Inserting useful tools into the BTWC

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Since that fateful year of 2001, when the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) negotiations on a legally binding protocol to strengthen the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) collapsed and the 5th Review Conference failed following an attempt by the Bush Administration to terminate the AHG mandate, states parties have been trying to develop useful activities to keep the ailing treaty alive.

A lot of what has been going on since then I would qualify as Beschäftigungstherapie—you know, engaging in games, energising dexterity and developing practical skills to strengthen and motivate an ailing patient. It worked to a large extent. But like any treatment continuing for too long, its efficacy dwindles and the patient begins to question why he has to go to yet another session.

And then there are moments when inspired creativity flickers. Moments when one senses that some tangible, meaningful progress could be made. Such a moment occurred on 7 August, when the BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) organised a one-day workshop on ‘Implications and lessons learned from the Ebola virus disease outbreak for the Biological Weapons Convention’ at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The theme was closely linked to the item of Article VII of the BTWC on the agenda of next week’s Meeting of Experts. A packed room, overwhelmingly from missions to the UN, joined in the discussions. The event was structured around a research project run by the US Departments of State and Health and Human Services. Investigators are looking into how the recent experiences with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa have challenged existing understanding of international assistance and how such assistance might be affected if the outbreak had been determined to be a biological weapon (BW) attack. The researchers will present their report at the December Meeting of States Parties (MSP).

Based on close analysis of events in West Africa and the evolving mobilisation of international assistance, the researchers designed a scenario around an Ebola epidemic caused by non-state actors. Outbreak characteristics included the impossibility to link the virus strain epidemiologically to earlier cases and the location of some of the affected people in areas not under government control. Furthermore, in the opening stages the deliberate nature of the outbreak was not entirely clear. The researchers sent the scenario to government officials, intergovernmental and other international or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved with health or assistance and relief, financial donors and other concerned parties. The survey yielded preliminary results regarding the opportunities and issues for NGOs, safety and security of medical staff, command and control, and confusion about the involvement of militaries or peacekeepers.

These issues informed the two breakout sessions, each of which covered three themes. I participated in the one on military engagements and facilitated the one on the role of international cooperation and capacity-building efforts. The notes below are personal impressions rather than a comprehensive report on the discussions. They highlight certain issues as they pertain to the BTWC.

Role of militaries

The presence of military personnel in a disaster area may elicit different reactions in different countries, depending particularly on their functions in a given society.  Moreover, their roles could be quite different if disease were to erupt in a conflict zone or if its origin were determined to have been deliberate. Under those circumstances, the traditional, often unarmed, roles in logistics or delivery of aid could quickly shift to the deployment of armed contingents to protect logistical and medical centres or transport. This in turn might impact on preexisting perceptions of the military and affect their ability to integrate with other agencies involved. It was noted that certain NGOs refuse to cooperate with militaries.

The nationality of troops emerged as an important point of consideration. While some participants believed that the primacy of military intervention lies with national forces, others were rather thinking in terms of bilateral or regional and global multilateral interventions. In contrast to other agencies, the military carry identity as they represent a particular country. Nationality or different cultural traditions may affect the way the local population views them. In addition, multinational forces bring additional burdens of command and control.

As the purpose of the workshop was to identify lessons from the Ebola outbreak for the BTWC, the question surfaced how military intervention could be framed in terms of the disarmament treaty. Which article would apply to it and which legal architecture would have to be developed to enable military support for a response to a disease outbreak that triggers Article VII of the BTWC?

International cooperation and assistance

This working group’s theme clearly referred to Article XI of the BTWC. The discussion started off with the need for rapid disease identification, irrespective of whether the cause is natural or deliberate. This implied capacities in surveillance, sampling and analysis, and infrastructure to support those tasks. Another area for further development involved diagnostics and timely access to the disaster area for medicine and logistics.

