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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 21, December 1997

Strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention: Moving Towards the Endgame
by Malcolm Dando


Disarmament Diplomacy last reviewed efforts to strengthen the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in the autumn of 1996.(1) Then the author noted that:

"...A strengthened BTWC is essential, feasible and achievable...what is needed is for the States Parties to face up to the facts about the world in which we live today, realise the unacceptable dangers of failing to seize this opportunity...and stop indulging in the temptation to suggest that biological and toxin agents are too difficult to control effectively."

The aim of this review is to suggest that the unacceptable dangers of failing to strengthen the BTWC are becoming much better understood by a wider audience, and that there are clear signs of the temptation to suggest that biological and toxin weapons are too difficult to control effectively being increasingly resisted. However, whether the remaining differences between States Parties can be resolved in such a manner as to produce an effective Protocol during the coming endgame negotiations over the next year or two remains an open question.

New Danger Signals

Many threat analyses suggest that whilst massive use of weapons of mass destruction is less likely following the ending of the East-West Cold War, localised use is probably more likely.(2) A review by one well-known expert suggests that widespread proliferation is possible, and that:

"...From a technical point of view, we can predict that such a development might include 'classical' CBW [chemical and biological weapons], and, possibly, primitive nuclear weapons. Theoretically, technically well-developed countries, and terrorist organisations, could develop new types of CBW, e.g., using the rapidly expanding gene and biotechnologies." (3)

This issue was brought home to many people this autumn by the continuing difficulties experienced by UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission) inspectors in tracking down and eliminating Iraq's offensive biological weapons.

As Newsweek expressed it:

"But consider a more frightening scenario: determined to avenge his humiliation in the gulf war, enraged by the crushing economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies, Saddam decides to make Americans share the suffering of his people..." (4) Thus:

"...He hires a terrorist cell to launch a biological - or chemical - weapon attack against an American target....A zealot with an aerosol pump hidden in his briefcase standing inside a New York subway station - or outside the White House - could create chaos and slaughter."

Add to this continuing public uncertainty about exactly what the Soviet Union did in its offensive biological weapons programme from the early 1970s, about the attitude of elements of the present Russian government (5), about rumours of leakage of Russian knowledge to Iraq (6), and such suggestions become even more alarming. There can certainly be no doubt about the capability of some of Iraq's leading scientists since they were trained in the West (7), and they have clearly taken an 'innovative' approach to biological warfare. One example of this was their production of gallons of the potent carcinogen aflatoxin which:

"...Iraqi scientists mixed experimentally with chemical agents widely used for riot control. UN officials have speculated that Baghdad's aim was to spray the chemical on Kurdish or other ethnic minorities, producing an untraceable spike of cancer in these groups years later." (8)

Such frightening suggestions have to be viewed against the background of events in Halabja and render more understandable the increases in expenditure being made for military and civilian protection in some countries.(9)

Strengthening the BTWC

The tortuously slow efforts to strengthen the totally ineffective verification provisions of the BTWC began almost as soon as it entered into force.(10) By the time of the second Five-Year Review Conference in 1986, it was clear that modern biotechnology had made the large-scale production of toxins a much simpler task than was previously the case. So a set of Confidence Building Measures (annual data exchanges) was agreed at this review and these were further reinforced and developed at the Third Review Conference in 1991. Unfortunately, the measures were politically rather than legally binding and response rates, and the quality of the returns, were obviously inadequate to give confidence that States Parties were living up to their obligations.(11)

At the Third Review Conference, however, it was also decided to set up an Ad Hoc Group to examine, essentially, whether the BTWC might be strengthened by more adequate verification provisions. This group met in what became known as the VEREX series of meetings, and reported back positively to a Special Conference of States Parties in late 1994. This Special Conference then mandated further work by another Ad Hoc Group to:

"...consider appropriate measures, including possible verification measures, and to draft proposals to strengthen the Convention, to be included, as appropriate, in a legally binding instrument, to be submitted for the consideration of the States Parties..." (12) [emphases added]

It is the work of this Ad Hoc Group which is the focus of current efforts to strengthen the BTWC.

