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The Seventh Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention: Ambitious Realism for a Recovering Treaty PDF Print E-mail
Written by Nicholas Sims   

Editor’s Introduction

“WHEN the Biological Weapons Convention entered into force in 1975, it was a watershed in the field of disarmament,” asserts Jonathan B. Tucker (“The BWC New Process: A Preliminary Assessment,” The Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2004). It was “the first treaty to ban the development, production, stockpiling, and transfer of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.” But, as Mr. Tucker notes, the Biological Weapons Convention, unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), was “burdened with a serious birth defect,” the lack of a monitoring and verification mechanism to investigate countries suspected of non-compliance.1

More than three decades after the BWC’s entry into force, there are additional causes for concern. Fewer states have ratified the treaty than either the CWC or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the other two major treaties dealing with weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the threat from biological weapons is generally thought to be growing. “Concerns about possible future weapons are even greater than the concerns about today’s biological weapons,” according to the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission’s 2006 report, Weapons of Terror. While experts are sharply divided on the likelihood of non-state actors successfully acquiring and using biological weapons, fast-moving advances in the biological sciences are cause for considered concern.2 The time is right for serious efforts to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention and the upcoming Review Conference offers that opportunity. It is now up to states parties – and civil society – to seize that opportunity.


AMBITIOUS REALISM is the watchword for the upcoming Seventh Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWCRC-7) to be held in Geneva, 5-22 December 2011. This was the “guiding principle” articulated by Ambassador Paul van den IJssel as he accepted the presidency of the conference last December. He was clear that the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) needs to be further strengthened by consensus sought through flexibility and the sharing of ideas as widely as possible in the run up to the conference.3 “Be creative,” urged Ambassador van den IJssel. “Look for synergies and mutually beneficial solutions, rather than trade-offs and compromises.”

The Road to the Seventh Review Conference

BWCRC-7 will mark 40 years since the United Nations General Assembly resolution commending the BWC for signature, and 20 years since the decision (at the Third Review Conference) to seek ways of making the Convention more effective through a formal procedure to investigate possible verification methods.

It will also be 10 years from the lowest point in the BWC’s history, when in July 2001 the U.S. administration of George W. Bush rejected a draft protocol to the Convention that would have required states parties to declare relevant facilities and submit to inspections. Then, later that year, as the Fifth Review Conference was nearing agreement on its final declaration, an 11th-hour U.S. proposal forced it to adjourn for a year in disarray.4

When the Conference reconvened a year later in 2002 it was only to agree to a non-negotiable “rescue plan” with annual meetings of states parties confined to U.S.-approved topics and constrained within strict agenda limits.

Since then, the BWC majority (with some noisy exceptions) has largely mended its fences with the U.S., and the U.S. in turn has begun to relax the tight grip it exerted over the meetings of states parties from 2003 to 2005. There was renewed hope after the Sixth Review Conference (2006) that the Convention had pulled itself out of the trough into which it had sunk. Plain speaking by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in an inspirational speech to the conference, had encouraged delegates to overcome the debilitating deadlocks of 2001-02. The result was a consensus outcome document recording concrete decisions as well as the first final declaration agreed to by a Review Conference since 1996.

However, the consensus achieved in 2006 was possible only because sights were deliberately set low and contentious issues were kept off the agenda. While that was the right approach for BWCRC-6, it would not be right for BWCRC-7. Hence the significance of Ambassador van den IJssel’s acceptance speech. Governments preparing for Geneva must be realistic, but also ambitious. They must seek consensus, not in the status quo, but in ways of strengthening the Convention. Strengthening may be incremental and may have to rely on political commitments rather than legally-binding obligations, but it must be deliberate, not left to chance.

The Way Forward

What then does BWCRC-7 need to do to steer the recovering BWC along a trajectory of constructive evolution through its next five years? Above all it must recognize this treaty regime of biological disarmament for what it is, the world’s foremost bulwark against the weaponization of disease, and equip it accordingly. That will mean building on the modest achievements of 2006 to take them further.

