chapter  5
24 Pages

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention: Origins of the UK Proposal to Separate BW from CW 1968

Although the UK had an offensive BW programme during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years, the status of that programme was shifting increasingly towards a defensive posture by the 1950s.1 Several decision points were critical here. The UK policy on BW adopted in 1952 required that NATO allies should not take up a position that would deprive them of the ability to use BW in retaliation, if this were to their advantage. In 1953 in the interests of economy and efficiency the UK programme of R&D was directed to be coordinated with that of the US.2 However, the existing directive on biological warfare policy that had dated from 1945 was revised and a new policy proposal submitted by the Chiefs of Staff and Ministry of Supply to the Prime Minister in October 1953 for approval. This essentially saw no change in the policy to concentrate efforts primarily on defence against biological attack, but noted that the UK should be prepared to retaliate in kind should the government of the day decide to do so.3 However, the services decided simultaneously that they could no longer support a BW manufacturing capacity.4 In any case the UK had struggled to develop workable requirements for an anti-personnel weapon and it had been hoped in 1947, when an Air Staff Requirement had been set out,

to have this in service by 1955. However, by July 1954 it had become apparent to the Air Staff that because of the magnitude or the technical problems more research was required in both the agent and weapon fields before a satisfactory weapon could be recommended to the RAF for service use. Key issues were storage, transportation, testing, preparation for use and the biological agent itself.5 The 1947 Air Staff Requirement was cancelled in July 1954 and replaced with a new target that required research to determine effective agents and suitable weapons for waging biological warfare. Things were to change by the end of the decade. The Chiefs of Staff agreed in 1958 that the UK did not need either a CW or BW retaliatory capability, provided that the US continued to possess one.6 So therefore by the mid 1960s, when thoughts were turning to CBW disarmament, the UK had long since ceased to have any offensive programme, but it had continued with significant biological defence work at the Microbiological Research Establishment (MRE) at Porton Down.7 Here the main focus was on hazard assessment. There was thus no offensive programme, even a dormant one, that could be adversely impacted by any arms control or disarmament initiative launched by others or indeed the UK itself; care would be needed to ensure that defensive work was not impeded or otherwise unduly constrained. The UK had never publicly offered any confirmation that it possessed any biological weapons and generally remained coy about the status of its CB programmes. It was against such a background that the UK began to consider an initiative on biological weapons in the aftermath of the conclusion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, which was one of the major international arms control agreements of the 1960s. Just why the UK decided to light upon biological weapons as the main preoccupation of its multilateral arms control policy and the process in which that decision was reached has remained somewhat opaque. This chapter explores the background and explains the evolution of UK thinking and the events that led to the tabling in 1968 of one of the landmark proposals in the history of the main multilateral disarmament forum – the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC), which was based in Geneva in the UN Palais des Nations. This was to lead to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention 1972, which to this day remains the cornerstone of the regime to combat the threat posed by ‘public health in reverse’ – a phrase used to characterise biological warfare. Little has been written

on the immediate origins of the Convention based on The National Archive sources and what there is, does not fully reflect an in-depth review of all the relevant archival papers.8