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– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
June 2, 2022
No Breakthroughs at BWC Ad Hoc Group Meeting
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Seth Brugger

THE AD HOC Group of states-parties to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) held its 18th session in Geneva from January 17 to February 4 without making any breakthroughs on the two central areas of contention—technical cooperation and compliance issues. However, the group, which is responsible for developing a legally binding protocol to the BWC, did make progress on text clarification and issued a new version of the rolling text.

The BWC outlaws biological agents and their means of delivery and requires states-parties to destroy or divert to peaceful purposes biological weapons-related material. However, the convention has no formal verification mechanisms. The Ad Hoc Group, led by Tibor Tóth of Hungary, has been meeting since January 1995 to develop a protocol that will provide the means for a verifiable and more effective convention, although only those BWC states-parties that ratify the protocol will be bound by its terms.

Since the summer of 1997, the Ad Hoc Group has based its negotiations on a rolling text, which, after over two years of debate, is approaching its final form. A number of articles have been largely agreed upon, including those dealing with confidentiality provisions, measures to redress a situation and ensure compliance, assistance and protection against biological weapons, national implementation measures, and legal issues.

Disagreement remains in the key areas of technical cooperation and compliance measures, however. The principal dispute on technical cooperation involves how the protocol should deal with the transfer of biological agents and dual-use equipment. At issue is a call by some Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) members for the protocol to establish a multilaterally negotiated export framework. Such a framework might not leave room for export control regimes such as the Australia Group, an informal body that coordinates export regulations related to biological and chemical weapons, an idea that is unacceptable to most Western states.

Concerning compliance measures, delegates agree that states-parties should submit declarations on facilities and activities related to the convention. They have agreed in general to initially declare past offensive and defensive biological weapons programs and to annually declare current biological defense programs, vaccine production facilities, maximum biological containment facilities, and facilities dealing with listed agents and toxins. But the group has yet to agree on what other kinds of facilities require declarations and what items facilities should declare.

The issue of how to follow-up declarations is also unresolved. Three types of "visits" are under consideration. The first, "randomly-selected visits" or "transparency visits," would be mandatory, infrequent and selected on a random basis to increase understanding of declared activities. Whether the visit should also verify the accuracy of a declaration is debated. The second type, "clarification visits," could be conducted if outstanding questions remain after consultations with a country possessing a disputed declaration. A state could also initiate a third type, "voluntary assistance visits," which would allow it to obtain technical advice or information on the protocol's implementation. The visit may also include provisions for technical assistance.

Some delegations have promoted compliance measures that would reduce the impact of the protocol on their countries. For instance, the U.S. delegation, deviating from the position of most Western countries, favors placing some limits on bio-defense facility declarations and does not approve of having randomly selected visits confirm the accuracy of a declaration because the United States houses a large bio-tech industry and bio-defense program. In a similar light, some members of the NAM oppose mandatory clarification visits since they believe they are more likely to be subjected to these visits than Western countries.

This strategy of trying to protect domestic facilities from visits is also reflected in the dispute over the scope of clarification visits. Some Western states want the visit to include undeclared facilities, while some non-aligned countries favor limiting the visit to declared facilities.

In addition to declarations and visits, the protocol includes a third compliance measure—investigations. This measure is subdivided into field and facility investigations, with a field investigation covering a suspect use or release of biological agents, and a facility investigation examining a suspect facility. While the types of investigations are agreed upon, the Ad Hoc Group has yet to concur on how the implementing body's executive council will initiate an investigation. Procedures for allowing a field investigation to explore a suspect facility are also not decided upon.

The Ad Hoc Group, which is supposed to try to complete the protocol before the BWC's fifth review conference in 2001, also has work remaining in other areas of the protocol, including the preamble, definitions, confidence-building measures, and general provisions. The next session is planned for March 13-31.