False Russian claims hijacked the biological weapons treaty. Here’s how to reclaim it

By Eva Siegmann | May 27, 2024

UN Security Council members abstaining on Russian resolution in November 2022UN Security Council members raise their hands to abstain during a November 2022 vote on a Russian resolution to investigate allegations of non-compliance by the United States and Ukraine with the Biological Weapons Convention. The resolution was not adopted. Credit: UN Photo

In 2022, a Russian disinformation campaign threatened the integrity and efficacy of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), a critical international treaty banning biological and toxin weapons. Russian officials accused the United States and Ukraine of conducting illicit biological weapons research on Ukrainian territory, in direct violation of their treaty obligations—allegations that have been largely dismissed as false by other BWC member states and independent observers.

The lack of factual evidence did not stop Russian representatives from raising their claims at UN Security Council meetings in March 2022 and reiterating them in October of the same year. Russia also requested a formal consultative meeting under Article V of the BWC, only the second such request in the treaty’s 50-year-long history. This article commits the treaty’s member states to cooperate in solving any issues related to the treaty’s objectives or its implementation.

Russia misused the consultation procedure to spread its unfounded allegations and continued to do so after the procedure’s conclusion, which undermined the consultation mechanism and hampered progress on other issues. This misuse highlighted a need to reassess the Article V procedure and its capacity to safeguard the functioning of the treaty, which is crucial in today’s evolving biothreat landscape. To prevent future misuse from happening and hampering treaty proceedings, treaty members need to agree on a pragmatic redefinition of the consultative process.

Invoking Article V. Unlike other arms control agreements, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the BWC lacks a robust verification regime. In the absence of such a regime, the consultation procedure under Article V of the treaty is pivotal in ensuring and evaluating compliance with the treaty’s obligations.

Only two states have made use of Article V thus far: Cuba in 1997 and Russia in 2022. Each instance led to the convening of a formal consultative meeting in Geneva to address the allegations raised. Cuba’s 1997 invocation targeted the United States, accusing it of violating the BWC by releasing a crop pest agent over Cuban territory. In the 1997 case, the Cuban government chose not to escalate the allegations further, even without substantial agreement during the consultations. In contrast, in the 2022 case, Russia continued to raise its claims following an inconclusive formal consultation.

Both cases are marked by acute political antagonism between the BWC members involved and raise claims on which finding common ground seems impossible. These instances reveal a stark reality: The mechanism has been deployed not as a bridge toward understanding or compromise, but rather in contexts where achieving consensus appears daunting, if not outright unattainable.

Russia and Cuba made allegations concerning the gravest of charges under the BWC: the development and use of biological weapons. Article V is designed to allow BWC member states to address “any problem” related to the convention’s implementation. In principle, the article could facilitate discussions on aspects of the BWC often overlooked in public discourse, such as the members’ obligations to the fullest possible exchange of peaceful science and technology stipulated in Article X of the treaty. Article V has a broad mandate to resolve disagreements across all aspects of the treaty.

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A second notable parallel between the two cases is the outright rejection of the allegations by the accused parties. It is impossible to find common ground unless one party refrains from false allegations or the other admits to illegal conduct.

Other issues within the scope of the BWC offer better prospects for using the consultation procedure to reach compromise. For example, debates surrounding the international cooperation required under Article X boil down to differing interpretations of treaty obligations—whether these should be fulfilled to the maximum extent possible or limited to areas directly associated with risk mitigation.

A third similarity between the Cuban and Russian cases is that both invoked Article V in a geopolitically laden environment and were used for political leverage. Cuba levied its charges against the United States amid a period of heightened diplomatic isolation for Cuba, exacerbated by a US economic embargo. Russia’s appeal to the consultative procedure in 2022 unfolded in the context of its ongoing war against Ukraine, with the US providing military support for Ukraine. The underlying conflicts between the member states may explain the decision to make allegations that lack evidence or reasonable prospects.

These circumstances underscore the dissonance between the theoretical aims of Article V and its practical applications. In the worst case, these two cases of misinformation could deter future good-faith uses of the formal consultative meetings under Article V, reinforcing its weaponization as a confrontational tool rather than as a means of improving treaty compliance. The abuse of the procedure has overshadowed the packed BWC meeting agenda, hampering constructive progress.

Rethinking the consultative procedures. To uphold Article V as an important mechanism, BWC members must reevaluate their expectations for the success of consultations. Members need to realize that these procedures can again be used to levy false allegations whenever the interests of the parties are opposed, potentially detracting from other vital issues on which consensus might be achievable.

It is unrealistic to expect that the consultative procedure alone can dissipate the underlying geopolitical tensions that motivate its use—past or future. Nor is the procedure likely to yield a definitive resolution of the allegations, especially when Article V serves more as a disruptive tactic rather than a genuine attempt at problem-solving, as was the case for Russia’s use in 2022.

A pragmatic approach to the consultation procedure should focus on its potential to minimize disruption of the BWC’s broader agenda and objectives. For example, an effective formal consultative meeting could confine the debate to the procedure itself. This approach would allow the critical day-to-day operations of the BWC to proceed unaffected.

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To avert future muddling of false claims with the working agenda, members could seek a political consensus to ensure that discussions initiated under the consultative process are not extended into other BWC forums, such as Meetings of States Parties or Review Conferences.

Currently, such an agreement seems like a far reach. Despite Russia’s constant reiteration of its claims, many other member states have tried to contain the allegations where possible. Western states stressed in their statements at the Ninth Review Conference that they considered the matter closed, given that no consensus could be reached in the formal consultative process. Further, all 10 nonpermanent members of the Security Council chose to abstain from voting, withholding the nine votes in favor that Russia needed for an UN-mandated investigation of its claims.

Additionally, the operational details for Article V consultations require refinement. So far, there is no consensus model for what consultations should look like. The Third Review Conference established that requests to convene a consultative meeting should be directed to the depositary states—namely the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia—with the stipulation that the meeting occur within 60 days.

In the run-up to the 2022 formal consultative meeting, members agreed that consultative meetings should follow the rules of procedure of the 2016 Eighth Review Conference. For example, the procedural report from the 2022 meeting outlines a sequence beginning with a presentation by Russia, followed by responses from Ukraine and the United States, and concluding with a second round of exchanges among these parties.

In the absence of well-defined procedures, observers have voiced concerns that Russia dodged the invalidation of its claims by strategically changing its claims to evade targeted responses. To counter these concerns, members should agree that questions and concerns to be addressed during the consultative meeting are to be submitted in advance. More time for preparation would ensure that discussions are focused, allowing for a thorough and targeted response to the allegations at hand.

Moreover, establishing clear agreements on a dedicated budget for the implementation of Article V, and formalizing a selection process for the chair of future meetings, are crucial steps toward enhancing the effectiveness and accessibility of the consultative process.

The Biological Weapons Convention, a complex treaty dealing with inherently dual-use goods, will always deal with disagreements about its implementation. Only with a functional procedure to deal with such disagreements can member states continue to make progress toward the objectives of combatting bioweapons.

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