BWC States Address Safety, Security Measures

Article excerpt

At a Dec. 1-5 meeting, states-parties to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) discussed steps to improve the safety and security of biological agents as well as oversight mechanisms to prevent the misuse of biotechnology for hostile purposes.

The conference was the second of a series of four annual meetings to prepare for the 2011 review conference and part of an intersessional mechanism agreed at the last review conference in 2006. (See ACT, January/February 2007.)

The Cook Islands' Dec. 4 accession brought the number of BWC states-parties to 163. Ninety-seven states-parties were present at the meeting in Geneva.

Intersessional meetings are not expected to arrive at consensus conclusions. Thus, the Macedonian chair Ambassador Georgi Avramchev in a synthesis paper attached to the conference's final report merely summarized proposals made during a oneweek meeting of experts that had taken place in August 2008 on the same issue. (See ACT, October 2008.) Several states-parties representatives pointed out that the chair's list of measures was more detailed than, for example, similar documents that had been tabled at intersessional meetings in 2003 and 2005 on related issues. Such specificity was possible only at the price of simply listing possible national measures without urging states actually to implement them.

Nevertheless, participants highlighted as a positive trend that the meeting demonstrated growing international convergence in defining the issues at hand, with most parties now agreeing that biosafety measures have the goal of protecting humans from biological agents and that biosecurity entails measures to protect relevant agents and technologies.

Differences remained on the relation between biosafety and biosecurity on the one hand and other topics covered by the BWC on the other. Although Western states tended to emphasize the intrinsic value of measures to improve the safety and security of dangerous pathogens, developing countries placed the issue in the context of peaceful cooperation in biotechnology. Thus, Anayansi Rodriguez Camejo of Cuba, speaking Dec. 1 on behalf of the group of states in the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), argued that "achieving necessary standards in the fields of biosafety and biosecurity requires and is facilitated by international cooperation and strengthening the implementation of Article X" of the BWC on cooperation among states-parties on peaceful uses of biotechnology.

Richard Lennane, head of the BWCs Implementation Support Unit (ISU), in a Dec. 17 interview with Arms Control Today observed a shift of thinking among nonaligned countries. "The fact that the NAM are linking progress on these issues to peaceful cooperation is very positive. It is a clear sign that the stark political divide between developing and industrialized countries on the relation between cooperation and control under the BWC is dissolving." A knowledgeable U.S. official in a Dec. 18 interview with Arms Control Today highlighted the common ground between Western and nonaligned positions on biosafety and biosecurity issues. "Many nonaligned [countries] recognized the intrinsic value of biosafety and biosecurity measures. And this is an area where the EU [European Union] and the United States are increasingly active and we have a growing outreach program."

There remained apparent differences of emphasis with regard to the importance of oversight mechanisms for laboratory activities and codes of conduct, which were also discussed during the meeting. NAM countries were weary of undue limitations on scientific research and cautioned that "codes of conduct should avoid any restrictions on exchange of scientific discoveries in the field of biology for prevention of disease and other peaceful purposes." Lennane observed that "those countries with less experience in involving civil society in policy administration are more cautious about the possible role of codes of conduct than others. …