The current Ad Hoc Group had a first, procedural, meeting (I) in January 1995 followed by a series of two-week-long meetings in Geneva during 1995 and 1996:

II. 10-21 July, 1995

III. 27 November-8 December, 1995

IV. 15-26 July, 1996

V. 16-27 September, 1996

At this stage the Ad Hoc Group reported to the Fourth Review Conference of the States Parties to the BTWC which was held in November/December, 1996.

The Final Document of the Fourth Review Conference (13) stated that:

"The Conference welcomes the decision of the Ad Hoc Group, in order to fulfil its mandate, to intensify its work with a view to completing it as soon as possible before the commencement of the Fifth Review Conference and submit its report...to be considered at a Special Conference. The Conference encourages the Ad Hoc Group to review its method of work and to move to a negotiating format in order to fulfil its mandate." [emphases added]

In plain terms, therefore, the Ad Hoc Group was being tasked to negotiate the text of a Verification Protocol and to finish well before 2001 (the date of the Fifth Five-Year Review Conference). The group subsequently met for three three-week sessions during 1997:

VI. 3-21 March, 1997

VII. 14 July-1 August, 1997

VIII. 15 September-3 October, 1997

The crucial change came in the middle of the year. Previously, the States Parties had produced Working Papers for discussion at the Ad Hoc Group meetings and the results of discussions were summarised by Friends of the Chair (FOCs) covering:

  • Definitions of Terms and Objective Criteria;
  • Confidence-Building and Transparency Measures;
  • Measures to Promote Compliance; and
  • Measures Related to Article X.

Progress in the discussions could be followed in the Procedural Report for each meeting and the accompanying annex of papers produced (without prejudice to the positions of the delegations) by the Friends of the Chair (see, for example, the report of the Fifth Session, 14). At the Sixth Session of the Ad Hoc Group an Annex (II) listed the "Possible Structural Elements of a Protocol to the BWC" which had resulted from discussions to that date (15), and at the beginning of the Seventh Session the Chairman of the Ad Hoc Group, Ambassador Tibor Toth, presented a "Rolling Text of a Protocol to the Convention" based on the progress made in the previous six sessions. (16)

It is this rolling text which is now being developed by the Ad Hoc Group at their meetings in Geneva. The current text resulting from the Eighth Session in September-October 1997 contains 23 Articles, 8 Annexes and 5 Appendices. The main Articles, additional to the standard ones on authentic text, entry into force and so on, are as follows:

I. General Provisions

II. [Definitions]

III. Compliance Measures

IV. Confidentiality Provisions

V. Measures to Redress a Situation and Ensure Compliance

VI. Assistance

VII. Scientific and Technological Exchange for Peaceful Purposes and Technical Cooperation

VIII. Confidence-Building Measures

IX. [The Organisation] [and Implementational Arrangements]

X. National Implementation Measures

XI. Relationship of the Protocol to the BWC and Other International Arrangements

XII. Settlement of Disputes

XIII. Review of the Protocol

XIV. Amendments

XV. Duration and Withdrawal

XVI. Status of the Annexes [and Appendices].(17)

The eight Annexes are concerned with:

A. Declarations

B. [[Non-Challenge] [Random] Visits]

C. [Measures to Strengthen the Implementation of Article III]

D. Investigations

E. Confidentiality Provisions

F. Scientific and Technological Exchange for Peaceful Purposes and Technical Cooperation

G. Confidence-Building Measures

H. [The [Technical] Secretariat].

The five Appendices are concerned with material to be provided in declarations. Whilst there was at least some material for all but two of the Articles by the end of the Eighth Session, the number of square brackets even in the Article headings indicates that considerable differences remain to be resolved and, of course, nothing in the text is agreed until it is all agreed.

Yet there are obvious signs of progress in addition to the growing length of the rolling text. In July a further two FOCs, on Legal Issues and on Investigations Annex, were added. Then in September two further FOCs were agreed for Confidentiality, and National Implementation and Assistance (17). Furthermore, it was also agreed that there would be eleven weeks of negotiation in 1998. Three three-week-long sessions would be held in January, June-July and September-October with a two-week session to be added (at the January session) either in March-April or November-December.

Towards the Endgame

It would appear, therefore, that the negotiators have a busy period ahead of them, and that the basis for further progress has been put in place.(18) But what are the issues which will need to be resolved if an effective Verification Protocol is to be ready prior to the Fifth Review Conference? Ambassador Toth attempted to set these out in a recent review.(19) He suggested that there were four clusters of issues that need priority attention:

"...One such cluster concerns on-site visits and investigations and another what kind of declarations there should be. A further set of issues relates to definitions, lists and criteria with a fourth set addressing Article X (scientific and technical cooperation) and Article III (non-transfer measures)..."

