BWC Conference Suspended After Controversial End

Seth Brugger

An international conference on the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was suspended on its last day, December 7, after the United States caused an uproar by proposing the termination of the existing diplomatic process to strengthen compliance with the treaty. The meeting will reconvene next November to work on its final declaration—a politically binding measure agreed to by consensus.

Many had hoped that the conference would approve a protocol, which had been under negotiation by a body known as the Ad Hoc Group, to strengthen compliance with the convention. But the protocol talks collapsed in July when the United States rejected the Ad Hoc Group chairman’s draft of—and any further negotiations on—the protocol.

Washington made its most recent controversial move right before the conference was due to wrap up, calling for a formal end to the Ad Hoc Group. The United States was the only country to favor terminating the group’s mandate.

Washington proposed that, instead of reconvening the Ad Hoc Group, BWC member states meet annually in a new body—which could convene expert groups after each meeting—to assess the implementation of any measures agreed to by the conference and to consider new measures for strengthening the convention. The BWC bans biological weapons but contains no verification provisions.

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, who headed the U.S. delegation, told reporters that he made the proposal so late in the conference because “this is the last day, and that’s when you negotiate. We had foreshadowed for weeks that this was coming.”

However, an official in Geneva said that the eleventh-hour U.S. proposal was the first time Washington publicly made it clear that it wanted to terminate the group’s mandate. A European official added that the proposal came “out of the blue” and that no other delegation had any warning. The United States did not even mention its plans at a meeting of Western countries held earlier that day.

Both officials said that almost all other countries blamed the United States for the conference’s breakup. “Many people were very, very angry at what the U.S. did. Even diplomats who had, in the past, supported the U.S. could no longer support them at all. [The U.S. proposal] just killed any chance at agreement on a final declaration,” the Geneva official said.

Another European official said that Bolton “clearly knew what the reaction [to his proposal] would be.” Not bringing up the idea at an earlier time was “treacherous” and “sabotage.”

At the outset of the conference, Bolton named states that Washington believes are not complying with the BWC. (See ACT, December 2001.) The United States later insisted that the conference’s final declaration refer to the problem of noncompliance. But some countries, led by Iran, objected to the U.S.-proposed language on this topic.

Other contentious issues included a Nonaligned Movement proposal for the establishment of a committee to consult on, monitor, and review trade and cooperation among states-parties and a pitch by some hard-line nonaligned states for a mechanism to review and overturn denials of requests for biotechnology transfers. Western states opposed these measures, just has they did during the protocol negotiations, where these ideas were also raised.

A State Department official said that certain European Union (EU) states and the Nonaligned Movement “knew the conference was in trouble based on noncompliance [and] based on transfer” and contended that they “used this as the reason to shut the conference down and blame it on us.” Why they did this is “puzzling,” the official said, adding that the U.S. proposal to end the Ad Hoc Group was “not the major issue that was blocking the conference.” “The major issue that was going to block the final document…and that dominated the entire conference was noncompliance,” the official asserted.

The official said that the United States was surprised by the European Union’s reaction to the U.S. proposal and that the EU “seriously misrepresented” the circumstances surrounding the conference’s breakup. The official contended that a similar view was shared by a non-EU European delegate, who said that his country was shocked that the EU was blaming the conference’s breakup on Washington. The delegate said, “You have been run over by the EU train,” the official recounted.

Despite the serious roadblocks encountered during the conference, the delegates largely agreed upon a number of measures to include in the final declaration. These included calling on BWC states to support the World Health Organization’s disease surveillance and control, criminalize BWC violations with national legislation, institute a code of conduct for scientists working with pathogenic microorganisms, and contribute to an international team that would provide assistance with disease outbreaks. These ideas were included in a package of U.S. proposals laid out on the first day of the conference, November 19, and most were also proposed by other delegations.

Even though the conference was suspended in disarray, the State Department official deemed the conference a “success” for the United States. The official said that it was an “opportunity” for Washington to emphasize its concern about compliance with the BWC and that the conference’s focus on this issue “advanced our interests and changed the terms of the debate from one of process to one of substance.”

Looking ahead, one of the European officials said that states would use the next year to cool off but noted that European-U.S. cooperation on the BWC will be “very difficult” because the coalition of Western states is now “effectively split.” The “main problem is the United States doesn’t support any meaningful follow-up work to elaborate ideas or negotiate them. ... Until there is some flexibility in the U.S. position, we’re basically stuck,” the official said.