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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 45, April 2000

BWC Update
Protocol Negotiations Continue Through 25th Anniversary of Convention's Entry into Force
By Jenni Rissanen


The 19th session of the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) of States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), held in Geneva from March 13-31, coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Convention's entry into force. To mark the occasion, the AHG was addressed by high-level officials, including foreign ministers, who emphasised the importance of the negotiations to international security, especially as the single on-going multilateral disarmament negotiations.1 To further the negotiations, some suggestions were tabled on how to deal with the more contentious issues, such as transfers and export controls, and how to improve the AHG's working methods. Progress in the March session was modest and delegations will need to start tackling the difficult political questions in the next sessions if the AHG is to finish the negotiations before the 2001 BWC Review Conference, as mandated.


The mandate to negotiate the Protocol came from the 1994 Special Conference of States Parties. The revelation that some States Parties to the BWC had once had covert biological weapons programmes added to the recognition that the effectiveness and implementation of the BWC needed to be strengthened. A group of governmental experts (VEREX) met from 1992-1993 to consider measures to verify that States Parties complied with the BWC. The negotiations began in January 1995 in the AHG format and the group has now met for fifty weeks. The Fourth Review Conference of the BWC in 1996 mandated the AHG to complete the negotiations for the Protocol as soon as possible before the Fifth Review Conference scheduled for autumn 2001.

The BWC's 25th Anniversary

The BWC entered into force 25 years ago on March 26, 1975. Four foreign ministers were among the high-level officials addressing the AHG to mark the occasion and provide a boost to negotiations that are now in their sixth year.2 The earlier proposed high-level meeting had been postponed after consultations in the previous session indicated lack of sufficient support. Without exception, thxe anniversary statements warned about the dangers of biological weapons and stressed the importance of the Convention and the AHG's work in negotiating a Protocol to strengthen its effectiveness and impact.

New Zealand's Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, Matt Robson, said he came to speak to the AHG because New Zealand believed that its work could enhance national and regional security and contribute towards international stability. Referring to "the shocking revelation that there are a number of countries today who signed the Convention but have since breached its provisions", Robson stated that his government is aware that the BWC "has not deterred or prevented the determined proliferator." Thus, it was seeking a compliance regime that allowed it to "conclude with reasonable confidence that the ban on biological weapons is being observed." 3

The Ministers for Foreign Affairs of Finland and the Netherlands, Erkki Tuomioja and Jozias van Aartsen, emphasised that in addition to the benefits that rapid developments in biotechnology can bring, genetic manipulation (GM) also poses a threat to humanity in the form of biological weapons. Aartsen said it was "time to show the world that we care about a stronger regime against the deliberate use of disease as a weapon." 4

Peter Hain, Britain's Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, speaking of "the biological threat to peace", said that "the use of biological weapons would devastate our society and return us to the Middle Ages..." and overturn "the ethical basis of medicine and the provision of public health in the service of an apocalyptic attempt to inflict death and suffering on a huge scale." He said that the case of Iraq's covert programme "underlines the potential threat from both rogue states and terrorists." Hain said that the "driving wisdom" behind both the Chemical Weapons Convention and the BWC is that "only when biological and chemical weapons are unavailable can we feel secure about their not being used." The BWC should be given the "necessary teeth through the establishment of an effective compliance regime that will help deter and detect proliferators."5

Cuba's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Felipe Perez Roque, said his country was a good example of the need to enhance the effectiveness of the BWC as it had "fallen prey to occasional acts of aggression with biological agents…[with] the deliberate introduction of pests into our territory" from 1971-1981, an accusation directed against the United States. Roque went on to cite examples from "a long list of biological acts of aggression" including the introduction of swine fever, sugar cane roya, blue mold (tobacco) and haemorrhagic dengue fever that reportedly killed 158 Cubans. In its reply, the United States rejected the accusations as "totally unfounded and untrue" and said the Cuban accusations "only deflect the negotiations."6 Roque also spoke of "the two pillars" of security and development upon which the BWC is based, emphasising that they are equal and closely related.7

Ambassador Les Luck of Australia delivered a statement on behalf of the Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, saying the AHG "should use the opportunity of this anniversary to reflect on how to build on the achievement of the BWC - how to give it the authority to meet the challenges it will face." He reminded colleagues that the AHG had a choice between "a world where devastating biological weapons are free to thrive" or making it "as difficult as we can for would-be-proliferators to produce weapons of mass destruction." He said that "not since the end of the Cold War have there been so many ready excuses to prevent us from finishing our work. But, equally, never have the reasons for concluding the protocol been so acute."8

The ministers also spoke on the significance of the negotiations in the broader disarmament and non-proliferation context. Hungary's Minister for Foreign Affairs, János Martonyi, compared progress in efforts to curb biological weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, citing achievements such as the CWC and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as examples, and asked whether there should be "such a discrepancy" between them. Martonyi highlighted the negotiations' importance as the only on-going multilateral disarmament negotiations and the Protocol as the "sole source of reinforcement to the faith in the co-operative multilateral management of security challenges."9 Echoing Martonyi's words, Finland's Tuomioja saw the negotiations as an opportunity to demonstrate the tangible results that multilateral disarmament can deliver. He hoped that "this forum would help to create positive conditions also in other fora, such as the Conference on Disarmament and the NPT review process…"10 Linking the issue to other WMD, New Zealand's Robson stated that participants in the negotiations should make sure that the "negotiations deliver comprehensively" so that it could not be argued that "any perceived or real inadequacies require the indefinite possession of nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrence against biological weapons."

