How to update the biological weapons treaty

By Malcolm Dando | September 3, 2008

In late August, I travelled to Geneva for an intersessional meeting of the States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). The meeting, which included representatives from the expert level, considered biosafety, biosecurity, and issues such as awareness raising, education, oversight of scientific activities, and codes of conduct for life scientists. (Concise daily accounts of these proceedings are available through the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy). Several positive recommendations were made at the meeting, which raised my hopes for the seventh Review Conference in 2011. The results of the August meeting, after all, will form the basis of the meeting of States Parties in December of this year, and the results of that meeting will help to shape the future evolution of the BWC at the Review Conference.

Since the failure to agree on a verification protocol for the BWC at the turn of the millennium, a marked feature of the annual intersessional meetings has been the large increase in involvement of “stakeholders” other than professional diplomats. By giving these new participants a greater role in the proceedings, the States Parties have engaged a wider range of expertise and opinion in their deliberations. States Parties maintain their major role in shaping proceedings. Indeed, my perception is that States Parties have reached a broad consensus about what needs to be done to strengthen the BWC in respect to the topics discussed this year.

By bringing their biodefense program review mechanisms in line with one another, nations would greatly reduce the likelihood of dangerous misperceptions and forestall an unnecessary “biodefense arms race.”

For example, in its introductory statement at the August meeting, the representative from Iran summarized what I think is the Parties’ position on oversight, education, awareness raising, and codes of conduct: “Relevant actors are to have a clear understanding of the content, purpose, and foreseeable consequences of their activities, as well as of the need to abide by the obligations contained in the convention. There is a general need to raise awareness and increase education amongst the scientific community and the public at large on the prohibitions and requirements of the convention.” Much of the discussion on these topics, therefore, is about how to achieve these objectives effectively and efficiently. In this regard, many of the nongovernmental organizations in attendance contributed important ideas.

Alan Pearson, of the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation, made a statement that contained an excellent example of the kind of novel thinking nongovernmental organizations can contribute. Pearson noted that national biodefense research and development programs have grown significantly in many states in recent years and are necessarily engaged in areas that might be misunderstood. The need for greater transparency about these programs is apparent, but so is the reluctance to be too open, as this might expose vulnerabilities. Alan suggested avoiding this problem by first trying to achieve transparency with national compliance review mechanisms that are used to oversee biodefense programs. Recently, the center examined national review mechanisms and found that nations were using a variety of approaches: “For example, some States Parties undertake an annual review of their entire biodefense program and its activities, while others conduct pre-project review of every research activity. Some States Parties are developing codes of conduct for their biodefense researchers, and some are educating their researchers about the BWC and national laws prohibiting the development of biological weapons.”

Alan suggested that there was some correlation between the size and scope of a biodefense program and national review mechanisms and that there would be value in States Parties sharing information on their review processes to help build a set of best practices. Importantly, he argued that while states might institute different processes, they needed to share common harmonized principles, standards, and criteria related to the prohibition in Article I of the BWC. By bringing their review mechanisms in line with one another, nations would greatly reduce the likelihood of dangerous misperceptions and forestall an unnecessary “biodefense arms race.”

Besides making such pragmatic contributions, the nongovernmental organizations that presented at the intersessional meetings raised the expectations of those affected by and engaged in these States Parties meetings. University of Exeter social scientist Brian Rappert, a collaborator of mine, suggested that the 2008 meetings aim to send a clear signal to the world’s life science community, by explicitly agreeing to several general statements: A fundamental principle in preventing the destructive use of the life sciences is that benign intent of individuals is not a sufficient response to preventing misuse; all those graduating from higher education in fields associated with the life sciences should be familiar with the international prohibition against biological weapons; and that all those undertaking professional research careers should receive effective training or instruction related to preventing the misuse of their research.

Having taken part in a good number of Brian’s discussions, which have reached out to thousands of scientists, I share his view of the need for effective guidance by States Parties. Such input would serve as a foundation for raising the low level of awareness of most life scientists about the BWC and their obligations under the convention. Individuals cannot be expected to develop appropriate ethical principles in a rapidly changing world without the help of philosophers who have special expertise.

This point was driven home by a statement from Pax Christi International, a Catholic peace organization, which has long watched and commented on the development of the BWC. The statement noted the contribution of the philosopher Hans Jonas, who argued in the 1970s and 1980s that, with the increasing power of science and technology, ethical norms and values had to address the dangers of environmental destruction and the potential to mass murder people. The statement read: “Jonas formulated the new ethical principle of responsibility in this context, calling for individual as well as collective action to prevent disaster.” Calling on a paper presented at a meeting earlier this year of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Pax Christi International’s statement urged for the strengthening of the BWC through, for example, codes of conduct. It also argued that such codes should require “all those engaged in the life sciences . . . be educated in ethics of science.”

To spur such effort, another organization present at the meeting–the BioWeapons Prevention Project–announced the $2,000 Coupland Prize for university undergraduate life scientists. The prize will be awarded to a student who writes the most convincing draft letter to his or her university dean, explaining why the BWC should be included as a mandatory component of the curriculum of undergraduate courses pertaining to the life sciences.

These efforts are well directed, but of utmost importance is the level of agreement that is reached when State Parties meet again in December. States need to take urgent action, for example, on the development and implementation of educational courses for life scientists about the BWC and their individual obligations. Only then, could the parties assess how useful the new courses are in raising the level of awareness of life scientists about the need to protect the public from the inadvertent or deliberate misuse of developments in the life sciences.

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