UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies


About the AHRC History of the BWC Project

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Outlawing an entire class of weapons is a major step towards creating a safer world. Just over forty years ago, on 10 April 1972, the first ever such step was taken as the nations of the world were invited to sign up to the new Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). This treaty, which had been several years in the making, sought to ban biological weapons, or more colloquially germ warfare. As such, it was remarkable for attempting not simply biological arms limitation but full disarmament. Three years later the treaty entered into force, in other words its provisions now had full legal effect. Currently, and despite all kinds of set-backs, 170 nations are states parties to the BWC (April 2013).

Despite its significance, and close to the fortieth anniversary of its entry into force, there is surprisingly little scholarly research on the origins of the BWC, still less on how this treaty was shaped by its broader political and social context. Perhaps more remarkably, most scholarship on the Cold War ignores the BWC. Understanding Biological Disarmament is a new three-year project, funded by the AHRC, which aims to draw on a wide range of archival and oral sources to go beyond a blow-by-blow account of the technicalities of arms treaty negotiation, and instead provide a deep historical account of the birth of the treaty.

Porton Down Late 1960s

Porton Down laboratory staff carry out histological work in the Experimental Pathology Section of the Microbiological Research Establishment in the late 1960s
© Crown copyright. IWM (HU 102378) (Courtesy IWM Non-Commercial License)

The historical roots of the BWC are intimately bound up with the Cold War and other wider concerns, particularly: Anglo-American relationships; nuclear and chemical weapons policy; varying attitudes to US chemical agent use in Vietnam; the different obligations and interpretations of the 1925 Geneva Protocol; and the complex roles of experts, both scientific and social scientific, individual and collective, civil and military, in shaping events.

In this respect:

1. Existing accounts give an adequate overview, but there remain crucial gaps in description and analysis. We have but a scant account of the foundations of discussion about the BWC, the negotiation period, or the period until the BWC's 1975 entry into force.

2. Many potentially important direct and indirect influences on the BWC have not been explored. For example, the negotiators of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty were the same as for the BWC; the full influence on treaty negotiations of uses of tear gas in Vietnam and poison gas in Yemen 1967 remains unexplored.

3. Existing accounts of the BWC are only suggestive about: the influence of non-governmental groups such as Pugwash and the Bernal Peace Library; the thinking of individuals such as Hedley Bull, the international relations scholar, turned director of the Arms Control Disarmament Research Unit of the Foreign Office; and the actions of scientist-advisers such as Sir Solly Zuckermann.

By addressing the gaps and research problems outlined above, we suggest that a more thorough historical account based primarily on UK and US sources will contribute far more than added layers of description to existing analysis. In short, our study will seek to write the BWC into the historiography of the Cold War and, in particular, the period of détente.

The research will be of value to academic historians, political scientists, science and technology studies scholars, and sociologists. Through a series of public events, we intend to demonstrate how this research will be relevant to users outside the academic community, particularly those concerned with the development of effective policy approaches to the threat posed by biological weapons.  Such concerned groups include: civil servants, the security community, policy-makers, NGO workers and campaigners.

Please click here to read a shortened version of the full project proposal.

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