The Ad Hoc Group of states party to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) held its last negotiating session for the year from November 20 to December 8. Although the talks did not make any overt headway on major controversial issues, according to a senior U.S. official it appears that they could soon head into the endgame.
"There is a feeling that one could foresee the right mix of solutions" to outstanding problems, another senior diplomat involved in the negotiations remarked. The session "proved to many delegations" that meeting the goal of concluding the negotiations by the next BWC review conference, scheduled to begin in November 2001, is "doable," the diplomat said.
The Ad Hoc Group has met multiple times each year in Geneva since 1995 to negotiate a legally binding protocol to strengthen the BWC, which outlaws biological weapons but lacks verification mechanisms. Since the summer of 1997, the group has used a draft of the protocol, called the rolling text, as the basis for the negotiations. The talks have now progressed to a point where moving forward hinges on settling remaining critical and contentious issues, such as provisions governing the transfer of agents and dual-use equipment, the role and scope of visits, what types of facilities should submit declarations, and procedures for launching investigations. (See ACT, March and May 2000.)
Attempting to break the impasse, Ad Hoc Group Chairman Tibor Tóth of Hungary has been conducting private informal consultations with various delegations on such issues, a practice begun last session that has become the negotiations' focus. He has apparently been using the discussions to gauge what compromises are feasible and is reportedly likely to release in February a new draft protocol called the chairman's text, which will contain draft solutions and could serve as the basis for further negotiation.
During the latest round of talks, Tóth's consultations progressed to discussing possible written solutions—an apparent indication that work on the chairman's text is advancing. According to the senior U.S. official, the consultations may have caused some delegations to shift their demands, and the question is now whether the negotiations are at a point where trade-offs are possible.
Regardless of deals struck at this late stage, the final version of the protocol is not likely to include the strongest verification measures possible—a result of the delegations' divergent ideas on the necessary strength of the protocol's compliance regime.
In his closing remarks to the Ad Hoc Group, Tóth cautioned that compromises made to date have "not been sufficient" and stressed the need to "redouble" efforts on finding middle ground. Accordingly, the senior diplomat said that the next round of talks will require "more feedback" than the November-December session from delegations on ideas vetted at the previous session. The group will meet again February 12-23.