[Cross-posted from The Trench]
The final report of the 7th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) held in December 2011 contained a one-line subparagraph whose ambition came to fruition in December 2019. Under Article IV (on national implementation measures), paragraph 13 opened as follows:
The Conference notes the value of national implementation measures, as appropriate, in accordance with the constitutional process of each State Party, to:
(a) implement voluntary management standards on biosafety and biosecurity;
That single line of new language in the final report was the outcome of a preparatory process that had begun in September 2009 and led to a Belgian Review Conference working paper endorsed by the European Union (EU). Prompted by the final report’s language, the International Organisation for Standards (ISO) initiated the complex procedure for developing a new standard. Just over seven years after the 7th Review Conference, it published the new standard, ISO 35001:2019 Biorisk management for laboratories and other related organisations.
Today, amid the global pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), questions about the virus’s origins abound. Might it have escaped from a high-containment laboratory? Did the epidemic result from a deliberate release? While we can source most of these claims to conspiracy theorists and wilful disinformation propagators, the clampdown of Chinese bureaucracy on early outbreak reports, the government’s failure to immediately report the emerging epidemic to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and its subsequent extreme vetting of any scientific publication discussing COVID-19’s origins created the space for the wildest stories to flourish.
Over the next months and years researchers from many disciplines will analyse the response by the WHO and the adequacy of the outbreak reporting requirements under the International Health Regulations. Even though nothing suggests that COVID-19 resulted from a deliberate release of a pathogen or that the virus was artificially created or genetically altered in a laboratory, different aspects of the BTWC regime relate to the reporting of outbreaks, biosecurity and -safety in laboratories and other installations, and international cooperation.
Interesting in this respect is whether the new ISO standard offers opportunities to reinforce the BTWC. In preparation for the 2020 BTWC Meetings of Experts (MX), to be held exceptionally in December instead of the late summer due to COVID-19 meeting restrictions at the United Nations, Belgium with Austria. Chile, France, Germany, Iraq, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain and Thailand submitted a working paper entitled ‘Biorisk management standards and their role in BTWC implementation’ (BWC/MSP/2020/MX.2/WP.2, 27 October2020).
Early genesis of a small success
September 2009. I was a disarmament researcher at the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies (EU-ISS). The 7th BTWC Review Conference was just over two years away. I met with an acquaintance from my days at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and a senior official at the Foreign Ministry in Brussels. I had a straightforward question for them. Belgium would hold the 6-monthly rotating Presidency of the European Council during the second half of 2010. A year before the Review Conference, this was the ideal time to update the EU Common Position for the quinquennial meeting.
Holding the Presidency offers plenty of opportunities for initiative. In 2009 EU members had no specific plans to update their common position. The 6th Review Conference they considered a success (which was relative considering the disaster five years earlier). Three months after the meeting in Brussels, the Belgian Foreign Ministry decided to seek an updated EU position. Preparations already began under the Swedish Presidency during the first half of 2010.
The idea I had put forward in Brussels was maximalist: how to equip the BTWC with verification tools? I was not seeking to reopen the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) negotiations the United States had aborted in 2001 because by the turn of the century I had already come to the conclusion that the tools under consideration in Geneva addressed past problems and not the most recent developments in biology and biotechnology. Many academics observing the AHG deliberations recognised the shortcomings of the draft text but pushed for completing the draft protocol to the BTWC, fearing that the proceedings were losing momentum. However, their argument that the protocol could be amended afterwards I did not share. In my mind, a return to the design board was the only option.
On the way to a national and common EU position
On 18 May 2010, during the Swedish Presidency, the EU Council’s Working Party on Global Disarmament and Arms Control (CODUN) invited me to present my thoughts on how to strengthen the BTWC. CODUN coordinated the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy regarding global disarmament and UN-related issues, which included the BTWC. (CODUN has since then been absorbed into the Working Party on Non-proliferation – CONOP.) In the EU-ISS note prepared for the briefing I identified five areas of possible progress on verification-related questions: (1) industry verification; (2) biodefence programmes; (3) technology transfers; (4) allegations of BW use and unusual outbreaks of disease; and (5) countering BW threats posed by terrorist and criminal entities. I added the following caveat:
Under the present circumstances it does not appear feasible to consider the five areas in a single, holistic model for a future BTWC. New, non-state actors have risen to prominence in the disarmament debate (the industry, scientific and professional communities, but also terrorist and criminal entities). There are different challenges posed by rapid advances in science, technology and processes that may contribute to BW acquisition, the major changes in the international security environment over the past three decades (and since the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq in particular) and the resulting changes in security expectations from weapon control treaties and their verification tools.
