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Non-proliferation, disarmament and arms control

Biological weapons

The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare (the Geneva Protocol 1925) was adopted in reaction to the horrific consequences of the extensive use of toxic gas during the First World War. The Protocol entered into force in 1928. It bans the use of 'asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices', as well as the use of 'bacteriological methods of warfare' by a state party to the Protocol against any country which is also a party to the Protocol. Australia acceded to the Geneva Protocol in 1930.

Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), negotiated from 1969 to 1972, prohibits States Parties from developing, producing, stockpiling or otherwise acquiring or retaining biological and toxin weapons and their means of delivery, and also governs their destruction. It therefore plays a critical role in international efforts to address the threat posed by biological and toxin weapons. One of the first countries to sign the BWC when it opened for signature in 1972, Australia ratified the Convention in 1977. Australia actively works to promote universal adherence to the BWC.

Although the BWC does not explicitly ban the use of biological and toxin weapons – which are already banned by the Geneva Protocol – the prohibitions it contains and the requirement that states parties destroy any stockpiles accumulated before accession, amount to an effective ban on use, and also establish a strong global norm against the use of such weapons. The BWC also prohibits states parties from assisting other countries to acquire biological and toxin weapons, directly or indirectly. Further, it requires States Parties to facilitate technical and scientific cooperation in the use of biotechnology for peaceful purposes.

The BWC remains a cornerstone of the multilateral disarmament regime and has established a strong norm against biological weapons. It is recognised as the first multilateral treaty to outlaw an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. States Parties have gradually elaborated upon the Convention’s provisions by reaching additional agreements and understandings at its review conferences.

At the ninth Review Conference of the BWC in Geneva in November- December 2022, States Parties agreed to a program of work over the next five years. Australia will collaborate with others via a Working Group to progress the BWC, including exploring modalities for a compliance and verification mechanism. As of July 2022, 184 countries had become States Parties to the BWC. Of the UN member states which are not party to the treaty, four states have signed, but not ratified, the Convention, and 10 states have neither signed nor ratified it.

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