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Issues Before the 7th Biological Weapons Review Conference

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 30, 2011

    The 7th review conference (revcon) of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons (BTWC) is scheduled to be held from 5-22 December 2011 in Geneva. According to the decision taken in the April 2011 preparatory committee (prepcom) meeting for the revcon, the review conference will, in accordance with Article XII of the Convention, “review the operation of the Convention, taking into account, inter alia, new scientific and technological developments relevant to the Convention; the progress made by States Parties on the implementation of the obligations, under the Convention; progress of the implementation of the decisions and recommendations agreed, upon at the Sixth Review Conference.”

    The prepcom proposed a provisional agenda for the review conference. The agenda includes, inter alia, a general debate and discussion on the purpose of the Convention in the light of recent changes in the global environment and advances in life sciences as well as an article by article review of the Convention and crafting a roadmap for the future.


    Review conferences have been held approximately every five years. At each review conference, member countries get a chance to take stock of the implementation of the provisions of the BTWC. The last BTWC Revcon was held in 2006.

    A brief description of the key provisions of the Convention would be in order here. The BTWC, consisting of fifteen articles, was perceived as a step towards complete and general disarmament. It was concluded in 1972 and came into force in 1975. Its purpose, as mentioned in the preamble of the Convention, was “to exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins being used as weapons.” Article I prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, retention, or retention of biological agents and toxins for weapons purposes. However, the use of such materials for peaceful purposes is not banned. Under Article II, states parties to the convention are obliged to destroy the stocks of the biological agents and toxins or divert them for peaceful proposes. Under Article III the transfer of such materials to other parties for non-peaceful purposes is prohibited.

    Article IV deals with “necessary measures” that each state must take to implement its obligation under Article I. Under Article V, states parties to the Convention are obliged to consult and cooperate on matters relating to the Convention. Article VI deals with the breach of obligations. Under this article any state may “lodge a complaint” with the UN Security Council if it feels that a member state is violating the Convention.

    Article X provides that the “Convention shall be implemented in a manner designed to avoid hampering the economic or technological development of States Parties to the Convention or international cooperation in the field of peaceful uses.”

    Since the signing of the Convention, the States Parties have been continuously struggling to make the Convention relevant to address new challenges. For instance, the issue of non-State actors getting access to bio-technologies has become salient in recent years.

    Issues Before the 7th Revcon

    Compliance, verification and monitoring have been the major issues in previous BTWC discussions. BTWC does not have a formal verification provision. Russia and Iraq were found to be in violation of the Convention. Russia pursued a bio-weapons programme during and after the end of the Cold War. So did Iraq. Although the Convention provides for an approach to the UNSC to carry out investigations, this provision has not been invoked so far.

    Efforts have been made in the past to strengthen the BTWC by negotiating a legally binding protocol to the treaty, which would have provided mandatory declaration and on-site inspection of relevant facilities. A draft protocol was prepared and circulated in 2001. The protocol was negotiated for six years but the United States rejected the draft and withdrew from the negotiations in 2001. This was a major challenge to the BTWC. The United States does not want its biotechnology industry to be subject to any verification measures under the treaty. Instead, it advocates national measures. No solution to the verification conundrum has been found as yet.

    Confidence Building Measures are an important part of the Convention. Annual reporting has been mandated in order to supplement verification, promote transparency and information sharing. But, the format for reporting has not been updated since 1991. Moreover, only half the members have done any regular reporting.

    A useful innovation of the last few years has been the setting up of the mechanism of inter-sessional meetings (ISU) of experts as well as States Parties. These meetings have been found to be useful as they promote exchange of views and strengthen confidence building. Whether the ISU mechanism should be extended, and if so, in what form, will be an issue for discussion at the 7th BTWC revcon.

    Universality has been another issue of concern. Only 164 countries have so far ratified the convention. The Convention, it seems, is less popular than the Chemical Weapons Convention or even the contentious NPT.

    The lack of progress in strengthening the BTWC has resulted in ad hoc measures outside the convention. Notable among these is UNSCR 1540, which calls for strengthening of national measures against bio-terrorism. Bio-terror and bio-safety are being taken seriously by many countries. In 2005, 193 member countries of the World Health Organisation adopted International Health Regulations which are binding, to strengthen bio-safety measures. Useful as these measures are, they do not directly strengthen the cause of disarmament.

    Implementation of Article X has proved to be highly divisive. The article often clashes with Article III, which prohibits transfer of such technologies. A group of 41 countries, known as the Australia Group, operate an ad hoc export control regime, which restricts the export of dual use technologies to curb proliferation. This is strongly resented by the NAM group of countries. With exponential growth in biotechnologies and the bio-industry in recent years, the fears of non-state actors misusing the technological advances in life sciences have increased. There is an urgent need to ensure that the threat of bio attacks is tackled without unduly restricting the use of these technologies for peaceful and useful purposes.

    India’s Position

    India’s position on BTWC was laid out by Ambassador Hamid Ali Rao at the Experts’ Meeting in Geneva in October 2010. India is for a verification mechanism. It has a good record of implementing its obligations under the BTWC. India’s stated position is that it supports the further strengthening of the BTWC verification, its universalisation, CBMs, export controls and international cooperation consistent with the objectives of the BWC. In particular, India is in favour of the fullest implementation of Article X of the convention.

    In recent years, India has taken several concrete measures in the area of bio-safety and security. It has formulated national guidelines to deal with various kinds of bio-disasters including epidemics, pandemics and bio-terrorism. It has fostered international cooperation and consulted the World Health Organisation and Food and Agricultural Organisation. India has suggested the enhancement of international capabilities to respond, investigate and mitigate alleged bio-attacks. It has strengthened its national legislation by enacting a WMD Act, which brings in line its export control efforts with international standards.

    Given its record and its efforts to promote bio-security and bio-safety, India should adopt a proactive role in strengthening the BTWC further. It should throw its weight behind greater transparency, implementation of Article X and continuation of the inter-sessional mechanism of the meeting of experts. India should at the same time ensure that the interests of its burgeoning bio-industry are not compromised. India has already indicated its desire to join the Australia Group, which demonstrates its seriousness in pursuing export controls to curb proliferation.

    Without effective verification, BTWC will remain weak. However, the prospects of evolving such a mechanism are not too bright. A large dose of political will, particularly on the part of the United States which has refused to accept the draft protocol to the Convention, will be required to address these concerns.

    The author holds Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at the IDSA. The views expressed are personal.