From November 28 to December 16, 2022, the States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) met in Geneva for the 9th Review Conference. Their task was to review the operation of the BWC and to negotiate a new programme of work for the next five years. Even though the conference took place in a tense geopolitical climate, States Parties agreed some useful measures, such as a new intersessional working group that will address a range of topics including compliance with and verification of the BWC. Despite some shortcomings, the conference outcome represents an achievement considering the current international security and arms control realities.
The Biological Weapons Convention and its 9th Review Conference
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the adoption of the final document of the review conference on December 16, 2022 and characterised the outcome as “a glimmer of hope in an overall bleak international security environment”. While the conference did not manage to reach consensus on the review of the operation of the Convention, BWC States Parties did adopt a package of forward-looking elements. If its potential is fully exploited, this could pave the way for long-overdue steps to strengthen the BWC.
The possibility that developments in the life sciences could be misused for malign purposes has received growing attention in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic likely has amplified this risk perception as it illustrated the devastating impact global infectious disease outbreaks can have, regardless whether of natural origin, accidentally caused or deliberately induced. The BWC, in force since 1975, prohibits the development, possession and proliferation of biological and toxin weapons comprehensively and unequivocally. It is the key instrument for addressing biological weapons threats at an international level. With 184 States Parties as of December 2022, its membership is now near universal. While the BWC rests on a solid normative basis, several of its provisions are under-operationalised and it has deficits especially regarding its institutionalisation as well as verification, compliance and enforcement measures. Every five years, BWC States Parties meet to review how the treaty has been functioning, to reaffirm their previous interpretations of its articles or to record new ones, and to negotiate an intersessional programme for the coming five years.
The 9th Review Conference took place under particularly challenging circumstances. Originally scheduled for 2021, it was postponed twice due to the pandemic, and its preparatory process was hampered by restrictions on travel and in-person meetings. The preparation time was moreover short due to the late nomination of the conference president, Ambassador Leonardo Bencini of Italy. In addition, Russia’s war against Ukraine and the international political repercussions had a negative impact on the preparations and on the conference, as did Russia’s unfounded allegations that the United States and Ukraine had been conducting biological weapons activities in violation of the BWC on Ukrainian territory.
In pursuing its disinformation campaign throughout 2022, Russia invoked BWC Articles V and VI which serve to address compliance concerns and potential treaty violations. Consequently, a Formal Consultative Meeting open to BWC States Parties and signatories was convened in September 2022 in accordance with Article V, but it did not reach consensus on substantive conclusions. Russia then submitted a resolution to the UN Security Council in November 2022 requesting the initiation of an investigation pursuant to BWC Article VI, but this resolution did not gain the necessary support, and the Council has not addressed the matter any further.
The Missing Part: The Article-by-Article Review of the BWC
The review of the operation of the BWC is traditionally carried out as a review of all articles and the preamble of the BWC and is recorded in a Final Declaration if consensus was reached. As in previous conferences, many of the proposals that delegations submitted to the 2022 review conference were well-known and contentious. They addressed, for example, criticism of so-called “unilateral coercive measures” (i.e. sanctions), the value of voluntary peer review and transparency exercises or biorisk management standards for the BWC, and measures related to technology exchange and cooperation in the peaceful use of biology and biotechnology.
More generally, a number of BWC States Parties have long held diametrically opposed views on the appropriate way to strengthen the BWC, and they have disputed the acceptable balance between international cooperation as foreseen in BWC Article X and the non-proliferation functions of the Convention. In addition, some new concepts have emerged since the last review in 2016, such as the inclusion of a gender perspective in the BWC and, at the review conference, the notion that the threat of use of biological weapons is implicitly prohibited by the BWC as well. The respective proposals for the Final Declaration garnered wide-spread but not universal support. Moreover, there were different views on how the developments in 2022 related to BWC Articles V and VI should be reflected. This list of contentious issues shows that a consensual review of the BWC would have required intense negotiations and compromise. It is not certain whether all other States Parties would have accepted the draft Final Declaration as contained in document BWC/CONF.IX/CRP.2/Rev.1. On the final conference day, when President Bencini prompted delegations to comment on the draft, only Russia took the floor to indicate that it saw the need for further negotiations. After further informal consultations, the president informed States Parties that no consensus had been reached and that there would hence be no Final Declaration.
