The Ploughshares Monitor September 2001 Volume 22 Issue 3
The same week in July that the US withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the Bush administration told a lower profile international meeting in Geneva that it would not support a protocol intended to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC – the full name of the convention is “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological [Biological] and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction”). Unlike their counterparts in Bonn, however, who agreed without the US to a treaty regulating greenhouse gases, the Geneva delegates suspended discussions on measures to verify compliance with the BWC shortly after the US withdrawal. The abandoned talks ended six years of negotiations, and left future efforts to improve the effectiveness of the BWC uncertain.
The Biological Weapons Convention, approved in 1972 and ratified by 143 countries, including the United States, has never had a mechanism to verify compliance with the treaty, unlike the parallel Chemical Weapons Convention. The “Protocol to strengthen the effectiveness and improve the implementation of” the BWC, intended to correct this problem, has been under negotiation by the Ad Hoc Group of States Parties to the BWC since 1995, shortly after Iraqi arsenals discovered in the wake of the Gulf War raised international concern about biological weapons. During its mandated period, the Ad Hoc Group met 24 times to hammer out a 210-page document covering the details of an on-site inspections regime which would be applicable to all treaty signatories.
US objections included concerns that the draft Protocol was not strong enough to prevent “rogue states” from circumventing the BWC. In keeping with a domestic industry bias, the US government also objected to perceived risks of inspection measures that it said could jeopardize confidential business information and intellectual property rights. Critics of the US position pointed to a contradiction in its “not strong enough” but “too strong” argument and the US was not willing to respond to requests for alternative Protocol text.
Meanwhile, advocates of the Protocol emphasize the urgent need to respond to rapid changes in biotechnology which could foster biological weapons proliferation. The degree of agreement on the draft Protocol beyond the US suggests that the treaty may still be salvageable without US participation. The next opportunity to negotiate the Protocol will occur in November when the states parties to the BWC meet for another Review Conference.