Biological weapons

Table of Contents


Biological weapons are devices designed to spread microorganisms or toxins in order to incapacitate or kill humans, animals, or plants. They can be used as strategic military weapons, as well as for assassinations or terrorism. Social disruption through the mass infection of a large population or economic disruption through the infection of livestock and crops are alternative uses for biological weapons. Almost any infectious disease agent can be used as a biological weapon, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, prions, and toxins. The deliberate misuse of modern technology can produce a biological weapon with increasing efficiency, and so the risk of bio-terrorism is higher than ever.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of poisonous gases and bacteriological agents in warfare. It was an initial building block that culminated in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) (.pdf), which entered into force in 1975 and has now been ratified by 170 States (including Canada). The BTWC was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development and production of an entire category of weapons. The BTWC has no verification regime, but rather relies on good-faith adherence by States Parties. The BTWC has an Implementation Support Unit, which operates as the Convention’s secretariat.

National Implementation:

Per Article IV of the BTWC, each State Party is required to implement the provisions of the Convention into its domestic laws, in accordance with its own constitutional process. Canada implements the BTWC through a series of legislations related to biosafety, biosecurity, and non-proliferation and biological materials. A review of these laws and regulations can be found in Canada’s Compliance Assessment submission (2012). For further information on Canada’s implementation of the BTWC, consult the website of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Canada also provides assistance, particularly via the Weapons of mass destruction threat reduction program (WMD TRP), to other countries in improving their ability to implement the BTWC, as well as their capacity to address biological threats.

Confidence-Building Measures:

Per decisions taken at the Second, Third, and Seventh Review Conferences of the BTWC, member-states are required to submit Confidence Building Measures (CBM) on a yearly basis as a means to promote transparency and confidence in compliance. These CBMs require States Parties to share data on their maximum containment laboratories, their biological defense programmes, disease outbreaks on their territory, publications by their scientific communities, the laws that implement the BTWC, their vaccine production facilities, and their past offense biological weapons programmes. Canada's CBM submissions have been made available for public viewing since 2011, and can be found here.

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