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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 31, October 1998

BWC Ad Hoc Group Meeting

UN Press Release

'Ad Hoc Group charged with elaborating regime to verify Biological Weapons Convention concludes twelfth session,' United Nations Press Release DC/2614, 12 October 1998

"The Ad Hoc Group of States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and Their Destruction concluded on Friday night, 9 October, its twelfth session at the Palais des Nations, which had started on 9 September.

During the four-week session, the Ad Hoc Group engaged in intensive negotiations on a draft rolling text of a compliance and verification protocol to the Convention. The issues discussed included measures to promote compliance and investigations; measures relating to article X of the Convention (scientific and technical cooperation for peaceful purposes); legal issues; organization/implementation arrangements; confidentiality; national implementation and assistance; and definitions of terms and objective criteria.

Progress was made on all issues examined. The outcome of the discussions will be reflected in a new rolling text which will be submitted to the thirteenth session of the Ad Hoc Group, to be held from 4 to 22 January 1999."

US Statement

Statement by John D. Holum, Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs and Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), to the 12th Session of the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), Geneva, 6 October 1998

"We have all pledged to ban biological weapons. Yet over the last decades, this has not eliminated the real danger of these weapons. It has become obvious that we must do more if we are to deter and dissuade any would-be violator of the Convention. If we cannot find the will to codify effective compliance mechanisms to the BWC, we will have turned away from an opportunity to diminish a threat we all face. None of us wants to be a part of such a failure.

These negotiations have a long history. The Review Conferences, which examined the operation of the BWC, recognized the need for more information about activities potentially relevant to the Convention. Confidence-building measures were designed and then enhanced as ways of collecting such information. But that was not enough to fill in the gaps. Only about half of the States Parties have submitted confidence-building measures information, despite agreement at successive Review Conferences to do so. The Third Review Conference in 1991 examined the situation and decided to explore a more ambitious path to improve the Convention's effectiveness. The Ad Hoc Group of Scientific Experts created by the RevCon, known as VEREX, examined 21 measures for potentially strengthening the Convention. This BWC Ad Hoc Group, with a mandate to convert that scientific exploration into a legally binding Protocol to the Convention, is a direct successor to those earlier efforts.

With such a distinguished heritage, we expect significant results from your efforts. The substance in your rolling text suggests this expectation can be realized. While significant issues and hard negotiations remain, the outline of a useful protocol has already emerged under the able leadership of Ambassador Toth [of Hungary] and the various friends of the chair who have been assisting him.

However, it is now time to refocus and concentrate our efforts to bring this negotiation to a successful conclusion. The United States believes the following four principles are essential elements of the final product. These will not come as a surprise.

  • First, there must be legally binding, mandatory declarations to provide transparency about activities of potential relevance to the Convention. Transparency must be unambiguous so all can understand what is expected of them. We must all accept that they are a binding obligation, in contrast to voluntary undertakings.
  • Second, there must be means to get investigators on-site, quickly and with a mandate flexible enough to do their job efficiently. These mandates should include responding to legitimate concerns about possible use of biological weapons, or suspicious outbreaks that may be from unnatural causes, or inspecting suspect locations where there is real concern that activities in violation of the Convention are being conducted. Investigations and visits must be conducted in ways to protect legitimate proprietary and national security sensitivities, but they also must be conducted vigorously, to provide confidence in compliance.
  • Third, there must be means to ensure that all sites whose activities merit declaration are in fact declared, and that the declarations are accurate. We cannot allow a proliferator the refuge of simply ignoring the international community and the norms of humanity by failing to provide complete or accurate information about relevant activities.
  • Fourth, there must be a professional organization to implement the Protocol. It must be talented, small, and cost-effective. We cannot afford a bloated, cumbersome bureaucracy - which would cost too much and have low operational effectiveness.
Another element of these negotiations is how to build on the principles of Article X of the Convention for more effective cooperation and coordination of peaceful biotechnology among States Parties to the Protocol. The Protocol will impose additional, legally binding requirements on its participants. Those obligations must be carried out accurately and promptly. If assistance to States Parties will promote compliance, it will be to everyone's benefit.

These elements must be the core and backbone of your product if we are to achieve our objective and that of the central concern of the Biological Weapons Convention: keeping abhorrent biological weapons out of the hands of anyone who would contemplate using them. ...

