Lucky Number Seven?

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Amanda Moodie
December 23, 2011

The 2011 Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference

At the Seventh Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention, which took place in Geneva from 5 to 22 December 2011, States Parties adopted a forward-looking document containing a number of proposals to strengthen and improve the Convention. The Conference also featured a video message from the United Nations Secretary-General and a surprise visit from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the highest-ranking U.S. official to speak to a Convention meeting in decades. Numerous side events and statements were made by a wide range of non-governmental organizations. These developments indicate that the BWC, whose health and longevity has long been a concern for its States Parties, is benefiting from new approaches to the challenges stemming from the misuse of the life sciences. Yet political divisions and the economic situation meant that it was difficult for the delegations to take any truly progressive steps.

Lucky Number Seven? Paul van den IJssel and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

Netherlands Ambassador Paul van den IJssel, President of the Seventh Review Conference for BWC and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, geneva.usmission.gov

Like the NPT and CWC, the BWC is reviewed every five years, when over a hundred States Parties come together to revise and update its provisions. Disagreements over how to assess compliance and punish violations led to particularly contentious negotiations at the Fifth Review Conference in 2001, when the United States rejected a draft protocol on verification and the Conference was unable to reach agreement on a final declaration. Since that nadir, however, States Parties have indicated a willingness to reach compromise and search for innovative solutions to the Convention’s shortcomings. The Sixth Review Conference successfully agreed on an agenda and a final report and adopted a program of work for the intervening years, but the standard for success at that conference was deemed by most participants and experts to be remarkably low. Thus expectations were high that the Seventh Review Conference would be able to take several steps toward bolstering the health of the Convention.

Delegates and experts who have participated in several Review Conferences agreed that the atmosphere at this meeting was remarkably positive. Although the representatives of the States Parties clearly recognized that there was much work to be done and that everyone would have to make some sacrifices, most delegates appeared hopeful about the prospects for success. This was helped by the fact that the President of the Conference, Ambassador Paul van den Ijssel, as well as Ambassador Desra Percaya, who chaired the Committee of the Whole, and the facilitators for other issues all made an effort to keep the mood light, despite acknowledging the seriousness of the work at hand.

Most States Parties and analysts agreed that there were six major issues that needed to be addressed at the Conference in order for it to be considered a success: verification and confidence-building measures; reviews of developments in science and technology; cooperation and assistance under Article X of the Convention relative to the peaceful uses of the life sciences; the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) and its future; the Intersessional Process and how it might develop; and universality of the Convention. It appears that there was some minor progress on each of these issues at the Conference.

The most contentious issue proved to be the Intersessional Process. After the debacle of the 2001 Review Conference, the BWC established the ISP, which consisted of two annual gatherings, a Meeting of Experts and a Meeting of States Parties, at which participants could discuss a circumscribed list of topics and rebuild a spirit of trust and cooperation. While this process has been surprisingly successful , leading to progress on many of the topics discussed, it was never designed to serve as a permanent substitute for strengthening the Convention. While most delegations supported continuation of the practice of annual meetings among the Convention’s signatories, the States Parties were deeply divided over what the new ISP should discuss; whether the annual meetings should be able to take decisions or whether that power should be reserved for the five-year Review Conferences; how long each annual meeting should last; and whether certain topics could be addressed over a period of several years rather than only once, as had been the practice during the previous two processes.

Meetings on the ISP lasted well past midnight on the second-to-last day of the Conference, but ultimately the negotiations did result in an agreement. There will be three standing agenda items: national implementation, international cooperation and assistance, and reviews of developments in relevant science and technology. Discussion on these items will continue over multiple years. Every year there will be a Meeting of Experts, followed by a Meeting of States Parties, each of which will last five days. The rules of the meeting will be the same as those adopted at the previous Review Conference, which states that all meetings “will reach any results or conclusions by consensus” and that the next Review Conference will consider their work and “decide on any further action.” Thus the annual meetings have no decision-making power. This was a disappointment to many states, who hoped that the ISP could include more stakeholders, contain longer Meetings of Experts, and make decisions that could help to shape the BWC regime.

Part of the challenge of negotiating the ISP issue was that a number of Parties were very concerned about budgetary and financial issues due to the global economic crisis, a factor that also had an impact on the negotiations about the ISU’s mandate. While all of the delegates who took the floor on this issue praised the ISU’s efforts over the past four-and-a-half years, particularly given its limited resources, many of them were concerned about how its future work would be funded and whether any expansion of the Unit would be financially feasible. Compromise on this issue was only achieved by agreeing that the budget would represent zero growth from 2010, taking into account exchange rate fluctuations and inflation.

Agreement on the other critical issues hinged on the decisions made about the future of the ISP. In some cases, the ISP would have a direct effect on the other issues: for example, the language in the Final Document regarding the reviews of developments in science and technology depended on whether this was included as a standing issue in the ISP, which in turn depended on whether the ISP would even include multi-year discussions. In other cases, States Parties wanted to reserve their position on particular issues until they saw how the ISP negotiations were likely to end. One such issue was a proposed database system to facilitate requests for assistance. Article X of the Convention requires States Parties to provide assistance with equipment, materials, and scientific and technical information regarding the use of biological and toxin agents for peaceful purposes, and one proposal under discussion was the creation of a database system that could match requests and offers for such assistance. While most States Parties favored the idea, several noted that the Final Document would need to strike a delicate balance among all of the obligations listed in the Convention, and that they would wait to declare their support until they saw progress on the ISP issue.

With regard to verification and compliance, the final document adopted on December 22 does not go as far as some States Parties might have preferred. Some submitted working papers before the Convention arguing for a working group to address compliance issues; others called for the restart of negotiations on a verification or monitoring protocol. Ultimately, however, the Final Document avoids any potentially contentious language on this issue. The question of compliance is addressed as part of a possible topic for discussion under the national implementation agenda item. The document also calls for some revisions to the Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs), the annual reports on relevant activities that States Parties are required to submit, in order to increase transparency and improve their function.

While some participants and non-government experts may feel that few truly progressive steps appeared in the Seventh Review Conference’s final document, it is surprising that States Parties were able to agree on so much, given the wide divergence of views on the biological weapons issue as well as the global financial situation. Political groupings such as the Non-Aligned Movement or the Western Group, which usually maintain coordinated positions in other multilateral negotiating fora for disarmament, often see issues such as verification or export controls on biotechnology from very different perspectives. This means that consensus on even minor issues can be more difficult to find, since negotiations must take place among many more interested parties whose interests and priorities may differ sharply. Moreover, given that several Parties have stated that they have adopted policies of zero growth for their contributions to the United Nations or other international organizations, any progressive action that would increase the costs to States Parties would have been truly contentious. Given the economic environment as well as the global political situation at the moment, the adoption of a Final Document at the Seventh Review Conference with even moderate amendments to the Convention’s workings must be considered a qualified success.

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