Common Ground on the BWC: An Interview With U.S. Special Representative Laura Kennedy

Interviewed by Daniel Horner and Jonathan B. Tucker[1]

Laura Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, was named last December to serve also as U.S. special representative on issues relating to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). In that position, her principal focus is the treaty’s review conference later this year. Her previous diplomatic postings include a broad range of arms control assignments.

Arms Control Today spoke with Kennedy by telephone May 12. She described the U.S. approach to the BWC and the upcoming review conference, which is scheduled to take place December 5-22. The interview covered many of the topics that are expected to be central to the review conference, including verification, peaceful cooperation, and the BWC’s intersessional process.

The interview was transcribed by Xiaodon Liang. It has been edited for clarity and length.

ACT: Could you bring us up to date on where things stand after the April BWC preparatory committee meeting and tell us what the results of that meeting indicate about the outlook for the December review conference?

Kennedy: I’d be delighted. We finished the PrepCom on April 14. It went extremely well—so well, in fact, that we finished a day early, which in my experience happens very, very rarely. Now this was a procedural meeting, but on the other hand, I’ve certainly been at procedural meetings that were pretty unproductive and nasty, and this went extremely well. It was efficient. As I mentioned, we even finished early, so that is a very good sign. We were also very impressed with the president-designate of the review conference, a colleague of mine incidentally here [in Geneva], Ambassador [Paul] van den IJssel, who was, as one would expect from a chairman, impartial, and, we are delighted to see, effective. It was a very constructive tone, I thought, throughout the discussions.

That is not to say that there were not differences of view; there certainly were and are. But I found that the delegations there were focused on finding solutions and avoiding polemical speeches. That’s a good thing. So I think that judging by this and other signs, the outlook for the review conference is a positive one. We, and I mean the U.S. here, certainly see it as a real opportunity to strengthen implementation of the BWC, reinforce its importance and relevance for this next century. Although people properly look at areas of disagreement, there’s also a huge amount of common ground in the international community.

ACT: There has been quite a lot of discussion about what threats the BWC should be trying to address. You and other U.S. officials have been quite clear in saying that the focus should include subnational threats as well as national programs and that it should also cover areas, such as the surveillance of natural epidemic diseases, that go beyond “security” as it’s normally defined. Can you describe the relative importance of these threats and how the BWC can help to address them? Do other countries generally subscribe to the U.S. approach?

Kennedy: I think the issues that you’ve identified indeed are ones that were identified by my boss, Undersecretary [of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen] Tauscher, who came out to Geneva for the annual meeting [of states-parties] in [December] 2009 when she unveiled the U.S. national strategy. She made just those points, that you need to work on this complex of issues.

First of all, we believe that you need to increase confidence that countries are complying with their obligations and effectively implementing the convention. As you know, the U.S. government does not think that a verification protocol would achieve that objective. That, however, doesn’t mean we think that the objective is not important or that there’s nothing to be done. Very much to the contrary.

Second, the threat of bioterrorism—we think it’s real. We think it’s important to deal with this problem in order to achieve the aim of the BWC: a world free from the threat of biological weapons. We would be the first to say that this is a complex problem, that the knowledge and materials that could be misused are widely and, of course, appropriately used for important scientific and health purposes. Therefore, we think that you have to take a very nuanced approach, including not only security measures, but outreach to industry, to academia and individual scientists, for example.

That brings me to a third area that’s sometimes called health security, which we believe requires sustained attention because the range of possible threats is so broad, and the potential consequences so dire, the international community needs to be prepared to recognize a disease outbreak and respond to it quickly and effectively, whether or not it’s recognized as a deliberate attack. So we’ve got to work together to strengthen disease surveillance and detection capabilities around the world, as well as national and international preparedness, coordination, and response capabilities.

