Biological Weapons Convention Review

Geneva, 19 November-7 December 2001 

     In the midst of a real time terrorist attack on the United States involving anthrax, a long-outlawed biological weapon agent, States sent representatives to Geneva for a three-week session to review the implementation of the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The BWC bans the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin agents for hostile purposes, and provides for the complete destruction of existing BW stocks. 

     The use of biological and toxin agents was outlawed in 1925 under the Geneva Protocol, however, some States retained the right to respond if attacked and maintained stocks of BW agents for defensive purposes until the Convention came into force 50 years later.
     As of October 2001, the Convention is widely adhered to by 144 States parties, including the world’s major military powers.

Fifth Review Conference of the Convention

     The Fifth Review Conference took place under the shadow of the United States rejection of the draft “verification” protocol in July 2001 that had been assiduously negotiated over the previous seven years. The BWC has no mechanism under its legal regime to verify whether States are honoring their commitments under the Convention. An ad hoc group of States parties had been meeting regularly since 1994 to fill that gap in the Convention. Most States believed that the ability of States to effectively verify compliance would strengthen its prohibition by acting as a deterrent to breaches of the Convention.

     In rejecting the draft protocol, the United States maintained that the draft provisions would not, in fact, confidently assure that biological weapons were not being developed, produced or stockpiled, and that the mechanisms to enforce the verification arrangements would be overly intrusive and impinge upon the commercial proprietary rights of the bio-chemical industry.

Final declaration put on hold; conference suspended

     As it was, the continuation of the work of the BW ad hoc group on a verification protocol became the sticking point that held up agreement on a final declaration of the review conference. Although several proposed points remained outstanding, in particular language on compliance arrangements, much work had been accomplished during the Conference on a draft final declaration that incorporated an article-by-article review of the Convention.  

     During what should have been the last meeting of the session, in connection with article XII of the Convention dealing with future review conferences, the United States tabled a proposal to, inter alia, terminate the work of the ad hoc group. Instead, it suggested a process of annual meetings to consider and assess progress by States parties in implementing any new measures adopted at the Fifth Review Conference and a subsequent meeting of experts to examine any measures identified by that annual meeting for further consideration. 

     While support was expressed for both the annual meetings and the expert group, the termination of the mandate for the ad hoc group met with consternation among other States parties. Believing a failure of the Fifth Review Conference would not be in the best interests of strengthening the Convention, the President of the Conference, Tibor Tóth of Hungary, called for a one-year suspension. The Conference agreed to the suspension and will resume its work from 11 to 22 November 2002. 

      Heavy diplomatic thinking will need to be done between now and the resumption of the Fifth Review Conference in November in order to ensure its successful outcome. As the Conference was suspended and not adjourned, the consultative process among Parties will continue in order to find solutions agreeable to all the Parties to the Convention.