As I endeavored to write a positive take on the prospects for the upcoming Seventh Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in December, the proverb “There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip” kept coming to mind. In other words, a lot could still go wrong in December. Perhaps it’s the history of the near-death experience of the Convention in the 2001-2002 Fifth Review Conference, or maybe it’s the Convention’s existence on the intersessional process (ISP) life-support system of 2003-2005 and 2007-2010. Either way, we should give pause for thought before we get too euphoric.
And yet, reports of the Preparatory Committee meeting in April, and of the meetings leading up to it do seem to provide some hope: When the States Parties meet in Geneva in December, attendees are on track to chart a more progressive course through to the Eighth Review Conference in 2018.
Of course, two issues — the verification protocol and the implementation of cooperation under Article X — could cause problems if not dealt with carefully. As Cuba stated at the Preparatory Committee on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement and other States Parties, “The Group believes that the [Review Conference] provides a good opportunity to discuss the resumption of multilateral negotiations on a legally binding instrument to comprehensively strengthen the Convention.” Meanwhile, Iran declared, “The promotion of international cooperation as provided in Article X and removing the arbitrary and politically motivated denials should be adequately dealt with in the next Review Conference.”
Despite these hurdles, action-orientated compromises are possible. Shifting from an impossible debate — whether or not to go back to negotiating a verification protocol — to a productive discussion of how compliance might be assured would be a good start. For example, forming a group to examine the verification issue after the Review Conference could provide a way to move forward on that issue, and building up the Implementation Support Unit (ISU), in part to act as a clearinghouse for Article X cooperation, could also lead to a constructive outcome.
Should such positive compromises come to fruition, the four other key issues likely to dominate the Review Conference — using confidence-building measures (CBMs), bolstering the ISU, improving the productivity of the ISP, and addressing advances in science and technology — would actually strengthen the BWC considerably.
In short, this upcoming Review Conference has the best chance in two decades to make substantial improvements to the Biological Weapons Convention. Of course, if history is any measure, it could all go wrong yet again (There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip). And we all know what is at stake if it does: the continued globalization of bioweapons, increased risks to public health, the spread of hazardous knowledge and technology, the proliferation of arms, and ongoing threats to the homeland. Civil society would do well to watch developments over the coming months carefully, because right now developing the BWC is one of our best shots for improving global security.
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