Value of interest in BWC

Jul 08 2011
VERTIC Blog >> National Implementation Measures

Isadora Blachman-Biatch, London

Paul van den IJssel, President-designate of the Seventh Review Conference for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), was quoted last week as saying that he is pleased that the BWC does not receive as much attention as other treaties, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As Robert Kadlec, the biosecurity adviser under former President George W. Bush noted, the community has ‘had no Prague speech ... [or] biological summit on this issue.’

Van den IJssel said that ‘if there were a lot of interest…it [would] probably mean that something’s awfully wrong,’ for example, if a biological attack had taken place or if a number of countries had serious issues with the BWC. Instead, the lack of news can be understood as a result of a well-respected treaty. While Van den IJssel acknowledges that there could be benefits to increased political visibility for the BWC, his overall conclusion is that the current amount of coverage is fine since the BWC is not, like the NPT, ‘highly politicized—[between] have and have nots.’

However, the BWC is not without controversial areas. Article X of the treaty, for example, has led to serious disagreements among state parties, since, according to Van den IJssel, it ‘encourages members to exchange equipment and technological know-how related to the use of biological agents and toxins for peaceful purposes-.’ The main issue is that developing countries interpret Article X as an obligation on developed countries to share their expert knowledge with them—and the developing countries feel that this obligation has not been fulfilled. That said, Van den IJssel noted that delegates are able to agree on almost all other aspects of the BWC.

While the BWC has received political attention during G-8 meetings and the intersessional meetings since 2003, it should receive more international political and media attention, no matter how well BWC Review Conferences go. First, the lack of extensive coverage means that although many governments sign up to the BWC and take part in exercises related to its enactment, biological weapons are not given much news space and, as a result, most people know little about the threat of biological weapons and the measures that ought to be taken in order to prevent or deal with the outcomes of potential attacks. It also means that states are too often inadequately prepared for the range of possible biorisks that they may come to face since the lack of coverage ensures that fewer biological attack scenarios are discussed.

Second, while BWC parties do not agree on all aspects of the treaty, the fact that it does not suffer from as many disagreements as other treaties should be a cause for celebration. Increased media coverage of the BWC might be a smart way for those who advocate international agreements to demonstrate that states can and do agree on the majority of the content of at least one international accord in this area and that this accord can be relatively effective.

Third, the disagreements over Article X could benefit from increased publicity as it would ensure that developing countries have their opinions heard by a wider audience. Increased discussion over the perceived inequality in terms of Article X’s enforcement would be unlikely to hurt their cause. Instead, such dialogues might convince developed nations to help developing nations as part of efforts to strengthen both perceived and actual BWC implementation and compliance.
These sorts of discussions might also allow developed countries to highlight those actions that they have taken that comply with Article X, such as increasing the international capacity for disease surveillance or creating links between the scientific/academic community and pharmaceutical industries.

Last changed: Jul 08 2011 at 5:57 PM

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