Two employees in protective clothing at work in the Spiez biocontainment laboratory.
Spiez Laboratory is helping to implement arms control treaties as a centre of scientific and technical expertise in the dangers associated with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons (NBC weapons). © DDPS

The Biological Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. It also prohibits equipment and means of delivery intended to deploy such weapons. Switzerland ratified the Biological Weapons Convention in December 1976.

Lack of verification mechanism a major shortcoming

The Biological Weapons Convention, like the Chemical Weapons Convention, developed out of the 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. Unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention (which has the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) the Biological Weapons Convention does not provide for an oversight organisation or legally binding verification system to monitor compliance with the provisions of the treaty.

The rapid progress and dual-use nature of biotechnologies are fundamental challenges for the Biological Weapons Convention. There is a risk that processes, technologies and materials developed and applied for helpful, peaceful purposes could also be misused to develop and manufacture biological weapons. Given the additional widespread threat of biological agents falling into the hands of non-state actors, the lack of an effective verification mechanism has always been a major shortcoming, and creates uncertainty and mistrust.

Fostering transparency and trust

Switzerland is committed to strengthening the existing confidence-building measures in the framework of the Biological Weapons Convention. These at least ensure a degree of transparency and trust in the absence of a verification system. 

Switzerland also takes part in voluntary initiatives to assess the implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention in participating states parties. These include mutual exchanges between experts, reviews of relevant national legislation and transparency visits to laboratories. Switzerland has already organised several such visits to the Spiez Laboratory for states parties.

Focus on scientific and technological developments

Switzerland also seeks to establish working groups dedicated to specific topics in the framework of the Biological Weapons Convention. It is currently advocating for the establishment of a body of experts to systematically broach developments in science and technology and their consequences for the Biological Weapons Convention (science & technology review process).

Since 2014, Switzerland has organised the 'Spiez Convergence' conference series to address the increasing convergence of chemistry and biology and the implications of this for the two conventions.

UN Secretary-General's Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons

The secretary-general's mechanism to investigate allegations concerning the possible use of chemical and biological weapons was established in the late 1980s. Triggered by a request from a member state, the mechanism authorises the secretary-general to launch an investigation. A roster of experts and laboratories nominated by member states and a set of guidelines and procedures for the conduct of investigations constitute the main elements of the mechanism.

In the chemical weapons sector, the UN can work closely with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to implement the mechanism. Since there is no corresponding organisation for the Biological Weapons Convention, the UN depends on the active collaboration of member states. The informal Group of Friends which coordinates member states' contributions is currently chaired by Switzerland. Swiss experts and the Spiez Laboratory belong to a pool of experts and laboratories that the UN may call upon in the event of an investigation, and regularly take part in exercises and meetings to this end.

Switzerland has also organised annual expert workshops since 2015. The workshops aim to ensure that the laboratories nominated by UN member states for the investigation of the alleged use of biological weapons meet the necessary quality requirements and standards. Compliance with such standards is essential to ensure political and scientific acceptance of the outcomes of such investigations.

UN Secretary-General's Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons, UN

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Last update 26.01.2022

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