Forty years ago, the Biological Weapons Convention entered into force. Today it is supported by 173 states parties, including Pakistan. This historic convention has played an important part in making the world a safer place.

For the past four decades, it has been the goal of this treaty that the life sciences would be used only for benign purposes, and that the international community would continue to fight present and future threats of their destructive use, biological warfare and bioterrorism.

The convention has been remarkably successful in its mission of eliminating an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. It is a simple treaty and it has some shortcomings. But, over the decades, it has built a robust norm against the repugnant notion of using disease as a means of warfare. Although membership of the BWC is not yet universal, no state claims today that biological weapons are a legitimate means of national defense. The BWC is also the most successful WMD non-proliferation and disarmament regime. This is a testimony to the influence of multilateralism and international law.

While celebrating this success, one must bear in mind two points.

First, the success of the BWC does not derive from simply getting states to sign and ratify it. The regime is much more than a few pages of the text.

Second, to build upon the success of the BWC, the international community has to meet some important challenges ahead.

It was realized very early in the history of the BWC that the treaty in itself would not be sufficient to erect barriers against biological weapons. The lack of verification provisions, coupled with concerns about cheating and the implications of scientific and technological advances, led States Parties to begin discussing how the convention might be strengthened.

This debate is fundamental to the success of the treaty. The community of BWC States Parties – with all its differences – is the very lifeblood of the treaty. It has collectively evolved norms and mechanisms that ensure that the advances in the life sciences, biology and biotechnology are used only for the benefit of humanity.

My own engagement with this community began when I was elected as President of the 2006 Sixth Review Conference. It was a particularly difficult time: feelings were still raw after the collapse of the negotiations to develop and endorse a verification protocol and the stark divisions of the Fifth Review Conference held in 2001. And yet, the BWC community was already demonstrating its resilience and resolve. The first inter-sessional process had revealed that, for all their differences, States Parties were committed to making the convention work; and finding pragmatic ways to do it.

When I started preparations in December 2005, member states were still in a quagmire of acrimony and divisions. Recriminations and stand-offs cast their dark shadow on negotiations.

In 2006, working together with member states, we turned that around. With sheer determination and a sense of purpose, we set the convention back on course and made the review conference a success.

We found creative ways to accommodate or steer around the serious divisions among States Parties, and agreed on innovative and practical outcomes. We created an environment for engagement and results.

The establishment of the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) was a major step forward for the BWC, one that has made a difference in improving effectiveness of the treaty, at a very modest financial cost.

We also were successful in creating synergy among the BWC, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, United Nations, World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, and World Organization for Animal Health; and between the BWC member states, industry and academic institutions. Our motto was ‘From adjacency to synergy’ and we succeeded in promoting that goal.

The renewed inter-sessional process brought in a wide range of actors from outside the traditional security and arms control communities, and built vital links with public health and scientific organizations, the private sector and civil society. We also accelerated the pace of ratifications.

This brings me to my second point: our struggle is far from over. Indeed, fulfilling the goals of the BWC is a never-ending and ever-evolving challenge. A fundamental shift in the way the BWC has been perceived has taken place over the past 15 years, with the widespread recognition that biological weapons are just one part of a spectrum of biological risks – such as naturally-occurring disease and laboratory accidents – and that this spectrum of risk must be dealt with in an integrated and coordinated way.

We cannot meet the challenges confronting the BWC regime by standing still and relying on our past successes. Biological science and technology continue to advance at a breathtaking speed. At the same time, the global security situation evolves in unpredictable and alarming ways. Asymmetric warfare, terrorism, violent extremism and twisted ideologies have multiplied security threats in many parts of the world.

The BWC community must respond to these challenges effectively. We should continue to invest in preparedness and response to avert and manage an unforeseen hostile outbreak of disease.

It is a little worrying that within the BWC community, political differences are once again creeping up, and there appears to be a reluctance to work together constructively.

Member states should reverse this drift. We must generate the political will to resolve divisive issues or – more pragmatically – to work around them in the collective interest of strengthening the convention.

All States Parties agree that the Implementation Support Unit has demonstrated extraordinary performance in the past nine years. As a minuscule secretariat supporting the BWC, the ISU should not remain a poor, inadequately equipped relative of the muscular secretariats supporting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is high time that the ISU is expanded and developed to its full potential.

Similarly, member states must overcome reluctance to explore new ideas that might help deal with contentious issues of compliance, verification and Article X of the treaty. We should tackel these problems with an open mind and a renewed entrepreneurial spirit.

Pakistan signed the BWC in 1972 and ratified it in 1974. We oppose development, production or stockpiling of biological weapons and agents. Over the years, Pakistan has worked diligently with other member states to strengthen the BWC regime. We have also advocated the rights of states to access biological and toxin materials and technology for research and peaceful purposes, and for medicine, agriculture and industry.

Pakistan is investing in the development of the life sciences and biotechnology. We have a good institutional base, a sound infrastructure, and a pool of scientists to sustain this effort. As we do so, we have enforced stringent biosecurity and biosafety measures and export controls.

The international community should remain vigilant and prepared to deal with the threats of bio-terrorism, as well as deliberate or accidental releases of pathogens that can affect health, food and raw materials; and cause havoc.

Let us move forward with renewed determination and common purpose to ensure that the goals of this landmark treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, continue to be realized, and Pakistan keeps playing a constructive role to streamline the regime.