Debating Bioweapons

The issue of international verification continues to plague the Biological Weapons Convention’s reputation.

The Seventh Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) will take place this December in Geneva. As I noted in April, the current president of the BWC, Paul van den Ijssel, has set out an ambitious course focused on achieving universality for the Convention. However, the issue of a comprehensive international verification mechanism continues to plague the BWC’s reputation.

For years, the BWC had been engaged in talks to come to an agreement on a suitable verification arm, but this was put on hold after the United States withdrew its support back in 2001. At the time, George W. Bush administration officials argued that such a mechanism would entail massive capital with little pay off, and force the siphoning of funds from successful bio-defence programmes. Politicians on Capitol Hill are also concerned about the impact a verification regime may have on the US biotech industry.

Van den Ijssel has been taking a measured approach to the verification issue, and realizes the inherent difficulties. Despite this, he also understands that it’s an important missing element of the BWC that erodes the Convention’s credibility when compared with other non-proliferation bodies such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the International Atomic Energy Agency. He recently explained that it was ‘important to devote attention to the issue’ and stressed that it is ‘not off the table and there are many countries who want to keep it on the table in some form or the other.’

It will be interesting to see how much traction van den Ijssel can gain on the verification issue. While the Obama administration has significantly altered other aspects of US non-proliferation policy since 2001, it maintains a firm stance that the BWC verification mechanism in its current proposed form doesn’t align with US interests. The recent debt crisis in Washington hasn’t helped efforts either. The White House continues to be increasingly hawkish on budgetary expenditures, and remains cautious of guaranteeing funding to international organizations without a tangible analysis of the financial impact.

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Van den Ijssel realizes that a return to the decapitated negotiations from 2001 is implausible, but it’s still important for BWC members to get back to the table to discuss the verification gap.

Yet the problem won’t go away anytime soon and it’s not only the US opposition that has stymied its progress. The massive and sustained growth of the biotech industry globally has resulted in stiff resistance from the private sector and attached lobby groups. The biotech lobby is concerned that a universal verification mechanism will mandate costly inspections that will reduce productivity and eventually profits. Van den Ijssel may be in for a long fight over verification.