Don’t neglect the Biological Weapons Convention

Paul van den IJssel of the Netherlands, president of the 2011 BWC Review Conference, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (Image Source: U.S. Mission to Geneva)

By Oliver Meier

The December 2011 review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) demonstrated the danger of the bioweapons ban drifting into irrelevance. Standstill was the motto of the meeting. Only incremental improvements on some procedural issues were achieved. Between now and the next review conference in 2016, it is going to be near to impossible to take decisions that will strengthen the treaty. Representatives of the 103 states-parties participating in Geneva missed an important opportunity to modernize the almost 40-year-old accord.

There are many reasons for concern about a weak biological weapons ban. Biotechnology is advancing at an incredible speed, making it easier to develop ever more powerful biological weapons, also for terrorists and other non-state actors. Activities that could be perceived as attempts to build bioweapons, such as biodefense programs, are not transparent enough. This leads to mistrust that could undermine the taboo against biological weapons.

The BWC is ill-equipped to address these dangers. There is no mechanism that would ring an alarm bell in case one of its 165 members is suspected of developing biological weapons. The regime is not supported by an international organization which keeps a watch over how states-parties implement the accord and which evaluates the impact of new technical and scientific developments on the prohibition of biological weapons.

The Final Document adopted at the review conference contains next to nothing to address these challenges. This disappointing outcome follows two review conferences which resulted in some modest innovations, aimed at better implementation of the BWC.

After the failure of negotiations on a verification protocol in 2001, states-parties in 2002 initiated a process of annual meetings of experts and diplomats between the quinquennial review conferences, intended to discuss topics of relevance to the bioweapons ban. At the next review conference in 2006, the Implementation Support Unit, a three-person secretariat to assist member states, was created.

The 2011 conference simply extended these previous arrangements. There were major disagreements on the next logical steps in the evolution of the regime, such as allowing annual meetings of states-parties to take legally-binding decisions, expanding the size and mandate of the ISU and reforming the confidence-building measures, which provide at least for some basic transparency on sensitive activities. And there is still no prospect for talks on a verification and transparency mechanism.

There are multiple reasons for this malaise. There is a clear lack of U.S. leadership. Those who had hoped that the Obama administration would revise the radical, anti-verification stance of the George W. Bush administration were bitterly disappointed. President Obama has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor by fundamentally rejecting multilateral efforts to monitor compliance with the BWC.

For Washington, the question of verifiability is no longer open to analysis. In contrast to the European Union states, which consider verification as “a central element” of an effective treaty, the Obama administration argues that it is “impossible” to verify compliance with the BWC because of the inherent dual-use nature of the biosciences. This analysis is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s position on verification “that the mechanisms envisioned for the [compliance] Protocol would not achieve their objectives, that no modification of them would allow them to achieve their objectives, and that trying to do more would simply raise the risk to legitimate United States activities.” It ignores that biotechnology – both with regard to potential threats but also with regard to verification – is very dynamic. Richard Guthrie, who wrote detailed daily reports on the review conference for the non-governmental BioWeapons Prevention Project concludes that “perhaps the biggest lost opportunity” of this review conference “was that no substantive progress was made on verification issues – a subject area that needs subtlety to push it forward.”

Instead, the United States is trying to transform the BWC from a key instrument to outlaw biological weapons to a forum to discuss various ways to prevent the emergence and spread of dangerous disease and to prevent bioterrorism. “Now today, it’s still possible that a state may seek to develop and use a biological weapon against its adversaries,” said Thomas Countryman Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation ahead of the review conference, “but today we are increasingly concerned that the real threat comes from terrorists and non-state actors.” Washington regards the BWC as the “premier forum for international and intersectoral information exchange, coordination, and cooperation.” This function, while useful and necessary, does not alter the reality that the BWC’s core purpose is to outlaw state bioweapons programs, monitor compliance, and – if necessary – to respond to violations of treaty obligations. By lumping together “every kind of biological danger, whether it’s a pandemic like H1N1, or a terrorist threat, or a terrible disease,” the United States is ignoring opportunities to improve the BWC to detect and deter the weaponization of disease.

