Reforming the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention’s S&T Review Process

Editor’s Note: This guest post to the Bifurcated Needle was written by Amanda Moodie. Ms. Moodie is a Research Analyst at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and was selected as an Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Fellow in 2015.  

As diplomatic conferences go, Preparatory Committee meetings for the Review Conferences of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC/BTWC) are generally rather dull. At quinquennial Review Conferences, States Parties review the operation of the Convention; the Eighth Review Conference, to be held in Geneva from November 7th to the 25th, 2016, will allow States Parties to take into account any relevant scientific and technological developments and assess the state of implementation of the Convention. The Preparatory Committee meeting, or PrepCom, gives delegations the opportunity to discuss the organizational aspects of the Review Conference, such as the Conference presidency, the distribution of posts of Chairs and Vice-Chairs of the subsidiary bodies among the regional groups, and the draft Rules of Procedure. This year marks a departure from the usual procedure, in that two PrepCom meetings will be held; the second meeting, scheduled for August, will “provide an opportunity for States Parties to consider comprehensively all provisions of the Convention,” while the first PrepCom, which took place 26-27 April, would work on “general exchange of views and the organizational aspects of the Review Conference.” Most of the substantive discussion that can help build consensus and explore ideas, in other words, won’t take place until later in the year. As a result, the first PrepCom was largely unexciting to all but the most die-hard multilateral negotiation wonks.

One PrepCom development, however, did catch the attention of BWC-watchers. Since 2006, the Preparatory Committee has requested the BWC’s Implementation Support Unit (ISU) to prepare, among other documents, a background information paper on “new scientific and technological [S&T] developments relevant to the Convention, to be compiled from information submitted by States Parties as well as from information provided by relevant international organizations.” This year, States Parties suggested that the S&T paper, as well as a background information document on relevant developments since the last Review Conference in other international organizations, should be dropped from the list of requests. The public response from BWC experts from the NGO community was not overwhelmingly positive:

It’s understandable that BWC experts are concerned about the absence of an S&T paper as background material for the RevCon. In order to make sure that the Convention functions appropriately and continues to serve its purpose of banning the development and production of biological weapons, representatives of States Parties need to stay informed about potential scientific developments that might make it easier for anyone to acquire such weapons, or even alter our understanding of what such weapons might be. Not every State Party has the capacity to carry out such reviews itself, and the ISU’s background paper ensured that all delegations were on the same page with respect to S&T developments prior to the RevCon – at least in theory.

The stated reason for the elimination of the S&T paper was the burden it was placing on the ISU. Early in the PrepCom this year, States Parties had upped the burden on the organization by requesting it to prepare two new background information documents, in addition to the eight papers it’s prepared for RevCons in the past. Some of the requested papers are compilations based on information submitted by States Parties or on previous RevCons’ Final Documents, but others require the ISU to carry out original research. Moreover, even the compilations require time and effort from the ISU, which is severely understaffed and will also have other work to do in preparation for the Review Conference. The S&T papers produced at the last two RevCons were compiled from information submitted by States Parties and international organizations. However, several States Parties not only provided details to the ISU on relevant scientific developments, but also prepared their own working papers which repeated the same information. Additionally, many States Parties did not receive or read the ISU’s paper before the RevCon and therefore did not hear about key scientific and technological developments in advance, which made it difficult for them to take those developments into account when reviewing the Convention.

So the ISU, which already has far too much work, was supposed to complete a paper that duplicated effort already being put forth by many States Parties and that other delegations likely wouldn’t read in time to put it to use. For these reasons, the S&T paper “was not widely regarded as a useful tool” [1] and was dropped. This is not ultimately a bad thing. Nor does it necessarily mean that the BWC will fail to take S&T developments into account during the treaty review process. In fact, there is significant support among States Parties to reform the S&T review process and figure out a better way to provide input to the Review Conferences on significant developments. Doing S&T review in a diplomatic treaty context is very difficult. The biological sciences are evolving at an incredibly rapid pace, and it will be tough for the Convention to keep up, even if reviews are carried out more frequently than every five years. Plus, it’s hard to identify which topics are actually relevant for the Convention. Diplomats do not always have sufficient scientific background to understand certain scientific advances, much less to grasp their potential implications and identify what questions need to be asked about their impact on the BWC.

Yet despite – or because of – these challenges, most delegations seem to understand the importance of the S&T review issue, and their working papers and comments in the exchange of views portion at the PrepCom suggest that they are prepared to reform it and make it more effective. The elimination of the ISU’s paper may be a sign that this has already begun: States Parties have already started to take a critical look at the S&T review process and eliminate redundancies or extraneous steps, with a view toward making it more efficient.



1 - Richard Guthrie, “[27 April 2016] The Preparatory Committee concludes its first session,” BioWeapons Prevention Project, PrepCom Report 13 (1 May 2016).

On Nuclear Alternatives

The UPMC Center for Health Security began its third year of the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative this week.  To give you a good sense of the program, a description of last year’s class of fellows and the program for last year is here.  This is a very competitive program that provides talented early career professionals with an exposure to important ideas and challenges in biosecurity and brings these professionals together with a range of leaders in the field.  We are honored to lead this program.     

One Fellow in this year’s Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) program, Dr. Seth Baum, has just published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on nuclear weapons and deterrence.  Dr. Baum is the Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, which is a nonprofit think tank focused on threats to human civilization.

In his paper, Dr. Baum describes the horrific, ruinous consequences for the planet should a large numbers of nuclear weapons to be used in war, a scenario commonly known as nuclear winter.  He then proposes a number of alternatives be considered to nuclear deterrents, including the use of non-communicable biological weapons.   

There is no doubt that large scale use of nuclear weapons could cause terrible, perhaps existential dangers to all of humanity.  This prospect should frighten us all.  Many of us have become desensitized to these enormous risks, and I really commend efforts to change that. Existing and new proposals for reducing nuclear stockpiles should be a global priority.        

However, I - and my colleagues at UPMC - do not agree with Dr. Baum’s proposal that non-communicable biological weapons be considered as an alternative to nuclear deterrent.  Biological weapons were the first category of weapons to be banned through an international treaty, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC).   Enormous efforts have been invested to establish and maintain this convention.  The normative and legal prohibition against biological weapons by the BTWC should remain firmly in place.  Strengthening that convention should be our goal.   Weakening that convention would not help us diminish the threat of nuclear winter, and it would increase the danger of biological weapons development and use in the world.

One of the virtues of the ELBI program is that it gathers emerging professionals to exchange ideas and experiences.  We have the chance to discuss and debate new issues and ideas over the course of the program.  We know and respect that Fellows in this program bring their own views into this year and will continue to have their own independent assessments in the world this year and beyond.  We are glad to have the opportunity to engage with Dr. Baum over the fellowship year and to have continued dialogue and discussion with all the Fellows that helps inform and strengthen our collective ability to take on biosecurity challenges in the time ahead.