Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada
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Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada

Biological Weapons

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 which culminated in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), entered into force in 1975 which now has 165 participating states (including Canada). The BTWC was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the production and use of an entire category of weapons.  The BTWC has no verification regime, but rather relies on good-faith adherence by States Parties.

Canada participated in the Seventh Review Conference of the BTWC (5-22 December 2011).  The five-yearly Review Conference is presently the only time when States Parties can make decisions on the structure of the treaty.  The conference reiterated the global community's abhorrence of biological weapons, citing national implementation and international cooperation as essential to the ban of such weapons, and strengthened the Convention through the reorganization of the intersessional meeting structure, the revision of the treaty's Confidence-Building Measure (CBM) system, and the renewal of the Implementation Support Unit (ISU).

National Implementation:

Each State Party has the legal requirement to implement the provisions of the BTWC into its domestic laws, in accordance with its own constitutional process, per Article IV.  Canada implements the BTWC through a series of legislations related to biosafety, biosecurity, and the non-proliferation of biological materials.

States Parties are also required to, as part of their implementation measures, have in place export controls to prevent the proliferation of biological agents and dual-use equipment to those who would mis-use them to make biological weapons, per Article III.  As a member of the Australia Group Export Control Regime, Canada's export controls are consistent with those of 40 other countries.  Further information on Canada's export controls can be found here at Export Control Legislation and Regulations.

International Cooperation:

States Parties to the BTWC are required to participate in, to the fullest degree possible, international cooperation and the exchange of science and technology for the peaceful use of biology, in accordance with the Convention's Article X.  They must also provide assistance, upon request, to any country that has been attacked with a biological weapon, according to Article VII.  The Government of Canada has provided significant funding to numerous international projects around the world in support of disease surveillance, detection, and containment, as well as training in biosafety, biosecurity, and chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear/explosives (CBRNE) response.  At the Seventh Review Conference, Canada submitted data on no less than 62 international projects under the aforementeioned topics to the Implementation Support Unit, who compiled a background document on States Parties' compliance with Article X of the BTWC.  Reference to Canada's contribution can be found on the website of the BTWC, here at the Official Documents System of the United Nations.

Intersessional Process:

In between the Review Conferences, States Parties agreed to meet twice annually to continue discussions on the BTWC.  This process began in 2003 (following the Fifth Review Conference in 2001-2002) and was revised in 2006 and 2011.

The intersessional process consists of a Meeting of Experts, where technical experts from governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations meet to discuss specific topics of relevance to the BTWC, and a Meeting of States Parties, where political officers meet to review the recommendations made by the experts.  Each year from 2003 to 2010 had its own theme for discussion by technical and policy experts.  The Seventh Review Conference revised this structure, replacing the theme with standing agenda items to be discussed each year.  These include national implementation, science and technology, international cooperation, Confidence-Building Measures, and response in case of biological warfare.

Confidence-Building Measures:

Under the BTWC, member-states are required to submit Confidence-Building Measures (CBM) on a yearly basis as a means to promote transparency.  These CBMs allow 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.  The CBM Forms were revised at the Seventh Review Conference, in order to decrease the administrative burden on States Parties and make the information submitted in CBMs more relevant.

Canada's CBM submission has been made available for public viewing, and can be found on the website of the Implementation Support Unit.

Implementation Support Unit:

The Implementation Support Unit (ISU), based in Geneva, was created in 2006 out of the Sixth Review Conference to act as a Secretariat for the BTWC.  Their mandate was set to expire at the conclusion of the Seventh Review Conference in 2011.  The Conference agreed to renew their mandate under the conclusion of the Eighth Review Conference in 2016, though their budegt was maintained without significant change.


Canada is convinced that both the Geneva Protocol and the BTWC enhance global security fundamentally. 


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