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Strengthening the BWC: The Case Against Mobile Biomedical Units

In 1975, with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), biological and toxin weapons became the first category of weapons to be entirely banned worldwide. The treaty’s trailblazing accomplishment is a testament to both biological weapons’ perceived lack of strategic necessity compared to nuclear weapons and the pervasive fear elicited by disease. Yet for all the terror that biological agents cause and the absence of impetus in nearly every state for developing biological weapons, the BWC has persistent critical flaws that weaken its effectiveness. Principle among these is the lack of any legally binding measures. As it stands, the BWC does very little besides making unenforceable promises.

There have certainly been efforts—most significantly starting in 1994. A widespread initiative among parties to the BWC began to implement a legally binding protocol and verification: the mandatory declaration and inspection of facilities capable of producing bioweapons. However, progress came crashing down in 2001, when the United States blocked the proposed contract. Since then, the BWC has grown in capacity in other ways, but these advancements are mostly minor. The crowning achievement in institutional strengthening for the BWC was the Implementation Support Unit, established in 2006 as a three-person team providing mostly administrative support.

With a legally-binding protocol and verification currently seen as unfeasible, creative alternatives have been proposed to strengthen the implementation of the BWC. Russia’s proposal in 2016 to create mobile biomedical units stands out. The units, consisting of trained doctors and scientists, would assist in containing an outbreak and undertake further investigation if the use of bioweapons is suspected. The intent of this motion was to enable the BWC to determine if its articles were breached and to cite any nation that violated the treaty. The proposal seems to have gained significant support, making it onto the report from the most recent Meeting of State Parties in December as a future topic to discuss. These mobile biomedical units, however, would add little to the currently existing global health security infrastructure. The units would ultimately prove ineffective in strengthening the BWC and are distracting from the imperative to establish a legally-binding protocol and verification.

The first proposed objective of the mobile biomedical unitsto provide initial containment and surveillance of a diseaseis rendered redundant by the likes of the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO partners with the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) to quickly send disease experts to respond to epidemics potentially of international concern. With mobile biomedical units implemented, two UN-affiliated groups would be providing essentially the same service.

WHO’s experience with Ebola also delegitimizes the alleged effectiveness of these rapid response units. WHO’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been criticized, but the organization was nonetheless able to quickly send GOARN experts to respond to the outbreak within five days of its declaration and sent its own experts a month later.  WHO’s primary failure was that, for several months, the organization’s secretariat refused to listen to the advice of these GOARN and WHO experts on the ground to declare a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) and trigger an extensive, coordinated response as designated by the International Health Regulations (IHR). The WHO’s failure to declare a PHEIC was politicalthe WHO did not want to risk upsetting the countries experiencing the epidemic.

The BWC’s mobile biomedical units would likely have a similarly ineffective relationship. Mobile biomedical units might successfully conduct investigations into potential bioweapons use, but, as the WHO failed to apply the IHR, this might not mean effective implementation of the BWC. Should mobile biomedical units find that a state used biological weapons, administrative higher-ups could very well decide that branding a state as a biological weapons abuser is not politically expedient. The WHO was unable to declare a PHEIC for fear of harming relations with several nations; the BWC and biological weapons are even more politically charged and could face similar political gamesmanship. One of the primary responsibilities of mobile biomedical units would then be only unreliably carried out.

While biological weapons have had few, if any, uses by states since the BWC, the recent Syrian chemical weapons attacks provide a useful example. After one chemical weapons attack, the Security Council rejected a resolution (due to votes from Russia and Bolivia) that would have stressed the Syrian government’s responsibility to open up its facilities to investigation. Similarly, the Security Council failed to extend the mandate of the chemical weapons investigation team in Syria, with Russia and Bolivia voting together. Russia’s votes in favor of Syria were of course made to benefit President Putin’s ally in Bashar al-Assad. Bolivia’s votes, meanwhile, are likely a reflection of its past opposition of human rights and strengthening relations with Russia. While Syria was ordered to destroy its chemical weapons and allow inspections under Resolution 2118, the failure to condemn Syria and continue investigations demonstrates the political complexity and mixed results of arms treaty enforcement after an attack has occurred. Just as Russia and Bolivia voted in their own interests on the Syrian resolutions, BWC members will likely also attempt to shape bioweapons investigations for political benefit.

It is also important to consider the Syrian government’s ability to conduct chemical weapons attacks even after the alleged destruction of its chemical weapons stockpiles. Syria was able to hide (or restart production) of chemical weapons; biological weapons are even easier to conceal due to their dual-use nature. Retroactive enforcement of the BWC after mobile biomedical units determine an attack was perpetrated by the state would thus be incredibly difficult to execute. Similarly, the Soviet Union was able to secretively continue its offensive biological weapons program into the 1990s despite being a signatory of the BWC. Mobile biomedical units, of course, would have done nothing to help the BWC uncover the Soviet program. By only activating after an attack has occurred, mobile biomedical units cannot stop the research and stockpiling of biological weapons in their early stages. This means nations will likely already have developed biological weapons programs before mobile biomedical units come into play.

Alternatively, verification avoids these problems and should be the primary goal of future BWC strengthening. Verification introduces a new mechanism to global health security protocols rather than reiterating an existing one. Most importantly, it is a preventative rather than reactionary and punitive measure like mobile biomedical units. Verification enables investigation of biological facilities before an attack actually occurs, potentially directly preventing a biological weapons attack by removing any stockpiles. The Soviet Union’s undercover bioweapons research might not have lasted with inspection from verification. And while these inspections might not be entirely effective at finding signs of biological weapons due to the difficulty of investigating them, they pose enough of a risk to biological weapons programs that it would discourage states from pursuing offensive research or stockpiling bioweapons.

Other arms deals provide proof that verification can be successfully implemented. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, for example, has verification protocols that would allow investigation of a state if necessary. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, implemented very strict verification measures. So far, these measures have been a success, with the International Atomic Energy Agency and US agencies agreeing that Iran has complied with the treaty.

When rejecting the implementation of verification in the BWC, the US believed effective verification of biological weapons to be impossible. Although arms control of biological weapons is more difficult than oversight of other banned weapons, verification does have a successful history and solves many of the problems that have plagued biological weapons control. BWC member states are distracting themselves with alternatives that are ultimately ineffective. Instead, they should be making a concerted effort to implement verification and legally-binding measures that would greatly reduce the likelihood of biological attacks.



About the Author

Sean Joyce '19 is the Section Manager for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Sean can be reached at