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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 30, September 1998

Informal Ministerial Meeting on BWC Protocol

Statement by Australian Foreign Minister

'Informal Ministerial Meeting Held To Strengthen The Biological Weapons Convention [BWC]', statement by Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer, Australian Foreign Ministry Media Release FA125, 24 September 1998

"I warmly welcome the outcome of the Informal Ministerial Meeting held in New York on 23 September designed to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The meeting was part of Australia's initiative to address the scourge of biological weapons and enhance Australian and international security.

I convened the meeting but was unable to attend because of the Federal elections: the meeting was chaired in my place by the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Mr Don McKinnon.

The meeting was attended by representatives from over 50 countries - including 25 ministers - from all regions of the world and produced a declaration co-sponsored by 57 countries.

The declaration calls for the conclusion as soon as possible of the negotiations on a protocol to strengthen and enhance the BWC. Strengthening the BWC through the conclusion of a verification protocol is of fundamental importance for international security.

As it currently stands, the BWC is an imperfect instrument because compliance with the Convention cannot be verified. The key message from the Informal Ministerial Meeting is that this shortcoming must be resolved as soon as possible.

Australia has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the strengthening of the BWC gets the urgent attention it requires. The Government's Biological Weapons initiative, announced by Prime Minister Howard in March 1998, included in particular a call for a high-level meeting to give political impetus to the negotiations to strengthen the Convention.

I am particularly pleased therefore that the declaration endorsed Australia's proposal for a high-level meeting to be held in 1999 to lend further political support to the protocol negotiations.

The meeting saw a cross-regional group of countries come together for the first time at Ministerial level to give political support to the objective of strengthening the BWC. The number and range of countries in attendance, and the strength of the Declaration issued, is testament to the determination of the international community to do all it can to reduce the potential threat to global security posed by biological weapons.

Of all the weapons of mass destruction that potentially threaten regional and global security, biological weapons are the cheapest to obtain and the easiest to conceal. Establishing a means to ensure that the world-wide ban on biological weapons is as effective as possible is thus of vital importance for international security.

The Informal Ministerial Meeting and its declaration have significantly enhanced prospects for strengthening the Convention in the near future. Australia welcomes this, and will continue to play an active role in working towards this goal."

Statement by UK Foreign Office Minister

'Protocol to Strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention: Statement by FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office] Minister of State, Ms. Joyce Quin, at an Informal Ministerial Meeting, New York, Wednesday 23 September,' UK Foreign Office Daily Bulletin, 24 September 1998

"I should firstly like to pay a warm tribute to Australia for having taken the initiative in calling for the convening of today's meeting at such an important moment in the progress towards achieving a Protocol to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention... It is particularly encouraging to see the success of Mr Downer's original proposal in the number of countries represented and the impressive breadth of cross-regional support it has attracted.

The United Kingdom, as one of the Depositary Governments of the BWC, has given its full support to this initiative from the outset. We fully recognise the need to ensure that high level political attention is focused on the very real threat posed by biological weapons and the urgent need for further progress in the negotiations currently taking place in Geneva.

The seamless transition to New Zealand chairmanship has provided eloquent testimony to the shared political will, spirit of co-operation and meticulous preparation that has brought so many countries together to sign a Declaration that represents a powerful affirmation by the world community of its abhorrence of biological warfare.

The Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, unlike any earlier international agreement, sought the total elimination of a major weapons system but it lacks any compliance and verification measures and presently consists of just five pages of Treaty text.

The United Kingdom believes that it is now high time to fill that particular gap in arms control provisions and in so doing give the Convention the necessary measures to establish an effective compliance regime that will help detect and deter potential proliferators.

All States Parties to the Convention share the same repugnance at the prospect of biological warfare. By our presence here today we are clearly signalling that the time has come to accept the realities of the control of biological weapons, in particular the reality that such a regime can be achieved and is tantalisingly close at hand in the form of a legally binding Protocol that will at last strengthen the Convention.

The negotiations in the Ad Hoc Group under the outstanding chairmanship of Ambassador Toth of Hungary are now at a crucial stage. The Rolling Text currently under consideration in Geneva is in effect the draft Protocol. All of the essential measures and much of the necessary language are already present.

The United Kingdom, together with its European partners, firmly believes that a major intensification of work is required in 1999 so as to maintain continuity and build the necessary momentum which will allow timely conclusion of the negotiations. As in all endeavours of this sort time is oxygen, the vital element which will help accomplish the difficult tasks that lie ahead. It is therefore imperative that the negotiations on the future Protocol receive the highest priority in 1999.

As Tony Lloyd, my fellow Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office announced when addressing the Ad Hoc Group in June this year, the United Kingdom stands ready to offer London as the eventual venue for the signing ceremony of the Protocol at a date which will, I trust, not be too distant.

But if the United Kingdom is determined to take a lead in bringing the negotiations to an early and successful conclusion, we have received strong and welcome support from many quarters. Firstly from our European partners with whose assistance we established a Common Position during our Presidency setting out the actions which the EU will take in support of the negotiations and in promoting the key elements of the future Protocol.

At the very beginning of 1998 President Clinton in his State of the Union Address set out the clear commitment of the United States to strengthening the Convention. Similarly, the Australian initiative, launched by Mr Downer, has served to focus attention on this issue and help sustain the political momentum for urgent action. ...

We are all here today because we dare to hold the belief that biological disarmament is possible. A compliance regime covering biological weapons is close to realisation. I believe that the judgement of future generations will indeed be harsh if we falter at this last step. The prize of a world freed from the threat of such terrible weapons is a real possibility. It is a task and a duty which has never been more urgent."

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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