New Leaders Forum

Education and Biosecurity

Rapid advances in the life sciences are posing new challenges for biosecurity. Education is key to tackling them.

By Masamichi Minehata for

This year, the 7th Review Conference (RevCon) of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) will take place in Geneva between December 5 and 22. This is a key opportunity for states party to the Convention to reassure overtheir compliance, review relevant science and technology, and agree on the focus of the Convention for the next five years.

Following the end of the decade-long meeting processes on measures to strengthen compliance with the BWC, including discussion of possible verification measures in 2001, parties to the BWC have extended their efforts to evolve the treaty regime to deal with broader biological risks and threats, primarily through enhancing national implementation of the Convention. Such risks and threats include those posed by biological weapons both at the state and non-state levels, in laboratories with high-risk pathogens, and also natural outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Adopting a broader spectrum of threat perceptions is key to the security of the Asia-Pacific region.  This is, after all, a region where the diffusion of highly-advanced life science technology has been accelerating, raising proliferation concerns and increasing the risk of accidents alongside the imminent threats of infectious diseases.

In order to effectively deal with such a wide range of threats, it’s important to develop multifaceted preventive and responsive measures, ranging from creating a responsible culture for conducting individual research to international legal prohibitions on biological weapons. It’s clear that we can’t develop such security architecture without the comprehensive engagement of informed scientists over dual-use issues. However, a critical and pervasive lack of awareness among the life science community about dual-use issues has been consistently raised.  With this in mind, education and awareness raising of the scientific community on dual-use issues should be one of the key topics proposed for consideration at the 7th RevCon.

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An important diplomatic group at the Convention is the cluster known as the JACKSNNZ (pronounced Jacksons) group – Japan, Australia, Canada, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Norway and New Zealand.  This year, JACKSNNZ is expected to provide substantial input on the question of education on dual-use issues for life scientists.

Diplomatic groups in the BWC, such as the Western Group, Eastern Group and Non-Aligned Movement (which have slightly different membership in other UN forums, such as the General Assembly), have played an important role as vehicles for coordinating collective diplomatic strategies. However, there have been clear shifts in group dynamism since the end of the Cold War.

For example, within the Western Group, the United States has been an influential actor, and its decision to decline the verification protocol in 2001 caused a certain distance in diplomatic posture towards the BWC among other members. Another factor since then has been the increasing effectiveness of EU common policies towards the BWC. Based on the exchange of knowledge and experience of member states, the accumulation of EU papers has shown the clear political leverage they have gained with their rich information and analyses, particularly in recent BWC meetings.

Some experienced observers of the BWC suggest that such diplomatic trends offer a challenge for some non-EU and non-nuclear members of the Western Group to consider how to use their national policies to influence the group.  The emergence of JACKSNNZ suggests an alternative strategy for non-EU and non-nuclear parties to maintain political leverage within the Western Group and to impact broader BWC diplomacy.

The working mechanism of the JACKSNNZ group is particularly flexible. When the members of JACKSNNZ provide national papers (official policy documents) to the BWC, they employ a process of information sharing that enables them to produce effective policy proposals based on the understanding of the different national perspectives of members of the group. These papers are then cited as authored by the country that has taken the lead on the issue.

This approach is useful in two ways.  First, it provides a way to avoid consensus decision making while still allowing member states to utilize the authority of the group. Second, member states can achieve a division of labour, allowing them to work on different agendas and thus avoid duplication of work.  At previous meetings, the JACKSNNZ group has presented interests in, amongst other things, national implementation measures; confidence building measures; the annual meeting process between the RevCons; universalization and education awareness among scientists.

The Preparatory Committee of the 7th RevCon in April 2011 agreed on organizational elements in order to set the scene for December’s main Conference. At the committee, some states also made policy proposals suggesting additional discussion topics for the conference. One of these was the paper presented by the JACKSNNZ group on the issue of biosecurity education. This paper was jointly-authored by Australia, Japan and Switzerland as well as Sweden (a non-JACKSNNZ member). The paper reported on national activities in biosecurity education, and also illustrated how it’s possible for states to promote biosecurity measures as part of national implementation activities, as well as how to report national experiences by using already existing CBM mechanisms under the BWC.

It will be a significant achievement if such proposals can be further extended into a working paper at the 7th RevCon with a view to achieving specific, definite agreement on the education topic as a part of the final document.

In previous declarations, the importance of education was underlined under Article IV (National Measures). However, some argue that a simple declaration, as has occurred at previous review conferences on the importance of education, will be insufficient, and that one of the most effective steps would be an agreement that each state should carry out an extensive education and outreach programme among all those engaged in the life sciences.’

It will also be important to agree on the organisation of an annual meeting to enable discussion of education issues before the next RevCon. But is there any prospect for such agreement? These proposals could pose a significant challenge as the topic of education hasn’t always been a high priority of states compared with other issues in BWC negotiations.

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Within the Western Group, consultation with the US and the EU will be the primary front for JACKSNNZ, and based on publicly available documents, this process isn’t likely to be the most contentious. The JACKSNNZ paper at the Preparatory Committee in April was co-authored with Sweden, suggesting that this topic is something that can be jointly worked on by the JACKSNNZ group and an EU member. The United States is one of the few state parties that provided an official statement at the preparatory committee (the others being Iran and India). The US statement underlined the agreement on an annual meeting process following the 7th RevCon. Notably, one of the four priorities for this process was the ‘outreach, education, and awareness to and of those engaged in the life sciences to reinforce strong norms of responsible, ethical, and safety- and security-conscious behaviour.’

However, JACKSNNZ will also need to carefully consult with the Non-Aligned Movement. At the preparatory committee, Iran and India also provided official statements, both of which highlighted the importance of Article X (international cooperation in peaceful exchange of science and technology).

The divisions between the Western Group and the NAM group over the security aspects of the BWC have a long history, but such disagreements should be set aside as far as education is concerned. Importantly, the JACKSNNZ paper in April stated that it is essential to ensure conditions ‘whereby states parties can develop and apply’ the scope of Article X. This shows that education can be a fundamental means of effective implementation of both Article IV and X and could provide a way of resolving concerns between the two. Under this view, it would be ideal if a possible JACKSNNZ paper for the 7th RevCon could be co-authored by a Non-Aligned Movement member reporting on their national education activities.

The above plan could be seen as ambitious. However, it’s essential that an international decision be reached that will help prevent the destructive use of rapidly advancing life sciences. Clearly the decision requires a creative and mutually beneficial solution to strengthen the BWC, and education is certainly one way that the JACKSNNZ group can demonstrate that the necessary flexible, ambitious and realistic steps can be taken.  


Masamichi Minehata is a research fellow with the University of Bradford in the UK and a non-resident SPF Fellow with Pacific Forum CSIS.