U.S. Prepares for BWC Review Conference

(Dec. 14) -U.S. envoy Laura Kennedy has been selected to lead the Obama administration's delegation to the 2011 Biological Weapons Convention review conference (U.S. State Department photo).
(Dec. 14) -U.S. envoy Laura Kennedy has been selected to lead the Obama administration's delegation to the 2011 Biological Weapons Convention review conference (U.S. State Department photo).

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is taking strides to prepare for the next Biological Weapons Convention review conference one year from now (see GSN, Dec. 7).

The U.S. State Department announced on December 3 that Laura Kennedy, Washington's ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, would also serve as special representative for Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention issues and head up the U.S. delegation at the 2011 summit.

Last week Kennedy led the U.S. contingent at the pact's annual meeting of states parties in Geneva, Switzerland.

There was a "great deal of interest" in the international community about who would be named as U.S. envoy to the convention "because that is the person who will be actively working this issue over the next year and will, in many respects, be the face of U.S. BWC policy," according to a State Department official who requested anonymity to speak more freely about the issue.

Kennedy will be the "lead U.S. interlocutor" in consultations both in Geneva and around the globe leading up to the convention's 2011 review conference, the official told Global Security Newswire last week.

The official noted that Kennedy's predecessor at the Conference on Disarmament, Ambassador Christina Rocca, also served as U.S. representative for the treaty near the end of the Bush administration.

"In a sense, by having two consecutive CD ambassadors serve as the lead U.S. envoys in BWC we are now more closely aligning ourselves with the way other foreign governments organize their representation at the BWC," according to the official.

"It was not considered automatic that our CD ambassador would be the lead BWC person, so we had to undertake a deliberate process to determine whether that in fact made sense," the official said.

The Biological Weapons Convention entered into force in 1975. The treaty, which today boasts 165 member nations, prohibits the development, production, stockpiling and use of weaponized disease agents such as anthrax, smallpox and plague.

The pact has no verification regime. The last serious effort to establish such a system crumbled after the Bush administration in 2001 withdrew from nearly seven years of negotiations aimed at creating an inspections protocol. White House officials at the time asserted that such measures would not boost confidence in the international agreement and would restrict U.S. biodefense research and the biotechnology industry.

The Obama administration reaffirmed that position when it unveiled its approach to the four-page treaty at the BWC states parties meeting last year (see GSN, Dec. 9, 2009).

Since 2007 the United Nations in Geneva has hosted two convention meetings every year, dubbed the "intersessional process," focusing annually on different topics including disease surveillance and investigations of the alleged use of biological weapons.

The BWC review conferences, scheduled every five years, examine the pact's implementation and recommend improvements to the regime. The 2011 summit will be the seventh such meeting.

In a statement to the BWC states parties last week, Kennedy defended the administration's decision not to seek an inspection protocol, saying "a verification regime is not more feasible than it was in 2001, and perhaps even less so, given the evolution of technology and industry."

She said there are "pragmatic and constructive things that can be done to promote transparency" regarding nations' disease-related activities. However, Kennedy did not offer specific actions, saying such topics could be explored in a renewed intersessional period after 2011.

The ambassador also defended a core tenet of the White House's National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, which focused on using the treaty to increase preparedness in order to reduce the impact of infectious disease outbreaks, whether natural or intentional.

"There has been debate about whether [the convention] should be engaged in discussions of capacity-building for disease surveillance and response," she said. "The U.S. believes that these simple truths -- that biological weapons attacks are not always readily identified as attacks, and that effective detection and response to an attack are only possible if there is an effective public health response -- make it abundantly clear that this is our business."

The Obama administration believes there should be a strengthened, revitalized intersessional process that includes greater authority for the annual states parties meetings to establish their own agendas and adopt decisions, according to Kennedy.

The agenda for the seventh review conference is scheduled to be developed during the convention's preparatory meeting next April.

The State Department official last week described the agreement's review conferences as "landmark" events and predicted that Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher would likely be named the "formal head" of the U.S. delegation.

"Ellen will be the formal head of delegation, Ellen or another senior-level official. They will be involved in the behind-the-scenes talks and negotiations but in a day-to-day basis, Laura Kennedy will be our head of [delegation] for practical, working purposes," according to the official, who stressed that a final decision has not been made and was not expected to be announced until about one month before the review conference begins next December.

The official likened the envisioned leadership structure to this year's Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, where Ambassador Susan Burk represented Washington but Secretary of State Clinton delivered the U.S. statement at the United Nations.

Tauscher supervises Foggy Bottom's three arms control offices, including the International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau, which is responsible the department's efforts to halt the proliferation and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. The bureau oversees U.S. activities under the Biological Weapons Convention.

"Someone of [Tauscher's] level and stature would be appropriate," the official said. "With past review conferences, you typically have not had foreign ministers or heads of state as head of the delegations, so we wouldn't expect President Obama or Secretary Clinton to be the head of" the U.S. delegation, the official told GSN.

"Undersecretary Tauscher is the person that makes the most sense," the official added. "She's steeped in these issues. She oversees the three bureaus in the department that work in arms control and nonproliferation but she's not a foreign minister."

Another reason to believe Tauscher would head the U.S. delegation is that she delivered the Obama administration's approach to the treaty last year.

"I think it is highly appropriate for the White House to select a seasoned diplomat like Ambassador Kennedy to manage the complex multilateral diplomacy needed to prepare for the 2011 BWC review conference. Given the regrettable lack of activity in the Conference on Disarmament, she will presumably have enough time to devote to her new job," according to issue expert Jonathan Tucker.

The 65-nation body, which must make decisions by consensus, has been deadlocked for roughly a decade in its efforts to promote disarmament initiatives. Most recently, Pakistan has resisted repeated attempts to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty (see GSN, June 7).

Tucker also approved of the possibility that Tauscher would formally head the delegation once the review conference begins.

"Naming a high-ranking administration official like Undersecretary Tauscher to head the U.S. delegation to the BWC Review Conference raises the political salience of the event and demonstrates that President Obama cares about the issue," Tucker told GSN today by e-mail. "I would have preferred to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton play that role, but if she is unavailable, then Tauscher is a good substitute."

December 14, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is taking strides to prepare for the next Biological Weapons Convention review conference one year from now (see GSN, Dec. 7).