U.S. to Announce Framework for Bioweapons Treaty Policy in Geneva

(Dec. 4) -South Korean troops wearing protective suits spray down a road in Seoul during a biological terrorism exercise in 2004. The Obama administration is expected to announce its strategy for implementing an international ban on biological weapons next week (Chung Sung-jun/Getty Images).
(Dec. 4) -South Korean troops wearing protective suits spray down a road in Seoul during a biological terrorism exercise in 2004. The Obama administration is expected to announce its strategy for implementing an international ban on biological weapons next week (Chung Sung-jun/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is expected to reveal its approach to controlling biological weapons at a key international meeting next week, and a number of experts hope the new U.S. policy will help reduce global vulnerabilities and strengthen implementation of the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention (see GSN, Aug. 28).

The pact's 165 member states are expected to gather in an annual meeting taking place Dec. 7-11 in Geneva, Switzerland. The event could set the tone on global objectives for limiting bioweapons in the run-up to a formal review conference in 2011, according to those following the issue.

The U.S. delegation "will be making an announcement at this meeting on their BWC policy," Richard Lennane, head of the convention's implementation support unit, said in a recent telephone interview.

Over the past year, the White House has been developing its policy toward implementing the compact and "now, apparently, they're going to make some official announcement about what they want out of the convention," according to Lennane, whose organization helps coordinate activities related to the agreement.

In an e-mail message this week, Lennane said a "senior U.S. official" is expected to make the statement on Dec. 9, adding that he had no further details. "But I would expect that at this stage it will be more of a broad framework than anything very specific," Lennane said.

A U.S. National Security Council spokesman this week said there would be no official announcements "at this time," but left open the possibility that additional information could be available next week.

The Biological Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of weaponized disease agents such as anthrax, smallpox or plague.

The pact has no verification regime after the Bush administration in 2001 abruptly withdrew from six and a half years of negotiations aimed at creating an inspections protocol. White House officials at the time concluded such measures would prove ineffective at increasing confidence in the international agreement and burdensome to U.S. biodefense research efforts and the biotechnology industry.

Beginning in 2007, as part of the convention's "intercessional process," the United Nations' Geneva office has hosted two meetings every year, focusing on a new topic annually. This year, disease surveillance is under discussion; next year, participants will address investigations of the alleged use of biological weapons.

During each summer session, experts meet to present and hear presentations related to the chosen subject.

During the winter conference, like the one scheduled for next week, member nations evaluate the conclusions of the summer conference of experts and then pass along recommendations -- or "common understandings" -- to the convention's review conference.

A review conference examines implementation of the treaty and takes place every five years. The 2011 summit will constitute the seventh such meeting.

The U.S. announcement is not likely to change the "business at hand" for next week's meeting, according to Lennane, whose unit is composed of three people and housed within the U.N. Disarmament Affairs Office in Geneva. "But it will change what people are going to be thinking about and talking about over the longer term, in particular for the next review conference."

"A lot of delegations are interested to hear what the U.S. has to say," Lennane added.

Even though the Obama administration's anticipated policy announcement is a "positive" development, "I don't think there will be a great deal of specificity in their proposals," said Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

"What's important is the U.S. government is giving political attention to this issue, and making it clear the U.S. is not a one-trick pony and that in addition to the very ambitious nuclear agenda, the government is also very concerned about biological weapons," Tucker said in a recent telephone interview.

He cautioned that the announcement could be canceled at the last minute due to some unforeseen complication.

Tucker said he expected any potential policy framework to focus on the prevention of biological warfare and terrorism, as opposed to the Bush administration's emphasis on response and mitigation of an outbreak.

Such a preventive approach might include increased attention to securing collections of dangerous pathogens around the world, he said. It also could strengthen and expand the convention's implementation support unit so that it might serve as a "clearinghouse" for state party requests for technical assistance and capacity-building, to which other member states would respond on a voluntary basis, according to Tucker.

For example, advanced industrial states might provide assistance to developing countries in setting up a national infectious-disease surveillance capability, as required by the World Health Organization's 2005 revision of International Health Regulations, he said in an e-mail message this week. Those regulations require WHO member states to report any "public health emergency of international concern," such as an outbreak of infectious disease with the potential to cross national borders.

Any policy announcement should include reopening official talks on "compliance checking mechanisms," said Iris Hunger, head of the Hamburg Research Group for Biological Arms Control. The group, located in Germany, is a member of the BioWeapons Prevention Project, an international network of organizations dedicated to biological-weapon control issues.

Such mechanisms would involve determining whether a state has proper national implementation protocols in place or participates in the convention's annual confidence-building measures, she explained in a telephone interview. The approach would also include independent monitoring of high-risk activities, like biodefense programs.

"I would like to ... see states going back to thinking about how they could improve implementation of the convention and check compliance with the convention," Hunger told Global Security Newswire.

Tucker said he would like to see an increased willingness by the United States and other advanced industrial states to assist developing countries in countering the "full spectrum" of infectious-disease threats. Those efforts might help prevent the deliberate use of biological weapons, as well as combat natural outbreaks of infectious disease. They might also reduce the risk of incidents at research laboratories working with dangerous pathogens through improved biosafety measures and training.

In addition, he would like more attention paid to enhancing the convention's universality. Tucker noted that, by contrast, the Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997 -- more than 20 years after its biological weapons counterpart -- but boasts 188 states parties.

