By James Revill and Manon Blancafort
The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), a milestone of the international disarmament regime, prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. The convention, which 184 States around the world have committed to, embodies a longstanding and cross-cultural norm against the hostile exploitation of diseases. Through Article IV of the BWC, which deals with national implementation, the Convention also indirectly facilitates progress in the sphere of biosecurity and the prevention of bioterrorism.
The Ninth 5-yearly Review Conference of this convention concluded in mid-December 2022, following a series of delays due to COVID-19. The conference presented a crucial opportunity to strengthen the effectiveness of the Convention and to lay out a course for the next five years and beyond.
However, it took place at the end of a long and difficult year for arms control and disarmament. Geostrategic tension, not seen since the height of the Cold War, manifested in various arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament fora over the course of 2022. For example, the Tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in August 2022 was unable to reach a consensus on a substantive outcome.
A modest outcome in extremely challenging circumstances
The BWC Review Conference was not immune to the wider politics. Indeed, it was a challenging year for biological disarmament diplomacy, with allegations of biological weapons development testing the regime. Such allegations, among other factors, meant that it was not possible to agree on an article-by-article review of the convention at the review conference. This was a disappointment.
However, states were able to secure an agreement that lays the foundations for future steps towards strengthening this important treaty. The consensus final agreement establishes a working group to begin work in 2023 on several important topics, including compliance and verification, a topic largely marginalised in the BWC since the collapse of the protocol negotiations in 2001.
Furthermore, the Review Conference renewed the mandate of the Implementation Support Unit (ISU), the three-person unit that supports the Convention, and made provision for an additional ISU position. The mandate for the next five years also holds latent potential for the establishment of mechanisms to facilitate support on international cooperation and assistance, as well as on assessing scientific and technological developments of relevance to the BWC.
Both are important in the current environment wherein biotechnology is advancing and converging and diffusing with other fields across the globe. While biotechnology has the potential to address a number of societal challenges in the areas of biofuels, food security and health, these advances also present the possibility of new, potentially more deadly forms of biological weapons.
Beyond the BWC
The BWC does not operate in a vacuum and beyond the BWC, other activities in support of the broad concept of biosecurity will continue in 2023. For example, states are expected to deliver a progress report on negotiations around an international treaty on pandemic prevention and preparedness to the 76th World Health Assembly in 2023, with a view to adopting such an instrument in 2025.
At the national and local level, a myriad of biosafety, laboratory biosecurity and research oversight initiatives will also continue into 2023. In late 2022, the WHO issued the global guidance framework for the responsible use of the life sciences which highlighted some of these initiatives and identified activities that could be undertaken by scientists but also, educators, trainers, project managers, funders, publishers, editors and the private sector as part of a wider process of biosecurity governance. The WHO Guidelines, along with initiatives such as the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines, should lend momentum to measures designed to promote biosecurity governance.
Over the course of 2023 and beyond, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) will take stock of such measures through the development of a database of activities in support of the implementation of the BWC and work to bring together a geographically and gender representative set of stakeholders in support of biological disarmament and biological security.
Activities in Geneva
Geneva remains a hub for biotechnology activity, with several biotechnology companies based in the region, along with a number of international organisations working on issues at the interface of security and the life sciences, including the BWC Implementation Support Unit, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the WHO. The co-location of entities working on health, technology and security-related issues provides fertile ground for further collective work to bolster biosecurity and biological disarmament. Meetings of the BWC and other fora can serve as useful convening events to bring together the different communities working on or around the life sciences, discuss best practices in this field and galvanise efforts to bolster biosecurity. As biotechnology continues to advance, such steps will become more important than ever before.
About the Author
Dr. James Revill is the Head of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and Space Security Programmes at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).
Ms. Manon Blancafort is a Graduate Professional for the Weapons of Mass Destruction and Space Security Programmes at UNIDIR.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Geneva Policy Outlook or its partner organisations.