Ambition and Realism for the BWC Review Conference: An Interview With President-Designate Paul van den IJssel

Interviewed by Oliver Meier

Paul van den IJssel, the Dutch ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, is president-designate of the 2011 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Review Conference, which is scheduled to take place December 5 to 22. He is a career diplomat in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Van den IJssel spoke with Arms Control Today by telephone from Geneva on September 30 about the upcoming review conference. He said he was seeing a “convergence of views” on many of the key issues, but emphasized that there still is much work to be done to close the remaining divisions on technical and political issues.

The interview was transcribed by Xiaodon Liang. It has been edited for clarity. A shorter version appeared in the November issue of Arms Control Today.  

ACT: Mr. Ambassador, you have made “ambitious realism” the motto of framing expectations for the review conference. What specific decisions to strengthen the BWC do you think the review conference can adopt? On which issues do you expect states-parties to focus? During your consultations so far, have there been particular issues where you think more work is needed to achieve consensus?

Van den IJssel: Let’s start with your last point. We are more than two months away from the review conference. A lot of work has been done, but of course a lot of work still has to be done as well. I think we have a lot of areas where we already have a kind of convergence of views. But there are also other areas where more work is to be done. Sometimes these are divisions of views that have to do with just technical issues, and sometimes there are slightly more politically based differences. So, that’s as a general comment.

It is unlikely that more than two months away you will have already consensus on many issues. But I’m still very positive. I think we’ve seen thinking developing in capitals, in delegations, and I think there is a lot of common ground on which we can work. That’s one.

What are the issues? Of course, it’s up to the states-parties to say what the issues are. But I tried to speak to as many as possible and quite frequently. I go to the regional groups, and I go to seminars and workshops. What I read and what I hear is basically that we more or less agree on what the main topics are. I’ll just give them in the order in which they come into my head; this is not a kind of priority order, certainly not my priority or the priority order of a particular state-party.

The first I want to mention is Article 10, the issue of assistance and cooperation on peaceful use of science and biotechnology. There is an interest among many states-parties to improve assistance and cooperation. So that is an issue, we will have to see how we can better organize ourselves. A lot is being done already, not always under the heading of the BWC because if you have public health programs, they may well be useful in the context of the BWC, but they probably are labeled under development cooperation or health cooperation.

Many countries would like to better organize that. Of course, there are different ideas on how to do that. Some say “I don’t want to have that”; others say “I want to have that.” That is a problem still. It is something we will have to look at.

Second issue is the issue of the intersessional process. We have five-year review conferences, but we also have had in the past years annual meetings, both on the expert level and of states-parties. We’ll have to discuss how we’re going to organize that in the next period, at least the next five years, perhaps longer, but certainly the next five years, and that is important.

First of all, we have to take a decision on that because if we don’t take a decision, there will be no intersessional meetings. This is not something where we can just sit on our hands and then everything will continue as it was. So basically, the discussion is there on how best to organize ourselves and what issues we want to discuss.

I must say there is a great convergence of views. What I hear is that most people say yes, we should continue with an intersessional process. Meeting every five years is not enough; we should meet annually. Most countries say there should be an intersessional process in one form or the other. I always have to be careful, but I think most countries say yes, and it’s also good to have a combination of experts meet and diplomats, representatives of states. Perhaps they jointly meet, or sometimes they separately meet. But that is considered by most states-parties as a good thing, and we should continue that. There are some proposals on the table to organize it slightly differently, so that is important.

Then of course, there is an issue there, and we have different views, whether we should be able to take some decisions in the intersessional process.[1] There you have different views, but we have to see whether we can find common ground there. If you talk about strengthening the convention, and that’s actually also true for Article 10, this is very much about strengthening the convention, because I think the point of departure is what we have. I think the proposals which are on the table aim to make it better.

Third point, science and technology. Again we have a lot of convergence of views that it’s important that we regularly have an idea on what’s happening in the fields of bioscience and biotechnology, to see whether everything we do is still relevant. I think everyone agrees. We have to decide on how to better structure that. There are some ideas on the table that we have a kind of annual review of developments in the field of science and technology. All very interesting ideas.

