Bare-Bones Multilateralism at the BWC

Oliver Meier

In July 2001 the Bush administration rejected years of work to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), withdrawing from negotiations that had produced a draft of a legally binding protocol intended to help enforce the treaty. A few months later, on the last day of the BWC’s fifth review conference, at which nations had hoped to adopt the protocol formally, Undersecretary of State John Bolton demanded that the protocol negotiations be terminated. Most other BWC parties, including many close allies, however, felt it was crucial to continue those talks; and the review conference had to be adjourned for 11 months to prevent a breakdown.

As November 2002 and the resumption of the conference approached, Washington’s opposition hardened even further. In September, Bolton informed allies that Washington not only opposed a continuation of the protocol negotiations but also did not want any multilateral meetings of BWC states-parties whatsoever between 2002 and 2006. According to Bolton’s speaking points, the United States wanted a very short second half to the fifth review conference, “if any.” Ominously, Bolton directly threatened to “name names”—i.e., accuse states of violating the BWC, as he had done in 2001, and thereby throw the conference into chaos—if the meeting was not “very short.”

The result was what might be called a new form of multilateral diplomacy. The second part of the fifth review conference, scheduled to last two weeks, ended November 15, after four short days during which less than two hours were spent in plenary session. States-parties did agree to meet three times before the next review conference, but the agenda for those meetings excludes the most urgent issues, such as noncompliance, transparency, the development of so-called nonlethal biological agents, and scientific developments that can lead to qualitatively new biological weapons. States-parties will also not talk about new international instruments to strengthen the treaty. Instead, annual meetings will only discuss ways to improve national measures and existing international mechanisms to combat biological weapons.

Most BWC parties believe that the bioweapons ban needs to be strengthened multilaterally. The review conferences operate by consensus, however, and the United States opposes any multilateral talks on topics such as transparency, verification, or compliance. Under these circumstances, the Geneva compromise may have been the best deal achievable, but further action is needed.

Appeasing the Bush Administration

Because of the Bush administration’s hostility to the conference, the meeting’s principal purpose from the beginning was avoiding spectacular failure. It was mainly up to U.S. allies in the Western Group and the president of the review conference, Tibor Tóth, to convince the Bush administration of the value of not letting the conference collapse. In Tóth’s final analysis, avoiding contentious issues was the only way to reach a compromise and meet that goal.

The price to be paid for U.S. tolerance was high. For the first time ever, a BWC review conference did not agree on a final declaration. The future of talks on a verification protocol was left open and the mandate remained untouched, but compliance with the convention was not addressed. Instead, the conference’s only substantive achievement was the adoption of a one-page decision that was presented by Tóth.

Even that accomplishment was dubious. Although states agreed to meet in each of the next three years before the 2006 review conference—equipping the BWC with an intersessional mechanism similar to that of most other multilateral arms control regimes—the agenda for annual meetings was clearly and narrowly defined. The draft decision listed the specific topics for discussion at meetings of states-parties:

  • Improved national legislation and better national oversight over dangerous pathogens will be discussed in 2003;
  • Enhancing international capabilities to deal with alleged cases of biological weapons use and strengthening and broadening national and international efforts for disease surveillance will be on the agenda in 2004;
  • Codes of conduct for scientists will be discussed in 2005.

This list of topics drew heavily on proposals that the United States had tabled at the opening of the review conference in November 2001. Consistent with Washington’s position, discussion (let alone formal negotiation) of new multilateral instruments to strengthen the convention was not mentioned. Tóth’s proposal specified that all meetings would reach any conclusions or results only by consensus, giving the United States (and every other state- party) a de facto veto over any possible outcome.

Faced with the threat of the Bush administration again sabotaging a BWC review conference, U.S. allies decided to ignore their own misgivings about the narrowness of the proposal. Tóth’s paper effectively prevented any discussions on the one issue which Europeans had consistently listed as their number one priority: the negotiation of a legally binding and universal verification mechanism. Western Group allies, however, concluded that nothing more than Tóth’s modest proposal could be achieved at the review conference.

The Bush administration, which was alone in its refusal to enter substantive discussions, was thus conveniently shielded by its allies. They defended Tóth’s paper as the best deal possible under the circumstances while Washington’s role was reduced to threatening to let the conference fail should it last too long.

Since the Eastern Group states, including Russia, signaled acceptance of the proposal early on, all attention shifted to the nonaligned movement (NAM) as the only possible source of opposition. Many nonaligned states drew the conclusion that Tóth’s proposal was better than nothing, but a few refused to agree. India, Iran, Pakistan, Mexico, and Cuba were among those that voiced concerns about the substance of the deal and the way it was presented. (Notably absent from this group was China which had already signaled its willingness to agree to the proposal.)

