A hinge moment for the BWC?

By Kirk C. Bansak | January 30, 2012

Although it was an eleventh-hour decision, the Seventh Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) Review Conference in Geneva did manage to produce a consensus final document this past December. As the saying goes, “a win is a win,” and in the end the final document — adopted with less than an hour to go in the three-week meeting — would not have derived any more force if adopted earlier. In addition, the document includes a program of work to be undertaken over the next four years, ensuring continued international attention and efforts to improve the treaty.

Still, the contents and decisions of the final document did not end up being as ambitious as many delegations and experts had hoped. The dynamics of the negotiations feeding into the final document also provide reasons for concern. Particularly unsettling, and perhaps consequential for the future of the BWC, was the reluctance of a core group of countries to make compromises. This group of obstructionist states included China, Cuba, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, a collective that is for many reasons key to addressing international security threats in today’s globalized and technologized world.

Two approaches to countering biological threats, stalled. Discourses surrounding the BWC over the past decade have highlighted two general (though not mutually exclusive) approaches to addressing biological threats. The first is a traditional one that emphasizes the exceptional role of nations in creating and eliminating biological threats. It focuses on the danger of state-level biological weapons programs and endorses, as the primary policy path, stronger procedures to guarantee that states are not violating the BWC. The negotiations for a verification protocol, a process that ended at the 2001 review conference, fell under this approach. Since then, there has been a slight philosophical evolution of this issue: recognizing formal verification as being unachievable, at least for the time being, some states parties have expressed interest in pursuing compliance assurance and assessment through other means, including transparency measures.

The second approach, the origins of which are more recent, is a holistic risk management approach that aims to make the BWC a focal point for leveraging a range of stakeholders, sectors, and governmental realms, for combining the tools of the security and public health communities, and ultimately for mitigating the entire spectrum of infectious disease threats facing humanity. This approach views the various types of biological threats — including naturally occurring infectious diseases, laboratory accidents, bioterrorism, and state-level biological weapons programs — as distinct but interconnected, thus requiring an integrated biothreat management strategy. The variety of issues addressed in the intersessional work programs of the BWC from 2003 to 2005 and 2007 to 2010 reflect this approach.

In the negotiations during the Seventh Review Conference in December, a small but vociferous group of countries — China, Cuba, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia — challenged and blocked progress on both of these approaches.

With regard to the traditional, state-centric approach, these countries refused to compromise on realistic ways forward with compliance enhancement. The intersessional work program over the next four years will include a standing agenda item on strengthening national implementation of the BWC. Many states parties hoped this would provide an avenue for addressing compliance issues, and they supported “conceptual and technical consideration of practical ways and means of assuring the compliance of States Parties with their obligations under the Convention” as part of the agenda item. But the countries listed above blocked this language. In addition, they also blocked references to the need for improving transparency.

At the same time, these countries pushed for a return to negotiations on a verification protocol. They trumpeted this position despite being fully aware that it crossed a strict red line for the United States, which opposes such negotiations on the grounds that “a legally binding protocol would not achieve meaningful verification or greater security” due to the distinctive nature of biological weapons threats. The refusal of this group of countries to compromise and agree to explore compliance enhancement more broadly ended up disabling the national implementation standing agenda item from focusing on compliance and verification-related issues, calling into question their motives.

These countries also challenged the biological risk management approach by contesting the place of public health, the relevance of bioterrorism, and the inclusion of disparate stakeholders in the task of addressing biological threats. For example, China, Russia, and Iran voiced the opinion that the BWC must not be treated as a “health convention” and opposed referencing the importance of the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations for public health capacity building. In so doing, they challenged the value of applying a health-security interface model to the BWC.

The obstructionist countries also opposed references to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 on preventing the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons into the hands of non-state actors. With the exception of India, they contested the relevance of the BWC for dealing with the threat posed by bioterrorism. Finally, these countries disputed the importance of progressive risk management strategies within national biological research and development programs, resisting references to scientific codes of conduct, education, and awareness-raising in the life sciences.

In advance of 2011, many BWC analysts had prophesied that the Seventh Review Conference would be a hinge moment for the treaty: It would be a chance to move beyond the lingering pain of the Fifth Review Conference, when the sudden collapse of negotiations on a verification protocol dismayed many countries, and to make more substantial progress than at the Sixth Review Conference, when expectations were remarkably low. The final document adopted last December, however, largely maintains the status quo. Moreover, the negotiation dynamics of the review conference represent a challenge to two major approaches to global biological threat reduction — and are, therefore, a potential hazard to the health of the treaty regime moving forward.

The good news: On paper, the final document may actually provide enough flexibility during the next intersessional work program to strengthen both approaches. For example, the standing agenda item on national implementation, while stripped of the progressive language originally considered, provides for addressing “any potential further measures, as appropriate, relevant for implementation of the Convention.” Theoretically, states parties could use this vague wording creatively to cover compliance enhancement issues. In addition, the next intersessional work program, like the two before it, could create more opportunities for stakeholders to come together to strategize collectively on addressing the entire spectrum of biological threats. What may determine whether or not these activities unfold successfully is the behavior of and willingness to go along by those countries that blocked progress during the review conference.

After all, those countries are key to further BWC progress, not only because decisions for the convention are taken by consensus but also because of the strategic importance of those countries. China’s mounting influence in the world and rapid progress in all sectors of science make it a critical actor in global biosecurity going into the future. Cuba’s outspokenness in the Non-Aligned Movement makes it an influential gatekeeper to compromise between the global North and South — not to mention its antagonistic relationship with the United States. India’s rapidly growing economy, desire to become a major actor on the world stage, and democratic political structure make it an important partner to the US moving forward. Iran’s adversarial relationship with the United States and suspected WMD programs make it a serious security threat. Pakistan’s weak political structure, problems with radical terrorism, and growing nuclear weapons program present a serious danger to stability in one of the world’s geopolitical hot spots. Finally, Russia’s past WMD programs, including the largest biological weapons program in world history, its inherited expertise in weapons science and technology, and its large nuclear arsenal make it a critical immediate partner in eliminating WMD threats globally.

With its complicated results, the Seventh BWC Review Conference neither entirely fulfilled expectations nor completely failed in its objectives. Indeed, it did not end up being the key fork in the road for the treaty that some had predicted. Instead, it may be now, going into the next intersessional work program, that is a real hinge moment for biological weapons control.

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Topics: Biosecurity, Opinion

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