Biological Weapons

VERTIC has a long-standing interest in preventing the re-emergence and proliferation of biological and toxin weapons. This work is as timely and relevant as ever due to technological developments in the life sciences, increased public awareness of the dangers of a global pandemic and renewed dialogue in international forums about verification and monitoring issues. VERTIC’s recent work focuses on researching, promoting and strengthening existing international mechanisms that can be used to respond to biological threats.

VERTIC’s work on the UNSGM

The United Nations’ Secretary-General’s Mechanism (UNSGM) is the main international instrument for investigating the alleged use of biological weapons. Since its inception in 1989, the UNSGM has been used to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use, which are also in its mandate, including in Syria in 2013; however, it has never been used to investigate a biological incident.

The UNSGM does not have a standing inspectorate, and instead maintains a roster of qualified experts, expert consultants and analytical laboratories nominated by UN Member States. As such, it is crucial to find effective ways to build and maintain not only capacity, but operational readiness allowing for rapid deployment and incisive, rigorous investigations. VERTIC has carried out a broad research project on operational needs of UNSGM investigations and ways to support the Mechanism in building readiness, drawing on practitioners’ experiences and original research on forensics practices and biological detection technologies.

Report: Tabletop exercise on UNSGM investigations

In 2019, VERTIC conducted a Tabletop Exercise to investigate issues of coordination and cooperation between different stakeholders during a UNSGM investigation of alleged biological weapons use. The exercise saw the participation of practitioners with significant field experience in international investigations, public health incident response, international humanitarian aid during public health crises, and law enforcement investigations of CBRN events.

Report: Pre-deployment orientation for UNSGM missions

In 2024, VERTIC and the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) co-hosted a workshop at the UN Headquarters in New York. The workshop’s objective was to identify needs and priorities for pre-deployment orientation for a UNSGM mission, which is meant to brief the team of qualified experts recruited from the roster on the details and goals of the mission and ensure that the experts can operate together as part of a UN mission team. Participants included a select group of expert consultants nominated to the UNSGM roster, representatives from relevant UN offices and departments, and other experts with a high level of practical experience in field investigations.

VERTIC is currently working to organise more exercises of this kind to investigate further issues and build capacity to participate in the UNSGM in regional settings.

VERTIC’s work on supporting BWC compliance

Upon its entry into force in 1975, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was the first international disarmament treaty to ban an entire category of WMD. It bans the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological weapons: both the agents developed for non-peaceful purposes, and the weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to deploy those agents. The BWC is legally binding upon all 185 current States Parties.

States Parties to the BWC undertake to consult one another on issues related to treaty compliance, but there is no formally established compliance mechanism. The Convention has relied on confidence building measures (CBMs), national implementation of its provisions, and voluntary transparency by States Parties since its inception. Various attempts have been made to institute a formal verification regime under the BWC, but thus far, none have succeeded. At the Ninth BWC Review Conference in 2022, States Parties agreed on the establishment of a Working Group on the Strengthening of the BWC to meet in the intersessional period leading up to the Tenth Review Conference. Among other things, this Working Group was formally tasked with addressing compliance and verification measures. This context presents one of the best opportunities to revisit the debate on BWC compliance monitoring and verification in over a decade, as States Parties look back at recommendations and lessons learned from previous verification discussions, while addressing the rapid technological progress which has since taken place in the biological sciences.

Along with researchers from King’s College London, VERTIC began a project in September 2023 funded by the US Department of State to identify indicators of an offensive biological weapons programme and suggest multimodal monitoring approaches to encourage compliance with the BWC. This project is ongoing, and has thus far involved private engagement with subject matter experts to develop scenarios of possible non-compliance.