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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
An Essential First Step

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James F. Leonard

For the past five years, discussions and negotiations have been held in Geneva aimed at developing what is sometimes called a verification protocol for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The original treaty effectively contained no provisions to ensure its parties' compliance, a reflection of the clear fact that, despite the consensus that biological weapons should be outlawed, verification is very difficult in the biological weapons field.

These extended negotiations have now reached a decision point, with the presentation of a "chairman's text" on March 30 to the protocol's negotiating body, the Ad Hoc Group. Following the successful example of the chairmen of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations, Ambassador Tibor Tóth, chairman of the Ad Hoc Group, has in one fell swoop reduced the hundreds of brackets in the so-called rolling text to present a balanced document that attempts to find a common ground for all participants. His text consists of more than 200 pages of complex provisions for declarations, visits, and investigations and for the establishment of an implementing organization to manage the operation of the protocol.

The conclusion of the BWC 30 years ago was in some ways an almost miraculous event. It was preceded by a U.S. decision to destroy unilaterally its rather large stockpile of biological weapons. The United States then set out to persuade the rest of the world to follow its example. At first only the United Kingdom—which earlier had originated the proposal for an unverified treaty—took part in the U.S. effort, but in time most other significant governments joined. Today the BWC has 143 parties.

The convention, however, turned out to be less successful than it first seemed. The Soviet Union, we learned later, had been totally dishonest in its endorsement of the treaty, choosing the period of the negotiations to enlarge its secret offensive biological weapons program vastly while violently denouncing any allegations that it might be cheating. Only in 1992 did President Boris Yeltsin admit the violation and declare the program halted.

The Middle East has also been a problem area for the BWC. Iraq, a treaty party, secretly developed biological weapons on a large scale, a fact that was only uncovered after the Persian Gulf War by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM). Moreover, neither Israel nor a number of Arab states, including Egypt, have become parties to the BWC.

For some observers, these problems make the whole effort to develop a protocol to the BWC an exercise in futility. At best, they assert, it will tell us that the good guys are being good. It will not help us at all to ascertain which of the bad guys are being bad and in which specific ways.

For others, including this author, things are not so simple. Russia today is not the Soviet Union of 1972. It seeks international respectability and assures us that it has terminated its offensive biological weapons program. Yet suspicions linger. A protocol could help to dispel these suspicions or, in the worst case, could help mobilize pressure on Russia to clean up its act. Something similar could take place with regard to one or more of the "rogue states" that regularly appear on the CIA's list of governments developing biological weapons. It is true that the protocol would have little utility for the problem of Iraq, but fortunately there are very few Saddam Husseins.

Iran is quite a different case. One can reasonably hope that a future Iranian government, moving back into a normal relationship with the international community, would find the projected protocol machinery helpful in building confidence that it is observing the BWC in good faith.

These three cases—Russia, Iraq, and Iran—illustrate an important point about any verification (or confidence-building) apparatus. It will almost always be heavily dependent on the sincere desire of a government to demonstrate that it is not cheating on an agreement. Even in a relatively open society, a government has considerable powers of concealment. The United States, for example, has successfully concealed large, "black" weapons programs, and India denied having chemical weapons stockpiles for years before finally acknowledging them. A tyrannical regime like Iraq therefore has almost total ability to defeat on-site inspection systems.

An arrangement for a field as difficult as biological weapons is thus inherently a rather optimistic wager by the international community that the hard cases like Iraq or North Korea will over time diminish in number and importance. That is a good bet and a step forward toward the remote but foreseeable goal of a complex, multifaceted structure to deter or prevent harmful, even catastrophic, abuses of the astonishing advances being made in the life sciences. Much more than intergovernmental agreements and treaties will eventually be needed if disasters are to be avoided—domestic legislation must be developed and the scientific community must elaborate its own rules and procedures—but the protocol is an essential first step.

