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Chemical and biological weapons

Soldiers in camouflage uniforms, helmets and gas masks. © Frank Rossoto Stocktrek/Getty Images

Chemical weapons

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 have ratified the convention, as of April 2010
  • The only countries not to have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention are: Angola, DPRK, Egypt, Israel, Burma, Somalia, and Syria.

What must countries do?

Biological incident emergency exercise. © William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

How is the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) enforced?

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 Executive 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 (DECC) is responsible for implementation of the CWC in the uK and our dependencies and overseas territories.

It oversees all Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspections in the UK - there have been 113 routine inspections of UK industrial and defence sites as of April 2010.

DECC also funds the UK's share of the OPCW.

Biohazard warning sign.

Biological weapons

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 1972 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?

The BTWC doesn’t have a verification system like that of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

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 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) include data and other 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 Implementation Support Unit (ISU)’s website.

Contact us

The FCO Counter Proliferation Department's Chemical and Biological Weapons Section can be contacted by email:

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