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Biological & Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)


By dxw


Dr Mark Smith, Programme Director  writes:

In December, the Biological & Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), the worlds main institution for fighting the use of disease as a weapon, will convene in Geneva for its Seventh Review Conference. In common with the other WMD regimes, the BTWC has these reviews on a five-yearly basis, meaning that once every half-decade over a hundred states will come together to assess progress and make collective decisions about the way forward. The President-Designate of the conference, Paul Van Den IJssel of the Netherlands, has said that “ambitious realism” will be his guiding principle, a fine balance of the need for pragmatism with the equally important need for progress. As I have been at WP for a little over five years myself, this means I have chaired BTWC-related discussions here during one full Review cycle, so it seems fitting to offer a few reflections on the changes that taken place over that period.

And changes there have certainly been. When I arrived here in mid-2006, it was not uncommon for the task of the Sixth Review Conference to be defined not as ambition or even realism, but as rescue. The reasons for this lie in the traumatic and sometimes bitter experience of failed negotiations for a verification mechanism between 1995 and 2001, and the ensuing failure of the Fifth Review Conference in December 2001. The fallout from this was so far-reaching that the 2006 Review was often viewed as a last chance to rebuild consensus or face failure of the regime. ‘Failure’ would not mean actual collapse: the Convention would continue to exist, the norm that it expressed would continue to exist, and the political-legal obligations on its States Parties would continue to exist. But the regime which is to say, the Conventions role as a way to organise a global constituency on the fight against biological weapons might be largely at an end for the foreseeable future (which the proviso that the foreseeable future can be a long or short period of time). It hardly needs saying that this would have been a calamity for both the BTWC and the wider global non-proliferation regime.

These fears were well-founded, which only underlines the achievement of the 2006 Review.  Under the Presidency of Ambassador Masood Khan, consensus was not only rebuilt but actively furthered. The Conference set up a work programme for the coming Review cycle and a better institutional system to implement it. Considering that, for this Review, anything short of outright failure could reasonably have been claimed as notable success, this outcome represents an outstanding achievement and a testimony to the State Parties and their president.

That 2006 was a solid achievement is evinced by the fact that, judging from debates at Wilton Park at least, the sense of crisis evaporated in the years following it. As the Seventh Review Conference moved closer, Wilton Park organised a conference in September 2010 to look at the prospects for success there. Our partners in this were the FCO and in the UK, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the US State Department and the EU. With 15 months to go before the Review, the conclusions of the meeting were instructive: as one participant put it, there were five identifiable issues (confidence building measures, verification, science & technology, assistance under Article X of the Convention, and the future of the Implementation Support Unit and Intersessional Process) on which there was general agreement that something had to be done, although thus far no-one could confidently say what. The lack of certainty was only to be expected with the Review over a year away and in light of the contentiousness of some of the issues concerned. Nonetheless the contrast with the run-up to the Sixth Review could hardly have been more stark.

Last month Wilton Park convened another meeting to look afresh at the same five issues. We ran the meeting with the Clingendael Institute and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands and the FCO in the UK, and were hosted by the MFA at their headquarters in The Hague. A report from this meeting will be available soon, but my own impression is that ‘ambitious realism’ continues to be not only an aspiration, but an attainable goal.