As I see it, there is a lot of convergence of views that we need to have a more structured approach to this thing because everyone is aware that developments in the field of bioscience and biotechnology are taking place at a very rapid pace and on a global scale. This is not just taking place in some countries, but many countries in the world are involved in bioscience and biotechnology and are becoming increasingly important players. So there we have to see how best to organize ourselves again. If we would find a mode where we would more structurally reflect on these issues, I think that is certainly strengthening the convention and the regime.

Another topic: confidence-building measures [CBMs]. We have a set of  CBMs agreed in 1986, politically binding, not legally binding but politically binding.[2] States-parties have committed to send information every year to the ISU [Implementation Support Unit], and the ISU then distributes that information to states-parties or makes it available on its Web site for states-parties. That includes informational things like how many BSL [biosafety level]-3, BSL-4 labs[3] do you have, unusual outbreaks of diseases, that kind of information.

We have a number of problems there. First of all, only half the states-parties participate and the question is, are these measures still as relevant as when they were developed? Now there is a lot of information which is available on the Internet. Thinking about some things has changed. So we have to look at these measures carefully to see whether we can perhaps make them more up to date, more relevant, and that also includes an effort to increase the participation. Perhaps we have to look at [whether] some questions pose an undue burden on administrations, on industry, on the scientific community. We have to look at that.

I think this analysis is shared by many parties, so we will have to look at whether we can find consensus on what the new measures would be, or what we’re going to change. I know some countries are very active in this and doing a lot of work. Again, my idea at present, and I’ve discussed this already with states-parties, is that we should try to take already some decisions at the RevCon [review conference], also some substantive discussions if possible, but also this is an issue on which further work may be required during the intersessional process. Then of course, you come back to this question, can we take decisions? If we can’t take decisions, then the intersessional process has to make a recommendation to the RevCon. If they can’t take decisions, then they can’t take decisions.

Next issue is the ISU. Again, this is not a priority order. I stress that. The ISU is very dear to my heart. We do not have a full-fledged organization like the [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] or the [International Atomic Energy Agency]. We have a very small unit consisting of three persons working very hard. Their main job is to help states-parties to implement the treaty, and they help the president [of the review conference], and I’m glad they do.

First of all, we have to decide on whether we continue with an ISU because its mandate expires.[4] I hear a lot of convergent views that we have to continue; at a minimum, we have to continue with the ISU in its present form because everyone is quite appreciative of its work and recognizes it’s important to have this small unit dedicated to the BWC. So that seems to be the point of departure.

But then, the discussion is, do we have perhaps to expand? They are now three persons; do we need to have four or five, and what do they have to do? Basically in a different order of course. First, what do they have to do, and do we need additional manpower or womanpower for that? Again, that’s a discussion. I think a lot of delegations say yes, it would be good if they had one or two additional staff members, because, for example, in the field of Article 10, they may have to do more, perhaps in the field of CBMs. If we’re going to change the intersessional process structure, that may cause some more work for them. Even now they have difficulties to do everything we want them to do. The end result will be, I hope, certainly if we expand [the ISU], that it would be strengthening of the convention.

Then the universality issue. This convention has, as of May this year, 164 members. That is quite a lot because 164 states is the overwhelming majority of states in this world. But still, it’s not enough. We would like to have universal membership. That’s also a special responsibility of the president.

I’ve had meetings with the states which are not yet parties to this treaty quite regularly, and I urged them to join. We had some positive responses, so I hope that we will have one or two more member states before the conference starts.[5] But this is very much ongoing work, work in progress. Maybe we have to decide on the kind of activities we will undertake in the next five years to encourage other states to become a party to this treaty. That is important because although the norm that you will not use bioscience as a weapon of war or a weapon of aggression or a weapon of terror is recognized by all governments and certainly by all populations, it would be still very useful if by subscribing to this norm, which is contained in this treaty, everyone would clearly see that this is really something notable. So I see it as a personal task, personal responsibility of the president as well, but it is also something where the broader group of states-parties has to do something.

Then another issue is the issue of compliance and verification that has been, over the last 10 years, always a bit controversial. There was a negotiation on a protocol which contained, among others, provisions on verification. That was turned down in 2001 because the United States had a great problem with that.[6] We are still discussing how we can still perhaps think of some other measures—compliance measures, demonstrating compliance, voluntary—we’ll have to see. There are also states that say, “No, we still should work toward a legally binding verification regime.” So that is a bit of a difficult knot to untie.

