"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
NEWS ANALYSIS: States Strengthen Biological Weapons Convention

Oliver Meier

The sixth review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) concluded Dec. 8, approving a range of measures to strengthen the 1972 treaty. The agreement on a final declaration at the end of the three-week meeting marks the first successful review of the bioweapons ban since 1996.

The agreement triggered a collective sigh of relief from conference participants. The president of the conference, Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan, in his closing statement to the participants from 103 states-parties and 10 signatory states called the agreement on a final document historic “both for the BWC and for multilateral security and disarmament.” A senior U.S. official in an interview with Arms Control Today Dec. 21 said the outcome was satisfactory and constructive from a U.S. standpoint. The official said that one of the landmarks of this review conference is the “real recognition by states-parties that the nature of the biological threat and therefore the means by which they have to try to focus the convention as a means to try counter that threat has changed over the last 30 or 40 years.”

Bumpy Road to Consensus

The review conference had gotten off to a good start Nov. 20 despite fears that the meeting might again end in discord. The previous review conference in 2001 was suspended after the United States insisted on the termination of talks on a verification protocol.

Some expected that Iran might trigger a new confrontation by its insistence on a resumption of negotiations on a verification protocol or that U.S. allegations of noncompliance by BWC states-parties would sow discord among the participants. (See ACT, November 2006.) Despite some fractious exchanges, an impasse was averted.

In his opening statement Nov. 20, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation John C. Rood accused Iran of “probably” having “an offensive biological weapons program in violation of the BWC.” Rood also pointed the finger at North Korea for allegedly having a biological weapons capability and at Syria for signing but not ratifying the convention and conducting research and development for an offensive biological weapons program.

The Department of State’s 2005 report entitled Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments also accuses Russia of being in breach of the BWC and raises questions about Chinese and Cuban compliance.

The senior official said that Iran, North Korea, and Syria were named as “exemplars and [that the United States] mentioned them for specific reasons in terms of their relevance for the review conference.”

As in the past, the United States refused to detail its allegations and did not attempt to activate BWC compliance procedures.

Iranian Ambassador Ali Reza Moaiyeri called the U.S. allegations “baseless” and “contrary to the cooperative spirit of [the review conference] as well as the articles of the convention.”

Despite these differences, a consensus quickly emerged that a new set of annual meetings should take place before the next review conference and that some kind of secretariat should support these meetings and act as a clearinghouse on a range of issues. The conference quickly settled down to discuss the details of those agreements as well as a final declaration.

At the insistence of several Western states, particularly the United States, the final declaration includes new and revised language referring to the importance of national implementation of BWC obligations by states-parties and the dangers of the spread of bioweapons technology to nonstate actors, including terrorists.

It also emphasizes the importance of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which makes it mandatory for all states to establish strict national controls to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to terrorist groups.

Developing countries, by contrast, emphasized the value of cooperating in the exchange of biotechnology for peaceful purposes. The importance of international efforts to improve disease surveillance is one element under this heading that received increased attention.

However, the United States pushed for the weakening of a draft passage confirming the importance of past final declarations. The senior official explained that the United States saw the reference as a code to “resurrect past activities which the U.S. still believes are not relevant, not productive, and not constructive,” referring to the talks on a verification protocol to which Washington objected in 2001.

A New Intersessional Process

During the first week of the conference, Khan presented a list of 11 topics taken from various states-parties’ working papers that could be discussed between 2007 and 2011. That list was consecutively shortened as proposals that did not enjoy consensus were eliminated.

The work program for annual meetings agreed by the conference mandates discussions in:

• 2007 on better national implementation of the BWC, including law enforcement as well as regional and subregional cooperation on BWC implementation;

• 2008 on improving biosafety and biosecurity measures as well as oversight, education, and awareness raising, for example, through codes of conduct for scientists to prevent the misuse of bioscience and biotechnology research;

• 2009 on enhanced international cooperation, assistance, and exchange in biological sciences and technology for peaceful purposes, including disease surveillance; and

• 2010 on assistance and cooperation in cases of alleged use of biological weapons, including the improvement of national capabilities for disease surveillance.

