The Meeting of Experts on Biological Weapons

31 Aug, 2007    ·   2365

Ajay Lele overviews the Meeting of Experts on the recently held Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

The Meeting of Experts (MX) for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) was held from 20 to 24 August 2007 in Geneva to discuss 'Ways and means to enhance national implementation, including enforcement of national legislation, strengthening of national institutions and coordination among national law enforcement institutions' and 'Regional and sub-regional cooperation on BWC implementation'. These topics were decided upon at the 6th Review Conference for the BTWC held from 20 November to 8 December 2006, chaired by Ambassador Masood Khan of Pakistan.

With this meeting the second inter-sessional process for the BTWC has started. The meeting focused discussions on the national measures adopted by States Parties. Many of them presented broad overviews of their approaches to national implementation, including technical expositions on various aspects of enforcement, interagency coordination, regional cooperation, and export controls. Apart from the State Parties, presentations were made by Interpol and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). A new arms control body called Implementation Support Unit (ISU) presented their work. It creates and maintains a database on National Implementation Measures, which contains descriptions of national measures to work the Convention and provide links to the full texts where possible.

One notable aspect of this meeting was that many states expressed the need to incorporate food safety into the national measures against bioterrorism. Traditionally, food safety has never been associated with biological warfare. But, these concerns indicate that acts of agriculture terrorism could affect food safety and many states are concerned.

Jayant Prasad, India's Ambassador & Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, said in his plenary statement that it was imperative that the norms against biological weapons contained in BTWC are upheld and implemented, especially in the context of the growing threat of proliferation of biological weapons and bioterrorism. He also mentioned that terrorists could use the advances in biotechnology, genetic engineering and life sciences for the 'manufacture and deployment' of biological warfare agents. He also argued that the short and clear text of the BTWC, which is simple, does not elaborate on the fine distinction between prohibited and permitted activities. The Indian side expressed the view that "States Parties should fully implement their obligations under the Convention and adopt national measures, including the enforcement of legislative and administrative measures, to ensure their compliance with all the provisions of the Convention".

Some states opined that national implementation measures developed often do not cover the actions of governments themselves wherein India's case was quoted. Section 25 of India's Weapons of Mass Destruction and their Delivery Systems (Prohibition of Unlawful Activities) Act 2005 (the 'WMD Act') reads: 'Nothing in this Act shall affect the activities of the Central Government in the discharge of its functions relating to the security or the defence of India'. It was argued that this provision had been introduced to ensure that the legislation did not inhibit India's nuclear weapons programme.

In respect of 'national implementation' it was mentioned that there is no "one size fits all" solution, and there is a need to develop an approach that can be tailored to the individual needs of the States Parties. The OPCW suggested that an "implementation checklist" would be a more useful tool than model legislation. It was also felt that the ISU could be the catalyst for coordination and management activities. A need was expressed to provide guidance for enacting legislation and regulations by the States Parties and to provide them with practical assistance to build capacity to enforce and manage these measures.

On the whole it could be said that after the fifth BTWC review conference disaster in 2001-2002 things are slowly moving towards a better understanding and implementation of 'bio regime'. Following the sixth Review Conference (2006), much progress has been made in a short span of less than a year. Four new members - Montenegro, Kazakhstan, Trinidad and Tobago, and Gabon have joined the Convention. This brings the number of BTWC signatory States Parties to 159. Within the first eight months of 2007 a record number of 57 countries have submitted their CBM (Confidence Building Measures) returns for 2007, and more are in the pipeline. However, the real challenge would be to get countries like Israel on board.

This MX will be followed by a one-week Meeting of States Parties (MSP) in December. The MSP may discuss 'universalization and comprehensive implementation of the Convention' which could be a difficult challenge. In the biological weapons area much more needs to be done in regard to national implementation, finding ways and means to verify that scientific and technological developments are not being misused, and making the BTWC relevant to meet 21st century threats like terrorism. The recent MX is a small step forward.