You asked if some of these views were widely shared. I would say that’s one of the good-news stories about the BWC, in that the capabilities that I just described are also needed for many other reasons beyond the security area: natural disease outbreaks or disease caused by accident[al releases of pathogens from research laboratories]. Certainly, all nations have a shared concern for disease and the need to prevent and deal with it. There’s increasingly a shared recognition that when you enhance capabilities to deal with, say, a bioweapons threat, you’re also getting benefits across the board in the health area. As we all know, germs know no borders, so this is something that genuinely unites the international community.

ACT: Can we expect to see some effort on [global health security] at the review conference, some language in the final document reflecting that?

Kennedy: That’s certainly our aim.

ACT: One of the tasks for the review conference is to renew the mandate for the Implementation Support Unit [ISU], the small Geneva-based staff for the BWC. How would you evaluate the ISU’s work so far?

Kennedy: I think I can speak for more than just our own view in the U.S., which is that we think the ISU has done an extremely impressive job over the last five years. I would bet with great confidence that there will be agreement to continue the ISU. I would say there’s also a lot of support for modestly expanding the ISU, although in these difficult budgetary times around the world, I think some governments might find even a tiny increase very difficult, and nobody is going to just write a check. Everyone will want to sort out priorities and come to a consensus on what should be the work plan, what sort of new mandate, what sort of tasks we would set for the next five years for the ISU. Then, presumably, we will make resource decisions based on that review. People aren’t going to say, “Let’s just expand.”

ACT: What is the U.S. position on whether the ISU should be made permanent?

Kennedy: Frankly, I’m not sure we have a set view on that. I think generally it’s been looked at in five-year increments. I think that’s a pretty sensible position myself, and I would suspect that most nations think that this every-five-years review actually makes sense. We certainly would be open to any proposals to make it permanent; but again, let me just go back to the previous point that resources, staffing, and so on should be tied to a consensus on what their tasks should be.

ACT: Another issue is the intersessional process and in what form it will be continued. Currently, the intersessional process is a forum for meeting and discussion between review conferences but not for decision-making. You have said that the process should have greater flexibility and authority. Could you give us some details on what you have in mind?

Kennedy: Sure. I think, as I hope some of my earlier comments made clear, that the intersessional process has been a huge success. When I talked about how the BWC has provided this forum to bring together various actors in the international community, I mean that the intersessional process has been a real winner in this regard. I think this is an issue that is absolutely ripe for a thorough discussion and new steps. It has raised awareness, we’ve exchanged experiences in this forum, and it’s certainly prompted lots of actions at the national level.

If, in the intersessional process, you come up with really useful stuff, like a set of best practices, or guidelines, procedures, in any number of areas, why wouldn’t you want to endorse them in that year, rather than waiting until the next review conference years down the road? Why not have the states-parties give themselves the freedom, the mandate, the opportunity to take decisions to do things that are useful and appropriate?

ACT: In 2001 the United States withdrew from talks on a BWC verification protocol, and the talks subsequently collapsed. You said this past December that a “verification regime is no more feasible than it was in 2001, and perhaps even less so, given the evolution of technology and industry.” However, some countries, including close U.S. allies, do not share this view. Is the United States pursuing some compromise or alternative approach that could bridge the differences on this issue?

Kennedy: You mentioned the previous efforts to negotiate a verification protocol, and you’re certainly right that we abandoned that effort earlier. We went back and did a top-to-bottom review in the new administration and came to the same basic conclusion, that we did not think that a verification protocol was doable for the reasons I spoke to before. But that’s not to say that confidence in compliance is not vitally important to promote by enhanced transparency and compliance diplomacy. There are indeed things that we can do in this general area. There’s a lot of work, for example, going on with respect to possible changes in the confidence-building measures [CBMs].[2] Let me speak to that just briefly.

