Photograph — Brookings Institute

Over 47 years after signing the United Nations (UN) Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), Tanzania has finally ratified the pact. Member of Parliament, Jasson Rweikiza made the disclosure this week.

According to Rweikiza, who reportedly led a three-year lobbying campaign for the country’s official endorsement of the treaty, the long-delayed ratification was sealed in London on August 14.

“This step represents the culmination of a number of years of efforts by a diverse range of stakeholders in Tanzania,” the legislator said. “I am now looking forward to progressing implementation of the convention locally in the coming months.”

Despite being among the first set of signatories to the agreement when it was introduced in 1972, the ratification this year makes Tanzania the 183rd of 197 eligible states to fully belong to the convention.

Regional neighbors Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi have already ratified it, while South Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Comoros are eligible states from Eastern African region that have neither signed nor ratified the treaty.

Why the BWC is important

As highlighted in the UN website, the BWC is the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the arbitrary “development, production and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.”

The convention, which was opened for signature on April 10, 1972, and entered into force on March 26, 1975, seeks to curb uncontrolled production of an entire category of toxic weapons amidst the ongoing terrorist threats around the world.

The scope of the BWC’s prohibition includes all microbial and other biological agents or toxins and their means of delivery, but with exceptions for medical and defensive purposes in small quantities.

Permitted purposes under the BWC are defined as “prophylactic, protective and other peaceful” purposes. The treaty further states that such objects may “not be retained in quantities that have no justification or which are inconsistent with the permitted purposes.”

However, the East African reports that some states that have yet to ratify the convention say the absence of any formal verification regime to monitor compliance somewhat limits the convention’s effectiveness.

Tanzania’s decision to fully commit to the agreement now may not be unconnected to the rising terrorist threat in East Africa. The region is threatened by militant groups such as Somalia-based Al Shabaab, who have crossed borders into Kenya, Uganda, and also Tanzania.

More so, East African states are struggling with the proliferation and trafficking of illicit arms that are being used for other transnational crimes like terrorism, poaching, and piracy.

A 2018 Geneva report shows that there are 7.8 million small arms in the wrong hands in a region where almost half of the countries – Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi – are undergoing or just recovering from conflict.

This, coupled with damage a likely toxin or chemical weapons attack could cause highlights the importance of the convention. An example is the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack on April 4, 2017, in Syria (a notable absentee from the BWC) which killed at least 89 people and injured more than 541.

Tanzania’s Defence Minister Hussein Mwinyi last year said in parliament that the biological weapons convention was considered important at the time. It is even more crucial now in the battle against rising terrorism in the region.


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