The first of a series of meetings in preparation for the 2011 review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) produced no concrete results but was hailed by participants for its positive atmosphere. Experts and diplomats from 90 BWC states-parties as well as representatives from a range of international organizations met in Geneva Aug. 20-24 to discuss ways and means to enhance national implementation of the biological weapons prohibition, including law enforcement, and measures to improve regional and subregional cooperation on BWC implementation.
The meeting was the first in a series of intersessional gatherings agreed to at the last review conference in 2006. (See ACT, January/February 2007. ) It took place against the background of lingering differences about how much attention to spend on the threat from bioterrorism. It also remains unclear whether a follow-up meeting of BWC states-parties in December will be able to decide on specific measures to improve implementation of the biological weapons ban.
Differences on Bioterrorism
National implementation measures, which include laws, administrative procedures, and regulations to bring domestic laws into conformity with BWC obligations, had already been discussed at a similar conference in 2003, and many delegations effectively rehashed their statements.
In the background, however, divisions between participants about the relative importance of discussions on the threat from bioterrorism lingered. Some states-parties are concerned that bioterrorism, an issue high on the U.S. agenda, receives too much consideration. They emphasize that other issues could be neglected, such as state-sponsored biological weapons activities and scientific developments that could lead to the development of novel biological warfare agents.
German expert and delegation member Volker Beck told Arms Control Today Sept. 13 that “states-parties should take care that discussions on bioterrorism do not gain too much weight” at the December 2007 meeting nor during the general intersessional process. Beck argued that tackling the threat from bioterrorism is only one element of BWC implementation and that state-sponsored biological weapons activities must also receive adequate attention, especially considering rapid developments in the life sciences that might be misused for hostile purposes. “The balance must be right,” he cautioned. Beck pointed out as an example that although improving the enforcement of national legislation, an issue highlighted by the U.S. delegation, is an important goal, a number of states do not even have appropriate legislation in place.
Others disagree. “Bioterrorism is an important subject but that doesn’t mean that, in the context of national implementation, people are losing sight of other issues, particularly scientific developments of relevance to the BWC,” Pakistani ambassador Masood Khan, who chaired the meeting, told Arms Control Today in an interview Sept. 17.
Fears that the danger from bioterrorism is being exaggerated also lingered when experts discussed a proposal from the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs (ODA) to create a bioincident database under its auspices. Some experts questioned the ODA’s intention to include biological weapons hoaxes in the database, apparently suspecting a ploy to increase resources devoted to the effort. It also remains unclear how the ODA intends to deal with a 2006 UN General Assembly resolution requiring that the database complement a similar effort by Interpol that is designed to compile a list of “biocrimes.”
Launch of the Implementation Support Unit
On Aug. 20, BWC states-parties celebrated the official launch of the Implementation Support Unit (ISU), a BWC mini-secretariat with a staff of three agreed on at the sixth review conference. Its administrative tasks include serving as a clearinghouse on a range of BWC-related activities.
Of particular relevance to the 2007 BWC meetings is the ISU’s responsibility to coordinate efforts to assist states-parties in meeting national implementation obligations. It has already compiled a database of laws and regulations passed by member states. ISU head Richard Lennane told Arms Control Today Sept. 14 that he has received several offers, but only a few preliminary inquiries of governments about such help.
In a Sept. 17 interview with Arms Control Today, Khan appealed for patience. “The issue needs to be sorted out through dialogue,” he stated. “Concerned states-parties should have a clear idea what kind of assistance they require. Diplomats and experts are sensitized to the idea, but now we have to take the next steps to negotiate a transition from the realization of the desirability of assistance to spelling out practical steps.”
Confidence-Building Measures Lack Transparency
The ISU is now the central repository for the so-called confidence-building measures (CBMs), an annual information exchange on biological weapons-relevant activities agreed on by states-parties in 1986. During the meeting of experts, the ISU announced that, in 2007, 58 states-parties had fulfilled their political obligation to submit a declaration. This rate of participation marks an all-time high.
All declarations received are supposed to be posted on a secure section of the ISU website accessible only to governments. However, four states have not yet given permission to have their CBMs distributed via the ISU site. Lennane hopes that the situation is “only temporary” and will be resolved when states’ concerns about the security of the ISU site have been addressed. The ISU also intends to post all declarations that states have made public on its open website but has decided to delay publication of the latest CBMs until problems with the secure website have been sorted out.
Progress on Universality
At the sixth review conference, states-parties had agreed that the chair of meetings of experts would also be in charge of coordinating activities to foster universalization. On the last day of the August meeting, Khan reported that four states-parties (Gabon, Kazakhstan, Montenegro, and Trinidad and Tobago) had acceded to BWC in 2007, bringing the number of states-parties to 159. Khan also told the meeting that, in responses to letters to non-states-parties, Mozambique had informed him its accession is advanced. An Israeli official had replied that Israel shared the view that “the threat of biological warfare is indeed an ominous one” but that “regional circumstances…cannot be overlooked by Israel upon any consideration of the issue of possible accession to the BWC.”
The ISU is also supporting universalization efforts, for example, by encouraging non-states-parties to provide information about national points of contact for biological weapons control. Such information, including the state of affairs regarding accession, is posted on the secure section of the ISU website so that BWC states-parties can get in touch with non-states-parties and lobby for accession to the biological weapons ban.
States-Parties Meet in December
The report from the meeting of experts includes a compilation of proposals, and Khan may also issue a separate synthesis of discussions in preparation for the Dec. 10-14 meeting of states-parties. It will be up to that conference to take concrete action on issues discussed at the meeting of experts. Khan, who will also chair the December meeting, is cautiously optimistic that it might be possible to move beyond what was possible during the intersessional process preceding the previous BWC review conference.
“States-parties are their own masters, and if they decide to do so, we can see what we can achieve,” Khan said. “Can we make the whole exercise more focused? And if states-parties produce a paper, would it have any operative part? That we have to look into. But at the meeting of experts, there was a realization that we can move forward and that while the last intersessional process [was] a good model, we need not be constrained by it.”
One idea that might be developed in December is an implementation checklist for national legislation. Such a checklist is already used by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and was seen by many delegations as having advantages when compared to the development of one-size-fits-all model legislation. Khan tends to agree. “Most states-parties showed interest in this area, and I think it will be taken up again in December. This is a good idea. If we have a clear-cut implementation checklist, we will be able to measure our progress; and successes in one country can be replicated in another country, of course after tailoring them to the specific requirements of that country,” he told Arms Control Today.
The ISU’s Lennane concurs. He hopes that even though past meetings of states-parties during the 2003-2005 intersessional process were not able to draft specific recommendations, the next meeting of states-parties “may be prepared to take the next step.” One of Lennane’s suggestions is that the meeting could call on regional organizations to incorporate recommendations related to national implementation into their work.
Khan points out that, “in the past, such cooperation on regional and subregional cooperation has been focused on such issues as universalization. At the meeting of experts, there was a realization that now you also need to use these mechanisms as building blocks for more cooperation, for an understanding of different phenomena, and for widening the networks, which can help states-parties to implement the BWC in a more effective manner.”