ACA Logo

U.S. Attempts to Sink BWC Review Conference

Kerry Boyd

The United States is demanding that the upcoming Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) review conference make no decisions beyond agreeing to hold another conference in 2006, generating anger among many BWC states-parties.

In talking points distributed to Western allies in early September, the United States called for a “very short” conference, which is scheduled to begin November 11 in Geneva. In meetings with other delegations, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker originally proposed a 10-minute meeting. The United States, however, took a slightly more flexible stance after allies and arms control experts indicated that was nearly impossible, a State Department official said September 25.
According to the talking points, if the member states attempt to address any issue beyond scheduling another conference in 2006, the United States will publicly list countries it believes are covertly developing biological weapons. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton said in an August 26 speech in Tokyo that Iran, Libya, Syria, and North Korea are seeking biological weapons and that Cuba has “at least a limited” biological warfare research and development program. He said there are other states with covert programs that the United States has not yet named.

The United States has called for a minimal conference out of concern that the meeting will turn into a “train wreck” if countries attempt to address issues beyond agreeing to meet in 2006, the State Department official said.

The United States came under international criticism last year when it said it would not support a proposed legally binding protocol to strengthen the BWC or any efforts to revise the protocol. (See ACT, September 2001.) The BWC lacks any mechanism to verify member states’ compliance, and countries spent more than six years negotiating the draft protocol through an international body known as the Ad Hoc Group to provide such a tool. The United States opposes the protocol out of concerns that proposed mechanisms and inspections might pose a threat to the U.S. biotech industry and biodefense efforts while doing nothing to catch BWC violators. Bolton also said that, despite their success in limiting other weapons, “traditional arms control measures…are not workable for biological weapons.”

In addition to opposing the protocol, the United States created an uproar at the 2001 review conference when it called for an end to the Ad Hoc Group’s mandate to negotiate a legally binding protocol. The conference, at which it had been hoped the protocol would be approved, was suspended for one year with no action taken. (See ACT, January/February 2002.)

The Bush administration continues to call for an end to the Ad Hoc Group, and the U.S. talking points threatened that if the November conference lasts too long the United States would explicitly demand the group’s end. If states-parties meet the U.S. demand for a brief meeting, then the United States would not press the issue at the conference.

The United States offered a package of measures to strengthen efforts to curb biological weapons proliferation at last year’s review conference, but the proposal did not include any legally binding measures. Since then, the United States appears to have moved away from its own proposals and any attempts to strengthen the BWC through states-parties meetings. The United States has told allies that it does not want to hold other meetings to discuss strengthening the treaty before a 2006 review conference.

Despite rejecting the draft protocol and any meetings within the next four years, the Bush administration fully supports the BWC, the State Department official said. The treaty remains “a bedrock of our efforts to counter weapons of mass destruction,” the U.S. talking points say.

The Bush administration has decided, however, that the best way to combat the biological weapons threat is through other forums. Using opportunities beyond the BWC regime avoids the potential that rogue states developing biological weapons programs, some of which are party to the treaty, could scuttle the efforts, the State Department official said.

Other mechanisms the United States is using to combat biological weapons include the Australia Group, 33 countries that coordinate export control policies to prevent biological and chemical weapons proliferation. Bolton also cited new U.S. laws designed to strengthen the country’s ability to defend against biological weapons attacks, multilateral commitments to prevent proliferation in the former Soviet Union, and World Health Organization and NATO efforts to prevent and respond to biological attacks.

The United States has been explaining its position to European states, Japan, South Korea, and other allies. U.S. officials have also discussed the issue with other countries, but the U.S. emphasis is on working with its Western allies, according to the State Department official.

Most of its allies are very unhappy with the U.S. position, according to a Western European official. There might be some room for compromise if countries can agree to hold meetings before a 2006 review conference, such as deciding to meet again in 2003, the official said. There are alternatives that countries could discuss, such as those the United Kingdom put forward in a green paper in June, which included a new international convention to criminalize individual actions to develop, produce, or use biological weapons. However, the prognosis for continuing work is not good, the official said.

Meanwhile, experts from the U.S. pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries and analysts from the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington-based policy organization, issued a report in September agreeing with the U.S. decision to reject the draft protocol to the BWC but criticizing the U.S. alternative proposals. “The industry group was genuinely puzzled that their government would advance such tepid proposals after the bioterrorist attacks of 2001 and in view of the continuing efforts of national and subnational actors to acquire biowarfare capabilities,” the report says. The group called for international standards, such as a criminalization treaty.