One NAM diplomat criticized the proposal as “not flexible enough” because of the rigid agenda for intersessional meetings. Others pointed out that the agenda for annual meetings provided almost no opportunity to discuss measures to improve scientific and technical cooperation among states-parties—a main interest of developing countries. There were also questions about the status of negotiations on a legally binding verification instrument and requests for clarification of several parts of the paper. In addition, some NAM states had misgivings about procedure and felt they had not been properly consulted before or during the meeting.

All requests for discussion and clarification, however, were rebuffed by the Western Group. Western states consistently presented Tóth’s paper in Geneva as a “take it or leave it” proposal. So great was the fear of a possible deal falling apart that the proposal was never openly discussed in plenary session. Discussions thus took place exclusively in closed regional group meetings, bilateral consultations, and other informal gatherings. The president’s role was reduced to shuttling among different meetings, informing the groups of each other’s positions and preferences.

Faced with a unified front—South Africa as the NAM chair also lobbied for Tóth’s proposal—critics were able to hold out for only four days. On November 14, the conference agreed to support the president’s original proposal. After the decision, South Africa spoke on behalf of the NAM of the deep disappointment at the inability of states-parties “to successfully undertake initiatives to strengthen the convention.” The NAM put on a brave face and celebrated the agreement as a success because it preserved multilateralism. At the same time, NAM states emphasized that they had gone along with the decision on the understanding that it has many ambiguities. They also pointed out that states-parties are free at any time to work on matters beyond the agreed agenda.

Australia, on behalf of the Western Group, emphasized that the final product of the fifth review conference is “qualitatively different” from previous agreements and that it “will enable state parties to work together to enhance and strengthen effective implementation of the BWC.” In contrast to the NAM, Western states argued that the agreement is “clear and self-explanatory.” The head of the U.S. delegation, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker, meanwhile, proclaimed the conference a success. Speaking to the press, he praised the agreement as “nothing if not multilateral.”

The Way Ahead

One challenge for the future will be to build on the limited agreement reached at the review conference. Tibor Tóth, in his closing remarks after the final session on November 15, called on states-parties to look ahead and leave differences and disappointments behind. He urged governments not to set their sights too low and to seize the opportunities offered by the new mechanism.

In the future, strengthening the norm against biological weapons embodied in the BWC will require progress on several tracks. It will be essential to make best use of the opportunities offered by the annual meetings before the next review conference. The agenda of these meetings needs to be expanded, and some creative thinking about ways to tackle some of the important issues currently not listed is required.

Where it is not possible to deal with new challenges within the BWC context, action needs to be taken elsewhere. A number of new multilateral measures have been proposed recently, such as a new convention to criminalize the use of biological weapons or the improvement of United Nations mechanisms to investigate cases of biological weapons use. Governments also need to improve national and regional policies to prevent the misuse of biological agents. More openness and better controls over biological agents does not always depend on multilateral agreements. Australia’s decision to make public the information it submitted in its confidence-building measures under the BWC and the European Union’s plan to make such information more widely available are two steps in this direction. Other transparency and control measures contained in the failed verification protocol could also be applied on a national or regional basis.

It is encouraging that other international organizations are increasing their efforts to tackle the threat of biological weapons. For example, during the review conference, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued an appeal on “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity,” urging governments, the private sector, and the public to strengthen their commitment to the norm against the hostile use of biological agents.

Nongovernmental organizations will also need to reconsider their role. It will fall on them to create attention for and pressure on meetings of states-parties. In addition, independent experts will need to develop specific proposals on measures to make the bioweapons ban more effective. In the future, these organizations and individuals will play a bigger role in monitoring the compliance of governments and others with the norm against biological weapons through a new, joint effort. On November 11, a group of eight nongovernmental organizations launched the BioWeapons Prevention Project. The initiative aims to create a global civil society network to monitor the bioweapons ban and regularly report on relevant developments.

These different tracks—international, regional, national, nongovernmental—will have to be pursued in parallel. Annual meetings of states-parties should encourage, discuss, and take decisions on issues that require political action. The vision guiding such efforts needs to remain a universal and binding verification mechanism. Should states-parties stick to the current, narrow agenda of annual meetings, there is real danger such meetings—and potentially the BWC itself—will appear less and less relevant. Then, the Bush administration’s argument that multilateral approaches are ineffective will have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.