Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
back to the acronym home page
WMD Possessors
About Acronym

Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)

BWC Review Conference Bulletin, November 19, 2001

Acrimonious Opening for BWC Review Conference

By Jenni Rissanen

The Fifth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) opened in an acrimonious atmosphere on Monday, November 19, with the United States accusing Iraq, Iran, North-Korea, Libya, Sudan and Syria of operating clandestine biological weapons (BW) programmes. Iraq, Iran and Libya angrily rejected the US accusations. The United States also repeated its opposition to the BWC draft compliance Protocol and outlined its proposals for alternative measures, which it hoped would be endorsed by the Review Conference. In the general estimation of delegates and observers, the statement illustrated the United States' continued allergy to multilaterally negotiated legally-binding agreements.

The opening day also heard a message from UN Secretary-General and statements from Brazil, Canada, China, Croatia, Cuba, the European Union (EU), Iran, Japan, Libya, New Zealand, Pakistan, Russia, and South Africa. These statements will be covered in a separate BWC Protocol Bulletin.

John Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, presented the United States' statement on Monday morning to a large crowd of diplomats, NGOs and representatives of the media. Referring to the recent anthrax mailings and "circumstances none of wished and none of us foresaw", as well as to President Bush's November 10 address to the UN General Assembly in which he warned that terrorists were trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Bolton characterized the Conference as "unfortunately timely". He said BWC member states needed to "demonstrate an unwavering commitment to fighting this undeniable threat". Delegations must "overcome years of talking past each other". The challenge for states parties, therefore, was whether they would "be courageous, unflinching, and timely in [their] actions…or merely defer to slow-moving multilateral mechanisms that are oblivious to what is happening in the real world?" To rise to the occasion, the Review Conference must be prepared to consider "new ways" to strengthen the Convention.

Bolton then revisited the reasons motivating the US rejection of both the draft Protocol and the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) negotiating process on July 25. Stressing that the United States had "repeatedly" made clear why the "arms control approaches of the past" would not resolve current problems, he suggested that the draft Protocol would have given proliferators "a stamp of approval". Bolton claimed that although the United States had been criticised by many foreign governments for rejecting the Protocol, "many of those same governments" had told the United States "privately" that they "shared America's reservations". Many states parties "had not lived up to their commitments" under the Convention, and it could be assumed that "any nation ready to violate one agreement is perfectly capable of violating another". The United States would "not enter into agreements that allow rogue states or others to develop and deploy biological weapons". It would therefore continue to reject "flawed texts" like the draft Protocol, "recommended to us simply because they are the product of lengthy negotiations or arbitrary deadlines" but which were "not in the best interests of the United States and many countries represented here today". Bolton then "named names", accusing five states parties - Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Syria - of operating clandestine biological weapon programmes. Sudan, a non-state party, was also named as a potential proliferator. In addition, Washington was naturally "concerned about the use of biological weapons by terrorist groups" such as al Qaeda.

Ranking these threats, Bolton noted that, beyond al Qaeda, "the most serious concern" was Iraq, whose programme remained "a serious threat to international security". Bolton believed that Iraq had used the three years since the last UN inspections "to improve all phases of its offensive BW program". North Korea's program was also "extremely disturbing": the United States believed that it was operating a "dedicated, national-level effort to achieve a BW capacity and that it has developed and produced, and may have weaponized, BW agents". The BWC had been "ineffective in restraining North Korea". Washington was also "quite concerned about Iran", which it believed had "probably" produced and weaponized BW agents. It also thought both Libya and Syria had an "offensive BW program in the research and development stage" and may be "capable of producing small amounts of agent". The US was also "concerned about the growing interest" of Sudan in developing a BW program. Bolton added that this list "was not meant to be exhaustive", but rather to demonstrate the "real challenges left unaddressed" by the Convention. There were other states that the United States could have named, and which it would be "contacting privately". Bolton called on all BWC parties and signatories to "immediately terminate their programs and comply fully with their obligations".

