The British Parliament wants details on BWC progress

By Malcolm Dando | August 19, 2009

It isn’t a good time to be a Member of Parliament (MP) in London. With the roasting the domestic media gave to some MPs for their inflated expense claims during a recession, many people must surely feel that little of value goes on in the Westminster Parliament. Nevertheless, it’s important to give credit where credit is due. In this case, it’s the fact that despite the myriad pressing domestic and international priorities, a senior group of MPs recently called on the British government to refocus its attention on nonproliferation in terms of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, as well as ballistic missile defense, terrorism, and conventional weapons.

The call comes in a June House of Commons’ report entitled “Global Security: Nonproliferation,” which examines the government’s present policies on each aspect of nonproliferation. It wasn’t a thin study either. In fact, it was accompanied by 300 pages of oral and written evidence taken from a range of experts.

In June, British MPs asked the government to set out its proposals for ensuring that the biological and chemical weapons conventions keep up with the pace of today’s technological change.”

Considering my interest in biosecurity, numerous recommendations caught my attention. The first was the MPs’ suggestion that the government report on its progress in overseeing scientific research and codes of conduct for scientists as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) intersessional process dictates. I’m eager to see what the government has to say about scientific oversight and codes of conduct, particularly since sensible progress on those issues can’t be made without addressing two specific problems: (1) the very low levels of awareness of biosecurity and dual-use in Britain’s life sciences community; and (2) the need to make changes to education such as those identified in the 2008 BWC intersessional meetings (for example, making clear the risks associated with working in the biological sciences; see paragraphs 26 and 27 of the 2008 “Report of the Meeting of States Parties”). If the “Strategic Plan for Outreach and Education on Dual Use Research Issues” put forward by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity in December 2008 is any guide to what needs to be done (and I believe it is), governments are going to have a massive task ahead of them in living up to what they believe is required–from raising awareness globally to implementing appropriate communications strategies.

The MPs also made significant points on how to strengthen the BWC at the international level. For instance, they concluded, “Securing a verification protocol for the BWC should remain a key objective for the government.” They added, “The government should work to persuade the new U.S. administration that such a protocol for the convention is essential.” (It’s worth noting, however, that the expert advice they received on this point was pessimistic about rapid progress.) To counteract this pessimism, the MPs argued that the government should give priority to strengthening the BWC by proposing an Accountability Framework, putting forward an Action Plan for Comprehensive Implementation, expanding the role and staff of the Implementation Support Unit, holding formal annual meetings, and refining and improving confidence-building measures as a means of strengthening the convention.

Additionally, the MPs urged the government to “outline what measures it intends to pursue further at the [BWC] Seventh Review Conference in 2011.” They specifically took into account the impact of new technologies on the BWC and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)–an increasingly important issue, given the scope and pace of scientific and technological change and the ongoing difficulties in addressing the issue–and asked the government to set out its proposals for ensuring that the conventions keep up with the pace of change.

As an example, the MPs drew attention to the overlap between the two conventions, in which “toxin” has a wider meaning that includes bioregulators–an area of work in which there have been enormous new developments. Some experts are concerned a search for so-called nonlethal incapacitant chemicals (under the assumption that these are permitted under Article II of the CWC) could lead to an erosion of the chemical and biological prohibition regime in its entirety. The MPs are quite clearly paying attention: “[We] conclude that there is a case for certain biological and chemical agents which are nonlethal . . . to be prohibited from use as weapons for the purposes of these conventions. We further recommend that the government should press for negotiations on an unambiguous prohibition of their use as weapons to commence at the next review conferences.”

My examination of this important parliamentary report suggests to me that both the experts and the parliamentarians have a good sense of the problems associated with chemical and biological weapons (and, as an aside, equally good sense in regard to nuclear weapons, anti-ballistic missile systems, and the other topics I mentioned). But most importantly, it’s clear that the lead group of senior MPs continues to pay close attention to these issues and are intent on holding the government to account for their policies–regardless of how difficult they are–since it’s the only way for meaningful change to be carried out.

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