I hope that we will have a kind of nonideological, flexible debate and see what is achievable. I think that taking into account the positions of some countries, it’s very difficult to start to pick up the 2001 protocol negotiations again. But I hope we, or, I mean it’s not just me of course, but the states-parties, and the ISU, have some ideas where we could enhance compliance and measures which are acceptable to all. So that’s a challenge; we’re not yet there. But I’m hopeful because I hear on the one hand the ambitions of people who want to do something; on the other hand realism, knowing that you have to do it with 164, you need to have consensus on these measures.

So that is basically it. I may have forgotten one or two topics, but these are the topics which probably will play a main role at the RevCon. If we can find good solutions, in my view they strengthen the convention. You asked about “ambitious realism.” My ambition is that we will just do a little bit more than what you sometimes do in multilateral disarmament: find the lowest common denominator. No, we’ll find the highest common denominator. That’s what I hope.

ACT: Thanks very much. Can I follow up on a couple of the issues that you mentioned, maybe first on the last one that you mentioned: verification? One of the ideas that has been floated is to agree on a mechanism at the review conference to evaluate possible transparency and verification measures leading up to the next review conference, particularly in light of new technical developments over the last decade since the ad hoc group [established by the BWC parties to negotiate a legally binding compliance regime for the treaty] has failed. Do you think this is something that could achieve consensus, that you have such a new mechanism to look at monitoring and verification possibilities?

Van den IJssel: As I said, there is a discussion that, for example, we could have during the intersessional process, compliance and compliance measures. Perhaps. There are some suggestions that that could be kind of a revolving topic that comes back every year. Well, we can look at that. I wouldn’t [use] the word “mechanism,” but [rather] we say every year we’re going to discuss the possibility of enhancing compliance. How do we do that? Well, there are a number of ideas circulating, and states-parties may have different ideas. That may result in a number of agreements we strike on what we do. One of the ideas, for example, which circulated is voluntary visits to BSL-3 or BSL-4 facilities. There are a number of ideas out there. I think they could be perhaps the way in which we have to go. As I said, the word “mechanism”—well, we can call it a mechanism. I would say that it’s identified by many states as a topic on which we have to do further work on an annual basis in the intersessional process. That is how I understand what a lot of states-parties say.

ACT: You mentioned that some of the ideas to strengthen the CBM process would be agreed at the review conference. At the same time, the United States and others have mentioned the idea of a follow-on process to review the CBMs between this review conference and the next review conference. Do you think that is realistic?

Van den IJssel: Yes, that’s absolutely compatible with what I say. My idea, and I think a lot of states-parties have at least given me the idea that they have similar thoughts, is that we should try a two-track approach. The first track is being tried to get some decisions or some substantive measures on the CBMs at the RevCon. The second track is to give a mandate or an instruction, however you call it, a mandate to the intersessional process to discuss further work on the CBMs, because the CBMs are sometimes quite complicated, quite technical, and it’s very difficult in three weeks to come up with real conclusions on some of these issues. So they may need further work. My idea is not just to refer everything to the intersessional process. But as I said, two tracks. First track, take some substantive discussions and then say, “What is the further work which has to be done at the intersessional process?” Second track is that the intersessional process will do this further work. Then again the question, is that with the view to take decisions in the intersessional process or with the view to make recommendations to the next RevCon? That depends on this other discussion, but I think what you just said is completely compatible with this idea. From what I hear, at least, many countries are thinking along these lines.

ACT: I have a more general question also on the focus of the BWC. The U.S. national strategy for countering biological threats emphasizes the threat from nonstate actors misusing biological agents for hostile purposes. Is it your impression that this perspective is shared by the majority of states-parties?

Van den IJssel: I think that most states-parties agree. When the convention was drafted and negotiated and entered into force, it was the mid-1970s. Then, we had a different world. We had a world which was basically divided between East and West, and things like terrorism, nonstate actors, were, well, almost unknown entities. I exaggerate a bit because of course we always had nonstate actors, but if you talked about disarmament and arms control, you didn’t think about them. You thought about states and massive armies and strategies and tactics. I think we have all become aware, certainly since the 1990s, and certainly in the first decade of this century, that terrorism, nonstate actors have become a much more important element in discussions. I think that is widely shared.

