Experts Seek Measures to Control Bioweapons

By Meier, Oliver | Arms Control Today, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Experts Seek Measures to Control Bioweapons


Meier, Oliver, Arms Control Today


The first of a series of meetings in preparation for the 2011 review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) produced no concrete results but was hailed by participants for its positive atmosphere. Experts and diplomats from 90 BWC states-parties as well as representatives from a range of international organizations met in Geneva Aug. 20-24 to discuss ways and means to enhance national implementation of the biological weapons prohibition, including law enforcement, and measures to improve regional and subregional cooperation on BWC implementation.

The meeting was the first in a series of intersessional gatherings agreed to at the last review conference in 2006. (see ACT, January/February 2007.) It took place against the background of lingering differences about how much attention to spend on the threat from bioterrorism. It also remains unclear whether a follow-up meeting of BWC states-parties in December will be able to decide on specific measures to improve implementation of the biological weapons ban.

Differences on Bioterrorism

National implementation measures, which include laws, administrative procedures, and regulations to bring domestic laws into conformity with BWC obligations, had already been discussed at a similar conference in 2003, and many delegations effectively rehashed their statements.

In the background, however, divisions between participants about the relative importance of discussions on the threat from bioterrorism lingered. Some states-parties are concerned that bioterrorism, an issue high on the U.S. agenda, receives too much consideration. They emphasize that other issues could be neglected, such as state-sponsored biological weapons activities and scientific developments that could lead to the development of novel biological warfare agents.

German expert and delegation member Volker Beck told Arms Control Today Sept. 13 that "states-parties should take care that discussions on bioterrorism do not gain too much weight" at the December 2007 meeting nor during the general intersessional process. Beck argued that tackling the threat from bioterrorism is only one element of BWC implementation and that statesponsored biological weapons activities must also receive adequate attention, especially considering rapid developments in the life sciences that might be misused for hostile purposes. "The balance must be right," he cautioned. Beck pointed out as an example that although improving the enforcement of national legislation, an issue highlighted by the U.S. delegation, is an important goal, a number of states do not even have appropriate legislation in place.

Others disagree. "Bioterrorism is an important subject but that doesn't mean that, in the context of national Implementation, people are losing sight of other issues, particularly scientific developments of relevance to the BWC," Pakistani ambassador Masood Khan, who chaired the meeting, told Arms Control Today in an interview Sept. 17.

Fears that the danger from bioterrorism is being exaggerated also lingered when experts discussed a proposal from the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs (ODA) to create a bioincident database under its auspices. Some experts questioned the ODA's intention to include biological weapons hoaxes in the database, apparently suspecting a ploy to increase resources devoted to the effort. It also remains unclear how the ODA intends to deal with a 2006 UN General Assembly resolution requiring that the database complement a similar effort by Interpol that is designed to compile a list of "biocrimes."

Launch of the Implementation Support Unit

On Aug. 20, BWC states-parties celebrated the official launch of the Implementation Support Unit (ISU), a BWC mini-secretariat with a staff of three agreed on at the sixth review conference. Its administrative tasks include serving as a clearinghouse on a range of BWC-related activities.

Of particular relevance to the 2007 BWC meetings is the ISU's responsibility to coordinate efforts to assist states-parties in meeting national implementation obligations.

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