The 2006 Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference Reader

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Contact: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107

Updated: November 2006

Articles and Interviews on Tackling the Threats Posed by Biological Weapons

(The full fact sheet is available in pdf format. The introduction is excerpted below.)

On November 20, representatives of many of the 155 states-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) will gather in Geneva for three weeks of deliberations on how to strengthen the biological weapons ban. At a time when multilateral arms control is in deep crisis, the Sixth Review Conference of the BWC will face the tremendous challenge of agreeing on concrete actions to reduce the threat of disease as a weapon of war and terror.

In this reader, leading experts summarize new and old dangers associated with biological weapons and recommend ways of addressing them. Included are articles previously published in Arms Control Today, as well as an exclusive interview with Ambassador Masood Khan, the designated president of the review conference, who shares his vision of a successful meeting.

Since the last full and substantive review of the BWC in 1996, the global prohibition of biological weapons has come under pressure from several directions.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the anthrax letter attacks that followed have spawned new fears of bioterrorism. Governments have yet to fully adapt the BWC, an agreement among states, to this new challenge.

To be sure, BWC member states have made some progress in implementing the treaty’s rules and prohibitions at the national level, as advocated by the United States. But there is a darker side to the reaction to bioterrorism. Governments, particularly the Bush administration, have also responded with a vast increase in biodefense spending. Although some of these activities may lead to better medical countermeasures against a possible attack, experiments that appear to cross the line of what is permitted by Article I of the BWC “could undermine the ban on offensive development enshrined in the treaty and end up worsening the very dangers that the U.S. government seeks to reduce,” as Jonathan Tucker pointed out in an October 2004 ACT contribution.

One way to address this problem is greater openness about sensitive activities. As Nicolas Isla and Iris Hunger argued earlier this year, “[A] good starting point for building confidence in compliance is to increase transparency.” In Geneva, states-parties have an excellent opportunity to make the annual information exchanges between states-parties more comprehensive and useful.

At the same time, the knowledge required to develop more deadly biological weapons has spread more widely than ever before. Mark Wheelis warns us that “biology is in the midst of what can only be described as a revolution” and that “this technology will have great power both for peaceful and hostile uses.”

The contributors to this reader agree that the response to the potential misuse of the life sciences for hostile purposes must be multilayered and suggest several possible actions that states-parties might take in Geneva. Jonathan Tucker, for example, calls for more effective and internationally harmonized biosafety and biosecurity measures. Christopher Chyba suggests novel mechanisms for the oversight of dualuse research in the life sciences. John Hart, Frida Kuhlau, and Roger Roffey advocate more stringent codes of conduct for biodefense scientists.

Yet, even these important efforts may not be sufficient to avert the danger of a new biological arms race. In the long run, the BWC requires collective action at the level of governments, industry, and individual scientists. A legally binding international agreement to establish an Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons, comparable to but smaller than the International Atomic Energy Organization or the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, remains an essential goal. Only such an institution would have the mandate to monitor state-level compliance with the BWC continuously and organize joint responses to possible breaches of the convention. Creating such a multilateral framework would also strengthen the sense of ownership of all states-parties and reverse the current trend to portray biological weapons proliferation as a problem limited to a few “states of concern.”

It should be possible to overcome some of the differences that led to the failure of the last review conference in 2001 because, as Trevor Findlay remarks, “there has been some quiet movement that is changing the context of the bio-verification debate.” Today, verification is a broad concept that encompasses many of the useful activities that member states and other international organizations already undertake at the national level to improve compliance.

Nicholas Sims cautions that expectations for the sixth review conference are modest and that its primary task will be to “reach agreement on where that treaty regime stands in 2006 and how best to steer its constructive and balanced evolution cautiously through to the seventh review conference in 2011, when conditions may be more favorable to advance.”

If he is correct, the most important short-term task is to continue the dialogue among states-parties that has developed over the last three years of annual meetings, to make the intersessional process more relevant to current issues, and to enable states-parties to take concrete action prior to the next review conference in 2011.

Even if it is not possible to restart discussions on a multilateral verification framework at this time, states-parties should agree at least to discuss measures that might contribute to a future monitoring mechanism. Improving exchanges of information among member states about treaty-relevant activities, taking advantage of the United Nations’ capacity to investigate instances where biological weapons may have been used, and setting up a small but efficient secretariat to support various activities under the BWC would be significant moves in this direction.

The threat from biological weapons is real. The BWC must be able to react to new scientific and technical developments, such as the “nonlethal” biochemical weapons under development in the United States and Russia. As John Borrie warns, “These kinds of problems that threaten the norm created against hostile use of the life sciences are not going away, and the BWC must tackle them at some point or lose credibility and relevance.”

After many years of setbacks and compromises, diplomats and experts dealing with the BWC have become skillful in the art of lowering expectations. It is a hopeful sign that Ambassador Khan has promised that he “will not use the lowest common denominator as the yardstick for success, but the median point that represents common ground.”

The Arms Control Association hopes that the ideas and proposals contained in this publication will help states achieve a successful outcome to the review conference.