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States Renew Push on Bioweapons Pact Compliance

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

An Israeli medic participates in a 2008 biological attack exercise in Haifa. A group of nations is seeking to refresh consideration of compliance with the 1972 pact that prohibits member states from producing or holding disease agents for military purposes (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner). An Israeli medic participates in a 2008 biological attack exercise in Haifa. A group of nations is seeking to refresh consideration of compliance with the 1972 pact that prohibits member states from producing or holding disease agents for military purposes (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner).

WASHINGTON – A coalition of five nations is pressing other governments to take a renewed look at what it means to be compliant with the Biological Weapons Convention.

Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Switzerland, though, are seeking only a modest step in addressing the sticky question – calling for an “initial conceptual discussion” at an upcoming experts’ meeting.

“This will have to be a debate that will be ongoing for a number of years,” according to issue expert Richard Guthrie. “But without this debate, I don’t think there is a chance for us to truly get to grips with the control of biological weapons.”

The question of ensuring national commitments are met has long dogged the 1972 accord that prohibits the offensive development, production, acquisition and stockpiling of disease agents and toxins.

There is no formal verification program for confirming states are obeying the strictures of the convention, and one is not likely in the face of opposition from the United States and other nations. The last major push died in 2001, and the Obama administration has maintained its predecessor’s skepticism regarding the security benefits derived from any mandatory inspections protocol.

Governments are required under the convention to “take any necessary measures” to prevent their territories from being used for creation or transfer of biological weapons, and to avoid aiding any other actors in such work.

Compliance involves a host of measures including national legislation that outlaws bioweapons activities, export controls, secure management of biological agents, and submission of confidence-building documents with data on disease research sites and other matters, according to Pierre-Alain Eltschinger, a spokesman for the Swiss Foreign Ministry.

National implementation is one of the topics of the “intersessional” meetings held annually between BWC review conferences held every five years, most recently in 2011. The document issued at the end of last month’s gathering of member nations promoted security steps by governments but did not include any mandates.

Only one-third of the 166 BWC member nations have made it a criminal act to employ biological weapons, the London-based nongovernmental Verification Research, Training and Information Center stated in a December statement on national implementation efforts. Only 30 percent of states had set up programs for authorizing use of select biological materials and toxins.

“This area is of increasing importance at a time of heightened concerns about bioterrorism, as effective national implementation, including regulations that enhance the security of pathogens and toxins, is recognized as an effective means to raise the barriers to bioterrorism,” the Australian Embassy in Washington said in a statement to Global Security Newswire.

Australia joined with Japan and New Zealand at the 2011 BWC review conference to urge establishment of a working group that would consider the meaning of compliance, and how states can show they are meeting their obligations. The proposal was not approved.

The three nations came back with Canada and Switzerland at the December meeting with a new proposal in a document titled “We need to talk about compliance.” They are now seeking “an initial conceptual discussion at the meeting of experts in 2013 designed to promote common understanding of what constitutes compliance with the BWC and effective action to enhance assurance of compliance.”

Governments could put their thoughts on paper ahead of the July specialists' session in Geneva, Switzerland, and informal events covering the topic would be held alongside the official gathering. Matters raised would likely be considered later in the year at the next states parties’ session.

“Switzerland always sought to strengthen the BWC and is, in principle, still in favor of a legally binding compliance framework,” Eltschinger told GSN by e-mail. “However, we are aware that such an endeavor is politically not feasible at the moment. … Accordingly, Switzerland is, in partnership with other countries, exploring alternative options.”

The five nations’ working paper was not addressed in official discussions at last month’s meeting, the spokesman added. He said delegates from other nations offered mixed responses to the proposal, with some expressing worry that establishing any sort of voluntary compliance program would delay ultimate creation of a mandatory system.

A U.S. State Department official who was at the December meeting said the Obama administration had not yet had an opportunity to study the proposal.

While an inspections protocol remains off the table for Washington, the question of compliance is a “legitimate topic of discussion,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the issue.

He noted that there are multiple ideas for addressing the issue, including a French plan of voluntary “peer reviews” in which states would authorize checks of their convention implementation efforts by other governments.

The State Department official suggested Washington has not made final determinations on potential measures to enhance BWC compliance. “It depends on where they’re going with that,” he said.

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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