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April 2012

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GGI Briefing Paper: The Biological Weapons Convention, Bioterrorism and the Life Sciences


GGI Briefing Paper: The Biological Weapons Convention, Bioterrorism and the Life Sciences

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April 2012

One of the most shocking abilities of biological weapons is the ability to kill you without noticing a previous infection. This makes it a very powerful and dangerous source of modern weaponry. It can take days before a victim becomes ill or dies and it might be difficult to determine whether this was because of a natural outbreak of disease or because of an attack with a biological weapon. This raises serious problems for policymakers working on biosecurity, especially in relation to the threat of bioterrorism. With the advancements made in life sciences (such as biology, bio-nanotechnology, genetics) there is a growing concern among policymakers and academics that terrorists might misuse research intended for legitimate purposes. When it comes to global efforts to counter bioterrorism it is important to know to what extent the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) – as the traditional cornerstone of the biological weapons non-proliferation regime – addresses this challenge. In this policy brief we argue that the tools at the disposal of the BWC to tackle bioterrorism and to monitor developments in the life sciences are rather limited. The most recent Review Conference, which took place at the Palais des Nations in Geneva in December 2011, changed little in that respect. We argue that the limited role of the BWC can be explained by the fact that the lowest common denominator the 165 States Parties can agree on is to preserve the BWC as a traditional arms control regime. As a result, countering bioterrorism and debating the right balance between scientific freedom and security in the life sciences will mainly take place outside the BWC. This has implications for global governance in the sense that it demands cooperation between a plethora of stakeholders, including states, international organizations, industry and scientists. Ideally the BWC would have to develop further into a hub in which these actors are able to create synergy in the global efforts to counter bioterrorism.

 

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