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The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

The 9th Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) took place in Geneva from November 28 to December 16, 2022, and was chaired by the Permanent Representative of Italy to the Conference on Disarmament, Ambassador Leonardo Bencini.

The positive outcome of the Review Conference, far from certain, was described by the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “a glimmer of hope in an overall bleak international security environment”. The agreement made it possible to unblock the political deadlock in which the Convention had been stuck for over twenty years.

Ambassador Bencini’s Presidency also stood out for its attention to gender issues, boasting the most gender-balanced “Bureau” (committee chairs and facilitators) in the history of the Convention.

Specifically, the 9th Review Conference established a Working Group for the 2023-2026 Review Cycle, with the mandate to identify and develop specific measures to strengthen the Convention, focusing on seven main themes:

  • International cooperation and assistance;
  • Scientific and technological developments relevant to the Convention;
  • Confidence-building and transparency;
  • Compliance and verification;
  • National implementation;
  • Assistance, response and preparedness;
  • Organizational, institutional and financial arrangements.

Among these topics, a particular emphasis is placed on the commitment to developing specific mechanisms for international cooperation (ICA – “International Cooperation and Assistance”) and the examination of scientific and technological developments (S&T), two areas that have absorbed much of the BWC debate for years. Additionally, there is an important commitment to identifying compliance and verification measures, possibly of legally binding nature, an issue absent from discussions for over twenty years.

The Group, which will meet for fifteen days each year, will work to identify, examine, and develop specific measures and recommendations to be presented at the next Review Conference or, should convergences occur within a shorter period, by convening a Special Conference in 2025 for an “early harvest.”

The first three sessions of the Working Group were held in 2023. The first session in March was strictly organizational in nature; in the session from August 7-18, particular attention was given to the first two points of the mandate, related to international cooperation and assistance activities and the examination of scientific and technological developments relevant to the Convention.

In the third working session held from December 4 to 13 2023, the following issues were addressed: confidence-building measures; compliance and verification; organizational, institutional, and financial arrangements.

The importance of the Convention

The Biological Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production and possession of the bacteriological (biological) and toxin weapons (viruses, bacteria, microorganisms, spores, toxins) and requires the destruction of existing stocks. Entered into force in March 1975, it is the first multilateral treaty that bans an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. To date, the BWC has been ratified by 185 States and signed by additional four.

Italy considers the BWC a fundamental instrument in the field of disarmament and non-proliferation; therefore, its universalization and strengthening are priorities pursued during the 9th Review Conference. The Covid-19 pandemic also raised awareness on the importance of the BWC, making evident the serious consequences of the spread of a pathogen at the global level.

In addition to the provisions which prohibit the production, transfer and possession of bacteriological and toxin weapons, other fundamental articles of the Convention protect the right of each Member State to promote and participate in the exchange of equipment, materials, scientific and technological information as well as the transfer of biological agents and toxins to be used for peaceful purposes (medical research, for example).

Each State Party is also committed by Art. VII to providing assistance or any other kind of support to any State Party which, according to the UN Security Council, has been a victim of a breach of the Convention.

The identification and prevention of activities in contrast with the BWC is made particularly complex by the fact that any organism capable of causing diseases or infections (such as bacteria and viruses) or toxin can be potentially altered to become offensive. This issue is aggravated by the absence of a real verification and monitoring mechanism within the framework of the Convention. A proposal to adopt a Protocol to this end was finally rejected in 2001, after six years of negotiations.

Currently, the most effective mechanisms at our disposal for the verification of the BWC implementation by its Member States are represented by the Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) – a voluntary system of information exchange – and periodic Review Conferences, interspersed by an intersessional period. The strengthening of these measures represents one of the topics included in the mandate given by the IX Review Conference to the aforementioned Working Group.

Main Statements

Working Group on the Strengthening of the Convention (4 – 13 December):

Amb. Leonardo Bencini:

Working Group on the Strengthening of the Convention (7-18 August 2023):

Mr. Tancredi Francese:

Ninth Review Conference (28 November – 16 December 2022):

Undersecretary of State, H.E. Maria Tripodi:


Documents and Resources

Biological Weapons Convention

Biological Weapons Convention – Ninth Review Conference

Final Document of the Ninth Review Conference

Working Group on the Strengthening of the Convention

Implementation Support Unit of the BWC