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Forty Years Of Banning Biological Weapons: Lessons Learnt And Challenges For The Future

13 April 2015

On 30 March, in celebration of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)’s 40th anniversary, WILPF attended a commemorative event at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, followed by an academic seminar on the current challenges and future options for the BTWC.

Bacteria, viruses or toxins killing humans, animals and plants

Biological weapons use bacteria, viruses, or toxins to kill humans, animals, or plants. Exposing environments to these deadly agents can cause mass deaths or severe disease. There are a huge variety of genetically or traditionally modified bacteria, viruses, and toxins that are able to withstand antibiotics and could be used as biological weapons.

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) entered into force on 26 March 1975 and thereby became the first multilateral treaty to effectively prohibit an entire class of weaponry. The Convention bans the development, production, stockpiling, or acquisition of biological agents or toxins of any type or quantity that do not have protective, medical, or other peaceful purposes, or any weapons or means of delivery for such agents or toxins.

Major issues concerning the BTWC

Even though the BTWC takes the grand step of prohibiting an entire category of weapon of mass destruction, it is far from perfect. The Convention requires that states parties reassure one another that they are honouring their obligations. However, as noted throughout the event, this reassurance is currently one of the major weaknesses of the BTWC.

A major reason for this is that in the past 40 years there has been a significant progress in the areas of biological science and technology, resulting in an increasing gap between the BTWC and the risks it was designed to address.

Further complicating the issue of reassurance is the fact that states are not the only users of bio-technology. There are a wide range of users, mainly private companies, which form part of a global multi-billion dollar market. This increases the potential for violations within states, thereby making the processes of compliance, verification, and reassurance for states parties all the more difficult.

How could the BTWC be strengthened?

Participants identified the increased and improved utilisation of confidence-building measures as critical for strengthening the BTWC. They highlighted transparency as being the main source of confidence and emphasised the need for states parties to be at the forefront of transparency and confidence-building on the civil, national, and international levels.

Enhancing dialogue between all parties, especially those in the fields of science, regulation, safety and security, is another crucial confidence-building measure.

Enhancing verification of compliance with the obligations states parties are subject to under the BTWC is another key confidence-building measure. Considering the absence of a formal verification process in the BTWC, some participants suggested that implementing an independent verification mechanism would be beneficial.

Also, while it is widely agreed that there needs to be greater national and international oversight regarding certain bio-science and bio-industry activities, states are still unable to agree on the list of activities.

Finally, participants emphasised the potential for civil society to play a greater role in biological arms control. It was suggested that the most promising way to incorporate civil society would be through identifying new formats in which they can address the public and states parties, as well as building networks and gathering information collectively.

An example of what could be done with nuclear weapons

Despite its shortcomings, the BTWC exists as an example of what could and should be done in nuclear disarmament. The Convention includes the legal recognition and institutionalisation of the illegality of biological weapons, which strengthens the case for and will eventually lead to the total elimination of these weapons. The same would be true for a nuclear weapon ban treaty.

Writing about the 40th anniversary of the BTCW, Rose Gottemoeller, the US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, highlighted the Convention’s importance “in establishing and implementing the strong international norm against biological weapons, which rank among the darkest manifestations of human ingenuity.” We believe that a nuclear weapons ban treaty should be the next step in codifying “humanity’s consensus” that nuclear weapons are likewise illegitimate for all.

WILPF has joined the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in calling for a ban on nuclear weapons. We believe that the development of an international legally-binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons could bridge the gap between long-held aspirations for nuclear disarmament and the seemingly intractable legal and political landscape that exists today.

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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