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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 65, July - August 2002

US, UK Urge New Start for BWC

Following the collapse last year of efforts to negotiate a verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the United States - the chief opponent of a protocol - and the United Kingdom are leading efforts to revitalise efforts to strengthen the treaty. The Convention's Fifth Review Conference was suspended in December 2001, after a last-minute US bid to formally terminate the work of the ad hoc group negotiating a protocol was greeted with dismay and anger (see Jenni Rissanen, 'Left in Limbo: Review Conference Suspended on Edge of Collapse', Disarmament Diplomacy No. 62, January/February 2002). The Conference is scheduled to resume in November this year.

On April 29, Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, announced the release of a Green Paper (a paper containing proposals for discussion) entitled 'Strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention: Countering the Threat from Biological Weapons'. The paper charts a roadmap for reform bypassing the need for a protocol, while offering the prospect of fresh multilateral negotiations, perhaps commencing in earnest at the resumed Review Conference, on new measures to counter the BW threat. According to Straw: "The issue for the United States is not remotely whether we better enforce the Convention, it is how that is done... The US administration has made a series of very constructive proposals for the better enforcement of the Convention. What I hope is that it will regard these proposals as positive and constructive. ... The proposals...should command wide international consensus..." Straw added that, on the crucial question of compliance, the British proposals would grant the UN Secretary-General "the power, where he has credible evidence, to order inspections of a country's facilities if it looks as though those countries are themselves developing or using chemical or biological weapons." The paper itself suggests that investigations into non-compliance "could take the form of an expanded and revised version of the existing UN Secretary-General process for investigating alleged CBW use", or "alternatively...be included in either a free-standing or combined international agreement that covered other topics such as assistance in the event or threat of BW attack."

The Executive Summary to the Green Paper reads:

"Work has been underway for many years to develop measures to make the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention more effective. The failure last year of the states parties to agree on the text of a Protocol to the Convention was undoubtedly a disappointment. Despite this outcome it is still essential to find ways in which the Convention can be strengthened. ... The paper identifies the following possible measures for consideration:

  • investigations into non-compliance with the Convention (alleged use of BW, misuse of facilities and suspicious outbreaks of disease).
  • assistance in the event, or threat, of use of BW.
  • national criminal legislation and extradition procedures: in those cases where they have not already done so, states parties should pass national criminal legislation translating the prohibitions in the Convention into domestic law.
  • Scientific Advisory Panel: in view of the dramatic pace of technical change in the life sciences as described here, an open ended body of government and non-government scientists should meet every one or two years to review the rate of change and assess their implications for the Convention and measures being taken to strengthen it.
  • revised Confidence Building Measures (CBMs): existing CBMs should be revisited to see whether there is scope for improving and expanding their breadth and scope. Expanded CBMs might include more detailed voluntary exchanges on the level of information as well as voluntary visits to be agreed between participating states parties to facilities notified under the existing or revised CBMs, or indeed to any facilities that it was agreed could be subject to visits, reciprocal or otherwise.
  • a new Convention on Physical Protection of dangerous pathogens: consideration should be given to the feasibility and desirability of establishing a new international agreement that would set standards for effective physical protection of dangerous pathogens held or worked upon in academic, government, industrial or research laboratories.
  • a new Convention on Criminalisation of CBW: there are already proposals, developed initially in the academic community, for a Convention that introduces criminal responsibility for any individual indicted for violating the prohibitions in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention or the Chemical Weapons Convention.
  • increased efforts on disease surveillance, detection and diagnosis and countering infectious disease generally: this would be done through existing national and/or international channels.
  • codes of conduct: such codes would be developed by academic and professional bodies to lay out standards for work relevant to the prohibitions of the Convention.
  • promotion of universal membership of the BTWC.
  • withdrawal of reservations to the 1925 Geneva Protocol: states parties to the Convention should be encouraged to withdraw any existing reservations they made on ratification or accession to the Convention regarding circumstances under which they reserved the right to use BW and CW."

On April 22, the US State Department's Bureau of Arms Control issued a 'Fact Sheet' on the BWC seemingly expressing frustration at the response thus far to its proposed alternatives to a protocol:

"The 1975 Biological Weapons Convention establishes a global ban on biological weapons. ... One hundred forty-five countries, including the United States, have joined the treaty. Unfortunately, the BWC has no mechanism for checking on compliance. Therefore, in 1994, member states established an Ad Hoc Group to 'strengthen the Convention'. From 1995 until July 2001, states parties negotiated on a legally binding protocol to enhance transparency and promote compliance. In July 2001, however, the Bush administration reluctantly concluded that the draft protocol would not enhance our confidence in compliance and would do little to deter those countries seeking to develop biological weapons. The US immediately embarked on efforts to find other, more effective ways to combat the BW threat, spurred by the unprecedented attack on the US on September 11 and subsequent bioterrorism, which underscored the dangers posed by both determined state actors as well as non-State actors. While the BWC retains an important role, the US believes we should also look beyond traditional arms control measures to deal with the complex and dangerous threat posed by BW. Countering this threat will require a full range of measures - tightened export controls, intensified non-proliferation dialogue, increased domestic preparedness and controls, enhanced biodefense and counterterrorism capabilities, and innovative measures against disease outbreaks, as well as the full compliance by all states parties with the global ban.

The US presented a package of 'alternative measures' to strengthen the Convention to the Conference held in November 2001 to review the operation of the global ban. Our goals at the Conference were to highlight compliance concerns and gain support from all states parties for our package and other measures that would address the biological weapons threat of today and the future. There was widespread support for US and allied initiatives intended to strengthen the Convention through practical, national implementation measures and continuing expert meetings. The US succeeded in raising worldwide awareness of the serious problem of non-compliance with the BWC. The Review Conference adjourned on December 7, 2001 and will reconvene on November 11, 2002. At the time of adjournment there were major disagreements on several issues, including 'the way forward' for strengthening the Convention and on how to reflect compliance concerns. The challenge that lies ahead before the Conference resumes in November is to develop a mutually acceptable approach, building on the foundation of the proposals and themes the US tabled in November 2001."

Related material on Acronym website:

Reports: Strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, Green Paper, UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, April 29; Reaching out to US, Britain offers new plan for weapons inspections, Associated Press, April 29; Britain tries to revive biological arms protocol, Reuters, April 29; Straw will make new effort to tighten germ warfare curbs, The Times, April 29; Fact Sheet - the Biological Weapons Convention, US State Department (Bureau of Arms Control), May 22.

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