It is worth noting that neither the basic prohibition of biological weapons, including the implicit prohibition of their use, nor other key stipulations of the BWC were openly contested during the conference. Absence of consensus on the article-by-article review and the Solemn Declaration should thus not automatically be taken as absence of agreement on the principles of biological weapons disarmament. In practical terms, the lack of consensus on the article-by-article review may not present a grave problem. After all, there will be a new intersessional work programme with a potential to move the BWC forward. It is still regrettable that States Parties were not able to reaffirm and update their previous interpretations of the BWC, or to reflect the evolution since 2016. This includes lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic which is not even mentioned in the substantive part of the Final Document.
The BWC discourse has evolved over the past six years, for instance towards a greater emphasis on various facets of international cooperation, assistance and capacity-building in the BWC framework, as well as on the need for a systematic review of scientific and technological developments that could present risks to and benefits for the BWC. A Final Declaration may not be essential for the continuity of the BWC. Yet, it would have been valuable to record this evolution, as well as other uncontroversial understandings and the compromises reached on the more contested elements, to bolster the normative basis of the BWC and its future intersessional work, and to provide a more up-to-date point of reference for future BWC meetings.
Without this, the 10th Review Conference, scheduled for 2027, will present States Parties with a challenge and an opportunity. At that point, the last proper review of the BWC will have been carried out over a decade earlier (the 2016 review being largely similar to the previously agreed text from 2011). This will not provide a useful fall-back option to revert to in case of persisting disagreements. Rather, in 2027 States Parties will have to genuinely take stock and collectively and thoroughly reflect on all BWC articles and related developments to fulfil their task and truly review the operation of the Convention.
New Directions? The Decisions and Recommendations
The 9th BWC Review Conference was more successful in negotiating the forward-looking elements for the next intersessional period. These include, among other things, the call for continued universalisation activities, the renewal of the sponsorship programme to support participation of delegations without sufficient resources, the extension of the Working Capital Fund until 2027, and the decision to hold the 10th Review Conference no later than 2027. For the period of 2023 to 2027, States Parties also decided to extend the mandate of the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) and to create one additional full-time staff position, bringing the number of staff up to four. Probably surprising for many observers, States Parties did not decide to operationalise BWC Article VII, which obligates States Parties to assist each other in case of a biological weapons attack, through a database as proposed by India and France, and a set of guidelines as proposed by South Africa. Nor did they collectively endorse the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines as promoted by China to increase awareness of biosecurity and responsible conduct among scientists. These measures seemed uncontroversial. However, they fell victim to more general negotiation tactics and efforts to achieve consensus.
The next intersessional work programme will have a new format and a more comprehensive agenda compared to previous intersessional meetings. This agreement was enabled by considerable flexibility and changes in long-held positions of several delegations. This includes a new or increased willingness in Western states to engage in genuine discussions about verification and Article X-related measures, and on the part of many NAM members to consider substantial changes to the intersessional process as well as incremental steps alongside a holistic approach to strengthening the BWC.
The intersessional process for 2023 to 2026 will see annual three-day Meetings of States Parties (MSP), and the new Working Group will meet for 15 working days each year until 2026, though the conference “urges the Working Group to complete its work as soon as possible, preferably before the end of 2025”. The report of the Working Group is to be submitted to the 10th Review Conference; however, if the Group completes its work earlier, States Parties may convene a Special Conference which could decide on “any future action”. This would allow substantive decisions before the next review conference and could potentially expedite much-needed progress on several of the topics on the Working Group agenda.
This agenda contains several topics that were already addressed by past meetings in one form or another, such as measures related to Article X, scientific and technological (S&T) developments, confidence-building measures, the national implementation of the BWC, and Article VII, as well as organizational, institutional and financial matters.
A Tale of Two Mechanisms: Article X and Science & Technology Review
Two of these topics are singled out in the Final Document, namely the implementation of Article X and the review of relevant scientific and technological developments. The Group of Non-Aligned and Other States Parties to the BWC (NAM) has long been calling for an Article X mechanism that would include, among other things, a Cooperation Committee and an Action Plan to implement Article X. Other states, Western states in particular, opposed these ideas. However, the topic has been discussed more intensively in the BWC context recently in parallel with an increasing emphasis on preparedness, capacity-building and international cooperation as relevant factors in containing biological risks. While there was no immediate agreement at the review conference on the exact shape and content of an Article X mechanism, the mere fact that its establishment now seems possible at all represents a significant change.
