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Limited Progress Seen at Biological Weapons Convention Review Meeting

Delegates to last month's Biological Weapons Convention review conference achieved consensus on a number of updates to decision-making and trust-building mechanisms for the pact, but agreement was limited in those areas and fully lacking on other matters, official participants and independent experts said (see GSN, Dec. 23, 2011).

Nations represented at the meeting approved certain reforms to the "intersessional" gatherings carried out in years when the five-year review conference does not convene, Arms Control Today reported in its latest edition. In addition, participants acted to alter data-sharing provisions under trust-building systems for the pact that bans the preparation, production, holding and use of disease-based weapons.

Still, some parties were disappointed by the changes, which they considered too limited in nature. As was widely anticipated, the conference also failed to break new ground on the potential establishment of an international verification regime for the accord (see GSN, Aug. 2, 2011)

“Overall, we have done pretty well. In some areas, we could have done better,” said Dutch diplomat Paul van den IJssel, the president of last month's conference.

Van den IJssel described plans to reform the intersessional meetings as a "a glass half-full and and a glass half-empty," expressing regret over the lack of consensus on permitting enforceable decisions by the gatherings. An unsuccessful motion at the conference would have specifically enabled the next four intersessional meetings to agree on such mandatory measures. The 103 diplomatic teams at the conference, though, resolved just "to retain previous structures" that call for the meetings to "discuss, and promote common understanding and effective action" on certain matters.

Attendees established three topics for the annual meetings to regularly address: collaboration and support pertaining to Article 10 on the nonmilitary use of biological materials; scientific and technological changes; and state compliance with pact obligations. Separately, the 2012 and 2013 gatherings would address possible means of boosting state involvement in trust-building provisions under the pact, while the 2014 and 2015 sessions would consider collaboration and aid in the event of a biological strike.

A comparable agenda has been executed at past yearly BWC meetings, according to Arms Control Today.

Van den IJssel said placing three set agenda items for upcoming meetings would "enable us to have structured discussions under the (intersessional process) and make progress on three important issues.”

Western powers had advocated for the intersessional meetings to receive authority to issue enforceable decisions. The European Union called for  “enhanced arrangements for further progress” in the annual sessions. Last month's conference achieved “some progress,” but the lack of agreement to provide to provide the additional authority was “regrettable,” a high-level European nation official said after the conference concluded.

Enabling enforceable decisions outside the review conferences would have been "a very modest innovation" that could have rendered nonproliferation regime "a little bit more nimble," but some nations voiced reservations over "allowing even a limited range of decision to be made" between the five-year meetings, Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, told reporters in a Dec. 23 telephone discussion.

A Russian government source, though, said the next series of four annual gatherings would be “very similar” to the prior one, and “it is logical that its mandate should remain the same.”

“[D]ecision-making powers, therefore, shall continue to rest with (the) review conference, unless delegated by it to subsidiary bodies for achieving some notable and consensually accepted goal,” the Russian source said in a Jan. 2 e-mail.

The convention does not “specifically set out” the system of annual meetings and policy-making authority should remain strictly within the purview of the five-year sessions, Bilal Ahmad, first secretary at Pakistan’s mission to the U.N. operations in Geneva, Switzerland, told Arms Control Today on Jan. 3.

An official representative of a major member of the 118-nation Nonaligned Movement said more significant alterations to the intersessional meetings were "not achievable." Still, the system today “is more structured and will address more substantial issues.”

The diplomat said "there is scope to move a bit on the decision-making issue during the (period between review conferences), but that will depend on the chairs (of the annual meetings).”

Van den IJssel said reform of the Implementation Support Unit, the three-person team that provides administrative assistance on matters including states' obligations under the convention, was an "area where I had hoped we would do better.” Member states “could not agree on an increase in the budget to enable a modest increase of the size” of the support unit, he said. Delegates recalled considering the possible expansion of the ISU team to five personnel.

“Understandable financial concerns” among a number of governments were “the most important reason” for the lack a agreement on such an addition, van den IJssel said. Still, he said he “did not foresee this problem as being so severe.”

A number of conference attendees welcomed agreement on alterations to data-sharing paperwork for the treaty. Certain updates would “clarify the questions posed to states parties to provide for more consistent and relevant data collection” while additional changes would “reduce the reporting burden by eliminating requirements that have been superseded,” Countryman wrote in a Jan. 5 e-mail.

The nations resolved to address “how to enable fuller participation” in the trust-building systems. Less than 50 percent of BWC member nations presently provide relevant disclosures in compliance with political agreements to do so.

Van den IJssel said the transparency efforts “are not always the easiest topic,” though “if you had asked me before the review conference, I would have been happy with the outcome that we have achieved now.”

Meanwhile, the United States continued to hold that a viable treaty verification mechanism cannot be achieved, while the European Union, Russia and the Nonaligned Movement called at the review conference for such a system (Horner/Meier, Arms Control Today, January/February 2012).

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