The main aim for the EU, I suggested, was to
obtain a decision at the 7th Review Conference establishing one or more working groups to explore and identify novel approaches to verifying the BTWC. These working groups are to meet several times during the next intersessional period and report to the 8th Review Conference in 2016, at which point States Parties may decide to act on the findings.
Critical elements in the deliberations will be: (1) the building and application of the principle of multi-stakeholdership, with direct participation of the industrial and scientific communities; (2) the identification of processes and technologies to support the verification goals, and, where required, to identify such processes and technologies that need to be created and developed based on the latest scientific and technological advances, e.g., in detection or biological forensics; and (3) for the EU, to actively support the process by taking the lead in testing the proposed verification methodologies in realistic settings with a view of both ascertaining their feasibleness and finetuning the proposals.
The latter element was critical for deliberations to move from the conceptual to the practical. In a footnote, I clarified:
This aspect is particularly important with respect to the design and implementation of novel verification principles, techniques and technologies. For example, before the signing of the 1987 Treaty on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) the United States and the Soviet Union had conducted over 400 trial inspections. The goals of those trials included the testing of the concept of onsite inspection, the finetuning of verification requirements and the investigation of ways in which sensitive information could be protected without undermining the stated verification goals.
The remainder of the note addressed the five issue areas. The document ended with a separate section on stakeholders and their involvement in verification, which included arguments to have industry and the scientific communities engaged in the preparatory processes.
Sharpening the focusRead the rest of this entry »
… the lava continues to flow unseen by the casual observer standing above
On 3 November I was invited to speak at an international conference in Brussels organised by the European Union (EU) Non-Proliferation Consortium. The session was called: The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) – Maintaining Relevance. I found the title intriguing. Is the BTWC losing its relevance one way or another? Is this treaty in jeopardy?
A widely shared opinion has it that the BTWC is a weak treaty. Yet always unspoken remain the criteria by which people assess the treaty’s weakness. They often point to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) as a strong agreement because it has an international organisation, a verification regime and mechanisms to enforce compliance. Notwithstanding, in its almost twenty years of existence, war and terrorism in the Middle East accounts for about 2,000 fatalities as a direct consequence of chemical warfare and terrorism with chemical weapons. The BTWC, in contrast, lacks an international organisation or verification mechanism, yet in its 41 years since entry into force, deliberate use of disease or toxins has killed fewer than 100 persons. What does that say about the strength of a treaty?
Moreover, the BTWC is actually a very active treaty. Since 1991—the 3rd Review Conference—states parties have come together in Geneva at least twice a year, sometimes even more, particularly while negotiating a legally-binding protocol between 1997 and 2001. Of course there is a lot of frustration with the formal process and its lack of tangible progress in upgrading the treaty, its institutional support and procedures. In contrast a lot moves on the local and regional levels.
The BTWC World Tour 2016
To that conclusion I arrived after having organised four regional and sub-regional seminars between March and the end of September 2016 on behalf of the BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU). Those meetings took place in the framework of the EU Council Decision 2016/51 of 18 January 2016 supporting the BTWC and are part of a much broader package of activities envisaged between 2016 and 2019.
This Council Decision is the fourth in a series over the past decade. The first one covered the period 2006–08; the second one 2009–11 and the third one 2012–15. In total the EU has now invested some 6.3 million Euros in the strengthening of the BTWC, including 2.3 million for the current programme.
As Director of the international non-governmental organisation BioWeapons Prevention Project, I had the privilege of being entrusted with the implementation of the first Joint Action (as actionable Council Decisions were then known), part of which was designed to prepare the 6th Review Conference at the end of 2006. At this point the ISU, which was to carry out the next EU support plans, had not yet been established .The Joint action consisted mainly of BTWC universalisation and national implementation assistance activities. The former comprised five regional seminars: Southern and East Africa (Nairobi, Kenya on 21–22 June 2006; Asia and the Pacific Islands (Bangkok, Thailand on 8–9 November 2006; Latin America and the Caribbean (San José, Costa Rica on 18–19 January 2007); West and Central Africa (Dakar, Senegal on 17–18 April 2007); and the Middle East (Rome, Italy on 16–17 April 2008).
The current Council Decision envisages four regional workshops in preparation of the 8th Review Conference to be held between 7 and 25 November 2016. Because of the short intervals between the events, the series became jokingly known as the BTWC World Tour 2016 and the organisers flew on BioForce One, a wink to Iron Maiden’s Ed Force One carrying the rock band’s members and crew to concert venues across the planet.
