2018 Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties

States agree to a Working Capital Fund to address financial difficulties but do not advance on substantial matters 

The latest Meeting of States Parties (MSP) of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), chaired by Ambassador Ljupco Jivan Gjorgjinski of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, took place from 4–7 December in Geneva. Shortly after midnight on Friday, states parties adopted a report that was stripped down to a bare minimum with respect to substantial agreements. It did, however, agree to address the Convention’s dire financial situation with the establishment of a Working Capital Fund based on voluntary contributions and as a source of short-term funding. This does not solve the core problem, which is the failure of few states parties to pay their assessed contributions on time and in full, but at least provides some short-term financial relief. States also agreed for the next Meetings of Experts to take place 29 July–9 August 2019, and for the 2019 MSP to be held 3–6 December in Geneva. Ambassador Yann Hwang of France will chair the MSP. The meeting approved Ambassador Adrian Vierita of Romania and Ambassador Andreano Erwin of Indonesia as Vice-Chairs.

During the MSP general debate, many states observed that rapid developments in the life sciences in the past years, especially in the area of microbiology, have dual-use dimensions. Brazil noted that this pushes the BWC to “spring back into the centre of disarmament discussions,” but also warned that the “institutional machinery does not match the breadth of prohibitions established therein.” This seems to be one of the core challenges of the BWC within the context of current rapid developments in science and technology. This concern is also shared by UN Secretary-General Guterres, who, in his recently published report Current developments in science and technology and their potential impact on international security and disarmament efforts cautions that these developments could undermine the norm against biological weapons.The Global Forum on Scientific Advances Important to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, organised by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security on 3 December, provided further in-depth insights into examples of current advancements in biology and biotechnology and their impact on bioweapons non-proliferation policy. 

Maintaining the international norm against the use of biological weapons and addressing these challenges should have been at the core of states parties’ discussions. The Meetings of Experts (MXs) held earlier this year in August offered substantive and rich discussions of measures that can ensure the Convention’s institutional strengthening. As many states argued during the MSP, the MXs should give impetus to the further fleshing out of potential areas of common understandings and to identifying concrete actions. Unfortunately, the reference to the MXs in the adopted report merely notes that “no consensus was reached on the deliberations including any possible outcomes.” As seen in other disarmament fora, a common trait in international consensus-based bodies seems to be that a handful of states treat consensus as requiring absolute unanimity. As with other treaties, this threatens to weaken multilateralism and the BWC’s mandate.

The largest portion of the discussions revolved around the Convention’s most pressing issue: the critical financial situation. The impact of the lack of funds became acutely obvious at this year’s MSP: the duration of the meeting was reduced from previously agreed four days to three days. The meeting on Thursday, 6 December, was held in an informal manner without the availability of interpreters. 
As observed in a joint NGO statement, delivered on 5 December and endorsed by WILPF, “it is only a handful of states parties—Brazil, Venezuela, Nigeria, Libya and Argentina— that account for more than three quarters of the overall debt.” Prior to the meeting, the Chair drafted an information paper to address the Convention’s financial sustainability, but as Germany observed, discussions occasionally became “absurd”. For instance, Venezuela and Brazil opposed language that singles out financial stability as a “prerequisite” for the sustainability of the Convention, arguing that financial contributions are one of many obligations that ensure the BWC’s functioning. The United States, France, the United Kingdom, and others expressed bewilderment and concern at such arguments. While Algeria stressed the “huge cost” of having discussed financial matters instead of substantive issues, the MSP found, at least, a short-term fix to ensure the BWC’s working with the establishment of a Working Capital Fund, to be reviewed at the Ninth Review Conference in 2021.

The joint NGO statement also expressed concern at the politicised statements taking away valuable time from BWC meetings. Unfortunately, this concern materialised yet again during this MSP. The Russian delegation kicked the meeting off with a lengthy and indignant account of Swiss authorities searching the Russian delegation at Geneva airport. It threatened that if this happened again, Russia would block any decisions, halt payments to the Convention, and call for the meeting to be moved to another country. Another contested and politicised point was the absence of Vice-Chairs to the meeting. Whilst the process for selecting Vice-Chairs is not clearly codified, recent practice has been for regional groups to nominate a Vice-Chair in a “silent procedure” that is accepted by all states parties unless an objection is raised. This year for the first time, the United States (US) opposed the Non-Aligned Movement’s nomination of Venezuela as Vice-Chair. The US argued that it did so due to Venezuela’s domestic political situation and it being in financial arrears to the Convention. The MSP’s extensive discussions prompted by this decision was to a large extent aligned with geo-political realities and they took the meeting further away from substantive discussions.

The meeting’s dynamics were reminiscent of other disarmament fora attended by WILPF throughout 2018. The financial instability of international bodies such as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and the BWC is undeniable, and needs to be addressed in a comprehensive and sustainable way. Yet, long discussions around solutions to address financial difficulties distract from the core purposes of these Conventions. Being trapped in one of the many UN conference rooms for days on end without the sight of natural daylight, delegates may lose sight of why these Conventions were created in the first place: to promote and protect human security, and to advance humanitarian disarmament.

For day-by-day accounts of the Meeting, see Richard Guthrie’s reports here