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Report on the 2019 Meetings of Experts of the Biological Weapons Convention

In this report

 Introduction

From 29 July to 8 August 2019, the Biological and Toxins Convention (BWC) Meetings of Experts (MXs) convened for the second time in Geneva as part of the inter-sessional work programme between the five-yearly BWC Review Conferences.

The MXs allowed for in-depth and substantial interactive discussions on a broad range of related topics, also thanks to detailed expert presentations ahead of almost each agenda item. Many delegations and the MX Chairs reiterated their hope that the outputs of the MXs would feed into the yearly Meetings of States Parties (MSPs). However, references to the MXs in the MSP’s final report of 2018 were, for the sake of consensus, stripped down to a bare minimum, merely noting that, “no consensus was reached on possible outcomes.” 

While there are some areas of increased convergence, such as under MX4 on assistance, response, and preparedness, long-held divisions continued to be obvious on other topics. Despite delegations’ expressed political will and commitment to strengthening the BWC, chances for convergence on topics such as institutional strengthening appear to be slim, risking, as the US delegation observed, for the BWC to “doom [itself] into irrelevance”. 

The Meetings also featured what seems to be the first ever side event on gender in the context of the BWC. More participants than usual raised gender concerns throughout the MXs, joining the continued momentum of increased gender considerations across various disarmament and arms control fora. 

See here for more background on the BWC, read daily reports of the meetings here, and catch up here about what happened at last year’s Meeting of States Parties in December 2018. The meetings were also webcast, and can be re-watched here.

MX1 on Cooperation and Assistance, with a Particular Focus on Strengthening Cooperation and Assistance under Article X, chaired by Ambassador Victor Dolidze of Georgia, addressed seven related topics and discussed seven working papers. 

Many states reported back on activities they have undertaken under this Article, both those that have provided assistance for Article X related activities (such as France, Germany, and Russia), and those that have received it (such as Morocco and Kenya). Germany informed that obstacles to effective cooperation include slow decision-making processes, the lack of clear focal points, and the fluctuation of partners. It reiterated the need for national ownership for cooperation and assistance programmes to be effective. 

As a joint NGO statement reminded the meeting, last year’s Chair of this MX, 
Ambassador Almojuela of the Philippines, suggested several concrete proposals for further consideration at this year’s meeting, including an action plan for Article X implementation; guidelines on Article X reports; the creation of a BWC Cooperation and Assistance Officer position within the Implementation Support Unit (ISU); and an open-ended working group to monitor, coordinate, and review activities of cooperation and assistance. However, instead of seeking convergence on these points, the usual divisions were prevalent. Amongst others, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Iran continued to urge the set-up of a cooperation committee, while the UK and others opposed it. 

In light of the low numbers of submitted reports under this Article, some delegates supported the creation of a standard template for submission, as it would aid in compiling and comparing reports. Others argued that any template would have to be flexible enough to allow for sufficient national variations. India introduced a new proposal for the establishment of a voluntary trust fund to support voluntary and cooperation activities. 

MX2 on the Review of Developments in the Field of Science and Technology Related to the Conventionchaired by Mr. Yury Nikolaichik of Belarus, discussed four topics. These included the review of science and technology (S&T) developments and their potential risks and benefits; biological risk assessment and management; the development of a voluntary code of conduct and biosecurity education; and any other developments in S&T that are also relevant to other multilateral organisations. Seven working papers were submitted.

Unprecedented advances in the life sciences are posing challenges to the BWC’s mandate to control the risks and threats posed by the ever-growing and myriad possibilities for the use of biological weapons. Against this backdrop, participants agreed that an effective review mechanism for S&T developments is required so as to ensure the BWC’s successful response to these advancements. However, differences of opinion existed about the best way forward. 

Expert presentations paved the way for in-depth discussions in this MX. These included overviews of new hybrid security threats resulting from a convergence of artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, and cyber technologies; and foresight in relation to dual-use research.It was acknowledged that these threats are still poorly understood by the international community.

The Organisation on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported on its Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) and the Hague Code of Conduct.This served as a starting point to discuss the establishment of similar mechanisms within the BWC. In ensuing discussions, Germany, Switzerland, India, China, Japan, Switzerland, and the US, amongst others, expressed support to consider the establishment of a scientific advisory board. The UK and India differentiated their support for the consideration of a scientific review mechanism instead. Cuba cautioned against the practical feasibility of such a body. Iran did not support the creation of a committee, arguing that the BWC is not made of the same structure as the Chemical Weapons Convention. 

As already observed by the Chair of MX2 in 2018 Pedro Luiz Dalcero of Brazil (BWC/MSP/2018/CRP.3), a voluntary code of conduct for biological scientists and relevant personnel enjoyed greater commonality of approaches among delegations. At this MX, vast support was again expressed for the development of national codes of conduct. Many stressed that such a code should be of a voluntary nature. 

The agenda item of risk assessments also continued to enjoy considerable convergence. Many agreed that there is no one size fits all solution but that that the development of a model would be helpful. Participants also stressed the need to involve industry in assessments. The UK encouraged inclusion of those involved in the research stages, while India said it was important to have a multi-sectoral approach, including civil society, technocrats, bureaucrats, and policy makers.  

