By Daniel Horner
On Dec. 5, the parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) began a review conference in Geneva that is scheduled to end Dec. 22. The BWC members meet every five years to assess the functioning of the treaty, which came into force in 1975 and has 165 parties.
One noteworthy element of the meeting's opening days was the Dec. 7 address by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first time a U.S. secretary of state has spoken at a BWC review conference, according to the State Department.
In her remarks, Clinton said the BWC parties need to develop ways to "bolster international confidence that all countries are living up to [their] obligations" under the treaty, but that they should do so through reporting and transparency measures rather than through a verification mechanism.
As an example, she said that the United States is planning to invite representatives from "a few" fellow BWC member states to tour a U.S. biodefense facility next year. She also said the treaty parties should agree to revamp their reporting system "to ensure that each party is answering the right questions, such as what we are each all doing to guard against the misuse of biological materials."
In 2001 the Bush administration withdrew from talks on a BWC verification protocol, and the talks subsequently collapsed. The Obama administration, saying effective verification under the treaty is impossible, has made clear that it will not seek to revive the talks.
At a Dec. 1 press briefing in Washington, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said the United States has no "ideological objection" to verification and strongly supports the verification mechanisms for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). "We have a decided bias in favor of something that works," he said.
A number of countries, including U.S. allies, are expected to argue at the review conference for some kind of verification measures. U.S. officials "take seriously the concern of our partners in that regard" and believe that "we can, even if we don't agree on this point, move forward on the basis of consensus on other steps" to make the convention more effective, Countryman said.
Clinton, who said "the ability of terrorists and other non-state actors to develop and use [biological] weapons is growing," listed two other areas to pursue at the conference: strengthening countries' abilities "to detect and respond to [disease] outbreaks and improve international coordination" and enhancing "international dialogue about the ways to maximize the benefits of scientific research and minimize the risks.
Another issue the parties are expected to discuss at the conference is the so-called intersessional process, the program of official work and meetings that takes place between the review conferences. A U.S. paper submitted for the conference says the intersessional meetings should have a "[m]ore ambitious agenda" than they now do and should be "[m]ore results-oriented" such as by "develop[ing] specific recommendations, guidelines, or best practices." Under the current arrangements, the intersessional meetings address specific topics and do not make decisions that would be legally binding.
At the Dec. 1 briefing, Countryman said the BWC's most important work "is not what occurs every five years in the review conference, but rather the ever more intensive exchange of ideas and cooperation that occurs in the intersessional process."
The BWC review conference comes on the heels of the Nov. 28-Dec. 2 annual meeting of parties to the CWC in The Hague. At that conference, the CWC states had to break with their usual practice by voting on a key decision rather than adopting it by consensus. Iran was the lone opponent of the decision, which dealt with the CWC's April 2012 deadline for the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles. In the days before the Dec. 1 vote, there was an exchange of sharp rhetoric between Iran and the United States on that issue.
Asked at the press briefing about the prospects for consensus at the BWC review conference, Countryman said that "the differences of opinion, while they matter and while they may be deeply felt, do not amount to the kind of head-on conflict that can be dangerous in other international meetings."
For more on the BWC review conference, see analyses in Arms Control Today by Jonathan B. Tucker and Kirk C. Bansak, and interviews with conference president Paul van den IJssel of the Netherlands and U.S. special representative Laura Kennedy.