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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 73, October - November 2003

News Analysis

Substance Hidden Under A Mountain Of Paper: The BWC Experts' Meeting In 2003

By Jez Littlewood


The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) version of Waiting for Godot1 finally got underway in Geneva in August 2003. Regular readers of Disarmament Diplomacy will recall the "dismal context"2 of 2001 for the BWC when the collapse of efforts to conclude a verification and compliance Protocol and the suspension of the Fifth Review Conference represented the nadir of the Convention's life to date. It also looked like 2002 would end with a continued procession along the "ruinous path"3 of biological disarmament, until the President of the Review Conference, Ambassador Tibor Tóth of Hungary, produced victory of sorts with a 'take it or leave it' proposal. The Fifth Review Conference decided to establish a series of annual meetings between 2003 and 2005, each of which would be preceded by a series of two-week experts meetings on the five identified topics for discussion.4 Even this welcome outcome could only be seen as the lowest common denominator solution and, as such, hopes for the new process were minimal.

On Monday August 18, 2003 the new multilateral process under the BWC began formally. Two weeks later (Friday August 29) the first experts' meeting closed and observers were left with the impression that states parties now actually believed this thing could work. Indeed, the generation of this sense of cautious optimism may have been the meeting's most important accomplishment.

The new process was steered carefully to an extremely modest conclusion, but it laid important foundations for the future. Hidden under a mountain of paperwork and a flurry of CD-ROMs, the experts' meeting did lay the foundations of something solid, which, if capitalised upon, could mark the beginning of fundamental improvements in the implementation of the BWC across all of its articles. However, that possibility remains only a faint hope at this stage.

This article offers a positive perspective on the meeting as a whole and suggests that there is potentially much more to the new process than might first appear. In the first section it calls for the new process and its mandate to be treated seriously over the next three years. It then briefly examines the conduct and outcome of the first experts' meeting before speculating on the lessons that may be taken from it.

Look Again At The Mandate

In part because the resumed session of the Fifth Review Conference was such a private affair - in that much of the deal-making which produced the outcome was conducted in regional group settings, private meetings and, crucially, one particular lunch - most observers were unable to grasp the implications of what the President's proposal actually meant, or would entail if adopted. In essence, this Conference was about securing agreement on a deal which offered two bitterly divided groups - those who did not wish to do anything before the next Review Conference in 2006, and those who wished to restart the stalled Ad Hoc Group (AHG) on the Protocol - a common exit strategy. The support for the President by those states parties whose objective was to keep some kind of multilateral process alive represented a majority and was enough to forge agreement. However begrudgingly its collective decision was reached, the states parties adopted the President's plan and the new process.5 In focussing on the deal itself the implications of what had been adopted were played down. In particular, the possibilities inherent in focussed annual and expert meetings, and the flexibility granted to states parties to turn this process into whatever they wanted, were initially missed.

This is not to claim that the new process is ideal. Those familiar with the BWC are only too aware that the new process will not make a real impact on a number of the most pressing problems with the Convention. Issues related to its scope, scientific developments, compliance, verification, non-proliferation, cooperation, universality, and institutional arrangements all require urgent attention. Over the next three years none will be dealt with in sufficient detail to halt completely the erosion in confidence in the Convention, and some are not being addressed at all between now and 2005.

In addition, the procedures and rules of the new process - discussion not negotiation, decisions by consensus, factual reports by the experts, and no legally-binding outcome - offer an ideal opportunity for those who wish to stymie even modest progress. Nevertheless, states parties must travel a path which offers at least a prospect of success and under the new process such a path is before them. If managed carefully, something useful could emerge.

During the next three years the states parties are required "to discuss, and promote common understanding and effective action on" five specified areas related to the BWC. The first is "the adoption of necessary national measures to implement the prohibitions set forth in the Convention, including the enactment of penal legislation" and the second, "national mechanisms to establish and maintain security and oversight of pathogenic micro-organisms and toxins". These issues are the topics for discussion in 2003.

In 2004, "enhancing international capabilities for responding to, investigating and mitigating the effects of cases of alleged use of biological or toxin weapons or suspicious outbreaks of disease" and "strengthening and broadening national and international institutional efforts and existing mechanisms for the surveillance, detection, diagnosis and combating of infectious diseases affecting humans, animals, and plants" are the specified areas of consideration. In 2005, "the content, promulgation, and adoption of codes of conduct for scientists" completes the list of issues to be considered under the mandate of the new process.

A careful reading of these items indicates that Articles I, III, IV, V, VI, VII, and X of the Convention come into play at some point in the three-year period. Notwithstanding the overall legal and administrative framework of the BWC or the importance of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the relationship to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), or the obligation to destroy any stockpiles of biological weapons, those articles represent the substantive elements of the BWC. They are also the articles that diplomats and experts spent much of their time discussing over a decade of efforts in the Verification Experts group (VEREX) and the AHG.

