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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 10, November 1996

4th BWC Review Conference:
UK & US statements


Speech by David Davis, Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, to the Biological Weapons Convention Fourth Review Conference, 26 November 1996


"... I welcome this opportunity to add some thoughts, from the United Kingdom's perspective, on the important issues facing this Conference.

... Biological weapons have for 25 years remained something of a Cinderella in international efforts to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The Biological Weapons Convention is a Convention which bans an entire class of weapons, but it lacks any effective means of enforcing its prohibitions. For years, this major gap lay largely unremarked.

A general perception held that the biological weapons problem was solved; that it did not present a real risk or threat; and that it did not merit a place on serious arms control agendas - which throughout the 1970s and 1980s were dominated by nuclear arms controls negotiations.

But over the last decade, we have seen these comfortable assumptions overturned. We know now, thanks to the UN Special Commission's painstaking work, that thousands of Coalition troops, as well as neighbouring civilian populations, were at real risk from Saddam Hussein's extensive offensive biological weapons programme during the Gulf War. ...

The existence of a massive offensive biological weapons programme conducted illegally for years in the Soviet Union has also recently come to light. The United Kingdom, with the United States, continues to work with Russia to re-establish confidence following President Yeltsin's admission that this programme had existed and the 1992 Joint Statement.

Over this same period, the advantages of biological weapons to the proliferator have become more evident. Widely considered to be the poor man's weapon of mass destruction, biological weapons are in theory concoctable from materials and equipment in common use in even the most basic brewing and pharmaceutical industries...

And there is no doubt that the rapid development of biotechnology and genetic engineering in recent years - welcome though this is - has a bearing on the potential risk of biological weapons proliferation. ...

This knowledge, these advances, are being explored, developed and harnessed for the benefit of mankind - and must be universally welcomed for that.

But we must recognise, too, that these advances could be misused. They make the possibilities of BW all the more real; and potentially all the more devastating. The United Kingdom continues firmly to believe that the Convention fully covers all microbial, other biological agents and toxins, whether naturally occurring or not, including any

resulting from the application of genetic modifications or other technologies. We look to this Conference unequivocally to reaffirm that view.

Recent revelations have proven what has been clear for some time now: that a simple, international ban on biological weapons alone is not enough. The ban has been flagrantly violated. The Biological Weapons Convention needs teeth. It needs systematic and reliable mechanisms to detect, and hence deter, proliferators - if it is to be fully effective. Otherwise, the Convention's worthy prohibitions will continue to be flouted.

This task is already well in train. The Third Review Conference in 1991 took the first steps towards the process of establishing a verification system which would make this Convention work for us. Progress in the five years since then has been slow, but steady. The United Kingdom recognises that, just as the uniquely destructive potential of biological weapons makes tackling the threat an urgent priority, so the unique nature of these weapons has made the task of doing so particularly difficult.

Principal among these difficulties is the dual-use nature of BW agents, materials and equipment. ...

We are also faced with the difficulty of devising a verification regime which is sufficiently comprehensive and intrusive so as to be effective, without however hampering the use of microorganisms and access to biotechnology for legitimate peaceful purposes...

But these difficulties should not be seen as insuperable obstacles. They are, rather, challenges to the negotiators. ... We would not be devoting such attention and resources if we did not firmly believe that BW verification was not only possible - but imperative.

Work towards this end has made progress this year. ... it is clear that after two years of initial discussions, a consensus is emerging around the basic shape of a credible compliance regime.

By this, I mean a regime which can effectively monitor activity at relevant sites through a comprehensive system of declarations; and is able to investigate, speedily and effectively, both sites and incidents which have given rise to concerns about possible offensive BW activity.

It is clear too that there is now strong consensus in favour of intensifying work on this regime: I am glad to see the time allotted for this work over the next year in the Ad Hoc Group has been doubled.

We would like to go further, and see a firm deadline set. We do not have to wait for the 5th Review Conference to complete this work. Nor should we. We believe this urgent work can be completed, with the right political will on the part of all States Parties, within the next two years.

It is in the Ad Hoc Group, as all participating delegations are aware, where the painstaking progress towards a verification system is taking place - and where detailed work will rightly need to continue.

But this Conference has an important political responsibility. The world will look to the decisions and declarations of this Conference for confirmation that States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention are serious about making the BW Convention work; and that we are prepared to devote the necessary efforts and urgency to the task of achieving this. ...

This Conference would be failing in its duty if it did not do all it could to ensure that - well before the millenium - there is in place a verification system which will consolidate and strengthen the 1972 Convention's total ban on biological weapons; and thereby ensure that it is extremely difficult for any proliferator to contemplate developing or maintaining in his arsenals these potentially most horrifying of weapons.

We can only count ourselves extremely fortunate that the Biological Weapons programmes which were developed in violation of this Convention have not been used. Time for trusting to luck has run out. The responsibility is ours."


Speech by John Holum, Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), to the Fourth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), Geneva, 26 November 1996

See next issue for coverage of the Conference.


"In recent years the international community has made major strides against the threats of nuclear and chemical weapons. But we have yet to exploit new opportunities to address more effectively, in a legally binding way, the threat of biological weapons.

It is time this gap was closed. ...

The United States unilaterally renounced all uses for biological and toxin weapons and destroyed its offensive stockpile before the Convention's effective date in 1975.

After more than 20 years under that global norm, the threat of biological warfare remains all too real.

In 1992, for example, President Yeltsin publicly and bravely acknowledged and then renounced the massive offensive biological weapons program

Russia had inherited from the Soviet Union. The challenge to demonstrate full eradication of that program still remains.

