Delegates Catch Early Glimpses of BWC Review

Kirk Bansak

An August meeting of experts on the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) saw delegates and others starting to focus on next year’s review conference, primarily through informal discussions on topics that are likely to figure prominently at the December 2011 gathering, such as the implications of biotechnological breakthroughs.

Chaired by Pedro Oyarce, Chile’s permanent representative to the UN Office at Geneva, the Aug. 23-27 meeting at the UN office hosted delegates from 89 states-parties, as well as international organizations and nongovernmental organizations. Formally convened to address a circumscribed topical area as a routine part of the annual BWC procedure, the meeting was not officially focused on the review conference.

Nonetheless, some of the opening statements featured “broad political language that looked to” next year’s event, while “on the margins, there was a great deal of discussion about what to expect for the review conference,” Christopher Park, a U.S. delegation member from the Department of State, said in a Sept. 14 interview. Park said he viewed such discussions as a “constructive” first step, as countries are “just now gearing up to think hard” about next year’s undertaking.

Parties ideally set their agendas for a review conference a year in advance, making consultations over the next few months critical, diplomats at the meeting said.

Meanwhile, the nomination of Paul Van den IJssel, the Netherlands’ ambassador to the UN Conference on Disarmament, as president for the review conference drew collective attention to the 2011 meeting. The last review conference for the BWC, which entered into force in 1975, was in 2006.

“We spoke to several delegations in view of [Van den IJssel’s] nomination,” but “emphasized that we are in listening mode at present,” Vincent Storimans, a policy adviser at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Security Policy Department, said in an e-mail exchange after the meeting. “The Netherlands is interested in hearing different views and proposals” to prepare for the review conference, Storimans said, while pointing out that a formal decision on Van den IJssel’s nomination will not be made until the parties to the treaty meet again this December.

Agenda Preview

During the experts meeting, specific topics expected for negotiation next year came to the fore, particularly during informal seminars held throughout the week.

For example, the Geneva Forum, a partnership of organizations focused on advancing disarmament and arms control, chaired a panel discussion on using the review conference to modernize the treaty’s voluntary information-exchange system, known as confidence-building measures. Since the introduction of confidence-building measures in 1986, the seminar speakers explained, new security dynamics and scientific developments have rendered the system in need of an update. For instance, it was suggested that information shared on national biodefense research laboratories should be broadened in scope, due to the unique dual-use potential of these facilities.

Another seminar addressed advances in synthetic biology, which has become a much discussed topic and an anticipated issue for the review conference, as states grapple with the impact of scientific and technological developments on the BWC regime.

“It was indicated that we should try to focus in the review conference on dealing with issues of malign use of biology that are unheard of today,” Storimans said, referring to the Dutch discussions with other delegations.

The fate of the BWC’s annual meetings is another likely area of consideration for the review conference. These annual meetings, comprising what is known as the “intersessional work program,” are convened to discuss and “promote common understanding and effective action on” topics specified by the final report of the 2006 review conference. Due to its circumscribed topics and lack of a decision-making mandate, the intersessional process has been criticized by some for having “degenerated into nothing more than a talk shop,” Park said.

However, he said that, in their August opening statements, many countries observed “progress on the whole range of [intersessional] topics,” signaling that the process has spurred meaningful national action. In an e-mail exchange after the meeting, Piers Millett, deputy head of the unit in Geneva that provides institutional support to the BWC, said the intersessional process has provided “unparalleled opportunities to build working relationships that have led to practical actions.”

This year’s official topic, addressed throughout the meeting’s plenary proceedings, was the provision of international assistance and coordination in the case of alleged use of biological or toxin weapons, including improving public health systems and national capabilities for disease surveillance, detection, and diagnosis.

Looking Back While Looking Forward

The intersessional work program was first instituted in the wake of the controversial U.S. decision during the 2001 review conference to withdraw from negotiations on a legally binding inspection regime, commonly referred to as the verification protocol. Last December, Ellen Tauscher, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, announced that the Obama administration would continue the Bush administration’s policy of not pursuing negotiations on a legally binding verification protocol, saying that it “would not achieve meaningful verification or greater security.” (See ACT, January/February 2010.)

However, the issue of verifying compliance, although unlikely to reappear in its pre-2001 form, is expected to return in the run-up to the review conference as well as during it, according to a discussion paper submitted last year by Canada. In its opening statement at the August meeting, presented on behalf of the European Union, Belgium reiterated the EU commitment to “identifying effective mechanisms to strengthen and verify compliance with the Convention.”

The Canadian paper recommended early preparation of a middle ground on this issue in order to help “sidelin[e] hard line thinking” that could stonewall progress during the review conference and in order to consider views from as many parties as possible.

The BWC lacks a formal mechanism to verify compliance.

Step by Step

During plenary sessions, experts in public health, law enforcement, and other areas gave presentations on a range of issues pertaining to the August meeting’s official topic. These included methods for investigating alleged use of biological weapons, providing international assistance to mitigate the impact of use, and improving national and international capabilities to conduct disease surveillance.

The meeting did not witness any public controversy over a report released in July by the U.S. Department of State, which noted concerns about potential noncompliance by several BWC parties in attendance, such as Iran and Russia.

In accordance with the annual routine, the August meeting will be followed by a related meeting Dec. 6-10, known formally as the meeting of states-parties. Further ahead, a preparatory committee is scheduled to convene next spring to set the formal agenda for the 2011 review conference, which is to take place Dec. 2-23.