The review of S&T developments is a task set by the BWC itself, though it has never been carried out systematically. The current rapid advances in biology, biotechnology and other sciences create risks of misuse for malign purposes as well as opportunities to enhance preparedness and strengthen biological disarmament. BWC States Parties have discussed options for a mechanism to monitor and review these developments in previous intersessional meetings as well as in informal consultations before and during the review conference. A possible compromise emerged from these consultations, which could bridge the gap between those who favour an inclusive forum open to experts from all States Parties and those who prefer a smaller-sized advisory group: A working paper submitted by North Macedonia, the representative of which had facilitated the consultations, depicts a “hybrid model” which would combine both approaches. Many States Parties supported or at least seemed to accept the idea of establishing an S&T body, though preferences as to its shape still differed, and one delegation continued to question its necessity.
In the course of the negotiations, the proposals for an Article X mechanism and S&T review became interlinked, even though their scope, function for the BWC, and level of elaboration are different. At the review conference States Parties could not decide to set up either mechanism right away but merely agreed “to develop with a view to establishing” both mechanisms. The negotiations will hence continue in the intersessional Working Group meetings.
Winds of Change: Verification and Compliance
Absent from BWC intersessional meetings since 2002, the agenda of the Working Group now explicitly contains the topic of verification and compliance. Ever since negotiations for a legally-binding protocol to the BWC failed in 2001, these topics had been off the official BWC agenda and at the centre of intense political disputes in the BWC regime. The United States, rejecting the entire approach of strengthening the BWC through a legally-binding protocol, opposed any official reference to verification until recently and like other states promoted voluntary and incremental measures instead. The NAM, on the other hand, insisted on a non-discriminatory legally-binding agreement as “the only sustainable method to strengthen” the BWC. Russia has also regularly called for a return to the protocol negotiations. These diametrically opposed positions frequently led to deadlocks in the negotiations and to minimalist outcomes at many BWC meetings.
In 2021, the United States signaled its willingness to move away from its previous approach and enter into discussions how to “enhance assurance of compliance”, among other things. And among NAM members there seems to be greater readiness to discuss and engage in more incremental measures while they continue to call for a legally-binding document as long-term goal. Notwithstanding persisting political tensions and Russia’s destructive policies, the positive developments correlated with a more constructive working atmosphere and more cross-regional engagement than has been seen at previous review conferences. Repeated pleas by various delegations not to “kick the can down the road” on less contentious issues moreover indicated a certain impatience with the pace at which the BWC has been moving.
Outlook on the New Intersessional Process
The new intersessional Working Group may provide a useful framework to move on. Much will depend on the exact modalities and structure of the work which States Parties will discuss in a two-day organisational meeting in March 2023. Among the most important tasks of this meeting will be the election of a Chair for 2023, who will be nominated by the NAM, and the formulation of a meaningful and efficient work programme for the intersessional meetings. It will also be important to see whether the relatively constructive atmosphere among many delegations during the review conference can be carried over to the Working Group, and whether a pragmatic, cross-regional approach can prevail over the politicizations, dogmatic positions and the negative impacts of Russia’s war against Ukraine and bioweapons allegations. After all, given that “the Working Group will conduct its work by consensus”, opposition by few or even single delegations could block progress on any given issue.
The image of “low-hanging fruits” was frequently used during the review conference deliberations to refer to issues that could be ripe for adoption or might need only a little extra negotiation. These issues will be addressed in the Working Group alongside more contentious topics. One challenge will be to critically examine and possibly overcome some of their linkages. It is a fine line between acknowledging and addressing the linkages that exist between different topics and articles of the BWC and over-emphasising the need to maintain a strict balance between them. The latter may unnecessarily hamper progress in areas that would benefit the Convention and all BWC States Parties, even if they might not be among the immediate political priorities of all.
Another challenge will be to approach the topic of verification and compliance with an open mind, leave aside long-established positions and biases, and enter into an open-ended dialogue on current threats, needs and possibilities. This will need time and effort to prepare. Interaction with representatives from civil society, academia, international organisations and industry during the intersessional work could play an important role in supporting the process, informing the debate and enriching the dialogue on this and other topics.
The conference outcome shows that some form of multilateral disarmament is possible even under dire circumstances, and that many states attach great importance to the BWC and the norm against biological weapons. It also shows that there are considerable obstacles to overcome in order to bridge gaps and move towards long over-due “effective action” to strengthen the Convention. The review conference outcome and the intersessional process may at least provide some stepping stones toward that end.
The views expressed in this text are the author’s personal views.