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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
March/April 2001
Volume 54, Number 2
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
Degraded Lands: South China's Untapped Resource
U.S. Stalls BWC Protocol Negotiations
Dual-Use Exports Liberalized
Making Your Views Heard to Congress
Another Intelligence Review Underway

U.S. Stalls BWC Protocol Negotiations

By Barbara Hatch Rosenberg

The Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 (BWC), which lacks verification measures, entered into force just as the potential of genetic engineering was becoming apparent. The relevance of this new technology for biological weapons made it evident from the start that the BWC would have to be strengthened.

The first stirrings of glasnost allowed the establishment in 1986 of an annual information exchange among the Convention Parties; but experience has shown it to be inadequate because it is not legally-binding. Continuing concerns about possible treaty violations led the Convention Parties in 1991 to initiate a study at expert level of the feasibility of verifying the treaty. The so-called VEREX Group of verification experts considered 21 possible measures that might contribute to verification and produced a positive report on feasibility in 1993.

A Special Conference accepted the report and issued a strong mandate for an Ad Hoc Group to draft a Protocol to strengthen the BWC with measures on verification and cooperation. The Protocol negotiations started by building on the VEREX study and on a widespread perception that biological weapons pose a growing threat that must be contained before new technology becomes militarily assimilated. Many promising provisions were put forward in the first years of the negotiations.

However, as an effective compliance regime began to take shape, the US and some other States Parties began to back off. The goal underwent a subtle shift from protecting against biological weapons to protecting against the Protocol itself. In the recent revisions of the draft Protocol text, the most effective passages have either been eliminated or bracketed.

Why? The reason is NOT because of any inordinate threat to confidential national security or business information. A high level of intrusion is not necessary and confidentiality safeguards are available that are not incompatible with the goals of deterring treaty violations and increasing confidence in treaty compliance.

Yes, biological weapons are difficult to verify. But, an international compliance regime that would effectively complement national intelligence and defenses has already been envisaged. US refusal to stand with its European allies in support of this global security measure, however, has sparked its likely rejection.

Despite all the Clinton Administrations's talk about the dangers of biological weapons, it took no leadership role, placed no priority on the negotiations and made little effort to recruit bio-industry leaders to participate constructively as chemical industry leaders did, to great advantage, during negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention under the former Bush Administration. Mid-level agency officials with their own agendas were left to shape the US role at the negotiations, and our negotiating team made no secret, in Geneva, of its desire to re-shape the negotiation mandate. Now, a new Administration, with well-known antipathy to multilateral arms treaties, has recently completed a review of US policy on the Protocol but seems reluctant to state its position - apparently in the hope that China, Iran, or other countries will do the dirty work of rejection for them.

Ambassador Tibor Toth released his proposed Chairman's compromise text for the Protocol on March 30, in time for discussion at the recent negotiating session. Although the text was widely welcomed, no real progress could be made toward finalizing the negotiations because the US remained silent rather than joining the Protocol proponents in pushing for agreement. The negotiators are acutely aware of the abundant evidence that any Protocol, regardless of text, will be rejected by the US.

Only four more weeks of negotiating time are scheduled this year before the next BWC review conference starts in November, by which time the Protocol is supposed to be completed. Beyond the review conference, there is no heart in Geneva to continue the negotiations for four or more fruitless years, nor is there visible support for revising the mandate according to US desires. If the US prevents consensus on a final text before November, how can the considerable progress made by the Ad Hoc Group be preserved? How can the long-term threat of biological weapons be headed off? And how will the international community avoid sending the message that there is no political will to strengthen and enforce the BWC?

Revised from Column for ASA Newsletter, 6 April 2001