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6th Bio. Weapons Conv. Review A Partial Success

INSS Insight – Editor Mark A. Heller
January 3, 2007 No. 5

The Sixth Review Conference
of the Biological Weapons Convention:
A Partial Success


David Friedman

The Sixth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was held in Geneva from November 20 until December 8, 2006. The results constitute no more than a partial success in stemming the spread of biological weapons.

The BWC entered into force in 1975 and was considered a breakthrough in the realm of arms control and disarmament because it outlawed the development and production of an entire class of weapons. Moreover, it was a universal treaty, in the sense that all states had equal obligations and rights. However, the Convention suffered from the very outset from a serious defect that cast great doubt on its management, effectiveness and seriousness with which it was taken: it lacked any mechanism for enforcement of compliance. Unlike other arms control treaties, the BWC did not provide for the creation of any serious administrative or professional body (like, for example, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague set up by the Chemical Weapons Convention), and the only ongoing process has been the Review Conference of member states, which meets every five years in Geneva and takes decisions on the basis of consensus.

From 1994 until 2001, there was protracted, complex and serious effort make to produce a “Compliance Protocol” as an integral part of the Convention. But at the Fifth Review Conference in 2001, the United States under President Bush astonished participants with a declaration of unqualified opposition to a compliance protocol or any other legally binding enforcement mechanism. Instead, the US proposed to strengthen the national legislation implied by the member states’ obligations under the Convention and by the content of the Convention. The American position on an enforcement protocol was opposed by most member states, including the Europeans, who saw such a protocol as a “life jacket” that might transform the Convention from a watered-down, toothless document into a living, vibrant mechanism that could combat much more effectively the threat of proliferation of biological weapons.

In the days preceding the Sixth Review Conference, the general sense was that as long as the Bush Administration persisted in its policy, there was no chance of reviving discussion of the compliance protocol issue or any other real enforcement mechanism, because the US would neutralize any such idea. Despite the conviction that the biological weapons threat is growing, especially from the direction of terrorist organizations and because of the biotechnological revolution of the 21st Century, even the most sanguine optimists therefore expected on the most modest achievements that could perhaps breathe some life into the Convention. Pessimists, for their part, feared a severe crisis that could usher in a deep freeze for at least another five years, until the 7th Review Conference in 2011.

The actual results of the conference can be gleaned from the recently published Final Document. Of course, the deeper insights and implications will become clearer over the coming years, but it is already possible to describe the conference as a partial success. Given the (low) expectations, what are its main accomplishments and shortcomings?

First of all, it is necessary to preface any analysis with the observation even the most modest gains were due to the decision of the Conference Chairman, Masoud Khan of Pakistan, to bypass the primary obstacle that could have caused the conference to collapse – a discussion about whether or not to incorporate a legal enforcement mechanism (the protocol or something else) into the Convention. This subject was not even raised. Instead, the conference addressed some other issues that were meant to deepen the member states’ commitment to the Convention’s obligations and declarations as well as to decisions previously taken but implemented either partially or not at all.
Several decisions were taken with these objectives in mind.


1. Member states will hold annual meetings in Geneva from 2007 until 2010. Such meetings, which actually began to be held in 2001 as a default option following the failure to adopt a “compliance protocol,” have proven themselves as constructive and important both in clarifying professional questions connected with the Convention and in stepping up cooperation and mutual trust among the member states. The main subjects to be raised in these meetings are:

a. Means to encourage and reinforce national enforcement legislation;
b. Supervision and oversight to prevent exploitation of biotechnological research for purposes banned by the Convention, through codes of conduct (COC) and enhanced awareness;
c. Epidemiology and medical protection.

2. A small administrative body of three people (the Implementation Support Unit) will be established. No such mechanism has existed up until now, and its main function will be to provide technical and administrative support to the member states in carrying out their obligations specified by the Convention and by decisions of previous Review Conferences (for example, in the area of Confidence-Building Measures).
3. Several other important decisions were taken – to promote the Convention’s “universality” by doing everything to encourage states that have thus far remained outside to adhere, and to improve action in the area of “national legislation” even though the attempt to get approval of a detailed and concrete action plan for member states did not succeed.

Of course, there were also several disappointments or lacunae in the Final Document. The most prominent of these were the unsatisfactory treatment of the issue of non-compliance of member states and the lack of any appeal to the scientific community to pursue its research efforts in accordance with the criteria of the Convention, i.e., prophylactic objectives.

Despite the deep concerns that attended the convening of the 6th Review Conference, its proceedings and especially its Final Document reveal some modest gains. These are important in sustaining the Convention and the spirit behind it. Of course, there was no breakthrough that can transform it into an effective and decisive tool, but the decisions that were taken can, together with other international mechanisms established in recent years, improve action to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons. Ultimately, though, everything depends on political will.

*************

INSS Insight is published
through the generosity of
Sari and Israel Roizman, Philadelphia

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