Announcement - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Matthew S. Meselson Honored with the 2019 Future of Life Award for BWC Role

| Apr. 24, 2019

Was a driving force behind the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention

Dr. Matthew S. Meselson, Harvard University's Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences and co-Director of the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons, received the $50,000 Future of Life Award at a ceremony at the University of Boulder's Conference on World Affairs on April 9, 2019.  The award honors Meselson's leading role in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), an international treaty that not only affirmed the existing ban on the use of biological weapons, but also banned the production, stockpiling, and offensive research into biological weapons. The BWC also provides for a verification system.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol, an international treaty that the United States had never ratified, did prohibit the use of chemical and biological weapons in international conflicts. Meselson outlined why the United States should ratify this treaty in a policy paper, "The United States and the Geneva Protocol," which National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger brought to the attention of President Richard Nixon.

Toxins are poisons derived from living organisms. Some of Nixon's advisors believed that the United States should retain the right to use artificially synthesized versions of naturally-derived toxins as weapons while renouncing the use of natural-toxin weapons. Another of Meselson's policy papers, "What Policy for Toxins," persuaded Nixon to reject this distinction and to renounce the use of all toxin weapons.

On Meselson's advice, Nixon announced on November 25, 1969, that he would resubmit the Geneva Protocol to the Senate for ratification. He reaffirmed renunciation of the first use of lethal chemical weapons for the United States. In addition, he also announced the U.S. unilateral renunciation of biological weapons, which went beyond the Geneva Protocol's terms. Offensive biological research itself was prohibited, and existing biological weapons stockpiles were destroyed.

Next, Meselson and his peers wanted an international legally-binding treaty that was more stringent than the Geneva Protocol—one that would provide for a verification system as well as prohibiting offensive research and stockpiling of biological weapons. The BWC was discussed and negotiated in the UN disarmament forum starting in 1969 and opened for signature in 1972. It entered into force in 1975, is of indefinite duration, and currently has 182 parties and five signatories.

The Future of Life Institute awards this prize for an act that has greatly benefited humankind and which was done despite personal risk and without being rewarded at the time.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Lynch, Susan.“Matthew S. Meselson Honored with the 2019 Future of Life Award for BWC Role.” Announcement, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 24, 2019.

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