Suggestions for a Way Forward

Some statements also offered suggestions for a way forward, in particular with respect to those more debated issues such as definitions and export controls. Brazil emphasised the need to start tackling export controls and suggested some possible moves in this direction. The United States announced steps it was ready to take in order to facilitate the debate and move the negotiations forward.

Ambassador Celso Amorim of Brazil tabled suggestions dealing with the contentious issue of export controls. So far, the debate has been limited and there has been little progress in resolving differences of view, particularly between delegations in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Western Group. Some NAM delegations want to terminate existing export control arrangements such as the Australia Group after the Protocol's entry into force, whereas Western delegations defend their continuation.

Amorim said that reaching a common view on the relationship between multilateral treaties and political export-control arrangements, and specifically the provisions on transfer regulations, "may in fact be indispensable for us to achieve a satisfactory outcome to our negotiations." It was Brazil's view that "in some circumstances informal arrangements can play a relevant role" but that in the case of the biological and toxin field, the situation was different: "Indeed, international endeavours should converge to the continuous strengthening of the relevant multilateral legal instruments". Understanding the different concerns, he argued that a "more focused, frank and sincere dialogue" is needed and offered some suggestions as a basis for such a dialogue.

These ideas included the need to consider more thoroughly the relationship between the future Protocol and the existing export-control arrangements; the idea of including some language on the issue in a negotiated statement, adopted in conjunction with the Protocol; the revision, updating and improvement of the Protocol's transfer mechanisms to ensure their effectiveness; and bringing national export control legislation or political arrangements into conformity with the Protocol. Furthermore, a role could be envisaged for the Conference of States Parties to make recommendations to states that participate in parallel political arrangements with the objectives of the BWC and the Protocol and promotion of convergence between the political and Protocol in mind. Finally, a transitional phase of co-existence between the Protocol and political arrangements was suggested.11

John Holum, the US President's Senior Advisor for Arms Control, Non-Proliferation and Security Affairs, brought with him a proposal from Washington to make "a modest start in a process to settle the large number of outstanding issues on terms that should be acceptable to all." His proposal included the deletion of four declaration trigger elements and the removal of overall brackets around the still heavily debated section on compliance measures that deals with transfers. The declaration triggers in question were outbreaks of disease, national legislation and regulations - the so-called "other facilities" (involving aerosol chambers and genetic modification activities) - and Biosafety Level-3 (BL-3) laboratory capabilities.

Holum proposed the four deletions, he explained, in order to "create efficiency in future discussion of declaration triggers, one of the areas of the text least mature at this time..." In addition, he announced that the US was ready to remove the overall brackets around the section on compliance measures that deals with the highly contentious issue of transfers, and thus also with export controls. He said the US "continues to have serious, substantive concerns about some of the provisions in this section" but is ready to remove the brackets in order to "advance the debate on the concepts themselves." He emphasised, however, that US views on export control have not changed and that the US proposal was meant to facilitate real negotiating process. He cautioned that any attempt to "expand the scope of the sections of the text we are now prepared to debate would inevitably move the negotiations" in the wrong direction.12


Several speakers underlined the need to bring negotiations to a close. In this context, some advocated the use of new methods while others remained more cautious. The Chair of the AHG called for more flexibility so that different topics could be dealt with in the most efficient manner.

Hungary's Martonyi said that the recent difficulties for arms control and disarmament had further underlined the urgent need to conclude the negotiations. Referring to the reduction in the number of brackets by half since early 1999, he said the draft was "extremely close to a draft ready for final consolidation." In addition, other factors suggested that the negotiations could be concluded successfully; the political determination to conclude before the 2001 BWC Review Conference and the still sufficient time available; provided the substantive problems were addressed "in a meaningful way."13

The European Union (EU), one of the strongest proponents for the early conclusions of the negotiations, said that to reach that goal, "we must continue to improve on our working methods" and expressed its appreciation over the fact that the Chair and Friends of the Chair (FOC) had introduced new methods at the last session. The EU encouraged the Chair "to present his vision of a comprehensive text for the future Protocol" and the FOCs to aid the Chair in this task.14 Australia too called on the AHG to "begin looking at new ways of working, more appropriate to the issues at hand."15

Brazil welcomed the Chair's steps to increase momentum, including informal consultations.16 Mexico, noting that the negotiations "have reached a crucial turnpoint," in which "frequent appeals for flexibility must concretize and working methods must adjust to this new momentum," called for responsible and rapid diligence henceforth.17