This paradigm shift is surprising because the United States itself still has questions about the compliance of important states such as Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria with the BWC. At the same time, there is little evidence to support the position that bioterrorism is a clear and urgent danger. There has been no major case of an attempted or a successful act of bioterrorism since the Anthrax attacks in 2001. All that is being offered to support the new course of action is anecdotal evidence for the alleged interest by terrorists in biological weapons such as an Al-Qaida call to arms on “brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry to develop a weapon of mass destruction.”

In Geneva, it became clear that the treaty has come under attack from multiple directions. While the US has decided to downgrade the BWC to a talk shop on dangers related to the biosciences, a new group of powerful like-minded states emerged, whose main preoccupation it was to be to undermine modest Western group attempts to strengthen BWC implementation. Pakistan, Russia, India, Iran, China – affectionately called the “PRIICs” by some Western participants and observers – issued only one paper during the meeting but according to several observers effectively pushed two topics that were guaranteed to annoy Western diplomats: Article X on cooperation on the peaceful uses of biotechnology and a resumption of negotiations on a legally-binding verification protocol.

But the hidden PRIIC agenda may have been to roll back advances that had been made over the last ten years in opening the BWC up to new actors. In the words of one knowledgeable observer in Geneva, the PRIICs “sought to recover and assert exclusive ownership of the BTWC by the States Parties.” He believes that “this position is closely connected to the PRIIC’s rejection of many western proposals to take the treaty forward, as these implied recognition of multi-stakeholdership and roles for actors other than governments.”

In an Jan. 2 email to Arms Control Today, a Russian official described the reaction of several European states to the PRIIC proposal to discuss “multilateral verification measures” as “surprising” because “this happened against the backdrop of publicly professed EU’s commitment to verification ‘in long-term.’”  He concluded that “[a]s a result, verification shall have to wait until 2016, at least.”

It is easy to understand that many perceived this interest in verification as a cynical and hypocritical attempt by the PRIICs to expose rifts between the EU and the United States on verification, if only because Moscow itself has never come clean on the huge offensive biological program it operated at least until the early 1990s. It can only be hoped that the relative success of the collaboration of the PRIICs in Geneva does not encourage them to jointly turn back the clock on arms control in others contexts as well.

Meanwhile, the rest of the international community was idly standing by, lacking the energy and will to come to the rescue of the BWC. The European Union, for example, in the past had often been a champion of a strengthened BWC but appeared preoccupied with other issues, such as BWC finances. While the International Atomic Energy Agency and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons operate on annual budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars, even modest proposals to expand the size of the ISU from a staff of three to a staff of five did not find support.

To put this debate into perspective: the 26 smallest BWC states-parties would have had to pay annual contributions of $19 if the proposals to increase the budget would have been approved. As a result of this impasse, the BWC will operate for the next five years on a zero-real growth budget. Who was objecting to a modest increase of institutional support for the BWC? Not developing countries but European Union members Greece, Spain, and Portugal. These countries receive hundreds of billions of Euros from EU members but at the same time torpedoed the EU’s joint goals for the review conference, which included a pledge to increase the ISU’s capacity. This selfishness undercuts the credibility of the EU’s efforts to strengthen arms control and it weakens the BWC.

So what it is to be done? In a nutshell, the BWC needs stronger political leadership and advocacy in order strengthen capabilities to fulfill its core function of assuring compliance of member states with the prohibition of the development, production and possession of biological weapons. Because the BWC has traditionally suffered from a lack of public and media interest, the NGO community will have to work harder to trigger governments to take actions on a strengthened BWC.

Clearly, the friends of the BWC need to better coordinate among themselves, regardless of regional grouping or Alliance they belong to. Small groupings of like-minded, pro-arms control states exist, such as the JACKSSNZ (Japan, Australia, Canada, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Norway and New Zealand), which for some time now have put forward joint proposals at BWC meetings. But they often lack the back-up of powerful states that could lend their initiatives some political muscle. As is usually the case in arms control, everything in the end will depend on the United States. Without U.S. leadership, efforts to revitalize the BWC will likely falter, if only because others can use this as an excuse to remain passive themselves. Then, the BWC might continue its slow drift into irrelevance and the next review conference in 2016 might not even be noticed by those outside the community of experts and officials that have to deal with the BWC.

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