answer should be a clear “Yes” when looking at the experience gained from the work of UNSCOM/UNMOVIC in Iraq. What has become clear from this work is that: Firstly, even in light of a strong global position against such weapons, States still actively research and develop such weapon systems. Secondly, during the time monitoring and verification missions were in place and initiated, no new biological weapons research or development was done.

How could verification look like?

It is important to distinguish two important dimensions of such a control regime – the technical and the political dimension; both will need to be addressed and satisfied in order to establish a widely acceptable verification regime.

The technical side of verification3

In order to implement UNSCR 715 and 1051, UNSCOM had developed a comprehensive approach to address the issue of verification in the biological weapons context. It consisted of a declaration mechanism in combination with independent verification. This was complemented by surprise inspections to identify non-declared items. UNSCOM developed lists of relevant pathogens and dual-use equipment, which formed a core element in defining declaration requirements and the sensitivity of sites.

Almost 15 years after UNSCOM had defined and developed the above-mentioned concepts, biology has progressed rapidly. New concepts (e.g. synthetic biology), technologies (e.g. DNA synthesizing) and key information (e.g. genome sequences of pathogens) were not available 15 years ago and are not adequately addressed in the UNSCOM/UNMOVIC procedures. These new developments may pose substantial challenges to new verification and monitoring mechanisms. For example, in light of new DNA technologies renewed consideration should be given to what actually constitutes an agent that should be monitored or to define adequate thresholds as in the context of pathogen production. The focus on large and sophisticated fermentation units might not be sufficient any longer.

The political side of verification

The complex history of UNSCOM/UNMOVIC provides lessons learned on the political dimension of a biological weapons verification system as well. A first key lesson is that, if such a control regime is to be sustainable, it will need acceptance by the country under verification. Iraq had successfully demonstrated that even a UNSC Chapter VII Resolution could not ensure the continuous implementation of a verification regime, if the country under verification does not comply. Therefore, verification should be linked to clear incentives for the countries involved and foreseeable consequences in cases of non-compliance.

A second lesson relates to the distribution of the burden of proof and its use in a political context. UNSCR 687 obliged Iraq to declare ALL activities in the area of weapons of mass destruction. Such an obligation is not verifiable, as it would ultimately require verification that no such weapons exist in the country – an impossible endeavour in the light of empiricism. The challenges in implementing this mandate provided the grounds for reliance on often non-verifiable and biased national intelligence service information and vagueness in the reports provided to the Security Council by both UNSCOM and also UNMOVIC.

Summary There is no need to reinvent the wheel in the context of biological weapons monitoring and verification. Many practical lessons on how to do or not to do it can be learned from the UNSCOM/UNMOVIC experience. The IAEA safeguards mechanism with an impartial and credible institution might be a suitable way forward in ensuring political acceptance of a global biological weapons verification regime. As with the IAEA safeguards mandate, it should have a clear focus on the verification of declared materials and provide incentives for signing up to the verification mechanisms.

  3. Rod Barton The Application of The UNSCOM Experience To International Biological Arms, Critical Reviews in Microbiology (1998), Vol. 24, No. 3: p. 219-233.


Amy E. Smithson - "Time to de-politicize the verification debate!" - 12 July 2011 ↓expand↓

Of all of the terms in the arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation lexicon, surely none has inspired more analysis and prose than the word “verification.” A quick check of reveals over 150 books opining on the subject and there are untold journal articles, not the least of which is Fred C. Ikle’s 1961 Foreign Affairs missive, “After Detection-What?” More specifically, for all that has been written about whether it is possible to verify the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, one wonders if those who have so vehemently staked out positions recognize how badly askew this discussion has become.

Boiled down to its basic definition, verification is the finding of fact and the resolution of questions related to compliance with the obligations of a treaty. While verification is essentially a technical undertaking that can involve remote monitoring and on-site activities, it is inextricably linked to the political process of assessing whether the facts gathered through verification activities constitute a treaty violation, which leads into an even more heated political decision about how to enforce treaty obligations. A theoretical wall exists between these technical and political exercises, but in the BWC arena that wall has crumbled and politics have overtaken virtually every facet of the verification discussion.

Putting aside North-South politics about a tradeoff between verification and economic cooperation and assistance, the BWC’s verifiability quagmire is largely a regrettable hand-me-down from decades of rambunctious debates about the verification and compliance standards to be applied to nuclear weapons reduction and nuclear testing limitation and prohibition treaties. The fundamental objectives of verification are to assure states that other nations are abiding by their treaty obligations, to deter states from violating a treaty by raising the costs and risks of cheating, and to detect evidence of treaty breaches. At one extreme of the debate, the expectation is that verification enables detection of militarily significant cheating in sufficient time to mount an appropriate response, whereas at the other the standard is that detection of each and every transgression of a treaty’s terms should occur. Illustrating the latter point, in a Spring 1990 article in International Security entitled “Why Verification is More Difficult (and Less Important,” former U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director Kenneth L. Adelman stated, “Effective verification now means having the ability to detect any violation, regardless of its military significance.”