 MX3 on strengthening national implementation was chaired by Ms. Lebogang Phihlela of South Africa. Six working papers were submitted under this MX. Many states took this MX as an opportunity to share national implementation measures related to biosafety, biosecurity, outbreak control, and outreach activities. The quality and quantity of confidence-building measures (CBMs) was the last item that was extensively discussed. No time was left for the three remaining agenda items and participants agreed to submit their statements to the Chair. These will be reflected in the Chair’s forthcoming summary appended to the adopted MX3 report. 

MX4 on Assistance, Response and Preparedness was chaired by Mr. Usman Iqbal Jadoon of Pakistan. Against the backdrop of the 2014–2016 Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in West Africa and the on-going Ebola outbreak in the Democratic People’s Republic (DRC), this MX is of acute relevance. These recent incidents have shown the “lack of preparedness in the global health and humanitarian assistance system to large-scale disease outbreaks,“ as noted by the joint NGO statement to this MX. Seven working papers were submitted to this MX. 

While there is still no agreement on how to operationalise Article VII, there is increasing convergence and cross-regional support related to measures that strengthen Article VII, including efforts to better understand challenges to effective responses to a potential deliberate release of biological agents, and better coordination and cooperation on risk mitigation, including effective diagnose, surveillance, and investigation mechanisms. The meeting ended early, demonstrating the “great convergence” among participants, as noted by the Chair.  

Many acknowledged the difficulties in determining if an outbreak was natural or deliberate but some, such as Canada, asserted that while the mechanisms and technical activities would remain the same, controlling the spread of agents can become more challenging if it was deliberate.

Canada, Japan, the US, Brazil, and others underscored the need to enhance national capacities to prepare against malicious use of biological agents against livestock and agriculture.  

While the UK and Germany, and others asserted that the UN Secretary General should be a focal point for preparations for Article VII responses, Iran and Russia disagreed with such conclusions. 

MX5 on Institutional Strengthening of the Convention, chaired by Mr. Laurent Masmejean of Switzerland, was the last MX of this meeting. It posed a stark contrast to the scope of agreement under MX4. While all states parties demonstrated political will and commitment, there continues to be deep disagreement about the best way forward in terms of institutional strengthening. 

One of the most contested issues under this MX is the question of a legally binding protocol applicable to all articles of the Convention, including a verification mechanism, versus the advancement of other tools and measures that do not involve new legal mechanisms. The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), as well as the UK, refreshed participants’ memory and offered an historical overview on the to date failed negotiations on a legally binding protocol. 

While states such as the UK and the US expressed their long-held views against a legally binding protocol applying to all articles of the Convention, which would also include a verification mechanism, Iran, Russia, Brazil, the NAM, and others continued to argue that negotiations should be prioritised and continued. In that vein, Iran rejected a “cherry picking approach towards certain aspects of the Convention,” to which the US responded that states parties should take decisions that would allow the BWC to “shape the world … instead of adopting long, dusty reports.” While China and Ecuador expressed their support for the negotiation of a legally binding protocol, they noted that the lack thereof shouldn’t restrict the further strengthening of the Convention.

Australia, the UK, and the US argued that with a forward-looking view, states parties should look to elaborate other existing options and tools, and “stop dwelling on the protocol and verification question,” as noted by the UK. Advancing a so-called stepping-stone approach,” as described by the NGO community, would include incremental, practical, inclusive, and forward-looking measures. Some of these suggested measures made by delegates to this meeting included enhancing the role of the ISU to support national implementation; expanding the scope of CBMs, including non-intrusive peer reviews; strengthening capacity for investigation and assistance in the event that such complaint is made; and to submit more regularly reports. 

China and Brazil expressed their support for export control mechanisms while the UK noted that, “disputes over “export controls are highly polarised now as they were then”. 

The US, Japan, China, the Netherlands, and others stressed the need to find a solution to the financial chronic precarity of the Convention.  

 Better late than never: gender perspectives have made their way into BWC discussions

This BWC meeting arguably has made history! For the first time ever, the meetings featured a well-attended side event on gender in the BWC context, hosted by UNIDIR and the Permanent Mission of Norway. Based on historical examples of biological warfare and insights from natural outbreaks of diseases, panelists discussed possible differences in the effects of biological weapons on women and men and their significance for assistance, response and preparedness. Key questions included why and how gender is relevant in thinking about the deliberate spread of disease; why gender matters in the provision of assistance; and measures to improve the collection of gender-disaggregated data and research on the gendered impacts of biological weapons. Panelists asserted that societal gender norms and roles may result in different levels of exposure, in uneven access to information, and in distinct experiences of social stigma. 

UNIDIR acknowledged that this event was only the start for further in-depth discussions and research on the topic. Its recommendations included to mainstream gender perspectives in public health policies; and to promote gender in the agenda of BWC meetings. The latter call was immediately heeded on the same day by the US delegate, who drew attention to the event’s preliminary findings in the MX4. She urged participants to consider how the issues raised in the side event might have a bearing on this MX. Other delegations also firmly contextualised gender within the BWC. Canada called for further discussions on diversity and inclusion in the context of the Convention. Under MX5, Ireland advocated for gender perspectives that “allow [for] a deeper examination of underlying assumptions about how gender shapes our own work and the dynamics of disarmament efforts.” It called for the assessment of gendered impacts of weapons-related threats during and after conflict, as well as in non-conflict environments. Ireland further encouraged increased diversity in BWC meetings, reminding participants of UNIDIR’s recent study which found that women accounted for only 33 per cent of delegation membership in BWC meetings.