BWC Ad Hoc Group Inches Forward

Continuing its work on a protocol to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Ad Hoc Group of states party to the BWC convened in Geneva from July 10 to August 4 for its 20th session. Attempting to make headway, Chairman Tibor Tóth of Hungary employed new negotiating procedures, holding direct consultations on remaining key issues with various states-parties. This effort stimulated the negotiations, which had begun to slow, but the group did not make significant progress on the most important issues.

The Ad Hoc Group has been meeting since 1995 to negotiate a legally binding protocol to the BWC to make the convention more effective. The BWC outlaws biological weapons but contains no verification mechanisms. In the summer of 1997, the group began using a rolling text—a draft of the protocol—as the basis for the negotiations. It appears that overcoming the remaining disputes will require the release of a new text. Most delegations expect that this text will come from the chair, but it is not clear when this might happen.

In an effort to give the negotiations a much-needed push, Tóth switched the group's negotiating procedures, shifting the focus away from sessions led by Friends of the Chair, who are delegates appointed by the chair to take the lead on specific matters. Instead, for the first time, he held bilateral consultations directly with delegations throughout the session to explore ways to resolve remaining principal disputes, which center on compliance measures, provisions for the transfer of agents and dual-use equipment, and the definition of terms in the protocol. (See ACT, March and May 2000.)

The Ad Hoc Group has been aiming to conclude its negotiations by the fifth BWC review conference in 2001. Along these lines, the world's leading industrial powers pledged at the July Group of Eight summit to work to finish negotiations on the "verification protocol" as "early as possible in 2001." The Ad Hoc Group is scheduled to meet again from November 20 to December 8.