Summary: Meeting of Experts for BTWC

This question was on the agenda yesterday in Washington, D.C. during a discussion organized by Global Green USA’s Security and Sustainability Program. The 2010 annual Meeting of Experts for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC or BWC) was held in Geneva at the Palais des Nations from 23 to 27 August 2010. Through statements and presentations during plenary sessions and side events the delegations exchanged information and views on the 2010 Intersessional Topic and the forthcoming 2011 Review Conference.  Global Green USA invited government agencies and non-governmental organizations that attended the Meeting of Experts to share their observations with the Washington D.C. community. This was already the sixth meeting dedicated to the BWC 2010 Intersessional Topic.  The 2006 Sixth Review Conference of the BWC decided to hold four sets of annual meetings, 2007-2010, prior to the 2011 Seventh Review Conference.  Each set of annual meetings includes a one-week Meeting of Experts, followed by a one-week Meeting of States Parties. 

The 2010 Meeting of Experts discussed effective action on the provision of assistance and coordination with relevant organizations upon request by any State Party in the case of alleged use of biological or toxin weapons.  This includes improving national capabilities for disease surveillance, detection and diagnosis, and public health systems."

In her opening remarks, Ms. Marina Voronova-Abrams, the chair of the Global Green discussion, remarked that the August BWC meeting was truly an international gathering. “Ninety-four countries, eight specialized agencies and international organizations, and sixteen non-governmental organizations and research institutes attended the Meeting in Geneva. The expertise ranged from public health to law enforcement, to emergency response, to food safety, to crime and attribution.”

“All presentations confirmed that the international community needs to consider technical, political, security, and humanitarian complexities that accompany international response in the case of the alleged use of biological agents.  Since one country may not be able to cope with a potential attack, the States Parties should be ready to provide necessary assistance, which may vary depending on the nature of the alleged use of a biological or toxin agent. The assistance may involve provision of medical support, disease detection and diagnosis capabilities, management of affected populations and even investigational resources.”

“Although many delegations stressed the fact that any response mechanism would be nearly identical for a natural outbreak and for an alleged biological or toxin attack, there were also statements about profound differences. While disease outbreaks are managed in the same manner as naturally occurring outbreaks by public health or veterinary systems, the investigation and epidemiological processes may differ.”

“Many experts drew attention to still existing gaps and challenges, such as poor intersectoral partnerships, the need to enhance travelers’ health and sanitary inspection at borders and ports, and the need for simulations and table-top exercises on a regular basis.”

Dr. Paul Walker, Director of the Global Green USA Security and Sustainability Program, added: “Other burning issues from the Geneva meeting were verification, compliance, national implementation of the Convention, assistance according to Article X concerning peaceful uses of biology, and treaty universality.”

Kirk Bansak from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, observed that “It is unclear just how ubiquitous it is, but there seems to be a feeling among some in the community that the usefulness of the BWC intersessional process, in its current form, has dwindled – that it has become a sort of relic of the ‘rescue effort’ initiated after the contentious turn of events during the Fifth Review Conference. After all, many topics discussed during the current intersessional period have been identical to those discussed in the previous.  Indeed on the informal fringes of the Meeting of Experts this year, there was some questioning of the intersessional process’s utility given its limitations both in topical areas and in its potential for institutional impact on the BWC.”

“Nonetheless, the wide range of technical, public health, and law enforcement issues and activities presented under the umbrella of this year’s Meeting of Experts topic seemed to be very well received, particularly by the technical experts in attendance.  This perspective portrayed the intercessional process as one that does more than simply maintain dialogue – it creates an international forum for interfacing the disparate issues that may go beyond the arms control core of the BWC, but that help constitute the global “web of prevention” or nonproliferation regime writ large.  Such an activity offers utility for individual states parties in terms of preparedness and capacity building, thus demonstrating added value for BWC membership.”

Other participants said that the intercessional process has been very valuable in terms of maintaining dialogue among the States Parties and that much of the progress has been made over the past four years in terms of the unprecedented level of participation and voluntary discussion. There is also a much higher level of unity among NGO’s and governments than in other regimes, such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as more and more parties have realized that everyone has an interest in security from biological agents. Because of the cooperation seen over the past few years in the Intersessional Process, regional meetings, simulations, and even a worldwide rise in financial assistance for these projects has been seen.

Some experts argued that the Intersessional Process may seem like it does not accomplish much at the actual meetings, but a great amount of dynamism is present during the year between meetings.  A lot of actual activity is going on the ground, driven by the dialogue in Geneva. This activity is seen in the presentations each country’s delegation gives on what it has accomplished that year. 

Dr. Dana Perkins of Health and Human Services acknowledged that the BWC is no longer driven by only a few countries.  “Everyone wants to participate and they make it [BWC] their own issue.”  Describing the interest in biosecurity the past few years as a hive, she highlighted the emergence of such states as Kenya as regional leaders in promoting biosecurity and biosafety issues.

An active discussion at Wednesday’s meeting revolved around the fact that stakeholders seemed to be actively discussing the upcoming 2011 BWC Review Conference. A contentious topic next year is likely to be the desire of some states to reinstate verification and confidence building measures.  An important issue is the need for increased connections between US and European NGO’s, in order for the two sets of groups to learn from each other.  This would help with setting the agenda for future improvements to the BWC regime.

All participants in the Global Green meeting agreed that it will be important to continue an open and inclusive dialogue amongst government and non-governmental experts on BWC issues to facilitate a successful 2011 BWC RevCon that would strengthen the regime.