BWC 30th Anniversary Passes with Little Fanfare

WASHINGTON — The 30th anniversary of the entry into force of the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention came and went Saturday with little fanfare and notably differing levels of praise from its major sponsors (see GSN, Dec. 13, 2004).

The United Kingdom released a one-page, U.S.-British-Russian statement Saturday noting the anniversary and reaffirming support for the treaty. 

The text released yesterday by the U.S. State Department, however, differs from the British version by omitting certain words of praise for the treaty.

For example, the two-paragraph U.S. text does not include this paragraph found in the British statement: “The convention was the first to ban an entire class of weapons of mass destruction and is one of the first and crucial components in the nonproliferation tool-box. It remains as relevant today as it was when it was first drafted, although the threats we face have evolved. The international response to those new threats builds on the strong foundation of the existing multilateral disarmament framework of which the BWC is a part.”

“The State Department site offers a shorter, less supportive statement, which does not include this language,” said Angela Woodward, acting director of the Verification Research, Training and Information Center in London.

She said a similar text released by the European Union, which is not a party to the treaty, “is by far the strongest of the three.” It calls for a commitment “to developing measures to verify compliance with the BTWC,” Woodward said.

The European Union version said further that the next major review conference of the treaty scheduled for 2006 would “be a good opportunity for all states parties to review the operation of the convention, to reiterate their commitment to the international norm against BW and to agree on measures to strengthen the BTWC, taking into account recent developments.”

The United States since 2001 has opposed developing a mechanism for verifying treaty compliance.

Treaty TroublesThe United States led negotiations on developing the now 153-member treaty following President Richard Nixon’s announcement in November 1969 that his administration would unilaterally and unconditionally renounce biological weapons and close down the U.S. offensive program.

The treaty explicitly prohibits the development of biological agents “of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.”

However, arms control experts say the convention has lacked sufficient teeth to ensure compliance among states parties.

“In the 30 years since the entry into force the states parties have been unable to agree on how to strengthen the convention with strong mechanisms to monitor, verify or enforce state compliance,” according to a statement issued last week by the nongovernmental Bioweapons Prevention Project in Geneva.

“This means that the treaty, at present, is little more than a gentleman’s agreement,” it said.

The Soviet Union maintained an offensive biological weapons program in violation of the treaty until it was formally shut down in 1992 by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Experts suspect key elements of the Russian program remain intact and that work “outside the scope of legitimate biological defense activity may be occurring now,” a U.S. official told Congress in 2002. 

An analysis by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., says that other countries may have offensive programs and be producing weapons, citing China, Iran, Egypt and Israel. The latter two are not treaty parties.

U.S. PositionThe United States, meanwhile, was criticized in 2001 for blocking an effort it previously led to strengthen the treaty by creating an inspections mechanism. A senior official said the treaty was “inherently unverifiable” because offensive and defensive biological weapons research involved the same kind of work, and that inspections could compromise U.S. commercial biotechnology and defensive research (see GSN, Nov. 15, 2002). A group of experts in November presented a report arguing the inspections could be effective (see GSN, Nov. 18, 2004).

Washington pressed instead for strengthening national laws to enforce the treaty and for a three-year series of meetings beginning in 2003 to discuss several issues prior to the 2006 review conference (see GSN, Dec. 13, 2004).

“The United States continues to attach importance to the BWC and the work we have undertaken in the 2003-2005 timeframe, which is already demonstrating its utility,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arms Control Implementation Donald Mahley said in a speech to treaty parties in December.

“Our governments will continue to work to strengthen the convention by participating fully in the current three-year work program, by encouraging its universality, and by pressing for full implementation of, and compliance with, the convention by all its states parties,” according to the U.S., British and Russian statement yesterday.

Critics have called the meetings ineffectual as they lack authority to compel action toward improving treaty compliance and do not allow sufficient time for representatives to seriously discuss their respective issues. The most recent session ended with the release by states parties of a statement that contained no recommendations or commitments.

Several nongovernmental organizations last month held meetings in Berlin, Brussels and Geneva to mark the anniversary and discuss the treaty.

“I think on both sides of the Atlantic, people aren’t sure how to approach [the review conference next year] and what the approach to strengthening the BWC should be,” said Oliver Meier, who represents the Arms Control Association in Berlin.

March 29, 2005

WASHINGTON — The 30th anniversary of the entry into force of the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention came and went Saturday with little fanfare and notably differing levels of praise from its major sponsors (see GSN, Dec. 13, 2004).