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NEWS ANALYSIS: Bioweapons Treaty Progress Predicted
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Oliver Meier

Representatives from 155 states meeting in Geneva Nov. 20-Dec. 8 to review and advance the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) are expressing cautious optimism that the once-every-five-years gathering will prove more successful than its immediate predecessor and other similar recent international gatherings.

The optimism is based partly on the success of an April preparatory meeting for the review conference, which produced a comprehensive agenda covering all aspects of the bioweapons ban. (See ACT, June 2006.) It also reflects widespread praise for the leadership of Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan, who has been designated president of the review conference. Although some feel uncomfortable with his direct approach, Khan is broadly credited by diplomats for having steered the preparatory meeting toward agreement on an agenda for the review conference.

In a Sept. 23 interview with Arms Control Today, Khan said that he is hopeful that the review conference will “have concrete, tangible results that add value to the BWC and strengthen it as a barrier against biological weapons.” He said that the final declaration should be a “concise document” that can communicate effectively to all stakeholders.

Some diplomats, however, also point to reasons for concern. First, there is the legacy of the 2001 review conference. That meeting only barely avoided collapse amid differences over a draft protocol that aimed to strengthen the treaty, including adding verification provisions.

The climate for multilateral nonproliferation and disarmament is also rather grim. Three major events “did not seem to have achieved the results that a majority of states were hoping to achieve,” according to Khan. These included the 2005 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference,[1] the 2005 UN summit,[2] and this year’s small arms and light weapons review conference.[3] (See ACT, June 2005; October 2005; September 2006.)

Privately, some diplomats also fear that Iran might seek to use the conference as a stage to settle scores with the United States and its allies for bringing its nuclear file before the UN Security Council. Iran could do this, for example, by pressing for a resumption of negotiations on a verification protocol, as it sought to do at the preparatory meeting.

How the United States would react to such a challenge is uncertain. A senior U.S. official told Arms Control Today Oct. 18 that he hoped that the meeting would “isolate and marginalize” a state-party that “would try to take the meeting hostage.”

New Political Dynamics

Nonetheless, diplomats say that the political dynamics at this review conference are likely to produce less tension than in past meetings.

Since the 2001 meeting, the two most important regional groupings, developing countries that belong to the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) and the Western Group, which brings together many developed countries, such as the United States and members of the European Union, have been considerably weakened as other subgroups have formed.

Several moderate Latin American countries have decided to set themselves apart from NAM.[4] They have prepared for the review conference a set of five succinct working papers that propose concrete measures on a range of issues and eschew traditional NAM rhetoric on issues such as the need to negotiate a compliance protocol and the importance of abolishing the export control regimes.

Another factor that might moderate nonaligned politics is that Khan comes from a NAM country, which might induce members of the group to support the conference president’s search for consensus.

New cracks are also showing in the Western Group. Seven non-EU, non-nuclear-weapon state members— Japan, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Switzerland, Norway, and New Zealand—have formed a subgroup of their own, the so-called JACKSNNZ, which is preparing its own set of working papers. Takeshi Aoki, director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions Division at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained to Arms Control Today Oct. 19 that the JACKSNNZ is “neither a binding instrument, nor an exclusive one” and that Japan “does not see it as having any effect on the Western Group.” Privately, however, other diplomats point out that JACKSNNZ is also intended to balance the EU, whose 25 members coordinate their positions.

These changes are likely to remove obstacles that previously had hindered progress. With the emergence of more groupings of like-minded, moderate states, the radicals within NAM and those within the Western Group are likely to lose their political clout.

There appears to be a convergence toward a political middle ground, represented by the EU, JACKSNNZ, and the group of Latin American states. These groups, as well as individual members from these groups, have been very active during conference preparations, having prepared working papers on a range of issues. In contrast, at the time of writing, neither the NAM nor the United States had submitted any working papers for the meeting.

Conference Agenda and a New Intersessional Process?

These papers reflect the broad and complex agenda that the conference will have to tackle. Khan said that the most urgent topics from his perspective were “universal adherence, faithful and effective compliance, the fight against the threat of bioterrorism, and the capacity to deal with the developments in the biosciences that have enhanced the lethality and range of biological weapons.”

But the most important decision reached at the meeting is likely to be to continue holding annual meetings aimed at strengthening the convention and deciding on their scope, diplomats say. States-parties began holding such meetings in a bid to restore confidence after the failure of the last review conference, and they seem to have accomplished that task. The 2003-2005 meetings discussed improving national legislation and national oversight over dangerous pathogens, enhancing international capabilities to deal with alleged cases of biological weapons use, strengthening and broadening national and international efforts for disease surveillance, and establishing codes of conduct for scientists.

Binding Intersessional Meetings?

There seems to be broad consensus that a new set of intersessional meetings should take place between 2007 and the next review conference. Khan told Arms Control Today that he has not received “any conflicting signals” from states-parties.

A senior U.S. official also told Arms Control Today that Washington “does not object” to a new set of meetings but has “very high standards” and insists on meetings that are “focused, constructive, and do real work.” The diplomat cautioned that the United States does not believe that the viability of the convention hinges on a new set of meetings and would “object to have meetings for meetings sake.”