The discussions soon revealed that no single model for all contingencies exists. Different preconditions require different models for capacity-building. Among possible pathways mentioned were contingency-building and the establishment of databases of terrorist organisations to detect emerging interest in BW. Based on the experiences from the Ebola crisis, it was also suggested that instead of traditional types of assistance, such as the erection of an expensive, centralised high-containment laboratory, mobile laboratories with advanced sampling and analytical capacities are much more effective in determining the hot-spots of the outbreak. Prior to an epidemic, these mobile units can be dispersed across a country based on risk analyses. This, however, raises different challenges concerning biosafety and -security.

Cooperation among countries in addressing an outbreak needs to be established ahead of a crisis. While workshop participants agreed on the principle, they also noted that each government may have a different hierarchy of priorities. A first useful step would be for each country to identify its needs in advance.

It was remarked that communication and transportation are critical elements in addressing public health events. However, in the case of its occurrence during an armed conflict the likelihood of them breaking down is considerable. Resources need to be in place to guarantee maximal interoperability among communication systems and to be able to swiftly repair damaged roads and communication infrastructure. In peacetime the possibility exists to rely on local communities for assistance; in war the geographic scale of challenges becomes much larger. Under those circumstances, different challenges will be how to assess success of the response to the disease outbreak and how to assess and communicate problems when they present themselves.

While nobody in the breakout group challenged the identified principles and needs, one developing country raised the point that in the context of Article X they were setting up commercial ventures. However, terrorism and deliberate disease elevate the challenges to a whole new level. In the light of the mentioned issues, it becomes difficult to foresee difficulties and thus to plan for the future, or adjust current policies. The delegate’s question therefore was whether flexibility can be built into the implementation of Article X. He thereby referred to ways in which the World Health Organization (WHO) offers advice to governments and delivers specific types of assistance to implement recommendations. In this context I noted the absence of an international organisation to assist with the implementation of the BTWC. The contrast with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) too is sharp: the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), for instance, has developed an analogous method of assistance for chemical security and safety. However, the process is demand-driven: the Technical Secretariat responds to state party requests, rather than offering them pre-prepared programmes. The big question therefore is where and how to organise a similar form of assistance.

Links to the BTWC

The research project as presented did not contain express links to the BTWC and its Article VII in particular. Rather its principal goal was to identify practical elements for future consideration in the context of global health security and to distill from them those elements that might be useful for BW control. Of particular interest was whether the knowledge or suspicion that an outbreak was deliberate would affect the Ebola response effort in view of the respective mandates of the partners involved in West Africa.

The group on international cooperation and assistance had the most visible link to the BTWC. However, the discussion clearly revealed that certain dimensions of preparedness and assistance must be developed and implemented on the national level, whereas other aspects can be more easily addressed through bilateral, regional or global cooperation. At the outset the BTWC’s role is far from clear. The debate confirmed once more that division of responsibility and labour between the individual state party and the international community remains key to preparedness, surveillance and response, irrespective of whether a disease outbreak is deliberate or not. Certain steps put forward in the final documents of review conferences already offer partial answers. Among them—and it was stressed that this is absolutely crucial—is the designation of a national institution through which any emergency communication with other countries and the ISU can be directed at any time. Such a focal point or national authority also serves as a conduit to communicate needs for preparedness, ranging from appropriate national legislation, institution building to the development of capacities and emergency stockpiles.

On the international level, the community of states parties—in the absence of an international organisation—must prepare contingencies and procedures to effectuate Article VII. This is one of the tasks on the agenda of next week’s MX, and an issue that will require follow-up at the 2016 review conference and afterwards. At the same time, the realisation exists that ‘the BTWC’—as one participant put it—must cooperate with other international organisations, such as the WHO, to initiate international response to a disease outbreak comparable to the Ebola epidemic. The problem with that idea is that ‘the BTWC’ is not an organisation, but merely a collective of states parties, who have at times sharply divergent views on how to organise cooperation and assistance within the framework of the BTWC.

