This week marks the beginning of the Review Conference (RevCon) of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), held every five years in Geneva, Switzerland, with the goal of addressing specific issues designed to keep the treaty in a position to address the ever-changing nature of biological threats. The BWC, opened for signature in 1972 and entered into force in 1975, effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, retention, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. It was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons and is a key element in the international community’s efforts to address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The BWC currently has 165 States Parties and 12 Signatory States. The United States is actively encouraging universal membership.
At a White House event last month, Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher and Ambassador Laura Kennedy spoke about the importance of focusing on three critical issues during the Review Conference. The first involves bolstering confidence that the treaty is being faithfully implemented around the world. Annual Confidence Building Measures (CBM) reports have been expected from BWC States Parties for many years, but during this RevCon the U.S. will support proposals to improve these reports and ensure that the right questions are being asked for today’s world, while limiting the negative effect on legitimate science, medicine, and industry. Second, Ambassador Kennedy emphasized that the BWC States Parties should work to address developments in science and technology, including their potential misuse by terrorists. “Going forward, it will be critical that scientists, industry, and academia understand these concerns and work with governments to find the right balance of oversight mechanisms and professional responsibility to diminish the risks without choking off peaceful technological development.” Finally, Under Secretary Tauscher illuminated the importance of “using the BWC as a forum to strengthen national capacities to detect and combat disease outbreaks, regardless of their origin”, which is vital in its application for global health as well as responding to bioterrorism.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the opening address at the BWC RevCon in Geneva on December 7th. Her remarks highlighted the history of the Convention and the ways in which the “nature of the problem is evolving”. She emphasized that it is “easier today for states and non-state actors to develop biological weapons”, and “in an age when people and diseases cross borders with growing ease, bioweapons are a transnational threat, and therefore we must protect against them with transnational action”. The three critical issues explained above were expanded upon by Secretary Clinton. She underscored the new U.S. Bio-Transparency and Openness Initiative as an example of how the United States is “meeting our obligation to the full letter and spirit of the treaty”.
The U.S. Government has determined that i) The risk is evolving in unpredictable ways; ii) Advances in the enabling technologies will continue to be globally available; iii) The ability to exploit such advances will become increasingly accessible to those with ill intent as the barriers of technical expertise and monetary costs decline; and iv) The U.S. must take action to ensure that advances in the life sciences positively affect people of all nations, while reducing the risks posed by their misuse. Secretary Clinton empowered Ambassador Kennedy and the U.S. Team, along with the leaders and delegates from other States Parties to the Convention, to develop “a strong set of recommendations” and “move forward to address the challenges we face together in the 21st century”.