Press Release

FIFTH REVIEW CONFERENCE OF BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS CONVENTION TO RESUME IN GENEVA FROM 11 – 22 NOVEMBER 2002

States Parties to Try to Reach Agreement after One-Year Intermission The Resumed Session of the Fifth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction will be held in Geneva from 11 to 22 November 2002. The States Parties will be trying to reach agreement and conclude the work of the Conference, the initial session of which was held from 19 November to 7 December 2001, and suspended in controversial circumstances. The Convention, commonly known as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons. It currently has 146 States Parties, with a further 17 having signed but not yet ratified.

The States Parties to the Convention hold Review Conferences every five years to review the status and operation of the Convention, in order to ensure that its purposes and provisions are being realized. These Review Conferences serve as a venue for considering emerging issues affecting the Convention, and for considering measures to strengthen the Convention, address shortcomings and close potential loopholes if necessary. The Review Conferences are especially important in the context of rapid progress being made in the bio-sciences, progress which as well as delivering important benefits also makes it potentially easier to develop biological weapons.

The Biological Weapons Convention, which opened for signature in 1972 and entered into force in 1975, is the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons. But it lacks a verification system to monitor compliance of its members. To attempt to counter this shortcoming, a group of governmental experts, VEREX, was established at the Third Review Conference in 1991 to identify and examine potential verification measures from a scientific and technical point of view. Based on the VEREX report, at a Special Conference in 1994 States Parties agreed to mandate a body known as the Ad Hoc Group to negotiate and develop a legally binding instrument to strengthen the Convention. This instrument, or protocol, was to be completed at the latest by the Fifth Review Conference in 2001. But after almost seven years of negotiations the draft protocol was controversially rejected in July 2001.

The Fifth Review Conference held a three-week session from 19 November - 7 December 2001 under the presidency of Ambassador Tibor Tóth of Hungary. Originally, the main aim of the Conference had been to consider and adopt the draft protocol. But because the protocol negotiations had failed, delegations were faced with the problem of finding alternative ways of ensuring that the Convention remained effective in the face of growing challenges. The difficult atmosphere following the collapse of the protocol negotiations was further intensified by the (still unsolved) anthrax incidents in the United States in September 2001, and accusations that some States Parties were not complying with their obligations under the Convention.

After considerable debate, delegations focused their attention on three main issues:

(1) The Ad Hoc Group and the completion of its work. There were serious disagreements among delegations on whether the Ad Hoc Group should attempt to continue with its work on a protocol, and whether to retain or terminate the mandate of the Group.

(2) The issue of compliance with the Convention, and cases of alleged non-compliance, and how the Conference should deal with these.

(3) What kind of follow-up work might be undertaken to strengthen the Convention after the conclusion of the Review Conference, in the absence of a protocol.

By 7 December 2001, States Parties had not been able to overcome their differences on these issues and no agreement on a Final Declaration was achieved. Consequently it was decided to adjourn the session and resume it one year later.

Over the past year, delegations have been working on possible solutions that would allow them to reach an agreement concerning future work to strengthen the Convention. Under the continuing presidency of Ambassador Tóth, the resumed session of the Conference is likely to focus primarily on the specific question of follow-up work, although the other main issues remain to be formally resolved. The question of follow-up is crucial, as without agreement on this it is likely that nothing will be done by States Parties collectively to strengthen or even maintain the Convention until at least the next Review Conference, due in 2006.

For further information, please contact:

Richard Lennane
Secretary of the Fifth Review Conference of the BWC
tel: +41 (0)22 917 2298
fax: +41 (0)22 917 0034
e-mail: rlennane@unog.ch