The importance of this enterprise should be beyond dispute. The death toll from a single infectious disease, HIV-AIDS, is now mounting into the tens of millions. And there is no malicious human intelligence behind this threat—only good old Mother Nature. Many knowledgeable experts believe that a well-executed ballistic missile or terrorist attack against an urban area using existing biological weapons agents could result in casualties comparable to an attack with a nuclear weapon. Moreover, looking to the future, if a small group of highly trained microbiologists were to set their minds on creating even more virulent biological agents, for which medical science has no adequate response, there is at least some possibility that they could create a new Black Death, with global consequences.

Would a BWC protocol exclude these frightening possibilities? Obviously not. Would it contribute to lessening their likelihood? In the view of most of the small group of scholars and officials that have studied the matter, it clearly would help.

That was the conclusion that the Clinton administration reached early and pursued consistently, despite considerable misgivings within the Washington bureaucracy and substantial problems in the Geneva negotiations. It does not appear to be the conclusion of the Bush administration. The new administration has quite rightly been conducting a review of the whole protocol project. What conclusions it has reached have not been made public, but there are indications it would prefer that the concept either be radically reshaped or simply allowed to wither away.

Certainly, there is much to criticize in the chairman's text. For most non-governmental observers, the verification provisions are not as strong as they would like. For the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, the verification measures are too intrusive. But for most of our good friends and allies, the chairman's text is the best available compromise—a whole bundle of compromises—and far better than nothing. They will, it appears, be quite upset if they find themselves faced with yet another example of American unilateralism.

A review conference for the BWC itself is scheduled for November. Without strong, positive American leadership, agreement this year on a consensus text for the protocol is extremely unlikely, and that sort of leadership does not appear to be in the cards. Working by consensus is difficult in the best of circumstances, and if the major powers—Russia, China, and especially the United States—hang back, then a stalemate can go on for years.

Because of Washington's lack of interest in leading and the hesitance of Russia and China, the Europeans have become the driving force in protocol negotiations, and they now face difficult choices. One option is simply to abandon the whole effort to produce a protocol. That might be quietly welcomed by the United States, but it would leave our allies very bitter indeed. They have invested years in the development of the text that is now before the Ad Hoc Group. They are not likely to give up quickly or easily.

A second possibility would be for the Europeans to try to go forward without the United States, as happened with the Ottawa convention on landmines and the International Criminal Court. That option is also unattractive. If the United States were pressing strongly for a protocol text, whether the present chairman's text or some other, then there would be a good chance of bringing along Russia, China, and almost all the non-aligned countries. Without U.S. leadership, the particular reservations or objections that various delegations will have are more likely to be maintained. And a treaty accepted only by the Europeans would be rather meaningless. Europe is not where the danger from biological weapons is particularly strong. That dubious honor goes to Russia because of the hangover from its massive biological weapons program in the 1970s and 1980s. If there were "leakage" from that program into the Middle East, for example, the consequences could be horrific.

The most likely response of the allies to a negative U.S. posture will thus be a third option: to play for time, trying to maintain some modest forward momentum while working on the United States to rethink its position.

If our friends are patient, there is some chance that they will succeed, but they will need to find a way to exert more pressure on Washington. To that end, the American scientific community could be their most effective ally. The dangers of misuse of science, especially in the area of genetics, are widely discussed here, and the scientific community is well aware that these dangers could best be met by procedures developed and implemented by scientists, not by diplomats, bureaucrats, or members of Congress. If U.S. scientists can agree among themselves on what they need to do, what codes and rules they need to elaborate, and if they can generalize these understandings among scientists abroad, then at the right moment they can tell the administration what sort of rules and procedures need to be established among governments. These rules and procedures could well be very close to those outlined in the chairman's text and help give the protocol to the BWC the push that it needs.

James F. Leonard, a former U.S. ambassador to the UN Conference on Disarmament, served as the lead U.S. negotiator for the BWC.