Is Washington Prepared to Lead at the BWC Review Conference?
Roughly every five years since the entry into force in 1975 of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the member states have gathered in
Although BWC review conferences tend to be low-profile events, British diplomat John Freeman has noted that “we ignore at our peril the role, importance, and potential of the review conference process for effective, ongoing treaty stewardship.” Indeed, the seventh BWC review conference, scheduled for December 5-22, provides a timely opportunity to strengthen the convention and raise its political salience.
The BWC is one of the cornerstones of the nonproliferation regime, but for historical reasons, the treaty has a number of serious flaws: it lacks a secretariat or implementing body and provides no mechanisms for the systematic monitoring of implementation or compliance or for investigating alleged violations. Because of these weaknesses, the BWC failed to prevent the Soviet Union, apartheid-era South Africa, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from pursuing clandestine biological weapons programs and thus lost a good deal of credibility. Suspicions about noncompliance with the BWC persist today. In July 2010, the U.S. Department of State released an unclassified report to Congress noting that China and Russia have been less than forthcoming about their past biological weapons programs and alleging the possible existence of offensive biological activities in BWC states-parties Iran, North Korea, and Russia, and also in Syria, which has signed but not ratified the treaty. Another shortcoming of the BWC is its lack of universality; it has only 163 member states, compared to 189 for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and 188 for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
Maintaining the normative power of the BWC requires adaptation to the changing nature of the biological weapons threat. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent mailing of letters contaminated with anthrax bacterial spores, there has been a growing concern over bioterrorism. Although experts differ in assessing the likelihood that a terrorist group could carry out a mass-casualty biological attack, the relevant technologies are becoming increasingly accessible to those with malign intent. The BWC, however, covers nonstate actors only indirectly through national implementing measures such as penal legislation, which many member states have yet to adopt. Another worrisome possibility is that outlaw states, sophisticated terrorist groups, and malicious “biohackers” could exploit recent advances in the life sciences, such as the ability to synthesize lethal viruses from scratch, to wreak havoc on a large scale. Unfortunately, awareness of dual-use risks on the part of the scientific community and efforts to manage such risks through regulation and other forms of governance lag far behind the pace of technological development.
For all of these reasons, this year’s BWC review conference comes at a critical time in the life of the 35-year-old regime. Over the next several months before the conference convenes in
Unlike the last BWC review conference in 2006, when the survival of the regime hung in the balance because of deep divisions among member states at the previous conference, the atmosphere surrounding the treaty has become less politicized and more cooperative. Even so, there are a number of complex, interrelated issues on which it will be difficult to forge a consensus. To a considerable extent, the success of the 2011 review conference will depend on constructive leadership from the
History of the BWC Review Process
Given the dynamic nature of the biological weapons threat, a key function of the five-year BWC review process is to keep the treaty relevant and updated, much as the U.S. Supreme Court interprets the Constitution so that it remains a living document. Past BWC review conferences have played an important role in clarifying ambiguities and gaps in the treaty text by adopting politically binding “common understandings” that clarify or extend the provisions of the convention without the need for formal amendments. At the 1996 review conference, for example, the member states agreed that the BWC implicitly prohibits the use of biological weapons even though the treaty text explicitly bans only their development, production, stockpiling, and transfer. Other understandings have clarified that the BWC covers all biological agents and toxins regardless of their method of production, including by chemical synthesis.
Past BWC review conferences also have reached agreement on politically binding measures to reinforce the goals of the treaty. The conferences in 1986 and 1991 created a confidence-building-measure mechanism that enables member states to exchange information relevant to the BWC on an annual basis, including data on unusual outbreaks of infectious disease, national biodefense programs, maximum-containment laboratories for research with the most deadly and incurable viruses, and human vaccine production facilities, which can be diverted easily to the production of biological warfare agents. Because the BWC lacks formal verification measures, the 1991 review conference established a group of scientific and technical experts called VEREX to examine various approaches to monitoring compliance. The group’s final report in 1993 concluded that although no single measure was likely to detect the clandestine development or production of biological weapons, certain combinations of measures could increase confidence in compliance and help to deter violations.
In early 1995, in response to the VEREX report, the BWC member states launched the negotiation of a legally binding protocol to bolster the convention through the mandatory declaration and on-site inspection of relevant facilities. After six-and-a-half years of multilateral talks, the chairman circulated a compromise text of the BWC protocol in June 2001, but the new administration of U.S. President George W. Bush rejected the draft treaty on the grounds that it would do little to increase confidence in compliance and would be overly burdensome for
At the 2001 BWC Review Conference, which convened a few months later, the Bush administration tried to dissolve the negotiating forum for the protocol, but a majority of member states demurred. In an effort to break the deadlock, the conference chairman, Hungarian diplomat Tibor Tóth, put the proceedings on hold for a year and engaged in informal negotiations with key countries. When the review conference resumed in late 2002, Tóth had worked out a compromise formula acceptable to all. It called for holding a series of annual meetings of experts and states-parties during the four-year period before the next review conference to “promote common understanding and effective action” on a variety of topics related to national implementation of the BWC and the prevention of bioterrorism. Although expectations for the intersessional process were low, it turned out to be surprisingly useful. The sharing of best practices among member states improved BWC implementation at the national level, while the annual meetings of experts raised the awareness of biosecurity issues in the scientific and medical communities.
