The Limits of Modest Progress: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Efforts to Strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention

By Borrie, John | Arms Control Today, October 2006 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Modest Progress: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Efforts to Strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention


Borrie, John, Arms Control Today


Next month, Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) member states will gather for a review conference five years after a previous meeting dissolved amid acrimony. So far, the signs are that countries participating in November's BWC review meeting will avoid a repeat of late 2001's scarring experience. Since 2002, a modest work program has helped to rebuild a measure of confidence in the BWC process. On the whole, states-parties have been able to move beyond political rhetoric and toward improving practical implementation of BWC provisions. The conference may take these efforts further still, but given the changes transforming the life sciences, these efforts may be too little and perhaps too late.

The BWC and the Draft Protocol

The BWC emerged from the Nixon administration's recognition that a biological arms race was not in the United States' strategic interest and that it should abolish its germ weapons program. The BWC was signed in 1972 with the United Kingdom, United States, and Soviet Union as depository states. Three years later, it entered into force.

However, a major shortcoming of the BWC was that, despite its comprehensive ban on biological weapons, it lacked mechanisms for ensuring confidence in compliance. Indeed, BWC member-states as diverse as the Soviet Union and South Africa carried on clandestine germ-warfare activities. Meanwhile, although successive five-year review meetings acknowledged the convention's weaknesses, not until the 1990s did an agreement emerge to develop a regime to enhance confidence in compliance. A special BWC conference in 1994 set up an Ad Hoc Group to develop a legally binding instrument to strengthen the convention.

The Ad Hoc Group Negotiations

From the early stages of the Ad Hoc Group negotiations, the United States and Russia were ambivalent about the prospect of a verification instrument. Efforts at trilateral inspections of facilities potentially relevant to biological warfare programs among the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia in the early 1990s had encountered mixed success. Meanwhile, Iraqi deception and obfuscation seemed to be successfully impeding the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) investigation of Saddam Hussein's biological warfare activities.1

This ambivalence about the value of a protocol hampered the creation of a robust instrument. Over time it became apparent to other Ad Hoc Group delegations that the United States was not prepared to provide the leadership it had displayed, for instance, in the Chemical Weapons Convention negotiations. Such leadership was necessary for ereating a robust compliance regime in the face of continual resistance from countries with minimalist positions on verification, such as China and Cuba, India, Iran, and Pakistan, the hard-line members of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM).2 Russia, meanwhile, remained largely silent, apart from trying to establish basic definitions and "objective criteria" in the evolving protocol draft. If accepted, these would have undermined the convention by circumscribing the scope of its existing prohibitions.3

As the draft protocol text was fleshed out-at one stage, the rolling text was more than 300 pages long and contained thousands of brackets around passages of text not yet agreed-U.S. officials increasingly expressed their concerns about its compliance elements. These concerns became more strident as the chairman of the negotiations, Ambassador Tibor Tóth of Hungary, tried to push the Ad Hoc Group's work toward completion before the fifth BWC review meeting in late 2001. Toth released a composite text in late March 2001, choosing the compromise most likely to secure general agreement.

In public, the strongest U.S. reservations hinged on the draft protocol not being sufficiently robust and on the potential risks for industry proprietary commercial information. It was also clear, however, that U.S. concerns related to protecting national security-related biodefense activities from prying eyes. …

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