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– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
States Agree on BWC Conference Agenda

Michael Nguyen

States-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) have agreed to an agenda for the treaty’s review conference this fall that will include an article-by-article review of the convention. They also left open the possibility of continuing the recent practice of scheduling intersessional meetings between this review conference and the next one, anticipated in 2011.

Seventy-eight states-parties to the treaty banning the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons met April 26-28 in Geneva, Switzerland, to resolve several procedural matters, including the dates of the review conference and the adoption of its agenda. The review conference will take place Nov. 20–Dec. 8. in Geneva and will be the convention’s sixth since its entry into force in 1975. Ambassador Masood Khan of Pakistan was selected as the preparatory committee’s chairman and was nominated to be president of the review conference.

Working by consensus, the preparatory committee sought to adopt an agenda while sidestepping the issue of continued U.S. resistance to the negotiation of a verification protocol to the treaty. During the last review conference in 2001, the United States had announced that it would not support the work of the Ad Hoc Group, which had been negotiating such a protocol. (See ACT, January/February 2002.)

According to observers at the preparatory meeting, almost all states-parties tried to avoid antagonizing the United States, and most states-parties were willing to set aside the discussion of verification issues. At the same time, the United States did not move to end the Ad Hoc Group’s mandate, which is technically still in effect. However, the group has not met since prior to the 2001 review conference.

During the April meeting, the states-parties used the previous review conference’s agenda as a base text. According to U.S. and non-U.S. observers, all of the parties except Iran readily agreed on a set of changes for this year’s agenda that removed some explicit references to the work of the Ad Hoc Group and verification. But Iran was unable to get support for its position from any other states-parties, including those that continued to support the negotiation of a verification protocol.

In the end, the states-parties adopted an agenda that reflected the U.S. desire not to revisit the issue of verification.

The agenda makes no explicit reference to the intersessional work program adopted in 2002. But Richard Lennane, the secretary of the preparatory committee, said that states-parties could address the findings of those meetings during the article-by-article review or by using a procedural mechanism in the agenda. States-parties could also use the procedural mechanism to propose additional intersessional meetings, Lennane said.

Based on the limited number of statements from states-parties, it is clear that there is strong interest in continuing the series of meetings, even if it is not clear at this point what the future topics of those meetings might be.

Many delegations welcomed the adoption of an agenda especially after the problems that plagued the 2005 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. The failure of the NPT preparatory committee to adopt an agenda paralyzed the NPT review conference for nearly a week while the states-parties worked to adopt an agenda and address other procedural matters. (See ACT, June 2005.)

“There were three positive outcomes from the meeting,” said Lennane. In addition to the adoption of the agenda, the states-parties agreed that the conference would last a full three weeks and ordered the preparation of three additional background papers to serve as a basis of common understandings.

Three weeks would be enough time to “allow the conference to conduct a full and thorough review of the convention,” Lennane said. In addition, the papers would detail developments in other international organizations and compile the additional understandings reached at previous review conferences. “We won’t have to reinvent the wheel again,” he said.

Some question, however, whether the convention is enough to address the rapidly changing life sciences field. A May 2 UN report from Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for “a forum that will bring together the various stakeholders” in government, industry, academia, and public health to address the issue of biological terrorism. Such a forum would be better able to manage the threat from nonstate actors, the report said.

During the 2005 annual meetings, the BWC states-parties addressed the issue of codes of conduct for the life sciences, but the UN report called this effort and those by various national and international organizations and professional unions “diffuse.” (See ACT, January/February 2006.) According to the report, “[t]he approach to fighting the abuse of biotechnology for terrorist purposes will have more in common with measures against cybercrime than with the work to control nuclear proliferation.”