BWC States Tackle National Implementation

Oliver Meier

A Dec. 10-14 meeting of member states of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) offered rhetorical support for stepping up national implementation measures to bring domestic laws, administrative procedures, and regulations into conformity with the bioweapons ban. But the meeting also showcased transatlantic differences that have stymied attempts for more binding measures since the beginning of the Bush administration.

Following up on a meeting of experts last August (see ACT, October 2007 ), the final report from the meeting of states-parties agreed on the “fundamental importance” of national measures to implement the BWC. Such measures include controls on transfers of biological agents, biosafety and biosecurity regulations, and penal legislation. However, the meeting did not agree on any joint standards or collective measures.

The meeting’s chair, Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan, pointed out in his opening statement that the task of the meeting was to “promote common understanding and effective action,” not to negotiate binding agreements.

Using a formula developed by Khan, the 95 states-parties present at the meeting also recognized the value of “moving from adjacency to synergy,” or increased cooperation, with international organizations, nongovernmental groups, and industry. In a novel development, the meeting included two roundtables with representatives from nongovernmental organizations and industry.

Khan had initiated the informal sessions to involve civil society stakeholders more directly in BWC meetings. In his closing remarks, Khan stated that the feedback he had received on those sessions “indicates that states-parties found this interaction highly relevant and useful” and encouraged future meetings to hold similar discussions.

Strengthening the ISU

Despite these successes, the meeting showed that continued strains exist between the European Union and the United States over the future direction of the BWC regime. Those differences were most apparent in 2001 when the Bush administration rejected a verification mechanism to monitor compliance with the BWC that the EU had supported.

Since then, the United States has consistently resisted efforts to create international institutions to supervise implementation of the BWC because it fears these might evolve into a new international bureaucracy.

In the December meeting, transatlantic disagreements surfaced during a debate between EU representatives and U.S. diplomats about the mandate and funding of the Implementation Support Unit (ISU). The United States had reluctantly agreed to the establishment of the ISU at the Sixth BWC Review Conference in December 2006 but insisted on limiting its mandate. The BWC secretariat now serves as a focal point for treaty implementation as well as a clearinghouse for various types of information exchanges under the BWC. (See ACT, January/February 2007. )

An EU working paper, prepared for the meeting by the Netherlands, stated that the EU “stands ready to provide additional financial assistance to support specific activities and projects of the ISU.” Specifically, European representatives suggested that activities to “generate confidence, stimulate universalization, and increase the capacity of the ISU to assist in the field of implementation of [confidence-building measures], cooperation and assistance” could receive additional funds through voluntary contributions by states-parties.

These issues are covered in the ISU’s mandate, to which the parties agreed at the December 2006 review conference.

Nevertheless, the proposal, which apparently had been outlined by European diplomats to their U.S. counterparts only shortly before the meeting, triggered a sharp rebuke from the United States. U.S. Ambassador Christina Rocca on Dec. 10 noted the United States’ “deep concern over recommendations encouraging support for increased responsibilities” for the ISU. Rocca warned that additional funds “should not seek to expand [the ISU’s] mandate into new, unauthorized areas” but should merely be used to help ISU staff to do its job.

After closed-door discussions between European and U.S. diplomats in the group of Western states, Dutch Ambassador Johannes Landman in a Dec. 11 statement clarified that additional funding could help the ISU to fulfill its core mandate, particularly because the secretariat only has a three-person staff.


The sixth review conference had decided that the chairman of annual meetings would also be in charge of coordinating efforts to convince more states to join the bioweapons ban. The BWC currently has 159 states-parties. Khan submitted to the meeting the first annual report on activities to promote universalization of the bioweapons ban. It contains a detailed listing of all 36 states remaining outside the BWC, including an assessment of prospects for joining the convention and reasons given by non-states-parties for not having acceded yet. It lists Burundi, Comoros, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Myanmar as those states most likely to join. Egypt and Syria, which are signatories, and Israel, which has not signed the BWC, are named as countries least likely to join in the near future.

The final report of the meeting of states-parties itself proved to be uncontroversial and was adopted ahead of time. Piers Millet, political affairs officer at the ISU, pointed out that the amount of text in the final report goes beyond similar agreements at previous BWC meetings.

“This is a positive development that reflects genuine common understandings amongst states-parties on issues of national implementation, despite the diverse national contexts from which these countries come,” he told Arms Control Today Jan. 7.

This year’s meetings of experts and states-parties will focus on biosafety and biosecurity as well as codes of conduct to prevent the misuse of biotechnology. They will be chaired by Ambassador Georgi Avramchev of Macedonia and will meet Aug. 18-22 and Dec. 1-5, respectively.

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