Despite the ultimate failure of those efforts, which I have termed "a lost decade"6, much of the information shared and the knowledge gained during that process has not automatically been lost to the states parties. Some of the experts in August 2003 were participants in VEREX and even more were present in the AHG. The trick now is to exploit the lessons learned during that process to the states parties' advantage, while avoiding the political infighting which led them into the "dismal context". In short, could states parties meet and create a practical working environment in which progress might be made? Or would they simply re-enter the conference room in Geneva and continue the recriminatory 'blame game' of 2001?

The First Experts' Meeting

Preparation for the first meeting of experts by the Chair of the 2003 meetings, Ambassador Tóth, the Secretariat and some of the states parties was quite intense. At informal consultations in May 2003, the Chair set out a few ideas on how the meeting might actually work in practice and placed emphasis on the need to focus all discussions on particular themes related to the two identified areas under discussion. Tóth also stressed that under the mandate the experts meeting was not the forum for producing binding recommendations or decisions for all states parties, so no state party would be forced into any unacceptable position. Nor was it the forum in which to attempt any type of codification or harmonisation of national implementation measures. Rather, in order to produce the 'common understanding' element of the process, the Chair appears to have been stressing that what was required was factual information on the measures that states parties had adopted to implement the BWC and an open discussion on how that had been achieved, what problems had been encountered and, if applicable, how national implementation had evolved to meet new challenges. If states parties followed this direction, the meeting could identify core or common elements in states' national implementation measures and gaps where further attention was required.

In hindsight, it is significant that the Chair was effectively asking the states parties to separate the technical from the political: the experts' meeting was going to be a technical discussion and the annual meeting a political assessment of its outcome and more detailed exploration of how to take things forward.

In effect, the states parties decided to devote one full week to each topic; national implementation was addressed in week one and security of pathogens addressed in week two. Even though the experts for most delegations were the same, this allowed states parties to devote their attention to one issue at a time. The daily sessions were structured around formal presentations on particular issues and subsequent discussions and statements from states parties. The Chair also circulated sets of questions on each theme for consideration by states parties as a framework for the discussions about implementation measures. Together with the formal working papers, 66 in total, a great deal of paperwork was distributed around the conference room.

Indications were that the discussion aspect of the meeting was slow in getting started, mainly because everyone was feeling their way for the first couple of days, and as a result many of the sessions were completed inside the three hours allocated to them. Nevertheless, by August 20, as states parties got into the swing of things, the meeting's usefulness began to be demonstrated and the information provided in the working papers proved its worth. In addition, the Secretariat had collated the submitted information on national implementation measures on a CD-ROM before the meeting and distributed this 'Information Repository' at its commencement. The value of that work was clearly appreciated because it went some way to fulfilling the call for information on national implementation issued 23 years ago at the First Review Conference.7

Throughout the two weeks many of the participants were also slowly won over by the process. Early on, many participants and observers thought that the only purpose of the meeting was to keep the BWC alive by retaining its place on the international agenda and keeping a dialogue going. Such low expectations assisted the meeting because participants were then surprised to realise that it might offer something useful to their state party. As Tóth stated in his closing remarks, "a great deal of useful, practical and directly applicable information will be taken back to capitals and used directly in strengthening national implementation".8

Although the meeting will produce a mountain of paperwork and a new CD-ROM, which will no doubt prove to be of significant value to states parties, it was both surprising and disappointing to realise that no document or report had been produced which attempted to pull together the information or any initial 'common understandings' in a more user-friendly form. There was no 'Chair's summary' of the proceedings or their outcome. States parties will therefore have to wade their way through what is likely to be over 400 pages of information to draw out what they identify as a basis for common understanding. That basis does exist, as the Chair's concluding remarks underlined that during the meeting a number of recurring themes were identified and that most states parties appeared to have identified both core and supporting elements for national implementation and security of pathogens.9 Such preliminary observations could have been brought together in August as a basis for intercessional action or as a basis of discussion for the annual meeting in November, but were not.

What Does It All Mean?

Like the resumed session of the Fifth Review Conference, the experts meeting was something of a mute affair for observers and those outside the conference room. It held only two plenary sessions - to open and to close - and conducted the rest of its business in private. By splitting the technical and political elements of the discussions political controversies were avoided. This allowed the experts to stick to their task and the tightly drawn mandate they had to work within. But what exactly did they achieve?

Making a preliminary judgement on the process after only one meeting is difficult. What appears to be important in the context of two weeks may prove ephemeral over the three years, and what was missed or taken as a throwaway remark may have the potential to unravel the process at the critical juncture. Nevertheless, a preliminary assessment must be undertaken and as Sims correctly noted10, the new process will be judged by the extent to which it fulfils its stated objective - "to promote common understanding and effective action" - on the five topics under consideration.