Through UNSCOM and other sources, we have learned in disturbing detail about the scope, ambition, and persistence of Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program in Iraq. Iraq's successive 'full, final and complete' disclosures - each one proving the dishonesty of its predecessors - give good cause to treat the Iraqi program as an active menace.

Overall, the United States believes that twice as many countries now have or are actively pursuing offensive biological weapons capabilities as when the Convention went into force.

And behind our specific concerns is a broader reality. The potential for biological programs is spreading. Biotechnology is booming - a boon for health, agriculture, the environment and a host of other fields. But it also means BW-relevant knowledge, equipment, and materials are more accessible, often at declining costs, and are available in ever more facilities worldwide. The result is a burgeoning global BW potential. ...

How, then, shall we respond? Let us begin with the principle, 'first, do no harm.' The international community must not abide any change that would, whether by intent or inadvertence, weaken the Convention.

That would be the effect, for example, of interpreting Article I to state the Convention's basic undertaking by way of definitions, lists or other objective criteria. The international community has been well served by the descriptive, non-exhaustive approach of Article I - a coat that has grown with its wearer. Here, more precision would mean less confidence in compliance, for the threat can evolve in unpredictable ways. Would anyone seriously argue that the next Ebola [virus], for instance, could be allowed in weapons under the Convention, so long as the new organism came to our attention after the definition was fixed?

Some would weaken the Convention by twisting Article III into a mandate to let all equipment and materiel transfers presumptively run free to States Parties. But surely we know, based on experience, that membership in a regime is no guarantee of compliance. The Article III prohibition on proliferant transfers and assistance is and must remain absolute. Its duty of vigilance cannot be suspended as to members, but rather demands constant attention as to all.

Some, under the banner of 'nondiscrimination,' have sought to make Article X a vehicle for the worldwide obliteration not only of export controls, but intellectual property rights as well. But Article X encourages scientific exchange and cooperation; it does not rule out restrictions on trade.

The fact is that scientific cooperation and trade are both faring well under Article X. The United States and other States Parties have many well-known programs of biotechnology assistance and cooperation. And last year, while the United States approved well over $250 million dollars in export license applications relevant to the Convention, we denied applications worth a grand total of $2,443.

In contrast, if Article X became the means for expropriating biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies' hard-won proprietary advances, such progress would promptly dry up - and would be available for neither assistance nor trade. Article X must remain the friend of scientific advance, not become its enemy.

Beyond preventing the Convention's erosion, the looming danger obliges us to make it stronger and more effective.

One straightforward way is to extend the Convention's reach. Some 140 States Parties is far short of universality. We must do better. Indeed, there is every reason for the BWC to rival the NPT (Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty), or the U.N. itself, in membership. All States that have not signed and ratified should do so promptly.

We can also strengthen the Convention through broader application of the voluntary confidence-building measures adopted at the last two Review Conferences. Only about half of the States Parties have ever submitted any information to the U.N. Secretariat in New York pursuant to the CBMs (Confidence and Security Building Measures). The final report of this Review Conference should reaffirm the CBMs and call on all States Parties to take part.

The Convention will become stronger as parties implement Article IV, enacting its prohibitions into their domestic criminal law. Each State's law enforcement apparatus should be used to enforce the Convention against anyone under its jurisdiction - including terrorists - who might flout it. ...

Of course, the most potent vehicle for strengthening the Convention is the Ad Hoc Group, established independently more than two years ago by a Special Conference of States Parties.

The Ad Hoc Group is a means to take up tools that were unavailable when the Convention was negotiated two and one-half decades ago. Then, on-site inspection was too controversial, and the Convention as signed provides no specific mechanisms to address compliance concerns other than recourse to the United Nations Security Council.

But now, on-site inspections have become an accepted and essential part of modern arms control regimes, and their enforcement is taken more seriously. The Ad Hoc Group thus can bring the Convention into the 1990s, through a legally binding compliance protocol that provides for new off-site and on-site activities.

The protocol should strengthen compliance by making certain national information declarations mandatory - a matter already debated thoroughly.

The Ad Hoc Group should also build upon the voluntary confidence building measures I mentioned earlier. Meanwhile, of course, today's voluntary CBMs should remain in force.

As to on-site work, the Ad Hoc Group is considering various kinds of field and facility investigations. The United States believes the protocol must, at a minimum, include all cases of concern about compliance with the Convention. This would include, for example, investigations in all cases presenting credible evidence of BW development or production.

What about the pace of this work? The Ad Hoc Group itself recently decided upon a more rigorous approach, to intensify its efforts with a view toward completing its work as soon as possible before the Fifth Review Conference in 2001.

But let me suggest that in light of the mounting BW danger, such a timetable is still inappropriately relaxed. Certainly arduous work remains in translating concepts into protocol language, and completing needed procedural and logistical elements. But most of the States Parties here today could identify and write down the essential elements for a protocol.

President Clinton's September address to the United Nations called for completion of the Protocol by 1998 - a goal shared by the European Union. Progress to date makes that goal realistic.

Some countries object to Ad Hoc Group sessions in parallel with those of the Conference on Disarmament (CD). I am eager to hear their ideas on how work on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty can become unblocked, so our CD delegations can do more than tread water. But even if that happens, it need not impede work on the BWC protocol. For the Ad Hoc Group is quite specialized - its experts are typically not those working on other arms control negotiations. And in any case, this work deserves due priority.

We should resolve here that a protocol cannot await the next century.

Rather, the final report of this Review Conference should:

(1) urge the Ad Hoc Group to further intensify negotiations in 1997, even if that may entail some overlap with the CD calendar;

(2) set a target date of 1998 for completion of a legally binding protocol; and

(3) call for the convening promptly thereafter of a Special Conference of States Parties to consider the draft instrument. ..."

Source: United States Information Agency, 26 November.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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