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May 19, 2021
Issues Develop as BWC Review Approaches
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Kirk Bansak

Issues such as the search for ways to increase confidence in compliance and efforts to spur international cooperation on peaceful uses of biological agents are likely to feature prominently at the upcoming review conference for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), comments by delegates at a meeting in December indicate.

As part of a process of annual meetings with a narrow mandate, the Dec. 6-10 meeting, held at the UN Office at Geneva, did not have authority to make decisions pertaining to the substance and agenda of the review conference, which will take place at the end of this year. Nonetheless, the states-parties focused much of their attention on that conference, which will be the treaty’s seventh since its entry into force in 1975.

During statements at the December meeting, many delegations announced preliminary positions on major issues for the review. Some of the issues, such as implementation of the BWC’s provisions for peaceful scientific cooperation among the parties, could pit the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), a bloc representing about 100 developing countries, against Western countries.

The treaty’s peaceful-cooperation provisions, which are contained in Article X, are a perennial focal point, and debate over them could complicate consensus at the review conference, according to a nongovernmental BWC expert.

“Article X will be the real problem, particularly if NAM remains cohesive and insists or pushes very hard for an institutional mechanism for peaceful cooperation,” the expert said in a December e-mail exchange. “That might break the conference final declaration.”

The NAM has pushed consistently for increased international sharing of life sciences technology and expertise. In its opening statement at the December meeting on behalf of the NAM, Cuba promoted its 2009 paper on “the establishment of a mechanism for an effective implementation of Article X,” but did not reveal whether this will be one of the NAM’s objectives for the review conference.

The United States is anticipating the possibility that the NAM will pursue this formal mechanism, according to an official from the U.S. Department of State. “The problem is that the [Cuban paper’s] recommendations are very vague,” he said in a Dec. 17 interview. This vagueness has contributed to the paper’s popularity, he said. “It’s a bit of a Rorschach test. Everyone looks at it and sees something different. I’d like to see a more developed proposal,” he said.

During the 2006 review conference, the NAM proposed an Article X action plan “to provide a framework for the development of scientific cooperation and technological transfer in order to achieve the objectives of the Convention.” The parties did not reach agreement to adopt the plan at that time.

More broadly, Cuba’s statement at the December meeting called for “the promotion of international cooperation as provided for in Article X” to be addressed at this year’s review conference. Cuba also insisted on “removing the arbitrary and politically motivated denials.” This comment reflects the NAM countries’ discontent with export controls on dual-use items, particularly under the multilateral export control regime known as the Australia Group, according to the State Department official.

The Australia Group, which controls exports of biological and chemical dual-use materials, consists principally of Western countries. Dual-use items are those that can be used for both peaceful and military purposes, such as virulent pathogens and certain technologies.

BWC diplomacy has long been marked by the debate over what constitutes adequate implementation of Article X. Driving the debate are divergent views over the proper balance between sharing of technology and nonproliferation obligations, as well as ideological differences over the function of the BWC, according to the State Department official.

Verification and Compliance

Verification remains a hot-button issue and was addressed in several opening statements at the December meeting.

The United States reiterated its position that “a verification regime is no more feasible than it was in 2001,” referring to the U.S. withdrawal in 2001 from negotiations on a legally binding inspection regime aimed at verifying compliance with the treaty. However, the United States and other countries hinted at alternatives that could be more politically viable.

“A certain amount of energy is going into determining if there are alternatives to a traditional verification mechanism,” the State Department official said. The United States “is looking into a number of things,” which could include an enhancement to the currently existing confidence-building measures or a push to “rethink the issue from the ground up,” he said. The existing confidence-building measures are collections of data submitted by the parties on a voluntary basis.

In an opening statement on behalf of the European Union, Belgium declared that one of the EU’s main goals for the review conference was “to build confidence in compliance to the Convention,” but it did not specify how this could be accomplished. A joint statement by Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, and Switzerland echoed the importance of improving confidence in compliance and suggested this issue “be taken up both at the Review Conference and in the subsequent intersessional process,” referring to the program of official work and meetings that takes place between review conferences.

Meanwhile, in keeping with their long-standing position on the matter, the NAM countries, along with Russia, pressed the need for a legally binding verification protocol. On behalf of the NAM, Cuba urged the United States “to reconsider its policy towards this [issue] in light of the persistent request of other parties,” while Russia reiterated its belief that a legally binding verification mechanism remains “one of the key ways to improve the BWC.”

This persistence was not unexpected, and rhetoric on verification is likely to continue, according to the State Department official. “The question is not the rhetoric, but whether there will be follow-through based on it,” he said.

