Official BWC Ad Hoc Group Continues Work Without Substantial Progress

May 2000

By Seth Brugger

The ad hoc group of states-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) made no substantial progress during its last session on resolving major differences on key issues or removing brackets from the rolling text, which is a draft of the protocol to the BWC. However, the group, which met from March 13 to 31 and commemorated the BWC's 25th anniversary March 26 with addresses by high-level officials, saw some progress in the area of export controls and issued a new version of the rolling text.

The Ad Hoc Group has been meeting since 1995 to negotiate a legally binding protocol to make the BWC more effective. The BWC outlaws biological weapons and their means of delivery, but contains no verification mechanisms.

Remarking on the session's outcome in an interview, Ambassador Tibor Tóth, chairman of the Ad Hoc Group, said, "The progress in this session was slower than in the previous ones, which might be an indication that we have to incrementally adjust our negotiating techniques to the changing situation." He added, "By now, we have very well isolated the remaining islands of controversy in a sea of clean text and will have to find solutions to them." (See interview.)

Despite the slow progress, the session saw movement by the United States on the issue of transferring agents and dual-use equipment—a major point of dispute in which some members of the Non-Aligned Movement have called for establishing an export control framework that might not leave room for existing export control groups, such as the Australia Group, an informal body that coordinates biological and chemical weapons-related exports. Most Western countries, including the United States, oppose this position.

In an effort to "get the real negotiating process underway," U.S. Senior Adviser for Arms Control and International Security John Holum stated in an address to the Ad Hoc Group that the United States had agreed to remove brackets, which denote disputed text, around one of the protocol's sections dealing with the transfer issue. Holum specified, however, that the United States still disagreed with some language in the section, which the group would have to negotiate.

Several other key and politically sensitive issues remain unresolved, including the role and scope of visits, exactly which types of facilities need to submit declarations, what items facilities should declare, procedures for launching an investigation, and how to transition from a field investigation to a facility investigation. (See ACT, March 2000.) Disagreement also persists over what terms in the protocol require definition and the role of threshold quantities for agents.

The group is supposed to conclude negotiations by the treaty's fifth review conference, scheduled for 2001. To this end, the convention's depositaries—Britain, Russia, and the United States—issued a joint statement March 27 marking the BWC's anniversary and pledging their support to conclude the negotiations "within the agreed time frame." The next session is scheduled for July 10-August 4.