Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
Back to the Acronym home page
British Policy
South Asia
About Acronym

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 48, July 2000

Protocol Ad Hoc Group Enters Deeper Into Consultations
By Jenni Rissanen


The Ad Hoc Group (AHG) of States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) gathered on July 10 in Geneva to hold its 20th session. The four-week negotiations showed that the three-month break since the previous session in March had done little to resolve some of the most profound differences of view. Most importantly however, this session facilitated a change in the AHG's methods of work, which many view as essential if the AHG is to reach its goal of concluding the Protocol by the Fifth Review Conference, scheduled for 2001.

The text now being worked on is still heavily bracketed with contested or alternative language on some of the key issues, and there is a realization that the issues need to be tackled in a more comprehensive and crosscutting way if brackets are to be eliminated. While the AHG continued with bracket-by-bracket negotiations in the conference room, the Chair, Ambassador Tibor Tóth of Hungary, conducted confidential consultations with numerous delegations next door, trying to steer the delegations' thoughts towards the end product. In addition, several diplomats acting as 'Friends of the Chair' (FOC) are also understood to have pursued an increased level of consultations with delegations in order to find resolution on the outstanding issues.


The mandate to negotiate a Protocol on verification came from the 1994 Special Conference of States Parties to the BWC. The revelation that some states parties had been discovered to have developed 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 and negotiations on a Protocol began in earnest in January 1995 in the AHG format. The group has now met for a total of fifty-four weeks.

The Fourth Review Conference of the BWC in 1996 mandated the AHG to complete the negotiations for the Protocol as soon as possible, and certainly before the Fifth Review Conference. The depositaries of the BWC, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States, proposed at the 20th session that the Review Conference take place in November-December of 2001, preceded by a Preparatory Commission in April.

The Intensification of Consultations

By July 1997, the AHG had developed a rolling text, which it has since been negotiating on. The rate of progress in removing brackets has varied and earlier this year seemed to slow down, as negotiations ran into difficult political differences. Some delegations, such as Australia, Brazil and the European Union (EU), called for new working methods in order to make the final stage of the negotiations more efficient. Others, such as India and Iran, have underlined the rolling text as the basis of the negotiations, and seem to satisfied with the slower, bracket-by-bracket approach. This has inevitably led to criticism in the corridors from delegations who believe that they are deliberately trying to slowdown the process.

The different perceptions about the way in which the AHG should conduct its work have now centred on the question of when and how a Chair's text - i.e. a text without brackets indicating the Chair's view of what the final product might look like - should be produced. The EU is a strong advocate of such a text but in some quarters the idea has been received with discomfort and resistance. It is perhaps against this background that the changes in the AHG working methods should be seen. The Chair's bilateral consultations with delegations can be seen as charting a course between those who want to speed up the process through a Chair's text and those who prefer the current rolling text negotiation approach. There were also many delegations which felt the process should be fluid enough to respond to needs as they arise, without taking sides between introducing a Chair's text at this point or continuing with the rolling text.

At the opening plenary on July 10, Tóth addressed the perceived slowdown and outlined some changes in working methods. While acknowledging that some degree of slowdown was a natural part of the process, as aeroplanes that are "just about to land, need to slow down to find the right speed to land", Tóth noted that in the last session the pace had slackened in terms of the 'cleaning' of the brackets, the volume of work, the number of working papers introduced, national interventions and requests for extra time by the Friends of the Chair. He also expressed concerned about the "not overwhelming" level of political interest in the negotiations when compared with other disarmament negotiations. Despite the fact that his consultations in the intersessional period had shown support for concluding the process within the timetable of the mandate, there seemed to be a broader lack of political prioritisation of the issue: where delegations on the floor were "more aware of the complications", the higher governmental levels seemed more "relaxed". He wondered aloud whether reality lay in the micro or the macro cosmos, and warned that a successful landing at finalised Protocol was not automatic, but would require sustained interest.1

At the end of the March session Tóth had asked the Friends of the Chair to divide those issues still outstanding into three categories of difficulty. In July he announced that during this session he would undertake bilateral consultations on the most difficult issues, "aimed at a conceptual exploration of possible future solutions". He focused on investigations, compliance measures and objective criteria, transfers, technical cooperation, legal issues and issues related to the organization.2 It is also understood that the Chair facilitated some open-ended consultations held between smaller groups comprised of delegations with a particular interest in certain issues. Having sought states parties' views in this way during the session, the Chair presented a summary of those consultations to the AHG on the last day. Due to the sensitive nature of those consultations and the lack of direct information at this juncture, the Acronym Institute will provide fuller information at a later stage.

There seemed to be general support for The Chair's use of bilateral consultations. At the beginning of the session, Iran, for example, accepted that they could "increase the efficiency of the negotiations and the probability of reaching consensus", but strongly argued for them to be conducted with "maximum transparency". Iran underlined that the rolling text must continue to be the basis for the negotiations, cautioning that "any other text will put the existing cooperative atmosphere in jeopardy."3 Towards the end of the session, Australia spoke for many when it said that the informal consultations "had born fruit" and had showed that they could help the AHG to attain results. Australia hoped they would be continued in the future.4

Export Controls

Eleven working papers were put forward at the 20th session. Two of them, by Britain and Iran, addressed the question of export controls. Debate on export controls was reportedly polarised, with positions remaining unchanged and no progress made. This may be due to tactical preparation for the "endgame" or it could indicate that the issue could become the ultimate stumbling block for the negotiations as a whole.