The four events targeted Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Astana, Kazakhstan on 15–16 June); South and Central America (Brasilia, Brazil on 22–23 August); South and South-East Asia (New Delhi, India on 29–30 August) and Africa (African Union Commission, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 13–14 September).
My remarks at the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium conference drew on insights from the four regional workshops this year and earlier experiences with the first EU Joint Action.
Evolution of a treaty regime and trends in state practice
Anyone participating in meetings on science and technology review, developments in industrial capacities, new production processes and technologies hears a lot of anxiety and a lot of talk of threats to the convention or possible weakening of the norm. However, such developments never take place in a vacuum, even if substantive progress in the Geneva negotiations remains elusive. Looking at several states that participated in this year’s regional meetings, I can only observe how much things have evolved.
India is a prime example. I recall a seminar the BWPP organised at the United Nations in Geneva in 2004 or 2005. We had an Indian scientist present and she described how her country was on the verge of becoming a net exporter of biotechnology, whereas before it had been a net importer. She predicted that India would soon assume new types of responsibilities to govern the new science and technologies. Last August I was in New Delhi for the third regional seminar. At one point a discussion between Iran and India over the latter country’s export control legislation started up. It was interesting to note the evolution in India’s position on export controls. It had adopted principles that only 5–10 years ago were extremely controversial internationally. China has undergone a similar evolution with respect to national technology transfer policies and its adoption of a certain rationale behind them. These developments testify to a convergence of ideas, a convergence of approaches among states in different parts of the world. In turn they lead to circumstances that enable and promote cross-continental, cross-regional cooperation in a number of issue areas. In preparation of the 8th Review Conference the ISU website contains several working papers written jointly by European and Asian states, European and South American states, or the United States with partners in different regions. They illustrate emerging possibilities for the future of the BTWC. They do not yet translate into formal agreements or new understandings, but they testify to evolving practice that keeps the convention alive despite frequent setbacks in multilateral negotiations.
A second aspect of the BTWC’s vitality that emerged from the four regional seminars concern the different facets of international assistance and cooperation for peaceful purposes under Article X. Exchanges between especially some members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Western Group in Geneva are usually politically highly charged. Similar confrontations one can also observe in meetings of the decision-making bodies of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) with respect to the comparable Article XI of the CWC. Yet, over the past decade parties to the BTWC have managed to advance matching expectations with obligations on both the global and regional levels.
First, the intersessional process has tended to focus on actionable programme items. In Geneva states parties often discuss Article X in broad, abstract principles. As already mentioned, they also tend to pit the NAM against the Western Group. Several vocal NAM members view national export controls as a violation of the convention and consequently place the prohibition on transferring biological weapons (BW) and relevant technologies to any recipient whatsoever in Article III in direct opposition to Article X. The intersessional process, in contrast, encourages states parties to look at the quality of their national implementation of obligations and responsibilities. This has led them to articulate concrete needs and requests, including under Article X, which in turn made it easier for potential donor countries to formulate offers for assistance and cooperation. Matching happens bilaterally or interregionally with the BTWC ISU often acting as a facilitator. To most developing countries the feckless ritual standoff with its sweeping statements in Geneva runs counter to specific national needs.
Second, certain developing countries have taken a regional lead in technology, science development, and so on. Some even work at the leading edge globally. Over the past few years they have initiated processes whereby they transfer relevant knowledge, expertise and practices to neighbouring states. In other words, regional patterns of cooperation, training and education explicitly undertaken under Article X have emerged. Argentina plays such a role in South America. Similar initiatives have arisen in the context of ASEAN, particularly in the area of biorisk management. Such concrete regional assistance also includes help with national implementation legislation, the submission of the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), and so forth.
[‘Cross-posted from The Trench]
Now one month ago, my contract with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) ended. It was an unexpected 6-month stint to assist the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) with organising a series of four regional workshops in preparation of the 8th Review Conference of the BTWC next month. These workshops were sponsored by the European Union (EU) under Council Decision CFSP/2016/51 of 18 January 2016 (Project 4). They targeted Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Astana, Kazakhstan on 15–16 June), Latin America (Brasilia, Brazil on 22–23 August), South and South-East Asia (New Delhi, India on 29–30 August), and Africa (African Union Commission, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 13–14 September).
