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June 2, 2022
BWC Meeting Makes Incremental Changes
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Daniel Horner and Oliver Meier

The 2011 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Review Conference ended Dec. 22 with participants generally saying they were satisfied with the consensus agreement on a final document but with many expressing some disappointment that the conference failed to adopt significant changes in the treaty regime.

The BWC, which came into force in 1975, prohibits the development, stockpiling, and possession of biological weapons, yet unlike the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or the Chemical Weapons Convention, compliance with the accord is not monitored by an international organization. Talks on a verification mechanism collapsed in 2001 after the United States rejected a draft protocol.

As most observers expected, the states-parties did not narrow their differences on contentious issues relating to treaty compliance and verification at the three-week conference in Geneva.

Other areas had been seen as more likely to produce agreement. For example, some key states had pushed for a strengthened “intersessional process,” the annual meetings of BWC parties in the years between review conferences. There also were proposals to expand the size and mandate of the Implementation Support Unit (ISU), the three-person secretariat that provides institutional support to BWC members, and to revise the exchange of relevant information among the parties under the regime’s so-called confidence-building measures. The parties made some changes in those areas though not as many as some had hoped.

“Overall, we have done pretty well. In some areas, we could have done better,” conference president Paul van den IJssel of the Netherlands said in a Dec. 23 interview.

Van den IJssel, who is the Dutch ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, called the conference’s agreement on changes to the intersessional process “a glass half-full and a glass half-empty.”

Under the arrangement, whose format has remained basically unchanged since it was first agreed in 2002, experts and diplomats from states-parties meet annually “to discuss, and promote common understanding and effective action” on specific topics. During previous meetings, parties have not made legally binding decisions. One of the proposals publicly raised prior to the review conference was to give explicit authorization for the 2012-2015 annual meetings to make such decisions or recommendations. However, the 103 delegations present in Geneva agreed only “to retain previous structures” and left the mandate of the intersessional meetings unchanged.

The parties did change the meetings’ agenda. Previously, there had been different topics for each year; now, three standing agenda items will be discussed every year. These are cooperation and assistance, related to the treaty’s Article X on the peaceful uses of biological agents and toxins; developments in science and technology; and national implementation of countries’ commitments under the treaty. In addition, the first two annual meetings will discuss ways to increase participation in the confidence-building measures, and the next two meetings will focus on cooperation and assistance in case of a biological weapons attack. An almost identical set of issues already has been discussed at previous intersessional meetings.

Van den IJssel cited the parties’ failure to agree on granting the annual meetings the power to make legally binding decisions as one example of the half-empty glass. However, he said the decision to have three standing topics strengthens the intersessional process because it will “enable us to have structured discussions under the [intersessional process] and make progress on three important issues.”

Western states had maintained that giving annual meetings decision-making power was both feasible and desirable. In their joint position for the review conference, the 27 member states of the European Union argued for “enhanced arrangements for further progress” under a new intersessional process. A senior member of a European country delegation said in a Dec. 23 interview that although there had been “some progress,” it was “regrettable” that the annual meetings were not given the power to make binding decisions.

In a Dec. 23 conference call with journalists, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said the United States had also favored giving the parties decision-making power, a step he described as “a very modest innovation” that would have made the BWC and the intersessional process “a little bit more nimble.” However, he said, some countries expressed concerns about “allowing even a limited range of decisions to be made” outside the review conferences.

A Russian official argued in a Jan. 2 e-mail to Arms Control Today that because the 2012-2015 intersessional process is “very similar” to the one from 2007 to 2010, “it is logical that its mandate should remain the same.” He wrote that “[d]ecision-making powers, therefore, shall continue to rest with [the] Review Conference, unless delegated by it to subsidiary bodies for achieving some notable and consensually accepted goal.” This point was echoed by Bilal Ahmad, first secretary at Pakistan’s mission to the UN office in Geneva. In a Jan. 3 interview, he argued that because the BWC does not “specifically set out” an intersessional process, decision-making remains a prerogative of the review conference.

A diplomat from another key country in the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) said agreement on broader changes in the intersessional process “was not achievable.” On the plus side, he said, the process now “is more structured and will address more substantial issues.” He added, “I believe there is scope to move a bit on the decision-making issue during the [period between review conferences], but that will depend on the Chairs [of the annual meetings].”

Financial Pressures

In his interview, van den IJssel cited the ISU as an “area where I had hoped we would do better.” The delegates “could not agree on an increase in the budget to enable a modest increase of the size” of the support unit, he said. Participants said they discussed adding two ISU staff positions to the current three.

