Global participation in data-reporting measures for a biological-weapons ban is at its lowest point in nearly a decade.
U.S. envoys reported that finding at an annual conference of Biological Weapons Convention member states in Geneva last week. The lagging compliance occurred despite a high-profile focus on boosting the treaty's credibility.
As of Wednesday, just 63 of 166 countries had submitted voluntary data about bio-related activities under confidence-building measures, or "CBMs," sought from all BWC member nations over the past year.
"The situation is getting worse, rather than better," Washington warned in a working paper submitted for the Switzerland conference. "Time is running out on our best opportunity to address the problem of low CBM participation."
Unlike its counterpart agreement covering chemical arms, the biological-weapons treaty has no auditors or requirements for verifying that member states are adhering to rules against developing, manufacturing or storing organisms or toxins for military use.
States parties to the treaty are asked to annually submit details on domestic biological-defense sites for the prior year. One U.S. example was a report on the scope and aims of pathogen studies at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland. Reportable information also may relate to newly instituted laws, changes to facilities or disease incidents.
"In any given year, the majority of states parties do not submit CBMs," U.S. officials said in their working paper.
"Many states parties [have] noted the importance of CBMs" during "abbreviated sessions" held among BWC members in the past, according to the document. But there has been "disappointingly little discussion about why the rate of participation remains so low in a regime widely noted as an important component of national implementation," the U.S. paper reads.
Participation in the voluntary data-sharing has averaged just 35 percent since 1987, the U.S. team reported.
"While participation improved slightly in recent years, hovering near or above 40 percent," the rate of information-sharing by member nations exceeded 50 percent only once -- in 1991, according to the paper.
The 34 percent level of member-nation reporting in 2013 constitutes "the lowest participation rate since 2005," the Washington diplomats said. "Of a current total of 166 states parties, 52 (or 31 percent) have never submitted a CBM return. Nearly half of these (a total of 24) have been party to the BWC since the CBM regime began in 1987."
At the convention's 2013 Meeting of States Parties last week, participants agreed to seek input from countries that rarely or never submit declarations "on the specific reasons on why they do not participate." That initiative was included in a preliminary list of elements for the five-day gathering's final report.
Electronic submission, technical workshops and tweaks to annual written reminders were also on the table as possible methods of encouraging member states to submit the declarations. Still, it remained uncertain how governments might act in coming years to shore up disclosures under the nonbinding transparency scheme.
The information requested is "quite minimal" for governments that do not operate biological defense programs or sensitive disease-research facilities, the U.S. delegation asserted in its paper.
By tendering a single page, a country could indicate "that there is 'nothing to declare' or 'nothing new to declare,'" the U.S. document states.
Meeting participants were divided, though, on whether the trust-building system is in need of significant change, according to issue expert Richard Guthrie of the BioWeapons Prevention Project, a network of nongovernmental organizations.
"It was not clear from the discussion what might constitute appropriate changes that could command consensus," Guthrie wrote last week in a brief report.
A seven-year push to negotiate a binding verification mechanism for the treaty ended in 2001, when the United States withdrew from the talks. The Obama administration has upheld Washington's opposition to the establishment of a mandatory monitoring regime for the biological-arms treaty based on concerns about cost to research institutions and industry.
Last week's meeting marked the final formal dialogue over concerns about the voluntary declarations ahead of the biological-arms treaty's next review conference in 2016. Member nations are expected to address other issues prior to the next five-year gathering, including how they would collaborate in responding to a biological strike.
This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.