I think there are three different strands to that discussion. First of all, how do you expand participation? Last year, we had a record number of countries that submitted their CBMs, which are politically binding although not legally binding. But despite the fact that we hit a new high, it’s still less than half the membership.[3]

Two, how do you make the questions more precise so that when you collect all this data, it’s consistent and more usable? Number three, are we asking the right questions, are there new types of information we need to be seeking? Conversely, some of the information we’ve been collecting may be no longer relevant because, for example, it may be available from other sources. These are important questions, and I think there’s a lot of willingness to tackle them. We might not be able to come to agreement at the review conference itself, but at a minimum, I would think we would be able to establish a follow-on process to address these issues.

Another aspect of what we can do to answer these concerns is to find the middle ground, given the differences of view on a verification protocol. Initiatives for increased transparency are important. I think they could meaningfully contribute to additional confidence among the states-parties. We’re looking at ways we can promote and demonstrate transparency, particularly with regard to biological defense programs. We’re looking at various aspects of this general area to increase transparency and confidence in BWC compliance.

ACT: Another area of debate has been peaceful cooperation under Article X of the BWC. What is the likelihood of developing an approach that satisfies the United States and other members of the Australia Group[4] that are concerned about loosening restrictions on transfers of dual-use biotechnology equipment and materials, while also addressing the concerns of countries such as Cuba, Iran, and Pakistan that want to see a freer flow of trade among BWC member states to facilitate the peaceful uses of biotechnology?

Kennedy: Excellent question, [which addresses] a balance that is always struck in complex issues like this. But in general, let me say that I am indeed optimistic that there is a constructive way ahead on this issue. Let me just mention a couple of reasons.

I talked earlier about a cross-regional approach, a greater willingness to work on an international community basis. Instead of the haves versus the have-nots, which in many cases has typified the dialogue in the past, I find increasingly that what we generally refer to as the developed countries have embraced capacity-building assistance. It’s important for the recipient nations, and it’s important for the donor countries, for their respective national-security interests. We also find that, in the biosciences, the distinction between developing and developed countries is simply breaking down. There’s a lot of what we used to call Third World countries that are doing extremely sophisticated science. There’s lots of South-South cooperation. It’s not just relationships being redefined between donors and recipients, but also between partners and collaborators.

There’s a huge amount of cooperation going on in the life sciences, and just because it may not have been identified or have a “BWC Article X” sticker on it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. We think that you can defuse the debate because we are as enthusiastic about Article X as, say, a recipient country. We want to stay away from ideological debates because that could be a recipe for deadlock, and I think people recognize that.

There’s been talk about an Article X mechanism. We’re open to that. We just need to work out what would be meant by that, [and if it is] something everybody can live with.

You mentioned the Australia Group; countries have their own national [export control] regimes or multilateral regimes like the Australia Group. Those are important nonproliferation export control regimes, which we believe in. We think they are absolutely compatible with good assistance programs, which are in our interests as much as the recipient countries’.

ACT: So you’re getting positive reactions from countries that, in the past, have expressed concerns about this area, and you anticipate that [the issue of peaceful cooperation] will be resolved amicably and won’t hold up consensus at the meeting?

Kennedy: I don’t want to be too Pollyannaish. I don’t mean to say that there are not real differences of opinion, but I think we can find common ground; we can deal with these issues. At this point, I’m not seeing anything that is a deal-breaker. I think there’s more of an interest in finding that common ground and working around areas that divide us.

ACT: Could we circle back to one compliance and transparency question? What further measures is the United States prepared to take to reassure other countries that the U.S. biodefense program complies strictly with the BWC’s prohibitions on offensive development?

Kennedy: I want to underline for your readers the fact that the U.S. took the lead in terms of making its annual submission of confidence-building measure data public. Last year, we took this initiative; and for the second year, we did so again. That is one enhanced confidence-building measure, and we’re seeing other countries do that as well.

In terms of transparency, visits and exchanges could be part of the package of transparency measures we’re looking at. I won’t go any further now except to say that these are some of the transparency initiatives we’re looking at on a national basis.

