Trust-Building Efforts Under Biological Arms Ban at Near-Decade Low

South Korean soldiers check samples during a 2010 biological- and chemical-terrorism drill north of Seoul. Global participation in data-reporting measures for a biological-weapons ban is at its lowest point in almost a decade, the United States reported at a conference of member states last week.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
Dec. 18, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

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.

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