Bare-Bones Multilateralism at the BWC Review Conference

By Meier, Oliver | Arms Control Today, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Bare-Bones Multilateralism at the BWC Review Conference


Meier, Oliver, Arms Control Today


IN JULY 2001 the Bush administration rejected years of work to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), withdrawing from negotiations that had produced a draft of a legally binding protocol intended to help enforce the treaty. A few months later, on the last day of the BWC's fifth review conference, at which nations had hoped to adopt the protocol formally, Undersecretary of State John Bolton demanded that the protocol negotiations be terminated. Most other BWC parties, including many close allies, however, felt it was crucial to continue those talks; and the review conference had to be adjourned for 11 months to prevent a breakdown.

As November 2002 and the resumption of the conference approached, Washington's opposition hardened even further. In September, Bolton informed allies that Washington not only opposed a continuation of the protocol negotiations but also did not want any multilateral meetings of BWC states-parties whatsoever between 2002 and 2006. According to Bolton's speaking points, the United States wanted a very short second half to the fifth review conference, "if any." Ominously, Bolton directly threatened to "name names"-Le., accuse states of violating the BWC, as he had done in 2001, and thereby throw the conference into chaos-if the meeting was not "very short."

The result was what might be called a new form of multilateral diplomacy. The second part of the fifth review conference, scheduled to last two weeks, ended November 15, after four short days during which less than two hours were spent in plenary session. States-parties did agree to meet three times before the next review conference, but the agenda for those meetings excludes the most urgent issues, such as noncompliance, transparency, the development of so-called nonlethal biological agents, and scientific developments that can lead to qualitatively new biological weapons. States-parties will also not talk about new international instruments to strengthen the treaty. Instead, annual meetings will only discuss ways to improve national measures and existing international mechanisms to combat biological weapons.

Most BWC parties believe that the bioweapons ban needs to be strengthened multilaterally. The review conferences operate by consensus, however, and the United States opposes any multilateral talks on topics such as transparency, verification, or compliance. Under these circumstances, the Geneva compromise may have been the best deal achievable, but further action is needed. Appeasing the Bush Administration

Because of the Bush administration's hostility to the conference, the meeting's principal purpose from the beginning was avoiding spectacular failure. It was mainly up to U.S. allies in the Western Group and the president of the review conference, Tibor T6th, to convince the Bush administration of the value of not letting the conference collapse. In Toth's final analysis, avoiding contentious issues was the only way to reach a compromise and meet that goal.

The price to be paid for U.S. tolerance was high. For the first time ever, a BWC review conference did not agree on a final declaration. The future of talks on a verification protocol was left open and the mandate remained untouched, but compliance with the convention was not addressed. Instead, the conference's only substantive achievement was the adoption of a one-page decision that was presented by T6th.

Even that accomplishment was dubious. Although states agreed to meet in each of the next three years before the 2006 review conference equipping the BWC with an intersessional mechanism similar to that of most other multilateral arms control regimes-the agenda for annual meetings was clearly and narrowly defined. The draft decision listed the specific topics for discussion at meetings of states-parties:

* Improved national legislation and better national oversight over dangerous pathogens will be discussed in 2003; Enhancing international capabilities to deal with alleged cases of biological weapons use and strengthening and broadening national and international efforts for disease surveillance will be on the agenda in 2004;

Codes of conduct for scientists will be discussed in 2005. …

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