One consequence was of course that silence descended over The Trench. A UN contract automatically implied that any statement, any article or other public contribution had to be vetted by persons in higher pay brackets. At times this made things difficult for me, as my colleagues could testify. Indeed, so much happened during those six months: the two meetings of the Preparatory Commission of the BTWC Review Conference in April and August, a Russian proposal to negotiate a new treaty on terrorism with chemical weapons (an idea that incredibly was welcomed in the tall corridors of the UN in Geneva on the argument that is would give the otiose Conference on Disarmament something concrete to work on), the publication of the third report of the Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) on the use of chemical weapons (CW) in Syria, new allegations of CW use in both Iraq and Syria, and, of course, the outcomes of the work that I was doing in support of the BTWC.
But the project also offered many joys. There was the opportunity to participate once again in one of the EU’s signature programmes in support of disarmament and non-proliferation. Indeed, ‘once again’. The current EU Council Decision is the fourth in support of the BTWC since 2006. Ten years ago, before the 6th Review Conference set up the ISU, I had the pleasure as director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project (BWPP) of being entrusted with the implementation of the first Joint Action (as the decision was then called). During its 2-year running period the BWPP organised three preparatory meetings for diplomats and four regional conferences (South-East Africa, South-East Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East). It also laid the foundations for EU assistance with national implementation of the BTWC obligations to requesting states parties. (See the web page maintained by the ISU.)
From this first Joint Action I took away how expectations from the convention in capitals could be quite different from issues being put forward in the diplomatic gatherings in Geneva. And that there was not always effective communication between the Geneva-based missions and their respective capitals. It was indeed a pleasure to note how matters have improved considerably over the past decade, but a lot of work remains. Another lesson identified was that irrespective of whether government officials were approached top-down (as in the case of the EU Council, which acted through the foreign ministries) or bottom-up (as the BWPP was doing via local civil society outreach and education), the problems encountered were quite similar. Indeed, stakeholders in the convention — whether ministries or other government agencies, parliamentarians, scientists and academics, or civil society entities — had to be identified and brought together. In June 2008 this insight led to a Norwegian-sponsored initiative for a combined approach in Malawi to promote the country’s ratification of the BTWC. With the help of local and regional network members the BWPP identified and invited a range of governmental and non-governmental stakeholders and parliamentarians to a seminar in Lilongwe, which eventually proved to be the first step along the path towards ratification.
A second joy was the ability to engage with officials responsible for BTWC matters in capitals. Things had definitely improved over the past decade. People participating in the regional workshops came from different backgrounds, but all had awareness of the BTWC and core challenges facing the convention. I also noticed the impact of years of regional interaction and cooperation among officials, scientists and other experts, meaning that the debates were driven by shared interests and understandings as well as common concerns. Whereas during the first Joint Action a lot of effort went into explaining the basics of the BTWC and the reasons why countries should be concerned by possible biological weapon-related threats in their region, today the regional variations in assessing challenges and proffered solutions envelop disarmament with a much richer texture than can ever be appreciated in the meeting rooms of the UN. Indeed, if one conclusion can be drawn from the 2016 BTWC World Tour (as I started calling the series of events on Twitter – see, e.g., here) then it must be that disarmament actually lives. Great progress is being made with the implementation of the BTWC (and its norm against the weaponisation of disease and the life sciences) on the local and regional levels, even if the lack of outcomes at meetings in Geneva can be the source of intense frustration. This less visible ‘disarmament in (daily) action’ is quite different from ten years ago, if it then existed at all.
The hard shoulder
And a third and final joy was to be able to collaborate with the ISU and the Geneva Office of UNODA. I met great people who managed to run happy ships despite the great stress that more than occasionally permeated all aspects of work. Whether it was battling the UN’s bureaucracy (epitomised by UMOJA — Swahili for ‘united’ — an on-line administrative management tool that is supposed to bring together every branch and twig of the UN family, but actually represents an extensive centralisation of bureaucratic power in New York accompanied by complete diffusion of responsibility), changing or lack of timely decisions by states parties, or meeting short-notice deadlines, there was always occasion for a joke to make people get back to their desks with a smile. Seldom a harsh word, and a lot of mutual support. As an outsider on the inside, I definitely appreciated the certainty of backup when everything appeared to be going down the drain. Having experienced the BTWC process as a civil society operator and a member of the Belgian and EU delegations, this third angle was definitely most instructive. Another facet of ‘disarmament in motion’, for sure. And one the outside world appreciates little, alas.
A state of mind
Over the next weeks, as the BTWC 8th Review Conference takes off hopefully for a successful flight, I will write up more of my impressions of disarmament implementation, as well as comment on developments around the world. Despite all the great experiences of the past half year, it is good to be back in The Trench and to be able to freely shout out over the din out there.