States-parties still disagree whether such meetings should have more power than the previous set, which could not issue formal recommendations to states-parties because of U.S. resistance.

Canada argues that future meetings should be able to agree on practical measures. In a working paper on a new “accountability framework,” first circulated informally last fall, Canada proposed to fold annual meetings of experts and states-parties, held separately until now, into one annual session, ending with “decision-making deliberations.”

In an Oct. 5 interview with Arms Control Today, Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer expressed his hope that Ottawa’s proposals “might be acceptable” to the review conference participants, pointing to his extensive consultations on the working paper during the past 12 months.

The EU, according to a September working paper prepared by France and the United Kingdom on behalf of member states, also argues for giving the meetings of states-parties the power to “make decisions without referral to the seventh review conference.”

A French diplomat told Arms Control Today Oct. 19 that the EU intentionally left open the question of whether new intersessional meetings should be able to make legally binding decisions. “We have to have a reasonable degree of certainty that there will be meetings” before we get into substantive discussions, the diplomat explained.

Likewise, the group of Latin American countries supports the idea that “during the meetings states-parties [have] the capacity to adopt decisions on matters pertaining to” the BWC.

The United States, however, wants to limit the powers of future intersessional meetings. “Certainly, it is not the case that any such meetings are going to decide on any changes to the convention or on any legally binding obligations on states-parties,” the senior U.S. official told Arms Control Today. He pointed out that Washington is prepared to discuss the possibility of new meetings agreeing on new sets of politically binding obligations on states-parties.

The Intersessional Agenda

Another proposal, supported by Canada, the EU, and the group of Latin American states is that certain cross-cutting topics be discussed at intersessional meetings annually instead of starting every year with a new topic, as was past practice. India, an important nonaligned state, also supports this in principle. An Indian diplomat told Arms Control Today Oct. 9 that New Delhi would like to see any new set of meetings resemble those held during 2003-2005 “while allowing the annual meetings of states-parties to consider all the issues relevant to the convention.”

The United States would like to see a more limited set of issues discussed. The U.S. official put down several flags with regard to the format of future meetings, saying that the United States would object to open-ended meetings. He said follow-on meetings should be limited to discussing the implementation of issues discussed the previous year. “If that is the case, I can think of places and ways in which [we] could agree that we’d be happy to have that kind of follow-on discussion,” the official told Arms Control Today.

Khan himself also sees advantages to the current, informal process. “These discussions that are not expected to lead to binding commitments tend to be more collegial, cooperative, and constructive. States-parties and all other actors learn more from each other,” he told Arms Control Today.

Getting agreement on topics under a new work program might prove even more complex. Richard Lennane, the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs officer charged with preparing the review conference, told Arms Control Today Sept. 13 he expects “the most difficult issue to be what a new intersessional process should be dealing with.”

The lowest-common-denominator approach to a new work program would be to continue the agenda of the 2003-2005 meetings. Such a plan would again focus on steps national governments can take on their own, avoiding the discussion of approving legally binding measures on member states. Washington favors this approach, preferring that the intersessional meetings address states’ implementation of national obligations and debate mechanisms to assist those states that have not yet implemented the measures, the senior official told Arms Control Today.

Improving national implementation is also high on the list of other countries, such as Japan, Aoki said. The EU in February 2006 agreed on a range of measures to support states-parties’ implementation of the convention.

Several delegations, including EU member states and the group of Latin American countries, would also like to include confidence-building measures (CBMs) as a topic on the agenda of new meetings.

CBMs were first agreed on at the second BWC review conference in 1986 and involve exchanges of information on a range of bioweapons-related activities. Participation in CBMs has been poor. (See ACT, July/August 2006.)

Lennane believes that CBMs have the advantage of being “a neutral topic. [This issue] bridges the gap between those who favor measures on national implementation and those who favor more collective action.”

It is unclear if these discussions will take place during or after the review conference.

There are still differences on how to improve CBMs. On behalf of the EU, France has drafted a working paper on the issue, and the French diplomat told Arms Control Today Oct. 19 that it would be up to the review conference to decide “on formal ways to improve CBMs.” But the diplomat also suggested the discussions could take place after the conference and be delegated to an expert group or an intersessional meeting.

The senior U.S. official cautioned that Washington is “not going to sit around and talk about how we can make the CBMs more elaborate until after we get more people participating in the CBMs,” pointing to the poor return rate of existing CBMs. He argued that improving the usability of CBMs does not require a full intersessional meeting and that in any case intersessional meetings should not have the authority to revise the format of CBM declarations.

At the Review Conference

Several states-parties, including the EU, and the group of Latin American states would like to see the review conference agree on stronger institutional support for the convention. Unlike with the Chemical Weapons Convention, for example, states-parties have never established a secretariat or organization to assist with the implementation of the BWC. Member states are currently served by permanent and part-time staff employed by the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs.

The EU, in a working paper drafted by the Netherlands, has suggested the creation within the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs of an “Implementation Support Unit” as a point of contact, clearing house, and information distribution point, charged, for example, with collecting and circulating the CBMs. The Latin American states have offered a similar proposal. And Switzerland, a member of the JACKSSNZ, has proposed to charge the department with checking “the plausibility of submitted information” and to create a web-based information management system to make CBMs more accessable.