“We should have a pretty clear idea in advance of the review conference where the broad lines are drawn,” he predicted.

Confidence-Building Measures

Many countries have advocated using this year’s review conference to modernize and increase participation in the parties’ information exchange system, known as confidence-building measures. Switzerland noted that the measures “continue to be the only tool to establish some degree of transparency and confidence among the States party to the BWC.” However, this system has not been updated since 1991.

Possible improvements to the current system identified by governments and independent experts include revising the information queries to make submissions easier to analyze, broadening the scope of shared information to better reflect new scientific developments, and facilitating and streamlining the submission process, for example, through the creation of an online submission tool.

However, all parties are not convinced of the desirability of revising the current information exchange process. In its opening statement at the December meeting, Iran said that “modifying the existing forms would adversely affect” the goal of attaining submissions from all parties. Iran did not explain the reason for its concern.

Iran also linked confidence-building measures to the issue of peaceful cooperation, saying that “the interest of States Parties to voluntarily submit the [confidence-building measures] reports may diminish” if the process does not “lead to the promotion of the international cooperation in the field of peaceful biological activities.”

Although the number of submissions reached a record high in 2010, that number was only 70 out of 163 parties, as of Dec. 10.

Intersessional Process

An essential task awaiting the parties is determining the program of official work and meetings that will take place between the seventh and eighth review conferences.

Since 2003, this program, known as the intersessional process, has included two annual meetings that are convened to “discuss, and promote common understanding and effective action” on topics prescribed in the final reports of the previous two review conferences. Although the parties have generally viewed the meetings as successful in the context of their limited mandate, some countries have expressed a desire to broaden the scope of the intersessional process in terms of the topics addressed and the authority to make decisions, a power that the current mandate excludes.

In her opening statement at the December meeting, Laura Kennedy, head of the U.S. delegation, outlined a vision for the future intersessional process that includes “greater flexibility to address sets of related issues,” standing working groups “to deal with specific issues,” and “greater authority” for adopting decisions. The joint statement by Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, and Switzerland also voiced support for an appropriate decision-making mandate and the creation of standing working groups.

Meanwhile, Iran said that “any attempt to manipulate the current mandate of the intersessional meetings may lead to the complication of any decision on the continuation of this process.” It was not clear whether Iran itself is opposed to altering the intersessional process or senses opposition by another country.

“The weight of international focus is on how to improve the intersessional process, rather than whether or not we do,” the State Department official said.

Scientific and Technological Advances

Referring to the last two decades of BWC meetings, Germany said in its December opening statement that the parties have “failed to identify and assess the benefits and misuse potential of scientific and technological developments in the life sciences as well as their impact on the Convention.”

As agreed in the final document of the 2006 review conference, the parties will address the impact of scientific and technological advances on the operation of the BWC during this year’s conference.

The possibility of taking this issue beyond the review conference also has been endorsed. In an address at the December meeting delivered on behalf of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the director-general of the UN Geneva office, Sergey Ordzhonikidze, said, “With the pace of advances in biological science and technology growing ever quicker, there is a pressing need for a structured and regular means of monitoring developments and assessing their implications.”

“A lot of the thinking on how to deal with this issue is still fuzzy,” cautioned the State Department official. “This issue should be addressed in some way,” he said, but “whether that means doing so in a working group or through some other process is still an open question.” Germany proposed including the topic on the agenda of the next intersessional period.

Dissent and Optimism

One source of controversy at the December gathering was the draft of the meeting report.

During the plenary discussion of the draft report, a collection of NAM countries challenged part of the draft’s phraseology, arguing that it appeared to be making substantive decisions that exceeded the mandate of the meeting. However, several Western countries maintained that the disputed text was consistent with analogous documents in previous years, according to an account by the BioWeapons Prevention Project that was confirmed by a Western delegate.

Also during the December meeting, the states-parties officially accepted by consensus the nomination of Paul van den IJssel, the Netherlands’ ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, as chairman for the review conference.

In his acceptance speech to the parties, Van den IJssel declared that “ambitious realism will be my guiding principle in the coming year.” In an e-mail exchange after the meeting, Van den IJssel said that, in the course of his consultations with a wide range of delegations on the margins of the meeting, he observed that his principle was “broadly shared among States Parties.”

In his speech, Van den IJssel said, “Compromises will undoubtedly have to be made at the Review Conference, but we can keep them to a minimum by working together openly and constructively, avoiding surprises, and accommodating the interests of others wherever possible.”

The 2011 review conference of the BWC was officially scheduled for Dec. 5-22, with a meeting of a preparatory committee scheduled for April 13-15 to set the formal agenda of the review conference.