Jean Pascal ZANDERS
Senior Research Associate
Fondation pour la recherche stratégique
Enhancing compliance of the BTWC through national implementation and other means
Brussels, 24 April 2014
The workshop, organised by the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium in cooperation with the European External Action Service (EEAS), was held in Brussels on 24 April 2014. Its purpose was to have an in-depth brainstorming session on the future of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) with officials from EU Member States.
The event was the 1st Ad Hoc Seminar to be organised under the new Council Decision 014/129/CFSP of 10 March 2014 supporting the continued activities of the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium.
Representatives, mostly delegates attending the CODUN working party, participated from Belgium, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and the United Kingdom, as well as the EEAS.
Invited non-governmental expert speakers were nationals from Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy and the United Kingdom.
This past weekend brought more Snowden flakes about NSA spying. However, this time the alleged espionage targeted not American citizens, “foreign nationals reasonably believed to located outside the US,” or China but American allies–European Union (EU) officials, diplomatic facilities, and computer networks. If true (as seems likely from US government responses–see below), these leaks combine with the previous disclosures about NSA surveillance to inform people of the scale, capabilities, and audacity of US intelligence gathering activities.
European leaders expressed shock and took much umbrage, with some dredging up the dark spying days of the Cold War and others issuing threats of adverse consequences for upcoming US-EU negotiations on a transatlantic trade agreement. Responses from President Obama, the Director of National Intelligence, and Secretary of State made the same point–the US engages in espionage as all nations do in order to protect foreign policy and national security interests.
This response was simultaneously true and disingenuous. All countries spy in some form or another, and, European public displays of anger aside, the spying includes keeping an eye on allies. And that includes the intelligence agencies of European countries whose leaders were shocked–so shocked!–at the US gathering intelligence on their possible future actions. The response was disingenuous because the US has an intelligence capability that is unrivaled in the world and the political and economic power to pursue espionage without fear of serious consequences. See, for example, the US-EU transatlantic trade talks will start as scheduled despite lots of frothing Euro mouths.
However, not too long ago, it was American officials and politicians who were frothing about Chinese cyber spying against the US government and US-based companies. Snowden’s apparent disclosure of large-scale US cyber espionage against Chinese government, business, and academic targets and, now, allegations about US spying on European governments, makes the past few months of portraying Chinese cyber espionage as beyond the pale look, well, less impressive. Even the US attempt to distinguish economic espionage against companies from classical state-on-state spying gets lost in the growing perception–now directly re-enforced by the US government–that all countries engage in espionage against allies and rivals whenever and however they see fit. In this light, earnestly repeated assertions by China that it does not engage in cyber espionage against the US and other countries and that it is the innocent victim of American spying appear, strangely, rather unseemly for a rising world power.
Should the protagonists in these events stop whining about espionage and just get on with it? Or, do these revelations suggest that the Internet has turned “everybody does it” espionage into an out-of-control phenomenon that damages individual privacy, alliances, and great power politics and requires some re-thinking? Existing international law is permissive of spying, and the few international legal rules that contain limits do not constrain the practice in any effective way. As already indicated, Snowden’s leaks have derailed the US effort to portray Chinese cyber espionage as outside “norms of responsible behavior in cyberspace,” and the coordinated chorus from top US government officials to the latest leak that “all nations do it” might well have ended the willingness of other countries to consider American ideas about re-thinking international norms about espionage in light of the global importance of the Internet.
The future of the CWC in the post-destruction phase
Report – No15 – 27 March 2013
Yasemin Balci, Richard Guthrie, Ralf Trapp, Cindy Vestergaard, Jean Pascal Zanders
edited by Jean Pascal Zanders
From the Foreword by Ambassador Jacek Bylica, Principal Adviser and Special Envoy for Non-proliferation and Disarmament, European External Action Service:
The international community can be justifiably proud of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It has banned an entire category of weapons of mass destruction and provided for their verifiable elimination under international supervision. A small but effective intergovernmental organisation, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), has been created for this purpose.
In the present international situation it is important to note that the Convention has created a de facto legal norm against the production, possession and usage of chemical weapons for military purposes. This prohibition goes beyond the letter of the Convention and stems from the reactions to the tragic experience of World War I and more recent cases of CW usage, including against non-combatants.
This volume features contributions derived from some of the presentations made by world-class experts at the workshop organised by the EU Institute for Security Studies in cooperation with the European External Action Service on 10 September 2012. The workshop offered an opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges facing the CWC over the next decade in preparation of the Third Review Conference at The Hague in April 2013. I am confident that this report presents an invaluable contribution to the debate on the future direction of our joint efforts which aim at the total and irreversible elimination of chemical weapons from the face of the Earth.