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Verification and the BTWC

Dr. Monalisa Joshi is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 01, 2006

    In the post Cold War world, the term Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) emerged as a usable tool. This usage reached a crescendo with the 2002 Iraq disarmament crisis and the alleged existence of WMD in Iraq, which became the primary justification for the 2003 invasion of that country. The fear of WMD proliferation has generated grave concerns, given the increasing number and greater intensity of terrorist activities and their attempts to acquire WMD. Efforts to restrain the development and further spread of WMD have received greater focus in this environment of insecurity.

    The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), prohibiting the production and storage of biological toxins and calling for the destruction of biological weapons (one of the three categories of WMD) stocks, was signed in 1972. The basic prohibition of biological weapons is enshrined in Article I of the BTWC. The need to co-operate in the "development and application of scientific discoveries" is the main focus of Article X. Article XII stipulates that any new scientific and technological developments relevant to the Convention should be taken into account while evolving verification measures.

    To consider the inextricable link of dual use technology with biological weapons, the BTWC provisions for a Review Conference to be held every five years. These Conferences ensure the evolution of verification measures by strengthening the convention itself in the wake of new threats resulting from scientific and technological developments. Since its inception in 1972, five Review Conferences have been held so far. Unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), BTWC has no organisational set-up to cater for verification and related problems.

    The issue of verification was addressed at the First Review Conference held in 1980. This Conference classified terms and specified a consultative procedure. The Declaration of the Conference noted the confidence-building value of voluntary declaration by parties concerning past biological weapons and steps to eliminate such programmes. US accusations of Soviet violation preceded the Second Review Conference held in 1986. Once again verification was the main concern of the conference. The lack of institutional mechanisms for resolving accusations by a state party was the main issue in the Final Declaration of this review conference. Compliance related elements of the regime were extended in the Third Review Conference held in 1991. The final declaration expressed the view "to establish an Ad Hoc Group (AHG) of Governmental Experts open to all states parties to identify and examine potential verification measures from a scientific and technical standpoint."

    The AHG was established in 1995 and started work to conclude a verification protocol. But given the complexity of a verification regime it failed to complete its task before the Fourth Review Conference held in 1996. Its efforts to prepare a verification protocol in time for the Fifth Review Conference in November 2001 received a serious blow, when the US rejected the draft protocol text and terminated its mandate. A plenary session of the States Parties to the Fifth Review Conference was reconvened in November 2002 and an agreement for annual meetings, "both of experts and of state parties" in the run up to the Sixth Review Conference to be held in 2006 was concluded.

    The BTWC Preparatory Commission Meetings were held at Geneva from April 26 to 28, 2006. These meeting were a run up to the 6th BTWC Review Conference scheduled for the end of this year. A Discussion Paper prepared by Canada and presented at the Preparatory Committee suggested a general recognition that States Parties should focus on the full implementation and continued strengthening of the Convention. The paper put forth a comprehensive approach to this objective in the following areas: accountability framework, focus on national implementation, confidence building measures, implementation support and annual meetings.

    There is speculation whether the 6th Review Conference would fulfil the role that has been set for it. At the same time, there is also anxiety, given the earlier memory of the US rejecting the draft protocol text and terminating the mandate of the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) established to evolve verification measures.

    The various Review Conferences of the BTWC held so far have taken into account scientific and technological developments. However, the progress to evolve parallel verification and compliance measures has been dismal, even after thirty years of the Convention. The complexity of these two issues arises from technological difficulties as well as the number and the interests of the parties involved. Any successful conclusion of an agreement pertaining to the verification and compliance mechanisms for biological weapons disarmament will involve the convergence of the interests of various biotechnology research and associated laboratories, the willingness of the scientific and research community to share information and most importantly the commitment of states. The 6th BTWC Review Conference provides another opportunity to member states to resolve differences and evolve a consensual agreement.