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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 55, March 2001

Chair Releases His "Composite Text" for Verification Protocol

By Jenni Rissanen

Ambassador Tibor Tóth of Hungary, the Chair of the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) 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 (BWC), has drawn up and made available his proposal for a verification Protocol to the Treaty - the Chair's "composite text". On March 29, speaking at a symposium in Geneva co-hosted by the Quaker United Nations Office and Bradford University on "Facing the Challenge of Disease in the 21st Century", Tóth announced that the 210-page text would be available for delegations as of Friday, March 30. He hoped his text would "bring clarity to the outstanding questions".

The move comes at a crucial time, three weeks before the penultimate session of the AHG, scheduled for April 23-May 11. The Group, which is aiming to conclude its work on the Protocol before the Fifth Review Conference of the BWC on November 19-December 7, has only seven more weeks of scheduled negotiations left. The reactions to the release of the text during the first days of the upcoming session will give a good indication of how likely a significant advance towards agreement now is.

As plenary statements during the last session of the AHG (February 12-23) showed, not all states are likely to wholeheartedly approve the Chair's move. The European Union (EU), Norway, New Zealand and South Africa made the strongest appeals for such a text, believing it was necessary for delegations to be presented with a 'big picture' if the negotiations were to be concluded in time. However, other important players, such as China, Iran and Pakistan, resisted those calls and seemed unwilling to move the basis of the negotiations away from the 'rolling text', which still has about 1,400 brackets. The United States, which is currently conducting a number of major policy reviews, including on biological weapons related issues - and where the new administration's policy seems to be moving away from multilateral legal instruments towards more "go-it-alone" approaches - remained studiously silent on the question of the introduction of the text.

Although the Chair's policy of introducing 'building blocks' - his proposals for different parts of the text, which at the end of the February session covered around 85-90% of the whole draft - has generally been accepted, bringing those blocks together and filling in the missing pieces to make up a "composite text" could be difficult for a small minority of states to swallow. However, it is clear that the text will raise the political stakes, making it harder for delegations to prevaricate or hide their heads in the sand. It will also bring to the table controversial issues which the AHG has been 'sitting on', including transfers/export controls, the initiation of investigations, the formula for the Protocol's entry-into-force, and other legal and political questions. Although solutions to outstanding questions will be found in the composite text, there is obviously much work ahead in getting all sides to agree on a final draft. Overall, Tóth's move may prove able to set in motion solution-seeking dialogue and narrowing of differences, but only if there is sufficient political will.

Delegations now have three weeks to study Tóth's proposals before talks resume. Making good use of the April-May session will be crucial, and procedural debates on which text, rolling or composite, to base the negotiations on, would not be a good use of this time. All available energy will need to be directed to ironing out differences of view on substance, smoothing the way for agreement in time for the Review Conference.

Jenni Rissanen is the Acronym Institute's analyst monitoring the BWC AHG Protocol negotiations in Geneva.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.