Out of the Valley: Advancing the Biological Weapons Convention after the 2006 Review Conference

By Littlewood, Jez | Arms Control Today, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Out of the Valley: Advancing the Biological Weapons Convention after the 2006 Review Conference


Littlewood, Jez, Arms Control Today


At 6:15 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 8, 2006, the Sixth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was brought to a close with smiles, handshakes, and the resounding applause of 103 delegations in Geneva. Less audible was a collective sigh of relief that the conference ended amicably, unlike its predecessor five years ago. Without opening up old wounds, states-parties reached an agreement that reaffirmed the basic prohibitions against biological weapons and endorsed decisions on further work to strengthen implementation of the convention.

The outcome of the conference, which had begun three weeks earlier, unequivocally signaled for more than 100 status that biological weapons remain illegitimate and illegal. Triumphant, the president of the conference, Ambassador Masood Khan of Pakistan, said that, "without any exaggeration, this is a historic moment, both for the Biological Weapons Convention and for multilateral security and disarmament."1

Nongovernmental observers were more circumspect, referring to the outcome as a "modest success" at best.2 Others went further, noting that "the set of accomplishments was meager and far from commensurate with the gravity and urgency of the biological weapons threat."3 Even The Economist reflected that it is both a puzzle and a worry that the bar for measuring progress in the BWC has dropped so low, given the scale of scientific developments relevant to biological weapons and the threat of terrorism.4

These divergent assessments reflect differing expectations for the review conference and, more fundamentally, differing perceptions of what such a conference can actually do to counter the biological weapons threat. A review conference does not solve problems; if successful, it lays the ground for additional work in a wide variety of areas to address difficulties. This review conference, by healing past wounds and opening up channels for discussion, has created new opportunities for more progress. The key question for the outcome of this conference is not a debate over whether the outcome should be judged a "modest" or "historic" success, but whether states-parties and civil society will take advantage of the opportunities created between now and 2011.

Successes of the Review Conference

The review conference scored some tangible achievements.5 The obvious successes include the establishment of an implementation support unit to provide administrative and other support to facilitate implementation of the convention as well as an agreement on a work program from 2007 to 2010 to advance the convention. Member-states also pledged greater efforts to achieve universal adherence to the convention, which would require 16 signatories and 24 non-states-parties to join the 155 states that have signaled their rejection of biological weajxms under any circumstances.6"

Just as important, however, agreement was reached in other areas critical to the day-to-day management of biological disarmament. These include the reaffirmation that the use of biological or toxin weapons is effectively a violation of the convention and a clear statement against terrorism and any terrorist use of biological weapons. Linked to these was a renewed signal from the states-parties to provide support and assistance to each other in the event of biological weapons use, regardless of such use being by another state-party, a state not party to the convention, or a nonstate actor such as a terrorist group. The reaffirmation of the scope of the convention's prohibitions and its application to all scientific and technological developments is also not insignificant. There was continued emphasis on the requirement for effective national implementation efforts, including export controls and penal legislation to implement the BWC. Small but potentially important successes can also be found in the call for the establishment of national points of contact in each state-party to facilitate communication and coordination of efforts and in the acknowledgement of the need to increase the quality and quantity of submissions under the annual confidence-building measures (CBMs).

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Out of the Valley: Advancing the Biological Weapons Convention after the 2006 Review Conference
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