… 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.