Whilst there are obviously, as Ambassador Toth noted, other issues of concern, these appear to encapsulate the key difficulties.

In regard to the first cluster of issues, some States Parties believe that a two-pillar verification regime is all that is required. Declarations, in this view, should be backed up by only one form of on-site measure - challenge investigations of non-compliance concerns.(20) Other States Parties view this approach as inadequate and argue that there should be two forms of on-site measures - non-challenge visits to declared sites as well as challenge investigations to any suspected site. The powerful pharmaceutical industry in the United States has argued strongly against non-challenge visits to declared sites because of a perceived potential loss of commercial proprietary information (CPI), but a contrary argument is that the number of high risk sites which will require to be declared and therefore be subject to non-challenge visits is quite low.(21) The pros and cons of this debate have recently been examined in some detail.(22)

It should be understood that large-scale declarations and routine visits of the kind required by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) are not being considered by the Ad Hoc Group. Two powerful arguments in favour of non-challenge visits, nevertheless, are that it is difficult to see how else the consistency of declarations can be checked, and that the protection of CPI and national security information has been shown to be possible through use of managed access techniques in practice visits to real sites. The differences over visits can be seen in the current rolling text where Article III, on Compliance Measures, contains a Section F, on Visits and Investigations, of 26 pages. Whereas the related Annex D on Investigations has been extensively developed to 62 pages, there is no text at all in Annex B on Non-Challenge Visits.

Linked into this cluster of issues is the question of cost. Ambassador Toth asked: "...Will a future BWC organisation have, for example a couple of dozen experts and cost US$ 20-30 million a year, or will a more elaborate regime be necessary which might cost the international community about US$ 60-80 million a year which is similar to the cost of the CWC or the CTBT?..."

If large numbers of routine visits are not envisaged, it would appear that the BWC organisational costs could be lower than for the CWC, but some States argue that it would not be sensible to cut costs, for example by relying on a predominantly ad hoc inspectorate called in from States Parties as required. Instead, they favour a predominantly dedicated professional inspectorate covering non-challenge visits and challenge inspections. Ambassador Toth makes the point that, altogether, the UNSCOM price tag for dealing with Iraq is about US$ 100 million per year, and:

"...It is clearly more effective to build a verification arrangement which is not a symptomatic treatment for a particular situation and which only applies to one country. It would be more forward-looking to create a verification protocol which creates a more extensive safety net covering a wide variety of countries..."

Indeed, Ambassador Toth argues that "there is no alternative to the protocol" because, whilst arms control is only one part of the approach necessary to control proliferation of biological weapons, it will become more and more difficult to maintain an integrated regime without a strong arms control element at its centre.

In regard to definitions, lists and criteria at least one State Party has argued that there is a need for much more specific definitions of what is prohibited by the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention itself. It will be recalled that Article I of the Convention reads:

"Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain:

1. Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes..."

Many States Parties argue that it would be very dangerous to tamper with this sweeping 'General Purpose Criterion'. To attempt to define anything in detail would simply mean that there were activities, agents or quantities falling outside the definitions. Ambassador Toth suggests that this difference may be resolved pragmatically by leaving the Convention itself untouched, but adding definitions, lists and criteria as necessary to the Protocol for its effective implementation.

Finally, in relation to the cluster of issues concerning international co-operation and non-transfer, it has to be understood that, whilst many developed countries see the BTWC as an arms control agreement, the developing world expects to see some benefits from co-operation built into the final agreement. This problem seems susceptible to a pragmatic solution if assistance is provided on matters closely related to implementation of the Protocol such as biosafety and public health.

Non-transfer may present a more difficult problem because some developing countries appear determined to eliminate existing export control regimes (the Australia Group) and to replace them with a multilateral regime. However, some developed countries regard the present export control regime as essential to their obligations under Article III of the Convention. A similar problem was avoided in the CWC by agreement that the problem would be looked at after a few years. This may not be an acceptable solution for the BTWC. There is certainly some relevant text in the present Protocol (18), but it is probable that further consideration will be required to resolve this highly politicised issue.


Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, has recently urged the NATO alliance:

"...to recognise the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in the Middle East and Eurasia as its most pressing strategic priority in the post-Cold War era." (23)

She has called the possible proliferation of such weapons "the most overrriding security interest of our time". That may indeed be the case, and Ambassador Toth may be correct in seeing no alternative to a series of expensive UNSCOM-style operations but a BTWC Verification Protocol. It has to be remembered, however, that these military, strategic and diplomatic negotiation processes are taking place against a rapidly changing background of scientific and technological developments. Those who are sanguine about the possible failure of the current negotiations to strengthen the BTWC might reflect on the nightmare world of biological warfare that could, according to a recent US official study, lie ahead.(24)

Notes and references 1. Pearson, G. (1996) A strengthened BTWC regime: Facing the facts. Disarmament Diplomacy, 8, 14-17
2. Smith, R. J. (1997) Clinton orders changes in nuclear-war strategy: Plan aims for deterrence and not 'victory'. International Herald Tribune, 8 December, pp 1 and 10.
3. Bovallius, A. (1997) NBC in the 21st century. ASA Newsletter, 97-6, pp 1 and 3-5.
4. Thomas, E. et al. (1997) Special Report: Saddam's dark threat. Newsweek, 24 November, pp 10-17.
5. Yankulin, Y. (1997) Plague Syndrome. Izvestiya, 15 October, p 5. (FBIS translation from Russian).
6. Preston, R. (1997) Anthrax, botulism, plague: What Iraq might have. International Herald Tribune, 9 November, p 8.
7. Johnson, L. et al. (1997) The inquisitive Iraqi student and the tutor whose fridge was full of anthrax. The Observer, 23 November, p 5.
8. Smith, R. J. (1997) Playing hide-and-seek with Iraq's warheads. International Herald Tribune, 22-23 November, p 2.
9. Cohen, W. S. (1997) Preparing ourselves to combat terror weapons. International Herald Tribune, 27 November, p 8.
10. Dando, M. R. (1994) Biological Warfare in the 21st Century. Brassey's, London.
11. Hunger, I. (1996) Article V: Confidence Building Measures. pp77-92, In G. S. Pearson and M. R. Dando (eds), Strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention: Key Points for the Fourth Review Conference. QUNO, Geneva.
12. United Nations (1994) Special Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, Final Report, BWC/SP.CONF/1, Geneva, 19-30 September.
13. United Nations (1996) Fourth Review Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, Final Document, BWC/CONF.IV/9, Geneva, 25 November-6 December.
14. United Nations (1996) Procedural Report of the Ad Hoc Group of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, Fifth Session, BWC/AD HOC GROUP/32, Geneva, 16-27 September.
15. United Nations (1997) Procedural Report of the Ad Hoc Group of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, Sixth Session, BWC/AD HOC GROUP/34, Geneva, 27 March.
16. United Nations (1997) Rolling Text of a Protocol to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, Seventh Session, BWC/AD HOC GROUP/35/REV.1, Geneva, 29 July.
17. United Nations (1997) Procedural Report of the Ad Hoc Group of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, Eighth Session, BWC/AD HOC GROUP/38, Geneva, 6 October.
18. Pearson, G. S. (1997) Strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention: Progress at the Ad Hoc Group in Geneva (Quarterly Review No.1). The CBW Conventions Bulletin, 38 (in press).
19. Toth, T. (1997) A window of opportunity for the BWC Ad Hoc Group. The CBW Conventions Bulletin, 37, 1-5.
20. Pearson, G. S. (1997) Strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention: The Importance of On-Site Investigations. Briefing Paper No.1, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK, July.
21. Pearson, G. S. (1997) Strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention: Discriminating Triggers for Mandatory Declarations. Briefing Paper No.3, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK, September.
22. Pearson, G. S. (1997) Strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention: The Necessity for Non-Challenge Visits. Briefing Paper No.2, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK, September.
23. Drozadiak, W. (1997) Albright urges NATO to fight arms of mass destruction. International Herald Tribune, 17 December, pp 1 and 10.
24. Starr, B. (1997) US DoD reveals horrific future of biological wars. Jane's Defence Weekly, 13 August.

Malcolm Dando is Professor of Conflict Analysis at the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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