Hunger, an informal participant at the experts meeting this summer, said U.S. involvement has already changed the dynamic for next week's session.

"I had a feeling in August that the people talked much more to the U.S. delegation and U.S. delegates were probably more open to talk to people. That's already a big change," Hunger said. She added it is unclear whether the increased engagement would lead to a change in the U.S. position on verifiability of the convention.

Hunger said she would also like the Obama administration to declare "as soon as possible" what its objectives are for the period after the 2011 review conference, and to engage in preparations for a successful outcome over the next two years.

"Activities for the [five] years between 2011 and the [2016 review conference] should, in my view, be aimed at agreeing [on] mandatory rules and [taking] legally binding decisions on how the BWC is to be implemented by states and how proper implementation is to be monitored," she said this week in an e-mail message.

State of the BWC Intercessional Process

Lennane said member nations typically take a "workmanlike" approach to conferences like the one coming up next week.

This incarnation of the intercessional process has been running for three years "so people know how it works, they know what the objective is," he told GSN. "They're not coming with starry-eyed expectations of bold new treaties or schemes, but they're coming with realistic expectation of working on specific problems and coming out with better ways to deal with them."

However, some analysts questioned the continued usefulness of the annual meetings.

"On the surface," member countries would say the process has been positive in healing the damage inflicted in 2001, said Hunger.

"But if you go a bit deeper, if you ask people whether they are happy with what's going on in Geneva [and] whether it's going to be helpful for the review conference in 2011 [or] whether it's actually going anywhere, then many of them unofficially would say, 'No, it's just a big talking shop,'" according to Hunger, who worked for the United Nations when the proposed verification protocols were being hammered out.

"My sense ... is that this [intercessional] process is approaching the end of its useful life and that people are beginning to think about what happens next with the treaty," Tucker told GSN.

The existing system only allows for exchanging information rather than making plans for strengthening the convention, he said.

"I think there is a pent-up demand for a more proactive approach to the treaty," Tucker said, though he did not know what a new process would involve.

"That is the policy challenge facing the United States and other countries," he said.

The Obama administration has stood up an interagency group to begin formulating policy for the review conference in advance of the 2011 summit, according to Tucker. He did not offer further details.

Tucker said the United States does not want to return to the negotiation of an inspection protocol because doing so would enable other nations -- including Russia and Iran -- to revive "troublesome" demands that could undermine the convention.

Russia, for example, has long sought to define the "types and quantities" of pathogens and toxins banned by the agreement, thereby limiting its scope. Iran has pursued dismantling the Australia Group controls on exports of dual-use technologies and materials relevant to biological and chemical weapons.

"Unfortunately, both of these issues were included in the mandate for the BWC protocol negotiations and hence would be difficult to avoid if the talks were revived," he said.

Next week's session could prove useful because delegates might start discussing issues to be considered at the 2011 review conference, according to Hunger. "The informal stuff is probably more important than the official meetings," she said.

Some experts, though, criticized how the BWC states parties agreed to approach this year's topic of disease surveillance.

"The 800 pound gorilla in the room" is the focus on disease surveillance without making clear distinctions between natural an unnatural outbreaks, said Barry Kellman, president of the International Security and Biopolicy Institute.

Agencies like the World Health Organization are already doing a "remarkable" job of monitoring natural disease outbreaks, Kellman said. He questions "why the BWC was looking at natural disease surveillance without centrally considering the unique challenges that a bioweapons attack could create."

For example, "an intentional actor is very likely to evade or try to outwit surveillance techniques in ways that a natural disease will not," said Kellman, who made three presentations at this summer's experts meeting. "Typical disease surveillance techniques might not be nearly as effective in connection with an intentional attack."

Also, natural disease surveillance relies mostly on amassing reports of individual illnesses, a "time-consuming process," Kellman stated in an e-mail this week. During an intentional attack, long time spans could prove "catastrophic for huge numbers of people," he said.

Additionally, Kellman said, the "scope and rate" of a natural epidemic -- which tends to be gradual over time -- might be very different from that of an intentional disease attack. "Even when surveillance identifies an intentional outbreak, it is essentially impossible to predict the scope and rate of expanse," he said.

With sudden spikes in illness the potential result of a bioweapons attack, the ability of public health officials to control the situation "will strain to the breaking point," he contended.

Hunger offered a broader criticism of this year's topic.

"I personally don't really see where this is helping the bioweapons convention, which is about preventing bioweapons programs by states," said Hunger. "I sometimes feel that they want to make it into a counterterrorism instrument and that's just not going to work."

Lennane, the head of the BWC implementation unit, strongly rejected such criticism.

"More and more, we talk now about a spectrum of biological risks. You have biological weapons at one end ... and you have naturally occurring disease outbreaks at the other," he said. "But there's no sharp division ... The steps you take to reduce those risks are all interlinked and it doesn't make sense to separate your response to natural diseases [from] your response to biological weapons or other biological threats."

Tucker called the convention's broader emphasis a "watershed politically" because it views biological threats in a unified manner and, to the extent possible, aims to develop common approaches to detection and response.

December 4, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is expected to reveal its approach to controlling biological weapons at a key international meeting next week, and a number of experts hope the new U.S. policy will help reduce global vulnerabilities and strengthen implementation of the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention (see GSN, Aug. 28).