The sixth review conference [in 2006] had wording on the use of biological agents as a terrorist weapon by, for example, nonstate actors, so I think there is a lot of agreement there.[7] We might again have to pay attention to that. But of course, nonstate [actors] are by nature not members of the convention. So it’s still states that have to do things. I haven’t noticed that there is broad disagreement on the idea that we should pay more attention not only to states, but also to nonstate actors and groups who would, may abuse bioscience for offensive purposes. The example always is the anthrax letters [in the United States in 2001]; that was not another state that did that, it was an individual, I think, who used that as a plot to spread horror and to kill people. Five or six people got killed. We are very much aware that is certainly a threat. Again, I don’t see any basic difference in the analysis

ACT: In past review conferences, sometimes specific allegations of noncompliance against states-parties have been a problem, and the United States continues to allege that some BWC members are not in compliance with their obligations under the treaty. How do you expect the review conference to address those and other concerns of noncompliance?

Van den IJssel: First of all, I haven’t heard of any country wanting to express specific allegations at this RevCon. I don’t know, maybe they haven’t told me. I haven’t heard. If they come, we will discuss them. Of course, you have a consultation mechanism that actually is not related to RevCons; you can use that at any time. It has been used once, when Cuba alleged the United States was using certain biological agents against crops.[8] Let’s again approach this from a more general point of view. I think that we have to look at the issue of compliance, transparency again, and see whether we can strengthen it. If you have concerns about specific countries, that may well be, but I think it’s also in the interest of all states-parties if we look at possibilities to better deal with these kinds of concerns. That would be my answer, and this is the discussion I’m involved in. I haven’t heard of, let’s say, at this point in time, any state that would like to make specific allegations. There may be concerns, but I haven’t heard of that in more specifics.

ACT: You mentioned the issue of universality. One region that’s of particular interest is the Middle East, which is in a period of political transition. Is it your impression, in your consultations also, that this opens up new opportunities for progress on universality?

Van den IJssel: I hope so. Of course, in the Middle East a lot is happening. In my consultations, I have talked to some countries in the Middle East who are not yet parties to this treaty. I very much urged them to join. I know that their position is slightly different from other parties, states who are not yet parties, because they link the behavior of other states to whether they will join the BWC. There is that link between the NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty], the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention], and the BWC. In my consultations with them, I continue to tell them that—I, of course, listen very carefully to what they say, but I still think that there is no good reason not to join the BWC. I think there are a lot of states that subscribe to this norm, and I think [the Middle Eastern nonparties] do. I see no good reason [to refrain from joining the BWC] because then you don’t subscribe to the norm but nevertheless you abide by it. So what is the idea, that you’re going to break out? I don’t think so. So I urge them to join.

Second point is there may be a conference next year on a weapons of mass destruction [WMD]-free zone in the Middle East.[9] That is a conference, a first step, I hope, an important step toward a WMD-free zone. The topic of that conference is not just nuclear weapons; it’s all weapons of mass destruction including [biological weapons]. I already get invitations from events which are taking place in the context of that conference. We don’t even know where it will take place, but already the [European Union] had a seminar. I know there are other countries that have seminars, conferences, on this topic, and I very much try [to make sure] that the biological weapons element to it is present, to outline that it’s not just about one category of weapons of mass destruction, but certainly also about biological weapons, and again, I don’t see any reason why [the BWC] can’t be acceded to. As I said, I [listen] very carefully, and I must say my discussions with these countries are quite open, they’re very transparent and very friendly, and I hear what they say about linking the NPT and CWC and BWC to one another, but still I think [there is] no good reason not to sign up to the BWC. Hopefully, this conference next year—if it takes place, and I hope it does—will be another encouragement for these countries to accede to the convention.

ACT: Can I turn to one of the other specific issues that you mentioned, which is the ISU? You mentioned the discussion about strengthening that body. One other proposal that has been mentioned is to turn it into a permanent body to support the BWC. There’s also been a proposal to set up a bureau of regional representatives to improve interaction among states-parties. Are these two ideas something that states-parties might agree on at the review conference?

