BWC Review Conference Meets, Avoids Verification Issues

December 2002

By Kerry Boyd

A year after the fifth review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was suspended amid diplomatic disarray, 94 BWC states-parties met again November 11-15 and agreed to hold annual meetings before the next review conference in 2006 to discuss nonproliferation efforts. They did not, however, address the contentious issue of adopting verification measures to enforce the treaty.

The BWC bans biological weapons but does not include any legally binding mechanisms to monitor and enforce compliance by states-parties. In July 2001, the United States rejected a draft protocol to the treaty, negotiated over six years by a diplomatic body known as the Ad Hoc Group, that would have added legally binding verification and compliance measures. Then, during the treaty’s fifth review conference in November and December 2001, the United States called for an end to the group and its mandate to negotiate the protocol, throwing the conference into chaos. Conference President Tibor Tóth subsequently suspended the conference until November 2002. (See ACT, January/February 2002.)

Between the two conference sessions, countries discussed various proposals for strengthening the treaty, but the United States said in September talking points that it wanted a very short review conference with no discussion on any topic other than meeting again in 2006. (See ACT, October 2002.) If states raised other issues at the conference, the United States said it would name countries it believes are violating the treaty and would “explicitly” call again for the end of the Ad Hoc Group’s mandate, according to the talking points.

In an attempt to reach a compromise, Tóth formally presented a proposal November 11 to hold three meetings before 2006. During those meetings, BWC states-parties will discuss several nonproliferation measures, but the agenda does not include any plans to discuss compliance and verification issues. The future of the Ad Hoc Group remains unclear.

After holding regional meetings at the review conference, the states-parties agreed to Tóth’s proposal November 14. The conference ended without an official final declaration—usually the mark of success for treaty review conferences—and produced only a final document that incorporates Tóth’s proposal as the member states’ agreement.

In 2003, states-parties will meet to discuss national mechanisms to implement oversight of biological agents and ensure that materials are secure. They will also consider “national measures to implement the prohibitions set forth in the Convention,” including laws with specific punishments for weaponizing biological agents. In 2004, states-parties will consider ways to strengthen “international capabilities” to investigate and respond to alleged use of biological weapons and suspicious disease outbreaks. BWC member states will also discuss ways to enhance national and international efforts to detect, diagnose, and combat infectious diseases. In 2005 the states-parties will discuss standards for scientists working with biological agents.

During the meetings, the states-parties must approve any agreements unanimously. Experts will meet for two weeks and prepare factual reports on their work in preparation for the meetings. Finally, “the Sixth Review Conference will consider the work of these meetings and decide on any further action,” according to the agreement.

The United States praised the agreement, and Stephen Rademaker, assistant secretary of state for arms control, said it “represents a constructive and realistic work program for the States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention over the next three years,” according to a November 15 State Department release. The United States supports the BWC, but the Bush administration believes the BWC is “inherently unverifiable,” Rademaker said.

Some countries indicated that the agreement accomplished less than they had hoped for. Members of the Nonaligned Movement agreed to Tóth’s proposal, but several were reportedly reluctant. Speaking for the nonaligned countries at the conference, a South African delegate said the countries were “disappointed at the limited nature of the decision that we have just taken” and “deeply disappointed” at the states-parties’ inability to strengthen “the implementation of the convention.”

Meanwhile, eight nongovernmental organizations launched a new BioWeapons Prevention Project during the conference. The goal of the project is to tap the resources of various civil society groups to track governmental actions and scientific developments related to the BWC in an effort to help monitor treaty compliance.