Implementation Support Unit. The most significant achievement of the Sixth Review Conference was the creation of an Implementation Support Unit (ISU) to assist states parties with the implementation of the Convention. The ISU’s creation was a breakthrough because it was the first success in the long campaign to remedy the BWC’s notorious institutional deficit. However, the ISU is limited in its capabilities because of its size (three full-time posts), funding (funded for four years, 2007-2011) and mandate (it cannot monitor compliance or carry out inspections). At the Seventh Review Conference, states parties should renew the ISU’s mandate and increase its resources so it can do its job even better.5

Despite the clear need, a fully-fledged monitoring and verification agency (as exists for chemical weapons) is unthinkable. Even a “standing secretariat” such as Hans Blix’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission recommended is still a long way off. Neither is a representative committee of oversight any nearer, despite the attractions of this proposal since the 1980s as a means of strengthening collective responsibility for the health of the Convention. So what are the next attainable steps, in remedying the BWC’s institutional deficit?

Annual Meetings. The practice of states parties meeting every year is well established, but their effectiveness in governing the BWC treaty regime has been hobbled by the tight agenda constraints imposed in 2002. The time is ripe for the Seventh Review Conference to allow annual meetings to take decisions across a wider agenda so the Convention is considered as an integrated whole. This would be a natural evolution from the 2007-2010 practice of receiving a report every year on progress toward BWC universality and another on the work of the ISU. A well-structured BWC annual meeting, dealing comprehensively with the ongoing life of the Convention, should start work from 2012. This would have the further benefit of enabling Review Conferences at five-year intervals to focus more sharply on longer-term review.

Accountability Framework. BWC states parties exist in a treaty relationship, accountable to one another (and beyond, to wider humanity). They strengthen the Convention when they demonstrate their compliance with BWC obligations regularly, not waiting for raised voices of accusation. Such a practice can best be organized within an accountability framework that BWCRC-7 should create. It is for each state party to decide how it demonstrates its own compliance within a framework built around the articles of the Convention, but there must be an opportunity for them to consider one another’s reports systematically and to request and provide clarifications in a forum devoted to collective scrutiny. This could be provided by accountability sessions at annual meetings.

Accountability and collective scrutiny ought to give life to the Convention as an ongoing enterprise. Carefully prepared sessions should promote a developing sense of common purpose and shared experience within the BWC’s community-in-the-making, as well as helping allay doubts and resolve uncertainties. They could also help defuse a potentially disruptive controversy over BWC Article X.6 This concerns whether a specific mechanism within this Convention is needed (as Cuba on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement has urged since 2009, in the face of U.S. and U.K. opposition) to promote international cooperation in the peaceful uses of microbiology. The accountability framework could be used to demonstrate how much states parties are already doing to honor Article X, with clarifications offered as necessary. It would then be easier to consider calmly what, if anything, a new BWC mechanism specific to Article X could add.

An accountability framework organized on a four-year cycle could systematize what a few states have been doing since the first reports on BWC compliance were requested in 1979. But national compliance reporting has remained irregular, the participation rate has declined, and nothing has been done with the reports received. BWCRC-7 has the chance to put this right.

Science and technology do not stand still. BWC-relevant developments should be assessed and discussed collectively, but this seldom happens. A scientific advisory panel or network has been proposed to advise states parties at BWC annual meetings. In its continuing absence, alternatives are now being sought. The Seventh Review Conference needs to do two things: (1) set aside time within its own 14 working days for collective assessment of the science and technology papers submitted for the review; and (2) decide how best to organize regular collective assessment between review conferences.  Science and technology review is written into the BWC (Article XII) but unless BWCRC-7 makes enough space for this task on its own and subsequent agendas it will continue to be neglected.

Confidence-Building Measures. Finally, a review of the BWC’s confidence-building measures (CBMs) is long overdue. These information exchanges were launched in 1986-1987 and were expanded in 1991, but have remained fossilized since. Most states still ignore them. But, in the absence of verification, they are a solid contribution to increasing transparency for the minority of states, now totalling 70, engaged in the CBM process. They are much better than nothing, especially when governments report fully on their biodefense programs and laboratories with high biosafety levels.

The Sixth Review Conference was expected to update CBMs but instead got itself entangled in a succession of procedural deadlocks. As a result, it referred them to its successor for “comprehensive attention.” New risks, threats and security challenges have emerged since the Cold War. Meanwhile the significant advances in the life sciences are now coupled with knowledge and technology becoming increasingly available, accessible and affordable. So it is all the more necessary that CBMs receive the comprehensive attention they deserve.

BWCRC-7 should at least update the forms on which states parties report and make it easier for CBM returns to be shared and used. Canada has offered to translate them into all U.N. languages. Good work has also been done since 2009 by the governments of Germany, Norway and Switzerland to build consensus on desirable changes. These proposed revisions address detailed wording for the existing seven CBMs, and matters of collation and accessibility of information.

The more fundamental issue is whether the right questions are being asked, or whether different questions or an entirely new approach superseding the present CBM mechanism would do more to generate confidence. This issue needs to be addressed in a new working group, perhaps one of the standing expert groups envisioned by U.S. Ambassador Laura Kennedy and, separately by the seven states parties for which Canadian Ambassador Marius Grinius spoke at the 2010 meeting.7 Such groups could work in the interval between reviews, making progress alongside the annual meetings, which indeed might be authorized to mandate them if BWCRC-7 has not done so already.


The BWC Seventh Review Conference must temper ambition with realism, but must also set its sights higher than in 2006.The BWC treaty regime needs strengthening, by consensus; and such consensus is within reach. There are distinct prospects for progress, especially if an accountability framework is set up. That is the most important single step forward that should be taken in December, 2011.

Decisions should also be attainable with regard to relaxing the 2002 constraints on the agenda and functions of annual meetings; organizing collective assessment of relevant science and technology developments; renewing the mandate of the ISU and increasing its resources; updating the existing CBM forms and procedures; and setting up standing expert groups, including one to address how confidence is best generated and whether the present CBM mechanism should be superseded. These decisions could be mutually reinforcing. Together, they would meet Ambassador van den IJssel’s declared goal of “a comprehensive consensus outcome that substantially improves the operation of the Convention.” They should be pursued with all the vigor and persistence of which governments, NGOs and friends of the Convention are capable.

Nicholas A. Sims is an Emeritus Reader in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London), where he taught from 1968 to 2010.  His books on the BWC include The Future of Biological Disarmament (Routledge, 2009).

1. The Chemical Weapons Convention is implemented by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is headquartered in The Hague with about 500 employees. The OPCW receives states parties’ declarations detailing chemical weapons-related activities or materials and relevant industrial activities. After receiving declarations, the OPCW inspects and monitors states parties’ facilities and activities that are relevant to the convention, to ensure compliance.
2. Editor’s Note: For a comprehensive assessment of the terrorist threat, go to “Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat,” Milton Leitenberg, Strategic Studies Institute, December 2005. On the web at
3. The preparatory meeting for BWCRC-7 will be held 13-15 April in Geneva.
4. At the 2001 Review Conference, the United States tabled a last-minute proposal to eliminate the Ad Hoc Group — a negotiating forum of member states created in 1994 to develop measures to strengthen the BWC, including a legally-binding strengthening protocol. Prior to the Review Conference, in April 2001, after six years of negotiations (in which the U.S. had participated) the chair of the Ad Hoc Group proposed a compromise text of the protocol. BWC protocol negotiations collapsed in July 2001 after the U.S. rejected the compromise text, saying it would be ineffective at preventing cheating and would impose undue burdens on U.S. industry and government programs. In December at the Review Conference, the U.S. proposal to eliminate the Ad Hoc Group was rejected by other delegations, blocking consensus on the final declaration. To prevent the outright failure of the Conference, the president suspended the meeting for one year.
5. The ISU has proved its value time and again since its launch in 2007. Its members are widely respected among governments as well as NGOs. They received the unusual accolade of spontaneous applause from delegations at the 2010 meeting of states parties.
6. Article X states in part: “The States Parties to this Convention undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the use of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins for peaceful purposes.”
7. The seven are Japan, Australia, Canada, the Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Norway and New Zealand, collectively known from the initial letters of their names as the JACKSNNZ. The JACKSNNZ were active as a new group at BWCRC-6, to the success of which they made a significant contribution. They have made important statements since, with a view to strengthening the Convention, notably at the 2010 meeting of states parties. Their cohesion and determination in preparing proposals and promoting consensus on decisions such as those listed here will be vital to the outcome of BWCRC-7.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, including the text of the BWC, go to Other useful websites: Arms Control Association (U.S.-based) (, Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (, Federation of American Scientists (, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (, Harvard-Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons (, Reaching Critical Will (