Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
BWC Review Conference Should Not Address Verification, Diplomat Says
WASHINGTON -- The Biological Weapons Convention review conference this December is not likely to revive talks on the divisive topic of standing up an international verification regime for the accord, according to a senior U.S. diplomat (see GSN, July 8).
"I don't personally think that the [review conference] is going to serve as a referendum on whether to return to negotiations which were abandoned a decade ago," Laura Kennedy, the Obama administration's special representative for the convention, told Global Security Newswire last week in a telephone interview from Geneva, Switzerland.
"I'd say that, from my perspective, discussions with member states have focused more on seeking to make progress in areas where there is general agreement, rather than reviving these past areas where there were stark differences," she added.
Member states should look for "pragmatic" steps to reduce concerns about compliance with the pact, such as revising its confidence-building measures; finding news uses for the convention's consultative provision; and undertaking voluntary measures such as inviting BWC officials to visit select facilities to increase transparency about biodefense activities, the envoy said.
The Biological Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of weaponized pathogens such as anthrax, smallpox and plague. Review conferences, held every five years, evaluate the pact's performance and can recommend updates to the nonproliferation regime. The seventh such meeting is scheduled for December at the United Nations in Geneva.
Unlike the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, there is no organization to monitor whether the pact's 164 member nations are adhering to their biological nonproliferation commitments and more generally no verification system.
Attempts to establish a verification regime failed after the United States in 2001 withdrew from nearly seven years of talks aimed at creating an inspections protocol. White House officials at the time claimed such a system would not increase confidence in the agreement and would prove financially burdensome to U.S. disease research and the biotechnology industry.
The Obama administration reaffirmed U.S. opposition to a verification regime when it unveiled its approach to the convention in 2009 (see GSN, Dec. 9, 2009).
The president-designate for the upcoming review conference, Dutch Ambassador Paul van den IJssel, said recently there appears to be increasing support for reopening the verification debate at the event. "The issue is not off the table and there are many countries who want to keep it on the table in some form or the other."
Kennedy emphasized that the White House broadly does not oppose verification systems. However, she noted that arms control pacts traditionally require being able to clearly identify facilities, activities or materials that are being misused; indicators for when prohibited operations are taking place; and the ability to feasibly provide access to those facilities or items in a fashion that could discriminate between permitted and forbidden behavior without unacceptable risk to sensitive commercial or national security information.
"Unfortunately, we see in the BWC context that none of these requirements are met," the diplomat told GSN. "Most steps involved in the acquisition and production of biological weapons also have legitimate, peaceful applications. The dual-use aspect permeates virtually every aspect of this field."
In addition, such a regime is likely to be geared toward state-run biological programs, not nonstate actors or potential bioterrorists, according to Kennedy, who also serves as Washington's ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament.
"We do feel that bioterrorism is a very real threat in today's world. That said, none of this means we should not be concerned about compliance with the convention or we should not look for ways to address such concerns," she said. "It just means we need to think about the problem very differently, look at specific pragmatic steps we can take to reduce levels of concern."
Barry Kellman, president of the International Security and Biopolicy Institute, agreed with the objections Kennedy laid out, saying he would be even "more emphatic" on the verification question.
"I would put it in terms of compliance. It's not about verification, it's about compliance. I don't think we're going to live in a world where we can verify compliance. It's an oxymoron," he told GSN in a Monday phone interview.
"Verification in any arms control setting is not the goal. It's compliance that's the goal. In other contexts verification has been the means to achieve that goal but since you can't make the technology be something other than what it is we're going to have to think of other mechanisms to talk effectively," Kellman said.
Washington's posture is not necessarily accepted across the spectrum of BWC states. In the past, Russia and members of the Nonaligned Movement, including Iran, have made repeated demands for a compulsory framework to monitor compliance with the treaty's requirements.
Kennedy said the United States is trying to bolster the confidence of member states by examining ways to revamp the confidence-building measures nations are required to submit annually to show adherence to the tenets of the agreement.
The declarations, originally written in 1986 and last updated in 1991, offer data on topics such as infectious diseases outbreaks and information on vaccine production facilities to demonstrate they are not being used for prohibited purposes. Van den IJssel has indicated refurbishment of the forms likely will be on the agenda in December.
"The idea behind the CBMs was to exchange information that would reduce doubt, ambiguities about compliance," Kennedy said. "It's also essential to look at whether there are new questions to ask -- legislation enforcement, how to make better use of the information being provided, how to increase participation."
In 2010 only 72 of the convention's then-163 members submitted the annual accounting, the website for the BWC Implementation Support Unit shows.
Another way to address questions or concerns about compliance might be to make greater use of Article 5 of the pact, according to Kennedy. The provision allows for bilateral or multilateral consultations between member states to tackle concerns about violations and clarify any ambiguities, such as the intent of a disease research program.
"It is not very detailed but that can be a virtue in that it's flexible. Governments can approach such consultations in a wide variety of ways," she told GSN.
The multilateral cooperative mechanism calls for convening a formal meeting of all interested states parties to discuss an alleged BWC breach. The only such meeting to date was held in 1997 to discuss Cuba's accusation that a U.S. aircraft had released an insect over the island in a deliberate effort to harm Cuban agriculture. Though the findings of the consultative meeting were inconclusive, it was widely viewed as a useful and constructive fact-finding process that could be developed further.
"Now some folks have suggested this means we need to develop more detailed procedures. We can certainly look at that," Kennedy said without citing specific member states. "However, I suspect the focus should be more on the political aspect i.e. how do we take the sting, one might say, out of consultations and make them more politically palatable?"
"Given the dual-use nature of biological work it seems reasonable that questions will arise from time to time and finding better ways to discuss them in a collegial and cooperative way would help," she said.
Kellman said it remain "unclear" what Kennedy ultimately hopes to achieve with such discussions.
"Just talking about [Article 5] doesn't mean much but I'm glad to see that we are continuing to put emphasis on it," he said.
There is also role for "voluntary, proactive" steps member states can take to "demonstrate transparency and reduce potential concerns about their activities," according to Kennedy.
She noted that the United States last year made its CBM submission available online for the first time.
In addition, the administration invited van den IJssel and officials from the Implementation Support Unit to visit U.S. biodefense facilities, including the National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick in Maryland, for "familiarization," the diplomat said.
"It's not in our interest for others to misread our intentions and activities in this area, and so it follows that it is in our interest to be as transparent as we can possibly be," Kennedy said.
Despite the "reasonable" U.S. approach, Kellman predicted Washington might still encounter resistance from other member states.
"There's not enormous support either for talking about bioterrorism or for talking about Article 5," he said. "The U.S. is saying positive things but I think they're markers for another day" beyond the December review conference.
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