In an attempt to tackle what is perhaps the most controversial issue regarding export controls, Britain submitted a working paper entitled "Fulfilling the Objectives of the [BWC]: Resolving the Issue of Trade and Exchange of Technology".5 The paper discusses the question of exchanging technology following the adoption of a verification Protocol, rejecting the view that "national controls on exports between States Parties to the Protocol should immediately and automatically be relaxed, or even eliminated in order to promote technology exchange and co-operation." Instead, Britain argues that export controls and the Protocol measures are mutually complementary, both aimed at strengthening the Convention. Referring to Iraq, Britain recalled that in that case the international community used both verification and export control measures to prevent the reactivation of the programme by the Iraqi government.

Arguing that export controls are a "sovereign responsibility of the exporting State, and cannot be surrendered to an international body", Britain (in an obvious reference to the Australia Group) supported the right of states to adopt common approaches on exports. Britain underlined that export licensing systems "have not, do not, and will not mean automatic veto of high technology". As a way of alleviating concerns about genuine transfer problems, Britain proposes they be addressed in bilateral consultations provided by the Protocol. As another alternative, it proposes that the Protocol enable the future BTWC organisation to provide assistance in implementing Article III (transfers) as a means of addressing possible economic concerns.

Iran, one of the strongest advocates of a Protocol offering strong provisions for technical cooperation, said in the opening plenary that developing countries were "not in the position to accept additional regulatory obligations, administrative and legislative burdens" unless they were assured that there would be a balance in the Protocol between the promotional and regulatory pillars.6 Iran then tabled a proposal on "Settlement of Disputes on Transfer Denial", a working paper that is likely to face fierce resistance in the future. It proposes the establishment of a settlement process under the Executive Council to address transfer denials. Iran seeks a system where, in the absence of agreement between the parties, the mechanism can "secure the withdrawal of the measures concerned" if the denial is found to be inconsistent with the Convention and the Protocol. The proposal would entail granting decision-making powers on transfers to a dispute settlement panel made up of governmental and non-governmental individuals.7 The proposition is widely considered unrealistic, and is not likely to gain support of countries in the Australia Group.

Pharmaceutical Industry Concerns and Visits

Pharmaceutical industries have shown great interest throughout the negotiations in the kind of compliance measures being developed. This has been the case in particular in the United States where the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) has lobbied the US government heavily and been able to influence the US positions in this respect. Among the measures - consisting of declarations of activities and/or facilities, and visits and investigations - the question of randomly-selected/transparency visits is of particular interest due to concerns about the security of intellectual property and the confidentiality of business information.

The United States delegation has opposed the concept of random visits, and in the 19th session put forth an informal policy paper explaining its position.8 It has received little support for its position, even in the Western Group where the EU considers visits as essential for an effective Protocol,9 and is becoming increasingly isolated. Russia, formerly only supportive of voluntary visits, reportedly announced at this session that it could go along with the mandatory visits, but only to high containment BL-4 facilities.

Meanwhile, outside the negotiations, the European, US and Japanese pharmaceutical industries joined forces to present their views in a joint position paper distributed to the AHG.10 The paper calls for the recognition of intellectual property and confidential business information rights, particularly in the context of declarations and on-site activities. It argues for simple declarations in order not to burden the industry and objects to any routine on-site activities. Some type of voluntary and site-controlled "familiarisation" visits are declared to be acceptable. The use of managed or restricted access in the case of challenge inspections - a system designed to reveal only the necessary information - is also advocated. What effect this "unification" by industries from three regions will have on the negotiations, if any, is yet to be seen.

In another development, PhRMA and the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) circulated to delegations a paper, first issued in May, offering suggestions on how best to alleviate concerns over the loss of confidentiality and compatibility with the US constitution. The paper advocates the use of managed access in all on-site activities, with the rights and limits clearly spelled out in the Protocol, and the granting of decision-making power on managed access to site managers. Furthermore, it suggests that the owners of facilities participate in the preparation and review of the US declarations. In an effort to highlight the need to protect sensitive information, it also recommends that the Protocol include a definition of confidential information, and for all participants who take part in on-site activities to sign a confidentiality agreement.11


The AHG now has ahead of it another break of over three months before convening on November 20 for its 21st session. The Chair has said he will start informal consultations a week before the session begins. While this session demonstrated that conclusion of the negotiations is likely to be pushed closer to the Review Conference, it is unclear at this point what effect the November session will have on the process, in particular considering their conjunction with the presidential and Congressional elections which may act to freeze the US negotiating position.

In general terms, progress will depend on the political will and commitment to engage in genuine and constructive dialogue on the key issues such as visits and export controls, as well as some countries readiness to move towards a Chair's text. But it is clear that the negotiations are now increasingly expected to take place informally, in a focused fashion and among interested delegations, in the hope that this will yield results faster and more efficiently.

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 20 - December 8.

Notes and References

1. Tibor Tóth, Chair of the BWC AHG, plenary on July 10, 2000.

2. BWC AHG/AD HOC GROUP/L.97, August 4, 2000.

3. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Ambassador or Iran, BWC AHG plenary, July 10, 2000.

4. Leslie Luck, Ambassador of Australia, BWC AHG plenary, August 4, 2000.

5. BWC/AD HOC GROUP/WP.424, July 20, 2000.

6. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Ambassador or Iran, BWC AHG plenary, July 10, 2000.

7. BWC/AD HOC GROUP/WP.426, August 2, 2000.

8. For more information on this, see "Protocol Negotiations Continue Through 25th Anniversary of the Convention's Entry into Force" in Disarmament Diplomacy no.45.

9. European Union Common Position of May 17, 1999, 1999/346.CSFP.

10. "Compliance Protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention: A Joint Position of European, United States and Japanese Industry."

11. "Proposals for US Implementing Legislation for the Biological Weapons Convention Protocol" by FAS and PhRMA, May 2000.

Jenni Rissanen is the Acronym Institute's Geneva Analyst.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

Return to top of page

Return to List of Contents

Return to Acronym Main Page