Chemical and biological weapons
The UK is helping to enforce and strengthen the ban on chemical and biological weapons through international treaties and conventions.
Chemical weapons include all toxic chemicals, their precursors, munitions and devices designed to cause death, harm, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation to humans, animals or plants. They include:
- choking agents, such as Chlorine and Phosgene - they are dispersed as a gas and absorbed through the lungs
- blister agents, such as Mustard can be simple to manufacture – they severely damage the eyes, respiratory system, internal organs and burn the skin
- blood agents, such as Hydrogen Cyanide are dispersed as gases and absorbed through the lungs - they affect the ability of blood cells to use oxygen, eventually starving and stopping the heart
- nerve agents, such as Sarin are relatively simple to manufacture, easy to disperse and highly toxic - one drop can cause death.
Banning chemical weapons
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) bans the development, production, stockpiling and the use of chemical weapons. It means all existing stockpiles have to be destroyed by 2012.
Who has ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention?
- 188 countries including the USA, Russia, India, Pakistan, China, Iran and Libya (as of October 2009)
- all EU member states.
We especially encourage countries with large chemical industries and countries in regions of tension to join the Convention.
What must countries do?
How is the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) enforced?
It is vital that countries who join the Convention continue to fully implement its terms.
The implementation of the CWC is overseen by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), based in The Hague.
The UK has been represented on the Council of the OPCW from the start because of our large chemical industry.
The OPCW has made an effective start to implement a rigorous verification and inspection regime. Over 3,800 inspections have taken place worldwide (as of August 2009).
‘Challenge Inspections’ can also be made if there are strong grounds to suspect a country’s declaration is inaccurate or incomplete. This has not yet been required.
Implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in the UK
The Department for Energy & Climate Change is responsible for implementation the CWC in the UK and our dependencies and overseas territories.
They oversee all Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspections in the UK - there have been 87 inspections of UK industrial and defence sites as of May 2007.
BERR also funds the UK’s share of the OPCW.
A biological warfare agent is a living microorganism or toxin. Many pathogenic (disease producing) microorganisms are bacteria or viruses. Fungal organisms are also potential agents. Toxins, although not living, are produced by certain species of microorganisms, plants or animals.
Biological weapons are banned
The use of biological weapons was banned in international law by the 1925 Geneva Protocol 1925. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) was negotiated between 1969 and 1971 and entered into force in 1975.
The BTWC bans development, production, stockpiling, acquisition or retention of biological and toxin weapons.
- 163 countries are parties to the Convention
- 32 countries are not parties to the Convention
How is the UK enforcing the ban on biological weapons?
Unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)
, the BTWC doesn’t have an effective verification system to check if countries are complying.
The UK has been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen the BTWC throughout its history. Most recently this has involved:
- a 2002 Green Paper which set out a range of practical measures to strengthen the Convention;
- hosting meetings with government and non-government scientists in the UK on codes of conduct for scientists; and,
- active participation in Review Conferences and annual BTWC work programmes to enhance and strengthen the Convention’s implementation.
The Seventh Review Conference will take place in 2011. This will review the operation of the Intersessional Work Programme, the operation of the Implementation Support Unit (ISU), Confidence Building Measures and scientific and technological changes relevant to the Convention.
For more information about States Parties meetings and published UK and other national papers please visit the United Nations Geneva Office website
Confidence Building Measures
Under the BTWC, States Parties to the Convention are required to submit to the United Nations annual Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). These comprise data and information, as well as declarations of past and present activities, of relevance to the Convention. They strengthen compliance with the Convention and constitute an important element to increasing transparency and building confidence, as well as reaffirming States Parties’ commitment to the BTWC.
Some States, including the UK, place their CBM returns on the public section of the ISU’s website
The FCO Counter Proliferation Department's Chemical and Biological Weapons Section can be contacted by email: BTWC@fco.gov.uk
Share this with: