Building confidence in the BWC

Posted by () on Jan 20 2012
VERTIC Blog >> National Implementation Measures

Nibras Hadi, London

Following the conclusion of the Seventh Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), it is clear there has been no significant progress towards formally verifying compliance to the convention. Considering the impact of what little progress that was made at the conference, and what steps can be taken to improve confidence in the convention, is therefore all the more important.

Since the BWC came into force in 1975, state parties have held a Review Conference every five years to assess the convention’s operation and to develop measures to strengthen it. The Review Conferences are intended to “review the operation of the Convention, with a view to assuring that the purposes of the preamble and the provisions of the Convention […] are being realized.” Nevertheless, there has so far been no success in reaching a consensus on a comprehensive verification and compliance system.

While the BWC’s sister treaties, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention have formal verification procedures and compliance mechanisms, the BWC does not. As such it has no accompanying inspectorate, no monitoring agency and no standing compliance body. Therefore, it is up to the state parties themselves to build confidence in others that they are adhering to the convention. While enforcing strong domestic national implementation measures is a crucial aspect of this, without formal verification it is necessary to effectively communicate such measures to build confidence in the convention as a whole. Various mechanisms have been adopted under the convention to help achieve this.

The evolution of BWC Confidence-Building Measures
The first and most fundamental measure was adopted at the second BWC Review Conference in 1986. Member states agreed to implement a set of Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) which require state parties to annually exchange information on a wide range of domestic issues. These CBMs were expanded upon later at the next review conference to cover seven aspects of domestic activity relevant to the convention:

1. The exchange of data and information on research centres, laboratories and national biological defence research and development programmes (CBM A)
2. The exchange of information on outbreaks of infectious diseases and similar occurrences caused by toxins (CBM B)
3. The encouragement of publication of results and promotion of use of knowledge (CBM C)
4. The active promotion of contacts (CBM D)
5. The declaration of legislation, regulations and other measures (CBM E)
6. The declaration of past activities in offensive and/or defensive biological research and development programmes (CBM F)
7. The declaration of vaccine production facilities (CBM G)

Unfortunately most states parties have failed to submit these confidence-building measures on a regular basis. However, the minority of states who do engage in this confidence-building process contribute to increased transparency, which can be to the benefit of many other states.

Following the agreement of these measures in 1991 a second measure was taken to improve confidence in the convention; the creation of the Ad Hoc Group of Governmental Experts (VEREX). The work of this group, centred on researching BWC verification measures and culminating in a report, which in turn helped to prompt the creation of another, more wide-ranging working group. In 1994 state parties created the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) to negotiate a legally-binding protocol to strengthen the effectiveness and improve the implementation of the Convention. Unfortunately this group was not able to complete its work. After six years of multilateral negotiations, the BWC verification protocol negotiations collapsed in July 2001 after the United States, with tacit support from certain other states, rejected the text prepared by the Ad Hoc Group. Since then, progress towards a formal verification regime has effectively come to a stand-still.

Expectations and outcomes of the Seventh Review Conference
Hopes for progress towards formal verification at the Seventh Review Conference were therefore rather muted. Attention had shifted towards improving what measures already exist for building confidence in the convention. In the April 2010 edition of Trust & Verify, Nicholas Sims argued that CBMs should receive “comprehensive attention” and “at a minimum”, the conference should update the forms CBM reporting forms and make it easier for CBM returns to be “shared and used.”

Following the Seventh Review Conference, it has become apparent that very little was in fact achieved regarding CBMs. The most notable changes were the slight amendments that saw CBM D (active promotion of contacts) deleted, and the update of CBM forms aimed at making the process more user-friendly. The Implementation Support Unit (ISU), established in 2006 to facilitate (amongst other things) the exchange of CBMs, has also had its mandate extended to 2016. With this extension, the conference recommended that the ISU should continue to examine and develop options for electronic means of submitting CBMs. This recommendation by itself is nothing new, and the ISU has been pursuing this since the last review conference, held in 2006.

But to focus on the Conference’s review of the CBMs neglects the other existing compliance mechanisms that are available to the BWC. While recourse to the UN Security Council in cases of suspected non-compliance, under Article VI, has not been made to date, the mechanism should not be overlooked. The UN Secretary-General’s mechanism for investigating alleged biological weapons use (which the UNSC would likely invoke in such instances) is a tried, tested and recently updated procedure. Similarly, the consultation and clarification procedure elaborated under Article V, particularly in its multilateral mode, holds promise for further refinement and expansion to consider, in a cooperative manner, questions about compliance.

Also, the reiterated push for user-friendliness underscores the importance of increasing participation in an important mechanism that is only implemented by a minority of state parties. Providing assistance to states for the full implementation of the convention, including submission of CBMs, is therefore essential. Indeed, the Seventh Review Conference has recognised this. The ISU will now establish and administer a database system to facilitate requests for and offers of exchange of assistance and cooperation among states parties. State parties are invited to submit to the ISU any requirements, needs or offers for assistance, including in terms of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information regarding the use of biological and toxin agents for peaceful purposes.

Developing a network of support
As many proponents of formal BWC verification point out, CBMs are not a replacement for a formal verification mechanism. And without the latter, the veracity of the information contained in the former cannot be completely assessed. If states are to develop deeper confidence in the adherence of other states to the convention, it is all the more important to ensure that the available confidence-building measures are implemented universally, effectively and regularly. Other confidence-building measures mooted at the BWC Review Conference, such as the United States’ suggestion of voluntary visits, should also be explored. Providers of support in this respect are not limited to states alone; the non-governmental sector also has a lot to offer those seeking assistance in national implementation.

In particular, the VERTIC National Implementation programme carries out surveys of relevant national legislation which a number of states have found highly valuable when completing their declarations of national legislation and regulation (CBM E). One state has even submitted one of these surveys to the ISU to complete this aspect of the CBMs. The work of VERTIC in this area continues to this day, with the provision of support to Burundi, the most recent member of the BWC, and with the delivery of legislation surveys and membership packages to seven additional non-state-parties in 2012. When striving to fulfil the important goal of full and universal implementation of the BWC, no avenues should be left unexplored, and VERTIC looks forward to assisting state parties in this endeavour.

Last changed: Jan 20 2012 at 7:15 PM




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