Russia was more cautious and said that "we need to strive fully to use the experience that has been accumulated and the existing methods of work which still retain their potential. Any future transition to new methods of work should be attempted only when the results of the previous work are ripe and adopted only after their approval by all the participants of the negotiations."18

India defended the use of the rolling text as the only basis for negotiations, arguing that despite some occasional difficulties, it offered "the best possible means of reconciling differences in approach and content for ensuring the interests of all delegations are met in an open, transparent and balanced manner, without any artificial deadlines. This remains the only guarantee for the successful completion of our negotiations as progress is possible when… outstanding issues are solved through consensus."19

Tibor Tóth of Hungary, the Chair of the AHG, asked for more flexibility during the last day of the session so that the FOCs could, when necessary, turn meetings into informal sessions in order to tackle issue better addressed in an informal setting. His consultations had shown that delegations expected and were prepared to focus on the outstanding issues more informally and, at the same time, that there was a need to find the right balance between informal work and transparency. He also encouraged delegations to engage in private discussions with each other. In preparation for the next session, Tóth said he had asked FOCs to categorise the outstanding issues into three categories - difficult, more difficult and very difficult - in order to judge better how to prioritise tackling the issues, and to determine which issues are best addressed in informal sessions.20


Tóth characterised the March session as 'not easy', but one where there had been a constructive mood. Some progress was made, albeit more modest than in previous sessions. Tóth said that there was "a need to review the situation on a high political level" and hoped that delegations would use the long period between the March and July session to "rethink their positions." He spoke of a "sea of clean areas with islands of brackets." The differences in positions were known and what was now needed was to "revisit them". Tóth said he would approach delegations to conduct intersessional consultations before the July session.21 The Chair said that the AHG would need to concentrate more on definitions, declaration triggers, visits, investigations and transfers in the future sessions. It has roughly one-and-half years to fulfil its mandate, which stipulates that it should bring the negotiations to a conclusion before the Fifth Review Conference to be held in the autumn of 2001.

AHG Session Dates for 2000

Eighteenth session, January 17 - February 4;

Nineteenth session, March 13 - 31;

Twentieth session, July 10 - August 4;

Twenty-first session, November 13 - 24.

In addition to these twelve weeks, the AHG has reserved two alternative sessions of two weeks in the second half of 2000, September 25 - October 6 and November 27 - December 8. The decision on whether to use one of the reserved sessions, and which one, will be taken at the twentieth session in the summer.

Notes and References

1. See Documents and Sources for additional material related to the anniversary, including a joint statement by the Depositary States (Russia, UK, US).

2. The AHG was addressed by the foreign ministers of Cuba, Finland, Hungary and the Netherlands; Britain's Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the US President's Senior Advisor for Arms Control, Non-Proliferation and Security Affairs, the Ambassadors of Australia, Brazil, India and Russia; the depositary governments; and the European Union.

3. Matt Robson, New Zealand's Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, BWC AHG, March 23, 2000.

4. Jozias van Aartsen, the Netherlands' Minister for Foreign Affairs, BWC AHG, March 29, 2000.

5. Peter Hain, Britain's Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, BWC AHG, March 23, 2000.

6. Donald A. Mahley, U.S. Head of Delegation, BWC AHG, March 31, 2000.

7. Felipe Perez Roque, Cuba's Minister for Foreign Affairs, BWC AHG, March 30, 2000.

8. Les Luck, Australia's Permanent Representative to the UN and Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, BWC AHG, March 27, 2000.

9. János Martonyi, Hungary's Minister for Foreign Affairs, BWC AHG, March 27, 2000.

10. Erkki Tuomioja, Finland's Minister for Foreign Affairs, BWC AHG, March 27, 2000.

11. Celso L.N. Amorim, Brazil's Permanent Representative to the UN and Ambassador to the CD, BWC AHG, March 27, 2000.

12. John Holum, US President's Senior Advisor for Arms Control, Non-Proliferation and Security Affairs, BWC AHG, March 29, 2000.

13. János Martonyi, Hungary's Minister for Foreign Affairs, BWC AHG, March 27, 2000.

14. Ambassador Alvaro de Medonca e Moura, on behalf of the EU, BWC AHG, March 13, 2000.

15. Les Luck, Australia's Permanent Representative to the UN and Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, BWC AHG, March 27, 2000.

16. Celso L.N. Amorim, Brazil's Permanent Representative to the UN and Ambassador to the CD, BWC AHG, March 27, 2000.

17. Carmen Moreno, Mexico's Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, BWC AHG, March 21, 2000.

18. Vasily Sidorov, Russia's Permanent Representative to the CD, BWC AHG, March 27, 2000.

19. Savitri Kunadi, India's Permanent Representative to the UN and Ambassador to the CD, BWC AHG, March 27, 2000.

20. Tibor Tóth, Chair of the AHG, BWC AHG, March 31, 2000.

21. Tibor Tóth, Chair of the AHG, BWC AHG, March 31, 2000.

Jenni Rissanen is the Acronym Institute's Geneva Analyst monitoring the BWC negotiations.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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