“Understandable financial concerns” by some countries were “the most important reason” for the failure to agree on the expansion, van den IJssel said, but he conceded that he “did not foresee this problem as being so severe.” Countryman offered a similar account of the conference’s decision in this area.

The senior European official said that “Greece, Portugal, and Spain, which were hit hard by the euro crisis, opposed any increase in funding.”

When the BWC parties created the ISU at their last review conference, in 2006, they authorized funding through 2011. Therefore, they had to make a decision during the 2011 conference on the unit’s future. The 2006 mandate was renewed, with the only additional task being to administer a database to match requests for and offers of assistance among the parties. The decision to establish the database was another point of agreement at the December conference.

Because “no substantial administrative burden was added” and “the available staff were sufficient to perform the mandate,” the parties “decided to retain the ISU [at] its original strength,” the Russian official said.

Ahmad said Pakistan was supportive of the idea of increasing the number of ISU staff if the tasks assigned to it warranted such an increase. Pakistan also considered it important that the staff assignments follow the relevant UN rules on rotation and equitable geographical distribution, he said.

Transparency, Compliance, and Verification

One result of the conference that drew praise from multiple participants was the decision to revise the forms that countries use to exchange the confidence-building information. In a Jan. 5 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Countryman elaborated on his Dec. 23 comments by saying that some of those changes “will clarify the questions posed to States Parties to provide for more consistent and relevant data collection” and others will “reduce the reporting burden by eliminating requirements that have been superseded.”

The parties also agreed that they would discuss “how to enable fuller participation” in the process. Currently, fewer than half of the 165 states-parties fulfill their political commitments to submit the forms. Van den IJssel commented that the confidence-building measures “are not always the easiest topic,” but said that “if you had asked me before the review conference, I would have been happy with the outcome that we have achieved now.”

Although there was some progress in that area, conflicting positions on verification and compliance persisted. The Obama administration has said that effective verification under the treaty is impossible and has made clear that it will not seek to revive the talks on a compliance protocol. The EU, in its joint position statement, had described verification as “a central element” of an effective treaty, but recognized that there is “currently no consensus” on this. The EU members stated their willingness “to work towards identifying options that could achieve similar goals.”

As it has in the past, Russia pushed for a legally binding verification mechanism. In his e-mail, the Russian official described the proposal as “a discussion mandate for the next intersessional process [that] would have provided an opportunity for a conceptual non-binding exchange of views without necessarily leading to any follow-up action.”

The NAM countries, by far the biggest regional grouping, in their statement reiterated that, for them, “the only sustainable method of strengthening the convention” is negotiation of a legally binding agreement on compliance.

Several participants pointed to cooperation among China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia as a significant new factor during the conference. The five countries come from different regional groupings. India, Iran, and Pakistan are members of the NAM; China is not part of the NAM but often joins with that group; and Russia is part of the Eastern European Group.

During the last week of the conference, the countries issued a “non-paper” on the intersessional process, which also called for consideration of “multilateral verification measures” as one issue to be discussed under the process. Some observers and participants said this intervention at a late stage of the conference was not helpful.

The European diplomat said that, on the broad issue of compliance, “there was no progress” at the review conference. “China, Cuba, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, acting as a group of like-minded states, pushed too hard for issues like Article X and a legally binding verification instrument. In the end, this was one of the reasons why we did not see agreement on a reasonable package of strengthened measures to address compliance with the BWC,” he argued.

The NAM-country diplomat summarized the debate over verification and compliance by saying that some words are “either loved or hated passionately by states” and “verification is such a word.” According to the diplomat, “The ‘verification’ lovers would not accept ‘compliance’ without ‘verification,’” which left no basis on which to build consensus.

Results and Prospects

The NAM-country diplomat said he was “satisfied” with the conference’s outcome. He added, “We have learned over years that it is always difficult to make any substantial change in this environment. Therefore, one has to accept small steps.”

In the run-up to the meeting, van den IJssel had said the parties’ approach should not be to settle for the lowest common denominator but rather to apply “ambitious realism.” Ahmad said the results were “very much in line” with that goal. A noteworthy accomplishment was the inclusion of assistance and cooperation with a particular focus on Article X as a standing agenda item in the intersessional process, he said.

The European official said the results “could have been worse.” He called the final document “a modest achievement,” but added that “there is likely to be no progress on many important issues over the next five years.”