BOOK REVIEW: Biological Weapons Breakdown

By Tucker, Jonathan B. | Arms Control Today, May 2005 | Go to article overview
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BOOK REVIEW: Biological Weapons Breakdown

Tucker, Jonathan B., Arms Control Today

BOOK REVIEW: Biological Weapons Breakdown

The Biological Weapons Convention: A Failed Revolution

By Jez Littlewood

Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2005, 250 pp.

Nearly four years have passed since the Bush administration's dramatic rejection of a draft protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), leading to the collapse of a decade-long effort to supplement the BWC with formal compliance measures. In his valuable insider account of the ill-fated negotiations, Jez Littlewood of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom challenges the conventional wisdom about this debacle. The BWC protocol, he writes, "was not as close to completion as some post-collapse assessments actually claim, not as strong as some of its proponents have intimated, and not as weak as many of its detractors have sought to portray." Moreover, although the United States was "the principal cause" of the failure of the talks, there was plenty of blame to go around.

The Biological Weapons Convention: A Failed Revolution is based on Littlewood's doctoral dissertation but fortunately does not suffer from the dry, jargon-filled prose that afflicts much academic writing. Instead, the book is written in a clear, forceful, and at times passionate style that reflects the author's familiarity with the subject and his deep commitment to disarmament. Between 1998 and 2002, Littlewood worked for the secretariat of the protocol negotiations at the UN office in Geneva, initially as an intern and later as a contract staff member. As a result, he had a "ringside seat" at all of the official negotiating sessions from July 1998 to August 2001, as well as the two sessions of the fifth BWC review conference in 2001-2002.

Because multilateral negotiations are normally off limits to outside observers, Littlewood enjoyed extraordinary access, and he has made good use of it to write a definitive account of the protocol negotiations that corrects a number of errors in the scholarly literature. After two introductory chapters that review the history of the BWC up to the protocol negotiations, the core of the book consists of six chapters devoted to the basic elements of the draft treaty: declarations, on-site visits and clarification procedures, investigations, export controls, peaceful cooperation, and the proposed Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons. Although these chapters provide a useful service for future arms control historians, the level of detail is probably excessive for all but hardcore specialists. The book's final two chapters are of greatest interest for the general reader and include a thoughtful analysis of why the protocol negotiations went awry and the enduring consequences of failure.

The BWC was controversial from the start. Although based on a British draft convention of 1969, the final version of the treaty, which opened for signature in 1972, was essentially a bilateral agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union that was then imposed on the other participating states as a fait accompli. By the time the Cold War superpowers finished reworking the BWC, they had dropped all formal verification provisions and assigned sole responsibility for investigating noncompliance to the UN security Council, enabling Moscow and Washington to use their veto power to block inquiries into their own activities or those of their allies.

These changes reduced the BWC to little more than a gentleman's agreement, with no agreed set of procedures for states-parties to demonstrate their compliance and to monitor and, if necessary, compel the compliance of others. Four years after the treaty entered into force, a suspicious outbreak of human anthrax in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk in 1979 suggested that Moscow was violating the BWC-a suspicion later confirmed by senior defectors-clearly demonstrating the need for stronger measures to check compliance. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the member states made modest, incremental steps to strengthen the convention, such as introducing politically binding confidence-building measures (CBMs) involving annual exchanges of data on maximum-containment labs, outbreaks of infectious disease, and other relevant topics.

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