After the vicissitudes of the BWC regime in 2001-2002, the next review conference in 2006 was a modest success. Under the skilled chairmanship of Ambassador Masood Khan,
Since 2001, partly in response to the failure of the BWC protocol negotiations, several international bodies and civil society organizations have established measures to strengthen biosecurity outside the treaty framework. Examples of such ad hoc initiatives include UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all UN member states to adopt national legislation to prevent bioterrorism; the guidelines for laboratory biological risk management developed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Committee for Standardization, and other agencies; the law enforcement training programs coordinated by Interpol’s Bioterrorism Prevention Program; and the efforts by professional societies and the U.S. government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to raise the awareness of life scientists about the potential misuse of their research for hostile purposes. Each of these initiatives is useful, yet the diversity of measures and sponsors has tended to fragment the biological disarmament regime. Although the BWC provides the normative framework for all efforts to prevent the misuse of biology, the treaty itself requires strengthening to ensure that the member states remain committed to its goals and comply with its obligations.
Change and Continuity in
The inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009 elicited a wave of optimism among arms control and disarmament advocates because he had called for greater multilateral engagement by the
To date, the sole
The main thrust of the
The 2005 revision of the IHR requires countries to detect and report a “public health emergency of international concern,” such as an epidemic with the potential to spread beyond national borders. To satisfy this requirement, each WHO member state must strengthen its national capabilities for infectious disease surveillance, reporting, and response. Although the WHO has the lead role in implementing the health regulations, the United States has called for using the resources of national security agencies to support capacity building in this area. The departments of State and Defense, for example, have incorporated assistance for disease surveillance into their biological threat reduction programs. At the December 2010 intersessional meeting of BWC states-parties, Kennedy defended this approach. “The
Because the WHO is doing a creditable job of leading efforts to implement the revised IHR with the assistance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, what is the benefit of pursuing parallel efforts under the aegis of the BWC? The chief rationale for reframing natural outbreaks from a humanitarian concern to a national security threat is that it will generate more financial assistance for disease surveillance efforts. Although additional funding would be desirable if there were no strings attached, that outcome cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, treating public health as an instrument of national security could end up giving greater priority to infectious diseases that the developed world considers threatening because of their potential for rapid spread or suitability for use in bioterrorist attacks, at the expense of combating endemic diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria that impose a major health burden on developing countries but are not amenable to weaponization. Conversely, making disease surveillance the centerpiece of efforts to strengthen the BWC would distract attention from the main challenge facing the treaty regime, namely ensuring that the member states comply with their obligations not to acquire or proliferate biological weapons. For these reasons, the Obama administration’s focus on IHR implementation as a vehicle to promote the goals of the BWC could prove counterproductive for the treaty and for international health.
Another challenge facing the 2011 review conference is that the issue of monitoring compliance with the BWC remains highly divisive. A deep split persists between countries that wish to pursue some sort of legally binding verification regime and those opposed to this approach. The
Instead of setting out such a proposal, the
Despite the emphasis on transparency in the
The emphasis in the
During the formal consultative meeting,
Since 1997 no effort has been made to update the multilateral consultative mechanism under Article V or to use it to address BWC compliance concerns, such as those mentioned in the recent State Department report to Congress. At the 2011 review conference, the member states should discuss the lessons learned from the Thrips palmi incident and refine the multilateral consultative process so that it can be used more effectively in the future. In sum, if
Other Topics for the Conference
Article XII of the BWC specifies only two requirements for the review conference: it must review the operation of the convention over the previous five years and assess the implications for the regime of recent advances in science and technology. Although the agenda of the 2011 review conference has not been agreed, the following additional topics are likely to be addressed.
Future of the ISU. The 2011 review conference has been tasked with evaluating the performance of the ISU and deciding whether to renew its mandate. Because the work of the three-person unit is widely respected, its continued existence is not in doubt. (Thanks to assistance and encouragement from the ISU, 70 countries submitted confidence-building data declarations in 2010, the highest number of returns in any single year.) The main issues for debate are whether the ISU should be made permanent or its mandate merely extended for another fixed period, and whether its staff, budget, and responsibilities should be increased. Although the Obama administration is more open than its predecessor to a modest expansion of the ISU, it is not yet clear what level of growth will win consensus support.
Renewal of the intersessional process. The review conference will decide whether to extend the intersessional work program and, if so, what its composition should be. Over the past eight years, the annual meetings of experts and states-parties have repeatedly addressed the same set of topics, dealing mainly with national implementation of the BWC and voluntary measures to prevent bioterrorism. Now that these topics have been exhausted, the intersessional process as currently structured has reached the end of its useful life, and the format and content of the annual meetings will have to be rethought.