Considerable progress has been made, but a great deal of work remains. There are unresolved issues, such as the details of declaration formats, requiring intense technical focus and careful scrutiny of specific language. There are other issues of political sensitivity, such as the conduct of on-site activities for which flexibility in exploring useful solutions, plain hard work, and political compromise are still needed.

For our part, the United States stands ready to engage in this difficult task, and will explore the full range of suggested solutions. We will not, however, allow this one best chance to improve the functioning of a Convention as important as the BWC to become an empty shell whose standards are so low it would more likely lower confidence in compliance than improve it.

I have frequently mentioned time - time to work, time to think, time to explore. All of these elements are needed. Unfortunately, the world is not sitting still.

Your deliberations have established up to now a positive momentum toward concluding your work successfully. It is now time to renew your efforts, and use that momentum to create real solutions. Nineteen ninety-nine should be the year of the BWC Protocol. You simply must - and you can - find the time, the energy, and the flexibility to finish.

I participated less than two weeks ago in a very senior-level political meeting in New York on this same topic [Editor's note: see last issue, pp. 45-47]. What struck me about that meeting was the uniformity, across a wide range of perspectives, of the view that the work here in Geneva is very important and is reaching a climax. All ministers endorsed renewed commitment and dedication in your tasks.

To fulfill this mandate, you must provide yourselves sufficient work periods next year. You must also agree to use every precious day efficiently. The vital importance of your task permits no less."

Source: Text - Holum calls for completion of BWC Protocol in 1999, United States Information Service, 6 October.

US Press Conference

Press Conference by John Holum, 6 October 1998

"Question: 'What are the difficult issues?'

Holum: 'There are a range of them. ... There is some interest among a number of countries in weakening the existing export control regimes that prevent the spread of biological weapons capabilities, including the Australia Group. Our position on that is very clear. We will not, in the name of strengthening compliance with this treaty, allow an undercutting of the regimes that presently limit proliferation of biological weapons. ... There are some arguments over definitions. What should be the scope of the protocol, what should it cover. Some would like to limit it to a specified number, or specified named pathogens. That, from our perspective, is a mistake, as witness just in the recent past the appearance of Ebola, and constantly new types of pathogens that could be used for biological weapons. It is fine to have an illustrative list of agents, but we think it is a mistake to circumscribe the power and the force of the Convention by drawing a circle around a specific number of agents and saying that is all we are trying to control. Those are illustrative of the kinds of issues. Let me just mention a third, and that is how you go about determining what kinds of on-site inspections there will be. There seems to be general agreement on the idea of challenge inspections where there is a suspicious outbreak of disease that might be caused by unnatural circumstances or an allegation of use, a credible allegation of possession above violations of the Convention. In addition to that, we have some interest in developing other kinds of on-site activities short of the challenge inspection. …' ...

Question: 'Regarding on-site inspections, could you say a word about the concerns in the military area, but also more specifically the commercial proprietary issues on some of these agents?'

Holum: '… This is an area where it's very difficult to find the right balance between protecting legitimate secrets, whether it's national security information, or proprietary business information, and on the other hand, having an inspection regime that is sufficiently robust and intrusive to be sure that you will catch violators. We have been working on that for some time. In fact, going back to even when the scientific experts were addressing this, we found in the case of the Chemical Weapons Convention that the support and involvement of industry, as well as of the national security community, was indispensable, both in completing a rational Convention, and in winning its ratification. I think the same thing is very much true here.

Now, having said that, it is important to understand the distinctions between the chemical weapons issue and the biological weapons issue. In the commercial area, companies are much more dependent on trade secrets, secret formulas that may be the only ownership element that the company has, so that loss of that secret through an exploratory investigation as part of an inspection could ruin the company. So the stakes are very high here. We have to work very carefully to balance those issues, and it is clear to me that the balance here will be struck differently than it was in the case of the CWC.

I still think we can come up with formulas that allow for very strong inspection rights, timely inspections, but under managed access procedures that will prevent the loss of proprietary information or national security information. Our interest, and our approach to this, is to prevent the loss, rather than to expect that we can find some way to compensate if the loss occurs. That is a much more problematic undertaking. I think we need to prevent the loss in the first place. That puts the challenge on the negotiators here... But I think it can be done.' … "

Source: Transcript - Holum Press Conference in Geneva October 6, United States Information Service, 8 October.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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