8 May 2017

Make the bioweapons treaty work

Catherine Rhodes

Catherine Rhodes

Catherine Rhodes is academic project manager at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. From a background in international relations, she has engaged in...


At their best, international treaties are not static objects. Rather, they are dynamic processes. They productively engage state and non-state actors. They stay relevant to, and actively shape, their “piece” of the world. Achieving a dynamic process is especially important for a treaty’s continued relevance when the treaty addresses or is affected by rapidly advancing science and technology.

Today, the world is witnessing numerous, high-profile developments in the life sciences—Crispr gene editing, gene drive technologies, low-cost sequencing and synthesis, and so forth. These developments often converge, in potentially powerful ways, with developments in other scientific and technological fields. Therefore, the key rules protecting the world against malign applications of developments in the life sciences should be particularly robust and dynamic. It is cause for alarm, then, that last November’s review conference for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention “failed”—and that chances for progress within the convention before 2021 may stall completely in just a few months.

The convention—the international treaty prohibiting hostile applications of the life sciences—has been in force for more than 40 years. Two important mechanisms ensure its relevance and signal states’ ongoing commitment to its core goals: review conferences held every five years and an “intersessional process” of annual meetings held in years without review conferences. Reform of the intersessional process was to be a key outcome of last year’s review conference. Reform would have made the work of the intersessional process more relevant, meaningful, and substantive.

The review conference fell far short of agreeing on reform. It couldn’t even agree that an intersessional process would take place—instead, it only established the possibility that a meeting this December might produce an agreement. This outcome contrasts with the review conferences in 2006 and 2011, which agreed on full intersessional programs with detailed agendas.

Still, states have another chance at progress in December. Right now, they have neither appointed a chair for the meeting nor arranged funding for it. Unfortunately, as explained recently in the Bulletin by Gregory Koblentz and Paul Walker, securing the required financial contributions may well be a problem. If these issues are not resolved within the next few months, states will not have adequate time to prepare for the meeting (through informal consultations, for example). This would further reduce their chances of agreeing on a new intersessional process.

Block to progress. Last August, after preparatory work was conducted for the 2016 review conference, the outlook for the conference seemed positive. States had conducted fruitful discussions, building on working papers submitted and common understandings reached during the 2012–2015 intersessional process. Proposals had been prepared for advancements in several key areas, including science and technology review, international cooperation and assistance, confidence in compliance, and strengthening the intersessional process.

It was therefore a shock to many states that the review conference produced outcomes so far below expectations. A few states were apparently willing to block all progress, with Iran regarded as particularly obstructive, and this was a considerable source of frustration and disappointment. (Blocking is possible because, in processes such as review conferences, great value is attached to working by consensus. Occasionally dispensing with the consensus-based approach is not impossible, but states are understandably reluctant to take this step, and it is generally a last resort.)

One area in which progress looked possible after the preparatory work was the intersessional process. Proposed improvements to the process included extending the duration of meetings of states, enhancing states’ decision-making authority in certain areas, and creating expert or technical working groups to support states’ work. These proposals were designed to make the intersessional process more purposeful; allow it sufficient time and resources to consider key issues; enable it to move toward meaningful deliberations; and provide it the ability to make specific recommendations regarding concrete actions that review conferences could later take up.

Without such improvements, many see no value in continuing an intersessional process at all. But eliminating the intersessional process would leave, within the convention’s formal processes, regular five-year gaps in states’ engagement with and discussion of scientific and technological advances. It would also significantly reduce states’ capacity to address effectively the implications of such advances for the convention—and limit states’ ability to make informed judgements on appropriate responses. The time available at review conferences is simply not adequate for these tasks.

If this year’s scheduled meeting of states parties goes ahead, it needs to establish a more effective intersessional process. In particular:

  • States should agree to hold intersessional meetings in 2018, 2019, and 2020. They should set an agenda for those meetings, focusing on a few key topics so the process isn’t overloaded
  • Meetings of states parties, as well as any working groups, need to be allocated adequate time and proper financial resources. The convention’s Implementation Support Unit, which among other responsibilities administers meetings related to the convention, will also require additional funds and staffing to support this extra activity
  • If the intersessional process takes on an expanded structure, is provided additional time, and becomes more active, it should also have greater capacity to gather and assess relevant information; deliberate; and develop recommendations. To meaningfully enhance its effectiveness, nations also need to agree that meetings of states within the intersessional process will have decision-making capacity in certain areas

These steps would increase the relevance of the process, help signal states’ commitment to the convention, and enable some progress in the convention over the next few years. Work that could be undertaken within a reformed intersessional process would also provide the basis for more substantial achievements at the 2021 review conference. If core topics receive more thorough consideration in advance, states will be better informed about their options.

In the increasingly likely scenario that a 2018–2020 intersessional process cannot be agreed upon at December’s meeting, a range of activities can nonetheless be conducted in other venues to support the convention’s aims. In science and technology review, for example, significant work is likely to be carried out by science academies and by some states working outside of formal convention processes. But when states work outside formal processes, they cannot easily:

  • Signal their commitment to maintaining the convention’s relevance—by paying adequate attention to the implications of scientific and technological advances
  • Ensure that—at a time when international disarmament efforts face intense pressure—the convention is, and is seen to be, more than a static statement prohibiting biological warfare

Some states have downplayed the idea that the disappointing outcome of the 2016 review conference could have damaged the convention. But their attitude is inconsistent with the urgency expressed at the conference itself about achieving substantive progress. “The growing risks and threats of a biological incident demand a successful conclusion to this review conference,” said Kim Won-soo, UN high representative for disarmament affairs, in his opening statement. “The international community cannot afford to continue to lag behind the pace of technological advances and the growing security risks.”

Parties to the convention, with modest investments of money and effort, can establish an effective intersessional process for the next few years. More broadly, they can ensure that the convention continues to progress. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention enjoys a high level of international consensus—and states ought to be very wary of the signal they will send if they fail to demonstrate that they attach importance to the convention’s effective implementation.