"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
BWC States Address Safety, Security Measures

Oliver Meier

At a Dec. 1-5 meeting, states-parties to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) discussed steps to improve the safety and security of biological agents as well as oversight mechanisms to prevent the misuse of biotechnology for hostile purposes.

The conference was the second of a series of four annual meetings to prepare for the 2011 review conference and part of an intersessional mechanism agreed at the last review conference in 2006. (See ACT, January/February 2007.)

The Cook Islands' Dec. 4 accession brought the number of BWC states-parties to 163. Ninety-seven states-parties were present at the meeting in Geneva.

Intersessional meetings are not expected to arrive at consensus conclusions. Thus, the Macedonian chair Ambassador Georgi Avramchev in a synthesis paper attached to the conference's final report merely summarized proposals made during a one-week meeting of experts that had taken place in August 2008 on the same issue. (See ACT, October 2008.) Several states-parties representatives pointed out that the chair's list of measures was more detailed than, for example, similar documents that had been tabled at intersessional meetings in 2003 and 2005 on related issues. Such specificity was possible only at the price of simply listing possible national measures without urging states actually to implement them.

Nevertheless, participants highlighted as a positive trend that the meeting demonstrated growing international convergence in defining the issues at hand, with most parties now agreeing that biosafety measures have the goal of protecting humans from biological agents and that biosecurity entails measures to protect relevant agents and technologies.

Differences remained on the relation between biosafety and biosecurity on the one hand and other topics covered by the BWC on the other. Although Western states tended to emphasize the intrinsic value of measures to improve the safety and security of dangerous pathogens, developing countries placed the issue in the context of peaceful cooperation in biotechnology. Thus, Anayansi Rodriguez Camejo of Cuba, speaking Dec. 1 on behalf of the group of states in the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), argued that "achieving necessary standards in the fields of biosafety and biosecurity requires and is facilitated by international cooperation and strengthening the implementation of Article X" of the BWC on cooperation among states-parties on peaceful uses of biotechnology.

Richard Lennane, head of the BWC's Implementation Support Unit (ISU), in a Dec. 17 interview with Arms Control Today observed a shift of thinking among nonaligned countries. "The fact that the NAM are linking progress on these issues to peaceful cooperation is very positive. It is a clear sign that the stark political divide between developing and industrialized countries on the relation between cooperation and control under the BWC is dissolving." A knowledgeable U.S. official in a Dec. 18 interview with Arms Control Today highlighted the common ground between Western and nonaligned positions on biosafety and biosecurity issues. "Many nonaligned [countries] recognized the intrinsic value of biosafety and biosecurity measures. And this is an area where the EU [European Union] and the United States are increasingly active and we have a growing outreach program."

There remained apparent differences of emphasis with regard to the importance of oversight mechanisms for laboratory activities and codes of conduct, which were also discussed during the meeting. NAM countries were weary of undue limitations on scientific research and cautioned that "codes of conduct should avoid any restrictions on exchange of scientific discoveries in the field of biology for prevention of disease and other peaceful purposes." Lennane observed that "those countries with less experience in involving civil society in policy administration are more cautious about the possible role of codes of conduct than others."

The Long Shadow of the Review Conference

A message to the meeting by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon contributed to discussions about future measures to strengthen the convention. Ban urged states-parties Dec. 1 "to begin thinking about additional steps that could be taken at the next review conference" in 2011. Specifically, Ban called on states-parties to "explore the potential for further multilateral cooperation in the fields of verification, compliance and enforcement of the convention."

Talks on a verification and compliance mechanism for the BWC collapsed in 2001 when, after six years of negotiations, the Bush administration rejected a draft protocol, arguing that the convention was inherently unverifiable. (See ACT, September 2001.)

In Lennane's view, Ban's statement "hit the right note. States-parties have now begun to discuss how to structure discussions about what they want out of the next review conference. It may be too early to say what specific expectations are, and people are also waiting [to see] what the new U.S. administration may bring to the table. At the same time, there are a number of states-parties that believe that the status quo is not good enough and that the 2011 review conference should be able to agree on more than the current intersessional process."

Although NAM countries are among those endorsing a resumption of talks on a compliance mechanism at the next review conference, Western states generally remain cautious. It is not yet clear what position the incoming Obama administration will take on the issue.

A German diplomat in a Dec. 18 interview with Arms Control Today said that, "for sure, states-parties mentioned verification also in view of the incoming U.S. administration." The diplomat cautioned that "there may be a danger of referring to the term 'verification' only without any constructive elements for improving or controlling compliance, putting much pressure on Washington too early if the Obama administration feels that the topic is forced on its agenda." France, speaking on behalf of the EU, in the closing statement to the conference on Dec. 5 therefore guardedly stated that the EU is working "with a long-term view to developing measures to verify compliance with the convention."

The U.S. official advised "those who have hopes that the incoming administration might revise the U.S. position on verifiability of the convention to read the recent report from a bipartisan, congressionally established WMD Commission, which concludes that the decision to reject the verification protocol in 2001 was the right one."

Other specific proposals to strengthen the BWC tabled at the meeting included a Russian proposition to create an "international scientific advisory panel" to independently analyze technological developments relevant to the bioweapons prohibition, which was embraced by other delegates but viewed with reservation by the United States. Several states-parties also suggested ideas to improve the annual exchanges of confidence-building measures (CBMs), and Switzerland even tabled a working paper on "preparing the ground for the CBM content debate." The U.S. official agreed that, with regard to prospects for the review conference, CBMs "are one area where we foresee active interest."

Many states-parties commended the ISU, a three-person secretariat set up in 2006 to support efforts of states-parties to implement the convention. On the sidelines of the meeting, the EU announced that it will give 1.4 million euros (about $2 million) to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) over the next two years for a variety of efforts to assist BWC implementation and for outreach activities to states outside the BWC. The joint action, adopted Nov. 10, will also be used to fund two additional staff positions over the next two years to support the work of the ISU in Geneva. In 2007, Washington rebuffed a European call for extra-budgetary support for the ISU. (See ACT, January 2008.) To avoid such conflicts, the two staff will be formally associated with the UNODA.

The conference appointed Canadian Ambassador Marius Grinius as chair of the 2009 meetings of experts to be held Aug. 24-28 and meeting of states-parties on Dec. 7-11. The focus this year will be on international cooperation for peaceful purposes and capacity building in the fields of disease surveillance and detection, diagnosis, and containment of infectious diseases.