Making a preliminary assessment entails deconstructing the objective. The new mandate suggests states parties must do three things. First they must promote a common understanding about the issues under consideration. The meetings must therefore be more than a talking shop - states parties must engage in substantive dialogue and go beyond the talking-past-each-other mentality of recent years. Second, once a common understanding begins to emerge - which does not mean that a single understanding is sought, rather that a range of views on a particular subject be recognised - the implicit requirement is to somehow record those views in order that they not be lost before substantive consideration at the annual meeting and, more importantly, in 2006. Third, the common understanding must be translated into effective action, which itself could take many different forms.

In fact, what the Chair and the states parties have done is separate completely the political and technical elements. The experts' meeting is dealing with the common understanding component. It has received the information, discussed it and agreed that all of it should be collated as the record of the meeting. Flowing from that, the expectation is that the annual meeting will develop the effective action component of the mandate. The separation of technical and political was absolute.

Neither the states parties nor the Chair have attempted to force the pace, indeed they are moving forward with utmost caution, but in doing so they are allowing time for reflection in state capitals, they are encouraging each state party to look for itself at the documentation instead of concentrating on what is in any summary of it. As a consequence, it is possible that states parties will take ownership of the process seriously and meld it to their objectives. The omission of a Chair's summary report may prove to be a shrewd tactic by Ambassador Tóth if the lack of such a report does encourage states parties to take seriously their responsibilities.


The new process is not the answer to all the BWC's problems. At the most important level it is more evidence of minimalism in the BWC at a time when the range of problems the Convention faces requires a much more ambitious and far-reaching strategy. But BWC states parties are in a position of their own making; they can neither wish away the problems brought about by the failure of their own efforts nor revise recent history that demonstrates they are all - collectively - responsible for the Convention's problems.

After the infighting of the last two years the state parties needed more than anything else simply to meet and survive without drawing blood. Any move away from the "dismal context" of the last two years constitutes progress. In that respect the submission of information which was requested 23 years ago, the ensuing exchange of views, the (re)building of relationships, the offers of help and assistance which were mooted and the foundations which have been hidden under the mountain of paperwork, all constitute a small step forward. Above all, the experts' meeting proved that meaningful discussions on the BWC can be held, that focussed and specific work in multilateral fora can work, and that something useful can come out of meetings of states parties. States parties recognised that many of them face the same legal, technical and political difficulties in implementing the BWC at the national level. And, in sharing experiences and putting substantive information before each other, a few realised they could actually learn from one another and enhance the BWC's implementation.

Tóth's final remark on August 29 summarised exactly the principal benefit of the meeting: "we have made a good start: let's continue in the same vein."11 The experts have delivered their half of the bargain in August by sharing information, discussing issues and, thereby, promoting a common understanding. It is now for the political masters to prepare and deliver their half of the bargain by forging effective action in November 2003 and beyond.

Notes and References

1. Marie Isabelle Chevrier, 'Waiting for Godot or Saving the Show? The BWC Review Conference Reaches Modest Agreement', Disarmament Diplomacy No. 68, December 2002/January 2003, pp. 1-16.

2. Nicholas A. Sims, 'Biological Disarmament Diplomacy in the Doldrums: Reflections After the BWC Fifth Review Conference', Disarmament Diplomacy No. 70, April/May 2003, p. 12.

3. Jenni Rissanen, 'Continued turbulence over BWC verification' in Trevor Findlay and Oliver Meier (eds) Verification Yearbook 2002 VERTIC, London, 2002 p. 88.

4. United Nations, 'Fifth Review Conference 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/CONF.V/17.

5. The begrudging nature of support can be identified in both the regional group statements made immediately after adoption of the Final Document of the Fifth Review Conference, in which the decision of states parties was contained. See Statement on behalf of the Group of the Non-Aligned Movement and Other States (BWC/CONF.V/15) and Statement on Behalf of the Western Group (BWC/CONF.V/16). It is also noteworthy that Ambassador Tóth's closing remarks on 29 August made clear that "many states parties agreed only with great reluctance to this new process."

6. Jez Littlewood, 'The Biological Weapons Convention: a Lost Decade', Ashgate (forthcoming).

7. United Nations, 'Review Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction' Final Document BWC/CONF.I/10, p. 7.

8. Author's notes on closing remarks, August 29, 2003.

9. Author's notes on closing remarks, August 29, 2003.

10. Nicholas A. Sims, 'Biological Disarmament Diplomacy in the Doldrums: Reflections After the BWC Fifth Review Conference', Disarmament Diplomacy No. 70, April/May 2003, p. 12.

11. Author's notes on closing remarks, August 29, 2003.

Jez Littlewood is a Research Fellow at the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies at the University of Southampton, UK.

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