Van den IJssel: They are two separate things, of course. The first one is making the ISU more permanent. That is possible, that we will say that we’re not having the mandate expire by definition in 2016 but that it will continue unless we decide otherwise. That is a possibility. We have to see whether that is feasible. I think it’s quite logical to have a moment where you look at what you have decided in the past and say whether that’s all still appropriate. So you could do that in any different way. You say we continue unless we decide otherwise, for example, then you decide to evaluate what has happened. We have to see. I must say, so far, discussions where I’ve been present didn’t focus on that particular aspect; it was more on the expansion of the ISU and the continuation of the ISU. But it is a possibility.

Second point. I know that some countries, although I haven’t seen a concrete proposal yet, have argued that it would be good if we have some more state-party or political guidance process. Now it is more or less handed over from president to president, and if the review conference is over, I still may be involved. But that is not all formally quite clear and depends very much on the persons in question and whether you have time and if you are still in Geneva; if it’s somebody else, it’s difficult. So the idea I’ve heard most is to have a kind of permanent bureau, based on regional distribution as well—all the regions should be represented—which would be a kind of, call it, “administration”—more in the American sense than in the European sense—guiding body, however you like to call it—also giving guidance to the ISU in the period between RevCons.

I know this idea is out there, at least in the minds of some. Interesting ideas. It will be interesting to see what will happen in the next two months, whether that will get support. It could be an element to enforce, to strengthen the regime. That’s why I have a very open mind to such proposals. But I haven’t seen it in writing yet. But it’s interesting.

There have been in other fields actually similar proposals. I remember at the NPT [review] conference such a suggestion was made. I very much agree with the idea that is behind it. After all, the states-parties own the convention; it’s not the ISU. The ISU is there to help us, and they do a great job. But at the end of the day, the success or the failure of some things we do is due to states-parties and not to the ISU. I think we all want to have a successful regime, so maybe this idea of having some more kind of small standing, guiding—“standing” is a big word, but [the idea] that you have kind of a guiding organ, is an interesting one. But we’ll have to see whether it flies. I must say I have heard it only a couple of times and haven’t seen a paper yet, but maybe that will change. As I said, we still have more than two months to go.

ACT: Final question. From your very personal perspective: This is a very broad range of issues here, but which three issues do you really think the review conference needs to focus on and address most urgently?

Van den IJssel: No, I can’t. I’ll just say there are two issues we have to take a decision or else things are changed. Those are the intersessional process and the ISU. The other things are important and different states may attach different value to different points. I think we have to solve them all and we have to look forward, and I think we can.

ACT: Thanks very much.



1. Since 2003, parties to the Biological Weapons Convention have held meetings in years in which a review conference did not take place. At these meetings, which address specific topics, the parties do not make decisions that would be legally binding.

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. A biosafety level indicates the biocontainment precautions required to isolate dangerous biological agents in an enclosed facility. BSL-4 is the highest level.

4. At the last review conference, in 2006, the parties established the ISU; but at the insistence of the United States, the mandate contains a sunset clause according to which the next review conference will evaluate the unit’s performance and mandate. See Oliver Meier, “States Strengthen Biological Weapons Convention,“ Arms Control Today, January/February 2007.

5. Since the interview, Burundi became the 165th party to the treaty.

6. In 2001 the United States rejected a compliance protocol for the BWC on the grounds that the proposed verification mechanism would not improve or increase trust in compliance with the convention. See Rebecca Whitehair and Seth Brugger, “BWC Protocol Talks in Geneva Collapse Following U.S. Rejection,” Arms Control Today, September 2001.

7. In the final declaration of the 2006 review conference, the parties agreed that “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and whatever its motivation, is abhorrent and unacceptable to the international community, and that terrorists must be prevented from developing, producing, stockpiling, or otherwise acquiring or retaining, and using under any circumstances, biological agents and toxins, equipment, or means of delivery of agents or toxins, for nonpeaceful purposes.”

8. In 1997, Cuba accused the United States of releasing Thrips palmi insects over its territory in order to attack the island’s agriculture. The incident became the first case to be discussed under the BWC Article 5 consultation mechanism. Under the consultations, it was not possible to reach a definitive conclusion with regard to the concerns raised by Cuba, but no follow-on actions were recommended.

9. At the 2010 NPT review conference, the parties to that treaty agreed to convene a conference in 2012 to be attended by all states in the Middle East “on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the states of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon states.” See Patricia Lewis and William C. Potter, “The Long Journey Toward a WMD-Free Middle East,” Arms Control Today, September 2011.