Deliberations Suspended at BTWC Conference

Tasneem Jamal

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2002 Volume 23 Issue 1

In a down-to-the-wire decision that left many delegates frustrated and angry, deliberations at the Fifth Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) were suspended on the final day of the meeting, to be reconvened November 11, 2002. The move came in response to a last-minute US proposal that threw the three-week-long review conference into disarray.

The contentious US proposal which led to the suspension called for the dissolution of the Ad Hoc Group. The Ad Hoc Group has spent nearly seven years in negotiations over a verification Protocol to the Convention that would add a legally binding verification mechanism to improve implementation of BTWC recommendations. The US proposal stated: “The conference takes note of the work of the Ad Hoc Group and decides that the Ad Hoc Group and its mandate are hereby terminated.”

Called a ‘non-negotiable’ measure, the shocking action brought a halt to all further negotiations. In his statement following the conference, Chairman Ambassador Tóth of Hungary stated that the Conference had approved 95 per cent of his composite document before negotiations collapsed. Rather than call the Review Conference a failure, the state parties have re-scheduled the meeting for November 1-22, 2002 and will continue the debate then.

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, to which 144 states are party, mandates that regular review conferences be held. Unlike the newer Chemical Weapons Convention, the BTWC has no legally binding verification mechanism. Since the Fourth Review Conference in 1994, when the Ad Hoc Group was created, progress has been made on a rolling text for a Protocol to strengthen the effectiveness of the Convention.

Postponement of the Fifth Review Conference does not bode well for the future of the BTWC. It follows on the failure of the Ad Hoc Group meeting in July 2001 when the US rejected the draft rolling text of the proposed verification Protocol. Arguing that the mechanism would pose a threat to sensitive military activity and the US pharmaceutical industry and still not prevent rogue states from developing biological weapons, it refused to support the current text “even with changes.”

Canada has maintained its strong support for the BTWC since the failure of the July meeting. It publically declared its regret at the US rejection of the Protocol, taking a lead role in promoting the Review Conference. Ambassador Westdal’s speech to the Conference highlighted the need to examine both new and old proposals with open minds. Canada also used this forum to promote the utility and relevance of multilateral treaties generally, and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention specifically.

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