Nonproliferation Review November 2011

Volume 18 • Number 3


View this issue’s note from the Editor


View this issue’s contributor bios


James Tetlow • William C. Potter


Ensuring the Future of the Biological Weapons Convention
Jean Pascal Zanders and Amy E. Smithson

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This introductory article first provides an overview of key historical developments pertaining to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), exposing the roots of the assertion that the treaty is unverifiable. The article also reviews the factors that have changed since the BWC’s negotiation, including those that loom over the BWC’s effective implementation today, with special emphasis on the challenges posed by the advancement and global diffusion of life sciences know-how, technologies, equipment, and capabilities. The narrative concludes with a description of the methodology behind this special issue of the Nonproliferation Review, introducing the contributing authors and the common questions they address in the context of their topics.

A (F)utile Intersessional Process? Strengthening the BWC by Defining Its Scope
Cindy Vestergaard and Animesh Roul

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During its thirty-five years, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has been scarred by treaty violations, failed compliance negotiations, and ambiguous treaty language. Essentially a bruised paper tiger, the BWC adds no clarification to its distinction between biological activities for peaceful versus hostile purposes and has amplified—rather than lessened—mistrust in states’ biological research and development potential. For the past two decades, these circumstances have generated multilateral annual discussions on BWC issues. From 2003 to 2010, intersessional talks centered on less controversial topics in an attempt to save the treaty from spiraling political tensions. States generally agree that this intersessional process was not futile and that it cooled some of the negative effects of the failed negotiations over a compliance protocol. At the upcoming Seventh BWC Review Conference this December, treaty members will weigh the utility of extending the process and its accompanying administrative Implementation Support Unit. The challenge will be to stimulate the evolution of the BWC beyond its hollow characterization to strengthen and inspire confidence in the treaty regime. This article examines the BWC’s ambiguous language and how it has affected diplomacy, reflects on intersessional discussions, acknowledges the (limited) scope of appropriate peaceful activities that can be identified under the BWC, and addresses ways in which to reinvigorate the treaty.

Ambitious Incrementalism: Enhancing BWC Implementation in the Absence of a Verification Protocol
Nicholas A. Sims and Jez Littlewood

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The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has continued along a path of slow evolution since the 2001 collapse of negotiations for a verification protocol for the treaty. Over the last ten years, two intersessional programs of work, along with the Sixth BWC Review Conference, have resulted in the establishment of practices and institutions that strengthen treaty implementation mechanisms. In addition, developments external to the BWC—such as the revitalization of the UN secretary-general’s investigation mechanism—have increased the range of mechanisms available to states to address challenges posed by biological weapons. The authors argue that incremental enhancements to the BWC offer the best route forward for the treaty and for the wider biological weapons prohibition regime. The authors identify short-, medium-, and longer- term proposals for such enhancements.

Improving Transparency: Revisiting and Revising the BWC’s Confidence-Building Measures
Iris Hunger and Shen Dingli

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The confidence-building measures (CBMs) under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) have been only moderately successful in enhancing transparency because of the limited participation of state parties and the poor quality of the data provided. In the absence of a verification protocol for the treaty, the CBMs constitute the primary means by which most treaty members can gain information useful for evaluating whether states are abiding by their treaty obligations. Given their importance, the CBMs need to be refashioned: in some areas the measures should be expanded to cover additional categories of life sciences activities directly relevant to treaty compliance and in other areas trimmed back to allow other organizations to handle activities closely related to their core missions and capabilities. This article explains the importance and function of transparency in the context of dual-use activities, reviews the evolution and the current status of the CBMs, identifies gaps and redundancies in the coverage of CBMs, and introduces proposals to transform the CBMs over time into stronger proto-declarations that can truly serve as source of information helpful in making judgments about compliance with the BWC’s prohibitions.

The Life Sciences Revolution and the BWC: Reconsidering the Science and Technology Review Process in a Post-Proliferation World
Caitríona McLeish and Ralf Trapp

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Reviews of science and technology are essential to maintain the strength of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The article provides an overview of recent trends in the life sciences and concludes that the emerging post-proliferation context requires a departure from traditional models of biological weapons nonproliferation based on top-down government controls. The evolving circumstances beg instead for a governance system that brings together all stakeholders—science, industry, government, and the public—and broadens as well as deepens the basis for compliance with the safe and responsible conduct and utilization of life sciences research. The article proposes a governance approach to be adopted by the Seventh BWC Review Conference that includes strong stakeholder involvement and a regular and holistic mechanism for science and technology reviews in the future.