Again, the United States is likely to object. The senior official told Arms Control Today that the United States “is not going to support a permanent BWC secretariat” and would at most be willing to go along with the UN body employing two or three full-time staff members to support a new intersessional process, under the condition that the arrangement is neither permanent nor extensive.

How to ensure cooperation among states-parties to promote the peaceful use of biotechnology might be another divisive issue on the review conference agenda, and some would like it also to feature on the work program for a new intersessional process. Nonaligned states, in their statement to the preparatory meeting in April, emphasized that from their perspective “the BWC forms a composite whole” balancing “regulation, compliance and promotion.” The Indian diplomat told Arms Control Today that New Delhi would like to see “both regulatory and cooperational aspects” to be reflected in a new work program and that the issue of technical cooperation is “important due to the increasing role of biotechnology and biological sciences in development, particularly agriculture, medicine, and health sectors.”

What particular measures nonaligned states want to see agreed remains somewhat hazy. One of the most important topics for developing countries, the perceived tension between export controls on dual-use goods agreed among Australia Group[5] participants and the obligation under the convention to cooperate in sharing science and technology for peaceful purposes has lost some of its edge with the passing of Security Council Resolution 1540. That resolution makes the establishment of national export control legislation mandatory for all states.

Western states are opposed to discussing ways to promote the use of biotechnology for peaceful uses. The French diplomat argued that “the BWC is not a tool to improve cooperation” on peaceful uses among states-parties, calling it “a misperception” that the convention is the right place to address promotional aspects.

An EU working paper prepared by Finland takes a more focused approach on the question of peaceful cooperation. The EU has proposed to agree on specific measures related to the surveillance, detection, and diagnosis of and fight against infectious diseases. In particular, the EU wants the review conference to agree on tighter cooperation between the International Plant Protection Convention and international organizations dealing with infectious diseases, such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Organization for Animal Health. The EU also has proposed that a future intersessional meeting discuss how to improve the detection of pathogens and response to epidemics.

Khan argues that a new approach is needed to coordinate activities of international organizations dealing with issues related to the BWC. “All these organizations need to talk to each other, need to share information with each other, and need to strategize together,” he told Arms Control Today.

Finally, there is the question of the draft verification protocol from 2001 and the existing mandate to negotiate it. Many nations, including all EU member states and nonaligned states, nominally support continuing talks on a monitoring mechanism. Lennane, however, believes that there is an “unspoken truce” about verification talks because states-parties realize “that there is little to be gained by bringing it up.”

The U.S. official said that he “does not expect the U.S. to press for the termination of the mandate of the Ad Hoc Group” as the United States did during the last review conference because the last few years have shown that the group cannot be resurrected.

The Ad Hoc Group met from January 1995 to July 2001 and was tasked with negotiating a legally binding protocol to the BWC to strengthen the convention. Negotiations collapsed after the United States in July 2001 rejected the draft verification protocol.

But the official cautioned that Washington is “not prepared to go down the road of resurrecting any parallel body.” For example, he said that there is no U.S. interest in discussing improving the UN secretary-general’s mechanism for investigating possible instances of biological weapons use, as some nongovernmental experts have suggested. “A protocol by any other name smells the same,” the official said.

Despite these differences, there is a broad spectrum of agreement among states-parties, in particular that working on national implementation measures is useful, even though many would say insufficient, to strengthen the convention.

Overcoming U.S. resistance to take more collective action will be one of the challenges facing states-parties, but the EU and JACKSNNZ within the Western Group will be in a better position to do so than they have been in the past. Likewise, the insistence of some nonaligned states on a resumption of formal negotiations on a compliance protocol is likely to fall on deaf ears because of moves by moderate nonaligned states.

Given this situation, it is understandable that Khan has promised that he “will not use the lowest common denominator as the yardstick for success, but the median point that represents common ground.”



1. After four weeks, the 2005 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference ended May 27 without consensus on the next steps for stopping the spread of or eliminating nuclear weapons. (See ACT, July/August 2005.)

2. At the UN summit in New York Sept. 14-16, world leaders endorsed a document setting out a broad agenda for the international organization and its member states in the coming years. The document contained no action plan, however, for mitigating threats posed by chemical, biological, and nuclear arms.

3. A two-week UN conference in New York aimed at cracking down on the worldwide illicit trade of small arms ended July 7 without a final agreement on measures to reduce the spread of the weapons. Delegates also failed to create a road map for future action.

4. The group includes Argentina, which is a member of the Western group; Bolivia; Brazil; Colombia; Costa Rica; Chile; Ecuador; Guatemala; Mexico; Peru; and Uruguay.

5. Established in 1985, the Australia Group is a voluntary, informal, export-control arrangement through which 39 countries, as well as the European Commission, coordinate their national export controls to limit the supply of chemicals and biological agents and related equipment, technologies, and knowledge to countries and nonstate entities suspected of pursuing chemical or biological weapons capabilities.

Posted: November 1, 2006