Enhancing Compliance with an Evolving Treaty: A Task for an Improved BWC Intersessional Process

By Bansak, Kirk C. | Arms Control Today, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Enhancing Compliance with an Evolving Treaty: A Task for an Improved BWC Intersessional Process


Bansak, Kirk C., Arms Control Today


Since 2003, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) regime has featured annual meetings to address specific topics. These meetings, which comprise the treaty's so-called intersessional process, take place in the years in which review conferences do not. Review conferences are infrequent, occuring about every five years; states-parties are hard-pressed to effect far-reaching changes given the short, three-week duration of these gatherings. Thus, work performed before and between the conferences is vital to the health of the BWC.

In theory, recurring meetings between review conferences create a more continuous and effective method for improving the treaty regime, providing opportunities to develop agreed "understandings" that strengthen the treaty or expand its scope. Unfortunately, however, the meetings under the BWC intersessional process in its current form have not been able to fully deliver these benefits to the parties.

With the seventh review conference of the BWC approaching in December of this year, the parties have a chance not only to renew but also to enhance the intersessional process. Although they have shown support for the process, some parties have become increasingly unsatisfied with its limited mandate, which has prevented them from taking formal decisions leading to follow-up actions and has constrained the scope of issues addressed each year. This latter shortcoming has been particularly significant because it has meant that past intersessional meetings have not addressed a central requirement of the treaty: ensuring that the states-parties are in compliance with the ban on the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons. This task, considered to be the core purpose of the treaty, became a controversial topic for discussion after the collapse during the 2001 review conference of negotiations on a legally binding mechanism, popularly known as the "verification protocol," for monitoring and enhancing compliance with the treaty. Thus, compliance issues were not included in the prescribed collection of intersessional topics from 2003 to 2010.

Now, with an increasing distance from the 2001 conference and a growing political openness to discussing BWC compliance, the parties can and should begin to tackle compliance issues during the next intersessional work program. This new emphasis, combined with a stronger mandate for consensus decisionmaking, would allow the parties to build reciprocal confidence in compliance and to work toward remedying one of the BWC regime's major flaws: its inability to monitor and enforce compliance. At the same time, the parties must keep in mind the great contributions made by past intersessional meetings and must preserve the strengths of the current process, such as its role in providing a multidisciplinary forum for security and health experts to discuss measures and strategies for protecting the world against the entire spectrum of biological threats, both natural and manmade.

Birth of the Process

During the summer of 2001, six and a half years of negotiations on a legally binding mechanism for monitoring and enhancing compliance with the BWC came to an abrupt end when the U.S. government rejected the draft verification protocol. Since the entry into force of the BWC in 1975, one of its distinguishing features had been the lack of formal measures to verify its prohibitions on the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons. Events in the 1990s, namely the public exposure of the vast offensive biological weapons program run by the Soviet Union in contravention of the BWC and the difficulties determining the Iraqi biological threat, had exemplified the danger of a treaty without teeth. Consequently, the parties had decided to address this problem by establishing a negotiating forum called the Ad Hoc Group to develop a legally binding verification mechanism, which would include the declaration and routine inspection of treaty-relevant facilities, such as vaccine production plants. …

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