The Biological Weapons Convention: Proceeding without a verification protocol

By Laura H. Kahn | May 9, 2011

The Seventh Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) will be held this December in Geneva, with member states convening to assess the bioweapons nonproliferation regime and discuss ways to improve it. But is it worth trying to strengthen the BWC? Since its inception, the treaty has been plagued with well-recognized deficiencies: It lacks an implementing body, a verification protocol, an ability to investigate alleged violations, universality (it has only 163 member states), and industry support. Even after signing and ratifying the treaty, some member states (the Soviet Union, Iraq, and South Africa) contravened it by pursuing clandestine bioweapons programs. Yet despite its weaknesses, the BWC is an important part of the nonproliferation regime; improving it — with or without a verification protocol — is in the best interest of biosecurity.

A failure, along with significant successes. The BWC’s lack of a verification protocol (agreed ways in which treaty compliance can be confirmed) is perhaps its most controversial and well-known shortcoming. Despite more than six years of hard work and intense negotiations by member states on a proposed verification protocol, in 2001 the United States withdrew its support for the proposal, effectively killing the protocol. The failure to reach consensus was perhaps no surprise, given that the proposed protocol included many contentious stipulations that were seen as intrusive, including investigations of unusual outbreaks and visits to suspicious sites. Some concluded that the protocol had been doomed from the start.

Despite its shortcomings, the treaty has wrought major achievements. It was the first international legal agreement that outlawed an entire class of weapons, and today the international community views bioweapons as morally repugnant and unacceptable, condemning any nation that engages in bioweaponeering. In addition, the BWC provides a forum for ongoing international engagement and dialogue on issues related to biological and toxin weapons. Without the treaty’s regularly scheduled review conferences and expert meetings, concerns about bioweapons might fade from the global stage, only to be resurrected after the next bioterrorist attack.

Two BWC initiatives instituted after the 2001 debacle are also considered particular successes: the annual intersessional work programs, which deal mainly with bolstering national voluntary compliance measures, and the BWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU), which has increased the number of countries voluntarily submitting confidence-building measures reports.

Yet unfortunately there is still no agreed way under the treaty to verify whether a country has an offensive bioweapons program, nor is there an agreed way to find out if sub-state actors, much less individuals, are engaging in offensive bioweapons development.

No protocol, no problem? Only seven months remain until the Seventh BWC Review Conference. Given the past failure to adopt a verification protocol, now is the time to explore other strategies to move the treaty forward. My colleagues Malcolm Dando and Jonathan Tucker have written extensively on alternative ways to strengthen the BWC. Dando advocates for, among other things, educating scientists about the dangers of dual use and using member states’ mandatory reports on confidence-building measures to improve transparency. Tucker proposes acknowledging the convergence of biological and chemical technologies by instituting closer ties between the BWC and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Kay Mereish, deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security at the National Center for Medical Intelligence, sees additional ways to improve biosecurity and the BWC. Mereish, who was chief biological weapons inspector in Iraq for the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission and participated in many UN Special Commission inspections there from 1994 to 1998, visited Princeton University in February 2011 to discuss her personal views on the issue. Mereish compared the inspection activities of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the UN-mandated inspections in Iraq from 1991 to 2003 and considered the results in the context of the proposed BWC verification protocol.

The FDA conducts inspections in the United States and abroad to verify corporate compliance with safety regulations. The inspections include on-site data auditing, sampling and analysis, and bioresearch monitoring. If compliance is not met, corporations incur financial penalties and are barred from selling or developing their product. The FDA inspections not only confirm for the government that corporations are in compliance with regulations, but also assuage outside observers’ concerns.

The UN inspections in Iraq were similar to the FDA inspections in that they used data auditing and sampling and analysis. From 1991 to 2003, UN inspectors conducted on-site inspections there, using information supplied by member states and detailed declarations from Baghdad. But unlike FDA inspections, these verification measures failed to assuage the concerns of the international community. Given that the proposed BWC verification protocol neither included criteria that would trigger inspections nor permitted sampling and analysis, Mereish raised the question: How effective would a BWC verification protocol even be? Indeed, is a BWC verification protocol really needed?

Alternatives abound. A verification protocol is far from the only way to strengthen biosecurity. Mereish suggests four alternative approaches:

  1. The meetings of the BWC state parties should be modified to include a large technical component that coincides with the annual BWC meetings, rotating the location of these technical discussions between the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Closer interactions between the BWC regime and the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industries could enhance connectivity and transparency with the delegates.
  2. The internet should be better utilized as a way for BWC member states to publicly share information on biosecurity and biotechnology. Only Australia and the United States make their confidence-building measures declarations available to the public. Other states release their data only to the United Nations, making the information unavailable to nongovernmental organizations, scholars, and others; further, the United Nations has no mandate to translate the reports into one of the six main UN languages, which greatly reduces their utility. Many open-access, online resources, such as ProMED mail and Argus, provide more detailed information than even the reports on confidence-building measures mandated by the BWC; these resources should be supported at the national and international level.
  3. International institutions such as the World Health Organization, World Organisation for Animal Health, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, along with national agencies such as the US Agency for International Development, should be strengthened and expanded. “One Health” efforts including surveillance of human, animal, and plant diseases should be encouraged, expanded, and supported.
  4. Human-to-human, scientist-to-scientist, and laboratory-to-laboratory cooperation and interaction are more important to biosecurity than are formal protocols or declarations, and such cooperation must be encouraged and maintained. In the same vein, academic exchanges, visiting scholars, and scientific conferences are important to fostering international goodwill. Unfortunately, the classified nature of national biodefense programs counteracts the openness and transparency essential to science, damaging global trust and collaboration. Biodefense facilities in BWC member states should host scientific exchange programs, and states that are unwilling to establish such programs should at the very least open their biodefense facilities for visiting delegations.

The BWC established an anti-bioweapons norm and has kept alive a global dialogue on the inherent dangers of biotechnology research. Yet in order to strengthen the BWC and improve global biosecurity, much can and should be done without waiting for state parties to agree on a verification protocol. Both the BWC’s intersessional work programs and the ISU should be renewed and strengthened at the upcoming review conference. Cooperative endeavors that encourage openness and transparency, such as scientific exchanges and internet-based data-sharing, should be facilitated by BWC member states and international organizations. These broad-based efforts, which would ideally include scientists, business executives, public health professionals, and diplomats, would strengthen the treaty regime by assuaging fears about bioweapons — and would do so without a protocol.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Dr. Kay Mereish for her helpful comments on the drafting of this column.

(Editor’s note: The Bulletin’s May/June digital journal is a special issue on the Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference.)

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