An auspicious moment for the BWC Review Conference?

By Malcolm Dando | July 18, 2011

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.

  • Originating in the 1986 Second Review Conference, just as the Cold War was reaching its endpoint, the conventional wisdom maintained that CBMs were not an effective means of increasing transparency. But, at present, CBMs are probably the best route forward. In recent years, States Parties and civil-society groups have put considerable effort into improving the quality and rates of annual returns for CBMs. Indeed, it would be a real loss to the global community if all of that constructive work did not result in some important developments in December.
  • The ISU, which effectively is a (very) small secretariat for the Convention, was only set up as a result of the last Review Conference in 2006 and has a strictly limited mandate. However, its work is widely held in high regard, and there is now a real possibility that its scope and funding can be increased in a December agreement. For example, as noted above, the ISU could act as a clearinghouse for Article X cooperation or, more likely, could support an improved CBM regime.
  • The ISP annual meetings are also likely to become a major focus of discussion at the Review Conference. The question is: How can the current flexible, imaginative, and still-developing system that has evolved since 2003 be maintained while also improving productivity in terms of concrete outcomes and impact? For example, perhaps the system can be streamlined so that certain topics can be treated as regular items and some decisions can be made right away when there is a clear consensus.
  • And, finally, the Review Conference must consider how States Parties can better assess advances in science and technology — and their implications. Given the pace and scope of advances in science and technology, the present system, which examines these topics only every five years (and in a perfunctory manner at that) is simply not adequate. Perhaps, the Review Conference should take a cue from the system used by the Chemical Weapons Convention, whereby an expert group prepares a report on relevant advances. The Review Conference could use a similar system, with experts preparing reports for States Parties at the annual ISP meetings on set subjects that address the very latest advances and implications in science and technology.

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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