A New Approach: Contributing to BWC Compliance via Biosafety, Biosecurity, and Biorisk Management
Philippe Stroot and Ursula Jenal

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This article describes the status of biosafety, biosecurity, and biorisk management worldwide and, considering the difficulties of enforcing and monitoring compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), analyzes how institutions’ effective biorisk management can help in responding to concerns regarding the prevention of the development of bioweapons that would otherwise be difficult to address. The biorisk management approach aims to ensure responsible, safe, and secure handling of biological materials. Developed with the support of the life sciences community, it contributes to the objectives of international organizations to respond to natural or deliberate biological threats to public health and the environment. Achieving effective biorisk management across all institutions still requires increased awareness at the highest level, as well as allocation of appropriate resources and efforts in both biosafety and biosecurity training and development and transfer of expertise. However, establishing and valuing a culture of ethical and safe behavior and implementing effective biorisk management appear likely to prevent misuse of biological materials and significantly improve control of potential dual-use issues in the life sciences community. For these reasons, the BWC should not only encourage state parties to take a more active part in ensuring the development of biosafety, biosecurity, and biorisk management, but also promote relevant non-state actor programs.

Preventing Misuse of the Life Sciences: The Need to Improve Biodefense Transparency and Accountability in the BWC
Roger Roffey and Chandré Gould

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The scope of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is sufficiently broad to deal with new threats emerging from developments in the life sciences; however, more thought still needs to be given to updating and improving measures to encourage biodefense-related information sharing and transparency between states. Biodefense is and has been at the core of the BWC, but the threat of bioterrorism should not distract BWC state parties or cause them to disregard the risk that illicit state-run bioweapons programs will utilize new advances in the life sciences. More states are pursuing biodefense programs—and spending more on such programs. The BWC community must address the issue of how states and civil society observers can determine the point at which a biodefense program, or parts of it, could be secretly transformed into an offensive bioweapons program. The authors propose several measures for increasing the transparency of biodefense programs, including: national oversight, confidence-building measures, mandatory codes of practice, confidence-building visits, and an international mechanism to encourage and protect whistleblowers. The authors conclude that unless accountability and transparency in biodefense programs can be attained within the next five years, the BWC will lose its relevance.

Hard to Prove: The Verification Quandary of the Biological Weapons Convention
Filippa Lentzos

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How can compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) best be ensured? The verification quandary—the difficulty in providing a high level of assurance that each state party is fully complying with its treaty obligations—has troubled the BWC since its inception in 1972. This article considers past difficulties in negotiating compliance monitoring provisions—such as states’ views on inspection procedures—and lays out short-, medium-, and long-term strategies to tackle what has been a very divisive issue. It argues that state parties should undertake conceptual discussions to develop common understandings on the most effective mechanisms to enhance compliance with the treaty, and that it will ultimately be up to state parties to demonstrate the political will necessary to develop measures to strengthen the BWC through effective compliance monitoring and verification measures, either through a new legally binding instrument or through building and augmenting existing provisions.

Creating a More Robust BWC Regime: A Time for Action
Jean Pascal Zanders and Amy E. Smithson

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This article summarizes the conclusions of the articles comprising this special issue. The findings and recommendations of the contributing authors are organized according to the three questions that they were asked to address regarding the implications of the life sciences revolution for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the appropriate venue to address various issues, and the steps needed to enhance the viability of the regime. For consideration at the Seventh BWC Review Conference and beyond, the contributing authors articulate an impressive number of pragmatic, constructive proposals to strengthen the norm against the misuse of biology and to reinforce the disarmament imperative that is embodied in the treaty.


Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond, by Amy E. Smithson
Reviewed by David E. Hoffman

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Germ Gambits is a well-researched and highly readable case study examining the work of the UN Special Commission in Iraq shows how it was possible to unearth the details of Iraq’s biological weapons program and also illustrates the incredible difficulties that inspectors faced as they confronted a hostile adversary that for years attempted to conceal the program. Amy E. Smithson demonstrates that, given enough time and the right skills, determined gumshoes can root out evidence of a state-sponsored germ warfare program. She also points out that today’s verification challenges are far greater than those in the past and calls for a fresh effort to address global biosecurity risks.

Getting to Zero: The Path to Nuclear Disarmament, edited by Catherine M. Kelleher and Judith Reppy
Reviewed by Barry M. Blechman

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Getting to Zero, a collection of essays edited by Catherine M. Kelleher and Judith Reppy, outlines both the technical and political obstacles blocking agreement on the elimination of nuclear weapons and examines the means of resolving many of them. Apparently written and edited during the spring and summer of 2010, the volume reflects the optimism of the time about the prospects for rapid progress toward eliminating nuclear weapons but does not shy away from recognizing the enormity and difficulty of the task. Although some of the essays merely rehash well-known events and national perspectives, others contain new insights and constructive ideas that are worth pondering.


Statements of fact and opinion expressed in The Nonproliferation Review are the responsibility of the authors alone and do not imply the endorsement of the editors, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, or the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
The Nonproliferation Review ISSN 1073-6700
Copyright © 2011 by Monterey Institute of International Studies