Privately, some delegates were dissatisfied with this list because the set of issues to be discussed is similar to the 2003-2005 work program and because some issues that enjoyed near-consensus support were dropped.

Better confidence-building measures (CBMs) were taken off the work program, even though many states-parties would have liked to see more substantive work on this issue in order to improve transparency on bioweapons-related activities.

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

Russia and the United States, with backing from China, reportedly opposed the inclusion of CBMs as a topic for the intersessional process. Moscow and the United States both argued that it does not make sense to alter the format of CBMs as long as participation in them remains poor. “Finding out more details about a few countries that are not part of the nature of the threat is not the way to make the BWC more relevant,” the U.S. official stated. In 2006, 54 states-parties submitted CBMs. This is an all-time high but still equates only to one-third of the 155 members of the convention.

Others, including the European Union, believe that simpler declaration formats may be one way to improve the number and quality of returns. Finnish Ambassador Kari Kahiluoto, speaking on behalf of the EU, noted Dec. 8 that the EU “would have liked to see a more ambitious outcome” on CBMs and that Europeans remain “willing to work on further improvement of the CBM process.”

Bioterrorism also was dropped from the agenda of annual meetings, particularly at the insistence of Russia. A Russian diplomat explained to Arms Control Today Dec. 7 that Moscow believes that “the issue is better dealt with by other international instruments,” including UN Security Council Resolution 1540 and the Group of Eight. The diplomat also pointed out that “the BWC is an agreement between states and not nonstate actors” and therefore not well suited to tackle the bioterrorist threat. The senior U.S. official believes that bioterrorism was not ignored but “appropriately integrated into the various topics we have in the work program,” such as biosafety, biosecurity, penal legislation, and response to an attack.

Each annual meeting of states-parties will be prepared by a one-week meeting of experts. All meetings will take place in Geneva. In the end, conference participants could only agree that annual meetings should “discuss, and promote common understanding and effective action” on topics listed in the work program, the same mandate as for the 2003-2005 meetings.

Those meetings were merely able to take stock of measures undertaken nationally by states-parties, and it is not clear whether new meetings will be able to achieve anything more. The United States does not believe that annual meetings should make decisions that would be binding on all states-parties.

A member of the South African delegation told Arms Control Today Dec. 8 that he expects that future meetings “cannot take decisions” because of their limited mandate. Others point out that the agreed language in no way prevents annual meetings from developing universal and binding standards. “Meetings of states-parties are not bound by the mandate agreed at the review conference,” a German diplomat argued in an interview with Arms Control Today Dec. 15. The official acknowledged the political difficulties of agreeing on binding measures but stated that “it will depend on the creativity of participants what will become of the annual meetings.”

The Implementation Support Unit

Many participants and observers of the conference hailed the agreement on an Implementation Support Unit (ISU) for the BWC as a major achievement. In the view of the South African delegate, “the ISU is the most positive thing coming out of the review conference.” Khan, in his closing remarks Dec. 8, predicted that the BWC “will be getting a professional, efficient, and dedicated unit that will make a significant contribution to our important work over the next four years.”

During the past years, a total of 1.7 staff (on a part-time basis) within the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs supported the annual meetings. Now and at least until 2011, three full-time staff, paid by BWC states-parties, will work in the Department for Disarmament Affairs to support the BWC. The ISU will serve as a focal point for treaty implementation as well as a clearinghouse for various types of information exchanges. Other tasks include administrative support for intersessional meetings and for activities related to national implementation and universalization of the convention. In addition, the unit’s staff will process and develop electronic formats for CBMs, as well as post submissions on a secure website, accessible only to states-parties.

Some had hoped for more, both in terms of size and quality of the supporting institution. Several states had proposed to mandate the ISU to follow up on declarations under the CBMs, and Switzerland even wanted to give the ISU the power to “check the plausibility of submitted information.” Opponents of the creation of a stronger institutional support for the convention, led by the United States, blocked those attempts. Washington sees support for the work program as the principal function of the ISU, the senior U.S. official explained to Arms Control Today. The next review conference will evaluate the unit’s performance and mandate. Such a “sunset clause” had been one of the conditions for U.S. acceptance of such an institution.

Difficult Endgame

In the end, the conference got held up over divisions on the balance between the nonproliferation and cooperation aspects of the convention.