ACT: What are the United States and other countries doing to increase the membership of the BWC and ultimately bring about universal adherence? What are the additional steps to achieve universality that should be adopted at the review conference?

Kennedy: That’s a vitally important issue. We only have 164 countries that have joined the BWC. The good news is that this represents the majority of the international community. The bad news is that there is still a good chunk of countries that haven’t joined. In most cases, it’s not that there is an ideological or political objection to the BWC—by no means. It appears to me to be basically a question of competing priorities. There are countries that say, “Well, we’ve never had biological weapons, we never plan to have biological weapons, [and] we’ve never felt threatened by biological weapons. So joining the BWC may be the right thing to do, but it’s just not a priority.” Some countries have signed and simply have not gotten around to ratifying.

We all know that legislatures get busy, legislative calendars get filled up. But we think it’s vitally important to persuade those countries that haven’t signed to accede to the BWC; if they’ve already signed, to do the final work on getting it ratified. We want them to be on the right side of history, to make sure that there are no BWC loopholes or safe havens anywhere.

There are ways to assist countries to join and also to help them in fulfilling the provisions of the convention, which we are doing and will do. We just had a meeting here in Geneva, together with the [BWC review conference] president, with a number of countries that have not yet joined the convention. We want partners in this endeavor around the globe.

We’re delighted that, in different regions, various countries have taken the lead [on achieving universal adherence to the BWC]. I think of Kenya in Africa, the Philippines and Indonesia in Southeast Asia, just as a few examples. The EU is very active. We are eager to partner with regional partners. We will use every tool at our disposal to focus on the importance of this issue. For example, when President Obama was just in Brazil, the communiqué that was signed with the Brazilian president included a specific reference to the BWC review conference. The G-8 put out a very solid statement on the BWC this year.

I think it’s really important to tailor it to the specific country. What are your issues? How can we help? Raise it in capitals, in Washington, in the host country capital, in Geneva, in New York. Partner with as many other countries as possible. Do it on a regional basis; if there’s a regional group, ask them to put it on their agenda. There are lots of different things that we can do, and we’re doing them.

ACT: Just to wrap this all up, given all the difficult issues we’ve been discussing, what’s a reasonable best-case scenario for the outcome of the conference? What would you look for it to produce?

Kennedy: I would like to see an increase in universality, not just in terms of the number of countries joining the BWC, but new ways to enhance, make easier, and make more relevant participation in the regime for those that are already in—maybe reach agreement on some sort of mechanism or way, for example, to better incorporate science and technology [into the review process]. What are ways to stay ahead of that scientific curve? Agree on a solid review on CBMs: what are ways we can make them more accessible and update them? On the ISU, conduct a thorough review of their work, what else they should do, and then make sure that they are appropriately resourced for the agreed mandate. Openness and transparency: as I mentioned before, we want to promote this. If necessary, we’re prepared to lead unilaterally, but we would hope that this would spark a trend toward greater national transparency across the board. The intersessional process: continue to enhance that vital forum, bring in more industry and academia. Reinforce the synergy among a broad community of diplomats, scientists, law enforcement officers, public health officials. That is vitally important.

ACT: Thank you very much. We really appreciate your taking the time and going into such detail on the answers.

Kennedy: Thank you again.


1. Jonathan B. Tucker is a member of the board of directors of the Arms Control Association.

2. Pursuant to understandings reached at the BWC review conferences in 1986 and 1991, BWC member states are politically bound to submit annual confidence-building measure data declarations covering a variety of topics relevant to compliance with the convention, including unusual outbreaks of infectious disease, maximum-containment laboratories, facilities that produce human vaccines, and national biodefense programs, facilities, and activities.

3. In 2010, 72 of the 163 BWC states-parties submitted confidence-building measure data declarations.

4. The Australia Group is an informal multinational forum of 40 countries plus the European Commission. In an effort to impede proliferation, the group’s members harmonize their national export controls on materials and equipment relevant to the production of chemical and biological weapons.