The Biological Weapons Convention does not require a seminal event on par with the ongoing Global Nuclear Security Summit process in order to gain sufficient political attention from world leaders, according to the chairman of the treaty's upcoming review conference (see GSN, June 20).
"In a way, I'm happy because if there would be a lot of interest in BWC it probably means that something's awfully wrong," said Paul van den Ijssel, president-designate for the agreement's seventh review conference to be held in Geneva this December. "Either there has been a biological attack or there are a lot states that have problems. That is not the case."
"The fact that it is relatively doing well is a good sign," he told Global Security Newswire on Wednesday between sessions at the two-day 2011 Biosecurity Conference here. "Multilateral disarmament is not just a sad story."
The Biological Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1975, prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of weaponized disease agents such as anthrax, smallpox, and plague.
Since 2007 the United Nations in Geneva has hosted two annual meetings about the convention, dubbed the "intersessional process." Each year these meetings focused on different topics, such as disease surveillance and investigations of the alleged use of biological weapons. Last year marked the fourth and final installment of the process.
The BWC review conferences, scheduled every five years, examine the pact's implementation and recommend improvements to the nonproliferation regime. Representatives from the treaty's member states, along with specialists from international public-health organizations and nongovernment experts, met in Geneva in April to hammer out procedural issues related to the review conference (see GSN, April 12).
President Obama in 2009 laid out a sweeping nuclear nonproliferation agenda during a speech in Prague. The administration followed up on a pillar of that agenda last year when it convened the first Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.
World leaders and dignitaries from nearly 50 countries and international organizations pledged there to secure worldwide stocks of nuclear material within four years and agreed to hold a second security summit next year in South Korea.
The amount of attention paid to nuclear nonproliferation issues has led some in the biological research community to question if the White House views biodefense efforts as a comparable national security priority, following the 2009 release of the administration's "National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats."
"We've had no Prague speech. We've had no biological summit on this issue," Robert Kadlec, the biosecurity adviser under former President George W. Bush, told the House Homeland Security Committee last week (see GSN, June 24).
Van den Ijssel said he is aware that some of the biological nonproliferation community "is a bit sad, is a bit disappointed" with the seeming dearth of political notice the international agreement has received globally.
However, the 36-year-old pact is not as controversial as some of its counterparts, such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, according to van den Ijssel, who also serves as Dutch disarmament ambassador and is Amsterdam's representative to the international Conference on Disarmament.
"NPT is highly politicized—have and have nots," he told GSN, referring to the tension that often exists between the five recognized nuclear states and permanent U.N. Security Council members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and the agreement's non-nuclear members.
"Everything you do in the NPT context is put under a microscope or magnifying glass. That's not the case with the BWC," van den Ijssel said.
He praised last year's Global Nuclear Security Summit because "on nuclear security, you could really unify all sides of the spectrum," noting that many non-NPT member states attended the two-day event.
While there are disagreements among BWC states' parties on topics, such as Article 10 of the treaty—which encourages members to exchange equipment and technological know-how related to the use of biological agents and toxins for peaceful purposes—and standing up a verification system for the agreement, delegates can "find common ground on almost everything," the Dutch diplomat asserted.
He noted that the treaty earlier this year received an endorsement from the foreign ministers of the world's leading industrial powers (see GSN, March 16.) He predicted similar statements would be released by other international organizations before the December review conference in Geneva.
"You don't have summits on very many successful things," van den Ijssel said. "If we were to have a complete breakdown of the system—that may be the moment where we will have a summit. I hope that will not happen."