By the mid-1990s, the verification discussion was so infused with politics that the trade association representing America’s largest pharmaceutical companies, PhRMA, could pull off a classic political maneuver, the empty campaign promise, with little notice or outcry. In its January 1997 position paper, PhRMA pledged “expert assistance” in the development of a BWC compliance protocol. However, unlike its counterpart in the chemical industry now known as the American Chemistry Council, not once did PhRMA marshal its member companies to put proposed inspection methods to a genuine test in trial inspections. In contrast, a group of experts from inside the industry carefully evaluated prospective inspection tools and crafted detailed plans for trials of their proposed inspection methodology. (See the earlier commentary, “What Does Industry Say on Verification?”)

The BWC arena has become so awash in politics that lately few even seem to mind that the realities that pertain tothe nuclear treaties, such as the ability to define, count, and even weigh controlled or prohibited items, do not translate into the world of life sciences. For instance, the virulence of diseases be enhanced with genetic engineering and diseases can be grown by adding a seed culture to the appropriate growth media, obviating the concepts of creating a list of prohibited diseases or of counting diseases. Instead of laying out a collaborative work plan with scientists and production experts from inside the pharmaceutical industry and other research institutes to evaluate verification measures, the politicized atmosphere allows diplomats and assorted BWC observers to hide behind intersessional talks about matters tangential to treaty verification and compliance. When the topic of verification is raised, these actors quickly resort to cliché remarks that a certain measure might place industry’s trade secrets in jeopardy or comments on its questionable “effectiveness,” ignoring the dearth of non-U.S. trial inspection data to corroborate the purported threat that inspections pose to industry and that one’s policy position significantly colors one’s view of effectiveness. In this manner, constructive discussion is kept at bay.

The time has long since come for the BWC’s stewards to acknowledge that politics have tainted far too many of the past discussions about the BWC’s verifiability, sweeping the debate entirely off course. If one is to judge by Western assessments of Iraq’s bioweapons program prior to the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars, satellite monitoring and intelligence have proven woefully incapable of providing global leaders with data useful for making compliance assessments, so the need to augment this data supply could not be more evident. The phrase “nowhere to go but up” seems apt.

Ideally, a back-to-basics movement will overtake the 2011 Review Conference. Does a proposal to upgrade an existing confidence-building measure or add a new one generate information useful to assuring compliance? Do the BWC’s members have the backbone to authorize intersessional discussions to reconsider, in light of advances in the life sciences, among other pertinent factors, what measures could help detect and deter violations? The viability of the BWC hinges on whether nations can liberate discussions of how to strengthen verification arrangements for the BWC from the shackles of politics.


Margaret E. Kosal - "The role of biological verification as part of 21st century international security strategy" - 7 September 2011 ↓expand↓

Thanks to my colleagues for furthering the discussion. In this contribution, I’d like to bring together some of the ideas mentioned in the three commentaries preceding mine and to focus on aspects of verification as they relate to broader strategic postures.

It is a factual observation that during the time UNSCOM and UNMOVIC were operating in Iraq there was no evidence of new biological weapons research or development. This was also a time under which no fly zones were enforced; sanctions were in place, including ones that limited access to advances in scientific knowledge such as technical publications; the nation’s physical and intellectual infrastructure was eroding under a brutal, oppressive regime; and there was a residual threat of invasion by conventional forces, which became overt in 2003. Direct causality for that factual observation is likely to be a combination of all of these factors, including the presence of monitoring and verification missions. At the same time, the limits of monitoring and onsite verification were substantive and significant enough in the minds of people inside and outside of political institutions – on both sides of the Atlantic – to generate doubt and uncertainty.

I very much appreciated Amy Smithson’s overview of the politicization of the biological verification debate, and I think she metaphorically hits the nail on the head observing that the “BWC’s verifiability quagmire is largely a regrettable hand-me-down” from decades of debates surrounding nuclear weapons. While they have their own challenges, nuclear weapons can be counted, and nuclear weapons proliferation regimes can be detected and verified more easily compared to what is necessary in the biological (and chemical) realms.

As each of the commentators has recognized either explicitly or implicitly and as is cited repeatedly by the broader biosecurity and nonproliferation communities1 (as well as in Congressional Committee findings2), biological weapons are cheaper, easier to produce (a few accounts even argue it can be done in one’s garage or basement), more widely available, within the capabilities of an increasingly large number of people with access to minimal technical skills and equipment (e.g., that can be procured off eBay or other internet re-sellers), more concealable, and inherently exploitive of more dual-use technologies. The potential synergies between biotechnology and emerging technologies, like nanotechnology, not only suggest tremendous potential promise for advancement in technology for consumers and military applications but also raise new concerns.3 Other developments, such as encapsulation technologies (improvised weaponization methods) that can be dated to the 1960s, for example, are currently not subject to export controls or international arms control regimes. Some scholars have asserted that biological weapons themselves are more suitably used as a strategic deterrent than nuclear weapons because “effective deterrence requires only a small possibility of great destruction.”4 In the 21st century, both nation-states and non-state actors may have access to new and potentially devastating dual-use technology.5 Advanced technology is no longer the domain of the few. Biological weapons are relatively cheap and accessible, especially when compared to the obstacles in attaining and developing nuclear weapons.

