Biological weapons conference sets sights on ending 20-year ‘verification’ deadlock

German police and rescue services practice the reaction after a terror attack with biological and chemical weapons at a training area in the German capital. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

From 28 November to 16 December 2022, hundreds of delegates will gather in Geneva for a major meeting of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) under the shadow of the Ukraine war and Russia’s unproven claims of US-funded biological warfare labs in the country. Against this tense geopolitical backdrop, a renewed sense of urgency has surfaced to solve a decades-long deadlock over how to check countries are not breaking the rules.

In 1971, during a brief period of Cold War detente between the United States and the Soviet Union, an international treaty that outlaws developing or using weapons made of biological toxins or pathogens was forged and came into force four years later.

The Convention on Biological Weapons, which counts 183 parties, was the first international arms pact to ban a whole category of weapons. But it had a major chink in its armour: unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention that was adopted in 1997, it has no inspection mechanism or system to help verify that countries are living up to their commitments.

The conundrum has plagued the convention for decades, and after years-long efforts by parties to come to an agreement that even culminated in a draft protocol text, talks ultimately fizzled out in 2001.

Fast forward 21 years and there’s a renewed push among states and the disarmament community to find a solution, spurred by the break-neck speed of changes in science and technology, increasing security risks, and a need to build trust in an increasingly tense global environment.

“We must break this deadlock," said Leonardo Bencini, Italy's disarmament ambassador and president of the ninth review conference that begins today.

“We’re not going to solve all the problems of this convention in three weeks but we need to kick start the process and get the ball rolling again,” he told Geneva Solutions.

Without moving forward and agreeing on some meaningful changes by the end of the five-yearly review conference “we risk losing the credibility of the convention,” he added.

What are biological weapons?

Biological weapons are a frightening prospect. They can be any number of disease-producing agents – from microorganisms like virus, bacteria or fungi, or toxic substances produced by living organisms – that are released deliberately to cause disease and death in humans, animals or plants.

But countries are also advancing research in the same fields, and using the same agents, for peaceful purposes, like preventing diseases. With scientific breakthroughs in life-sciences speeding ahead and the technology becoming more readily available, biological weapons are becoming easier to produce, increasing the risk they fall into the wrong hands. It has also made it more difficult for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) to monitor.

“When you're talking about verification in the biological field, you have to consider you have in the world hundreds of thousands of establishments and facilities that might deal with biological substances that could be weaponised,” said Bencini.

“Scientists and experts tell us that verification in the biological field is much more difficult than in, say, the nuclear or chemical field. So we need to also understand what we mean by verification and by compliance. And we should need to make a decision on this,” he continued.

Establishing some form of science and technology review mechanism to monitor developments in life sciences and other areas will be one of the issues discussed this week by delegates, as well as a proposal to create a code of conduct for scientists.

Among the other issues on the table are how to ensure low-to middle income countries also have fair access to technology, as well as a working paper by Kenya, Panama and Pakistan on engaging the next generation of young scientists and disarmament experts, not only from developed but also developing countries.

The review conference, which was postponed by a year due to Covid-19,  will also address issues relating to the pandemic, and how the BWC can help bolster international cooperation in responding to future health emergencies.

Strengthening the convention

Any actions that countries decide to take to strengthen the convention will need a bigger organisational structure to help implement it, Bencini added. At present, the BWC’s so-called Implementation Support Unit (ISU), has only three staff. The convention is also limited by its small budget of $1.5 million a year.

By comparison, the Chemical Weapons Convention is supported by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and in the nuclear field – the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“The Biological Weapons Convention is the only weapons of mass destruction convention that does not have an organisation to implement it,” Bencini said.

“Certainly, one of the things that I believe that there's already a consensus about is the need to strengthen the ISU, this is the bare minimum that we should be doing,” he said.

Russia allegations loom large

Moscow’s as yet unproven claims that the US is funding “military biological activities” in Ukraine are likely to come up in discussions at this week’s conference.

The UN Security Council met for a third time at the end of October at Russia’s request to address its ongoing allegations. Under the BWC, countries can lodge a complaint to the council and can also request that it investigate breaches of the convention.

For a third time, the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumu Nakamitsu, informed ambassadors that the UN had seen no evidence of biological weapons use in Ukraine. Both Ukraine and the US refuted Russia’s claims, accusing it of spreading disinformation.

Bencini declined to comment further on how the allegations may feature in the conference: “As far as we’re concerned the focus will be on improving the convention.”