With respect to format, instead of separate one-week meetings each year of scientific experts and states-parties, it would make sense for the two groups to meet together for two weeks so that the diplomats can gain a better understanding of the technical challenges facing the BWC. In addition, the current rules limit the annual meetings to exchanges of information, a constraint that many countries consider overly restrictive. Possible changes to the intersessional process include allowing the discussion of key topics to continue from one year to the next, creating standing working groups to deal with specific issues, and giving the annual meetings the authority to make collective decisions and adopt common understandings that clarify aspects of the BWC.
With respect to the content of the intersessional process, the
Confidence-building-measure declarations. A topic likely to be raised at the 2011 review conference is how to revise the annual confidence-building declaration formats, which have not been updated since 1991, to make them more informative and easier to submit in electronic form. Because the annual exchange of information is politically but not legally binding, fewer than one-half of the BWC states parties currently participate on a regular basis. In 2010, for example, 70 member states (43 percent) submitted confidence-building declarations that were released to the other states-parties, and 12 posted their returns on the open portion of the ISU Web site, making them available to the public as well. An improved set of electronic declaration formats, simplified and designed for easy use, would encourage greater participation and provide a useful point of departure for consultations under Article V to address gaps or ambiguities in the submitted data. In addition,
Article X on cooperation and assistance. A highly divisive issue that will be difficult to resolve at the 2011 review conference is the implementation of Article X of the BWC, which calls for international cooperation in the use of biotechnology for peaceful purposes, including transfers of relevant equipment, materials, and know-how. Some
UN secretary-general’s investigation mechanism. Pursuant to a series of General Assembly and Security Council resolutions during the 1980s, any UN member state may request that the secretary-general launch a field investigation of an alleged use of chemical, biological, or toxin weapons or a suspicious outbreak of disease. Between 1980 and 1992, UN expert teams investigated incidents of alleged chemical or toxin weapons use in Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Mozambique, and some of these missions yielded clear-cut positive or negative findings. Because the CWC includes a mechanism for investigating the alleged use of chemical arms, the secretary-general’s mechanism would be activated only in cases involving biological weapons. Recently, a debate has emerged over the relationship between the secretary-general’s mechanism and the BWC. China contends any investigation of alleged biological weapons use should be conducted under the auspices of the Security Council, as provided for in Article VI of the BWC, rather than through the secretary-general’s mechanism. Yet, because any of the five permanent members of the Security Council (including
The forthcoming BWC review conference provides an important opportunity to consolidate the political gains made at the previous conference in 2006 and the subsequent four years of intersessional meetings. Nevertheless, if
• Develop a plan to expand and strengthen the ISU so that it can play a more effective coordination and support role in the implementation of the BWC.
• Propose far-reaching transparency measures to build confidence in BWC compliance, such as “open houses” for foreign delegations and the international press corps at major
• Make efforts to regularize and strengthen the bilateral and multilateral consultative mechanisms under Article V of the BWC, including the use of confidence-building declarations and open-source information to clarify ambiguities and resolve compliance concerns.
• Renew the intersessional work program with a new set of topics and formats, including an assessment of how advanced biotechnologies could contribute to a future mechanism for monitoring BWC compliance.
The 2011 review conference provides a rare opportunity to strengthen the BWC at a time when rapid scientific and technological advances threaten to undermine the regime. Given the dramatic improvement since 2001 in the level of cooperation among member states, the time is ripe for a thorough review and revitalization of the convention. This opportunity could easily be lost, however, unless the
Jonathan B. Tucker is the Georg Zundel Professor of Science and Technology for Peace and Security at Darmstadt University of Technology near
3. Jonathan B. Tucker and Raymond A. Zilinskas, “The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology,” The New Atlantis, No. 12 (Spring 2006), pp. 25-45, www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/12/tuckerzilinskas.htm.
6. The annual confidence-building measure data declaration forms cover the following topics: (A-1) maximum-containment laboratories that work with the most deadly and incurable pathogens; (A-2) national biodefense research and development programs; (B) unusual outbreaks of infectious disease and similar occurrences caused by toxins; (C) publication of research on dangerous pathogens; (D) active promotion of contacts between scientists; (E) legislation, regulations, and other measures taken to implement the BWC; (F) declaration of past offensive and defensive activities related to biological and toxin weapons since 1946; and (G) production facilities for human vaccines.
15. The 70 BWC member states that submitted confidence-building data declarations in 2010 are listed at www.unog.ch/__80256ee600585943.nsf/%28httpPages%29/fa4da37a55c7966c12575780055d9e8?OpenDocument&ExpandSection=24#_Section24.
16. The 12 countries that published their confidence-building declarations on the public part of the ISU Web site in 2010 were
17. Meeting of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bateriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, “The Establishment of a Mechanism for the Full Implementation of Article X of the Convention,” BWC/MSP/2009/MX/WP.24, August 25, 2009 (submitted by Cuba on behalf of NAM and other states-parties).
18. Jonathan B. Tucker, “Multilateral Approaches to the Investigation and Attribution of Biological and Toxin Weapons Use,” in Terrorism, War, or Disease? Unraveling the Use of Biological Weapons, ed. Anne L. Clunan, Peter R. Lavoy, and Susan B. Martin (
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