If one disentangles the other political and strategic considerations at the forefront in leaders’ minds in 2002 and early 2003, it was uncertainty due to all of the factors delineated above regarding biological weapons proliferation that could not be resolved unambiguously with respect to Iraq’s biological weapons dormancy at the time. The US and those allies who supported Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) hedged on the side on uncertainty. If one wants verification to be strategically significant a priori rather than post-invasion, resolving those uncertainties and making them significant for the broader strategic context must be achieved.

Where and in which decades the NPT has worked best often exist in tandem, albeit not connected formally or in many case even informally, with the presence of strong deterrence postures as part of international security strategies. From that point, I would pose a question intimated in another of the earlier commentaries (and offer my answer): Why do we need verification for the BWC? Because it can be an integral or complementary part of a strategic deterrence posture aimed at reducing the overall threat (motivation, capability, and vulnerability) of biological weapons proliferation. Verification is not a goal unto itself; it’s stopping proliferation and reducing the threat of attacks that are the goals.

The issue of a state (or a terrorist group) utilizing biological weapons against another state is a mounting concern due to the fact that dangerous pathogens have been known to cause deadly effects, yet little weapons deterrence research addresses methods of dealing with the threat of biological weapons and even less so with deterring bioterrorism. Bridging the gap between the life sciences and political science is a crucial element in devising implementable and executable strategies that can lead to successful deterrence of bioweapons. Similarly, thinking about verification and international arms control regimes can be explored as part of new approaches to strategic deterrence in the 21st Century.

  1. E.g., National Research Council (2004) Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism, National Academies Press; Gregory Koblentz (2003) “Pathogens as Weapons: The International Security Implications of Biological Warfare,” International Security, vol 28, no 3, pp. 84-122; Susan Martin (2002) “The Role of Biological Weapons in International Politics: The Real Military Revolution,” The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol 25, no 1, pp. 63-98; Francisco Galamas (2008) “Biological Weapons, Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence: The Biotechnology Revolution,” Comparative Strategy, vol 27, no 4, pp. 315-323; James B. Petro, Theodore R. Plasse, and Jack A. McNulty (2003) “Biotechnology: Impact on Biological Warfare and Biodefense,” Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science, vol 1, no 3, pp. 161-168; Partnership for a Secure America WMD Terror Report Card: Evaluating U.S. Policies to Prevent Nuclear, Chemical, & Biological Terrorism Since 2005, September 2008 (
  2. World at Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, December 2008 (
  3. Margaret E. Kosal (2009) Nanotechnology for Chemical and Biological Defense, Springer Academic Publishers, New York (
  4. Martin, “The Role of Biological Weapons in International Politics: The Real Military Revolution,” The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 25, no. 1 (March 2002), pg. 76.
  5. National Research Council (2006) Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences, National Academies Press, Washington DC.


Comments on this discussion are welcome at Andreas.Persbo[at]


    VERTIC is an independent, not-for-profit non-governmental organization. Its mission is to support the development, implementation and effectiveness of international agreements and related regional and national initiatives. Its focus is on agreements and initiatives in the areas of arms control, disarmament and the environment, with particular attention to issues of monitoring, review, implementation and verification.

    Margaret E. Kosal

    Before joining the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology as an Assistant Professor, Dr. Margaret E. Kosal served as Science and Technology Advisor within the US Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) focusing on nuclear, chemical, and biological defense. Kosal received her doctoral degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for work on the synthesis of novel bio-inorganic materials and has previously been affiliated with Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), Northwestern University’s Feinburg School of Medicine, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ (MIIS) Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). Her research aims to understand proliferation of unconventional weapons by state and to non-state actors and to explore the security implications of emerging technologies. Her first book, "Nanotechnology for Chemical and Biological Defense," explored scenarios and strategies on the development of applications and potential proliferation threats of nanotechnology and other emerging sciences for national security.

    Jean Du Preez

    Jean du Preez is Chief of External Relations, Protocol and International Cooperation at the Preparatory Commission of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation.

    Johannes Rath

    More info comming soon.

    Amy E. Smithson

    Dr. Amy Smithson is a Senior Fellow at the Washington, D.C. Office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies. She specializes in in-depth field research on issues related to dual-use chemical and biological technologies, weapons proliferation, threat reduction mechanisms, defense, and homeland security. Before joining the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, she worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Henry L. Stimson Center, where in January 1993 she founded the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project. Previously, she worked for Pacific-Sierra Research Corporation and the Center for Naval Analyses. Smithson’s work has prompted numerous invitations to testify before Congress, and she has frequently assisted the electronic and print media. She earned a PhD in political science at George Washington University, an MA in international relations at Georgetown University, and BA’s in political science and Russian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.