During the meeting, three “action plans” that were to be attached to the final declaration, emerged from discussions. The “Action Plan on Universalization,” later demoted to a chapter on “Promotion of Universalization” in the final declaration, was aimed at drawing additional states into the convention. The plan, largely based on proposals from EU member states, resembles a similar effort under the Chemical Weapons Convention and was uncontroversial. It lists a number of specific measures to convince states to join the BWC. For example, the rotating chairs of annual meetings will coordinate member states’ universalization activities and issue an annual report on related efforts.

Two other action plans on national implementation and on Article X, which relates to cooperation for peaceful purposes under the convention, proved to be more contentious. The former had emerged from Western states, the latter was drawn up in reaction by members of the group of nonaligned countries.

The United States objected to having a separate action plan on technical cooperation. The senior official stated that the United States sees the BWC as an arms control and international security document and that Washington was “not going to allow” a number of countries to “to distort that by saying that the BWC has other principal purposes.” The United States has advanced similar arguments in the context of other WMD regimes. By contrast, the nonaligned countries, when presenting their action plan, called cooperation for peaceful purposes a “vital element in strengthening implementation of the convention.”

Khan sought to overcome the division by merging both documents into one “Action Plan for Comprehensive Implementation of the Convention.” Two days before the scheduled end of the conference, the United States apparently again objected to passages related to peaceful cooperation in that revised action plan. The draft would have tasked the ISU with managing information exchanges on activities related to peaceful uses of biotechnology among states-parties and encouraged treaty members to cooperate on the peaceful use of biotechnology, for example, by promoting the development and production of vaccines and drugs to prevent and treat infectious diseases.

Iran, reportedly supported by other nonaligned states such as Algeria, China, Cuba, and India, took up the challenge and insisted that the relevant passages be kept in the final document.

The debate quickly turned into a bilateral confrontation between Iran and the United States. Delegates from other states-parties watched with a mix of anger and frustration during the closing stages of the meeting. There was also a sense of déjà vu because U.S.-Iranian acrimony contributed to the failure of the May 2005 review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. (See ACT, July/August 2005.)

In the end, Khan was able to resolve the standoff but only at the price of deleting all action plans and transferring several passages from them to other sections of the final document. Several delegations publicly bemoaned the loss of the comprehensive implementation action plan, but Indian Ambassador Jayant Prasad told Arms Control Today Dec. 8 that the deletion of the action plan was “no great loss” because the intersessional process provides such “a rich menu” of issues. Other conference participants from Western states privately echoed this sentiment.

Delegations avoided other contentious topics so as not to endanger agreement. Verification of the convention remained a redline for Washington. Many delegations highlighted the need for a monitoring regime but most recognized that an agreement on a universal and binding verification regime has now turned into a long-term goal. A proposal by outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to assemble a forum of BWC stakeholders from industry, science, public health, and government was also not picked up by the conference.

The Wider Arms Control Context

Despite the trimmed down final document, conference participants were united in celebrating the outcome of the meeting. There was unanimous praise for Khan and his active leadership. Australia, speaking on behalf of the group of Western states, noted during the closing session that Khan had “set a fast pace,” and privately some delegates complained that he was at times moving too fast, editing the final declaration in real time on a PowerPoint projector in the conference room.

Many hope that the agreement will revitalize multilateral arms control. Khan argued in his closing statement Dec. 8 that the meeting was a “demonstration of multilateralism at its best.” Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov stated the BWC experience “shows that no state can go it alone.” He added that he hoped the meeting “will have a good effect on the Conference on Disarmament and the Preparatory Committee meeting of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” slated to take place in Vienna in May.

Khan, who has been nominated to chair the 2007 annual meeting, argued in his closing remarks that the successful review of the treaty’s implementation “in itself is a strong message to the international community that the convention is alive and well and remains effective as the fundamental norm against biological weapons.”

Other participants, however, mostly speaking privately, point out that the meeting made little substantive progress on crucial issues and did not result in a strengthening of multilateral tools to tackle the bioweapons threat. A member of the South African delegation noted that although the BWC may be in better shape now than in 2001, the convention “is still very, very ill.”