Most of the points raised in the breakout group on military engagements, while relevant in their own right, had little bearing on the BTWC. Except for the final question concerning the legal framework to deploy foreign military contingents in countering a disease outbreak. Once more the contrast with the CWC is stark. The Technical Secretariat of the OPCW had negotiated memorandums of understanding with the UN to cover a variety of contingencies in case of chemical weapon (CW) use, which were then formally adopted by the OPCW Executive Council. They were activated to investigate allegations of CW use in the civil war before Syria acceded to the CWC and formed the basis for further collaborative arrangements once the OPCW and the UN embarked on the CW disarmament project under conditions of war. Security and military protection of the teams operating inside Syria had to be ensured by Damascus. In addition, the UN had lead responsibility for, for example, threat assessments whenever OPCW team members had to move out into the field. Even though Article VII makes it the responsibility of states parties to provide or support assistance in the case of a violation of the BTWC, it offers no guidance whatsoever on how such assistance should be organised in the field. This brings us back to the point in the previous paragraph: how can the BTWC states parties construct a framework for cooperating with other organisations?

Some final thoughts

Can you still remember when you had to write one of your first school essays? You got a title, you had some ideas, but you did not know where to start or how to structure the thoughts. Chances are that one of your parents or teacher came to the rescue. And they would have invariably said: ‘Start by answering the key questions: What? Where? Who? How?’ This must be a bit the situation for delegates going into the final Meeting of Experts (MX) before the 8th Review Conference of the BTWC next year.

Friday’s workshop was a really good discussion session. Perhaps not for the substance of the exchanges (which were by no means bad), but for what they so strongly suggested. A few years ago, a hypothetical global pandemic resulting from gain-of-function research on the H5N1 virus gripped the BTWC meetings in Geneva. In the post-9/11 years the initial fear was that terrorists might get hold of the modified virus or that an accident might release it into the environment. Later it became more of a global health security question: the research might have led to pandemics like the Ebola outbreak. The outcomes were limitations of research, censorship on the communication of research methodologies, and to beat it all, a requirement to obtain an export control license before submitting a scientific paper to a foreign journal. It might all have made sense if somebody would have said that exactly similar types of research conducted in government (or contractor) laboratories as part of classified biodefence programmes should be subject to analogous scrutiny and oversight. Alas.

Whereas the bird flu debates took place in the context of national measures to prevent terrorism with BW, last Friday’s exchanges on lessons from the Ebola epidemic focussed on optimising international response capacities and the need to coordinate such response among states and with the help of international organisations. The current prominence of Article VII in the deliberations by states parties recaptures some of the heart of the disarmament idea—preventing acquisition, and therefore use of a particular type of weaponry, in this case, biological weapons. For the time being most of the interventions on Article VII will remain rather general in nature. However, from the lessons identified during the Ebola crisis, it clearly emerges that the states parties will soon have to elaborate concrete procedures for launching a request for assistance, operational guidance in the field and modalities for coordinating activities among the many states, organisations, donors and other involved parties.

In the BTWC context this raises questions about the framework in which they will be concretely developed. Will this take the form of several additional paragraphs under Article VII in the final document of the 8th Review Conference next year? If so, what will be the legal status of those paragraphs when executing international assistance activities? In what forum will they be developed? Many states parties maintain that the intersessional meetings are not a negotiation platform and that the MSPs cannot decide, a competence they exclusively reserve for the review conferences. What do concrete considerations about effectuating Article VII suggest about the need for an institutional setup? These are but some of the many challenges to overcome, as I have listed in my presentation at an educational event for delegates organised by the ISU and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) on 1 August. At the very least, it is though-provoking that consideration of one of the most neglected BTWC articles might signal a return to multilateralism.

Of course, the thought may be worth no more than the guidance through a bog offered by a will-o’-the-wisp. After all, many countries still oppose regime or institution-building, preferring national action instead. But then again, as Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams on 1 August 1816, I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.


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