The statement then turned to the new US proposals for tackling the BW threat and strengthening the Convention. Bolton began with national implementation measures, including arrangements to enhance criminal extradition agreements with respect to BW offences and legislation making it a criminal offence for persons to engage in activities prohibited by the BWC. Furthermore, countries should (a) adopt and implement regulations restricting access to dangerous micro-organisms, as well as on domestic and international transfers; (b) report internationally any releases or adverse events that could affect other countries; and (c) sensitise scientists to the risks of genetic engineering, explore national over-sight of high-risk experiments and establish a code of conduct for scientists working with pathogens. These measures would "contribute significantly to doing what none of the measures in the draft Protocol would do: control access to dangerous pathogens, deter misuse, punish those who misuse them, and alert states to their risks" through the establishment of "powerful new tools…enhancing our ability to prevent the development, production and acquisitions of dangerous pathogens for illegal purposes." Secondly, the United States is seeking the elaboration of a mechanism for international investigations of suspicious outbreaks of disease or alleged BW incidents. Countries would need to "accept international inspectors upon determination by the UN Secretary General that an inspection should take place". This would make inspections "more certain and timely" and " allow us to acquire…first hard evidence of either accidental or deliberate use of biological warfare agents". Washington also advocates "setting up a voluntary cooperative mechanism for clarifying an resolving compliance concerns by mutual consent". Thirdly, under the heading of assistance to victims and technical and scientific cooperation, Bolton proposed that countries "adopt and implement strict biosafety procedures, based on WHO [World Health Organisation] or equivalent national guidelines", support the WHO's global disease surveillance and response capabilities, and develop a capacity for rapid emergency medical and investigative assistance in the event of a serious outbreak of infectious disease. Taken together, this range of measures to restrict access, strengthen international disease detection tools, and provide assistance in the event of an outbreak would "enhance collective security and collective well-being". Bolton said the Protocol did not contain such measures.

The statement concluded with a sketch of Washington's objectives at the Review Conference. The US expected the countries present "to work together, and avoid procedural and tactical divisiveness during the Review Conference that may hinder reaching our mutual goal of combating the BW threat" and "join us in forging a new an effective approach to combat the scourge of biological weapons". Bolton welcomed initial reactions to the US proposals and said the time for "better than nothing" protocols was over. Instead, the time had come to consider "serious" new proposals and "set aside years of diplomatic inertia".

Following the statement, Iran, Iraq and Libya exercised their right of reply, rejecting the US accusations as groundless. Iraq claimed that its biological weapons programme had been destroyed as part of the disarmament mandate of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), and feared it was about to be attacked by the United States on the pretext of proliferation concerns. Iran rejected the accusations "categorically", adding that they would lead to confrontation rather than cooperation in the Conference. Indeed, Iran suspected this may be the intention, since the US was now clearly opposed to multilateralism. Libya said the allegations were "nothing new" and asked the United States not to use the Conference as "a launching pad for accusations" since this would only damage the prospect of reaching consensus at the Conference.

The US decision to 'name names', an unorthodox diplomatic proceeding, took many delegates and observers by surprise. Overall, there was a feeling that the accusations have only compounded the already tense and bitter atmosphere left over from the derailed final session of the AHG in July/August. Some suspected that Washington had decided to open with " a big bang", reasoning, in view of the likelihood it would be heavily criticised for its rejection of the Protocol, that the best form of defence was offence. However, there are already signs that its proposals - unless combined with more comprehensive, multilateral and legally-binding arrangements - will not go down well in many quarters. The accusatory tone of the US statement is hardly likely to maximize support for its proposals or facilitate a positive outcome for the Conference as a whole.

Jenni Rissanen is the Acronym Institute's analyst monitoring the BWC AHG Protocol negotiations in Geneva. She is attending the BWC Review Conference.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.