The Biological Weapons Convention(BWC): Issues and Challenges

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Due to the significance of the topic and on request of members, RACVIAC organized a ground-breaking seminar on Biological Weapons Convention. “The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC): Issues and Challenges” Seminar took place on 11 May 2021, with over 50 participants from the region and beyond. The audience of the seminar included senior/junior military or civilian policy-makers/recommendation-makers/experts dealing with non-proliferation or BWC issues and responsible for biological safety and security issues. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction is usually referred to as the Biological (Toxin) Weapons Convention (BWC/BTWC). Entering into force in 1975, it was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the production of an entire category of weapons. The questions of biological threat, purposely engineered or naturally occurring, as well as biological safety and security, are today more relevant than ever.

A better understanding of the BWC can contribute to regional and global stability, transparency and trust and can make the stakeholders more prepared for tackling bio threats in the future. The purpose of this Seminar was to provide a broad overview of the Convention as in the run up to the 9th BWC Review Conference, it is even more essential to have a comprehensive picture about the basics of the Convention.

Session one was dedicated to an Overview of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and Related Issues. The first presenter was Ambassador Tibor Tóth, Executive Secretary Emeritus of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization, Preparatory Commission, who spoke about the historical overview and key issues in terms of BWC. Ambassador Tóth underlined that in terms of arms control issues we cannot be stuck in the past/present, progress needs to be made. Investment into education and training can be a key means of improving the ‘state of play’.

Mr Daniel Feakes, Chief of the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) of the Biological Weapons Convention within the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs in Geneva, provided the participants with a thorough Introduction of the BWC. Inter alia, he presented the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) underlying that their aim and objectives are “… to prevent or reduce the occurrence of ambiguities, doubts and suspicions, and in order to improve international cooperation in the field of peaceful biological activities.”

Ambassador Elena Kuzmanovska Biondic, Chair, BWC Meeting of Experts on Assistance, Response and Preparedness presented an Overview of the Ongoing Meeting of Experts on Assistance, Response and Preparedness. She initiated discussion raising questions like: “What do you see as the key challenges in addressing the threat or use of biological weapons?” and “What mechanisms need to be in place to effectively provide for or request international assistance?”

Current Issues in Light of the Upcoming 9th BWC Review Conference (RevCon) were discussed by Dr Jean Pascal Zanders, Disarmament & Security Researcher, The Trench. He emphasized that a “single treaty (i.e.: BWC) faced many challenges”, for example, enhancing transparency and confidence in compliance, reinforcing national implementation of BTWC (Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention) obligations, investigating and addressing allegations of BW (biological weapons) use, scientific and technological advances relevant to the BTWC, servicing the BTWC (financial contributions by states parties) etc. Core challenges for the 9th RevCon, as he presented, include: “…finding consensus on fresh common agreements and understanding and on meaningful sets of new activities with a prospect of decision.”

The second session focused mainly on issues related to biological technology and terrorism/warfare. In his presentation on “Science and Technology (S&T) and Proposed Solutions under the BWC”, the first presenter, Dr Alexander Kelle, Senior Researcher, IFSH, outlined a few steps to be made before addressing S&T challenges under the BWC. In his view, during the preparations for the 9th Review Conference, the BWC States Parties should clarify the scope and purpose of the S&T review mechanism, including issues like the advisory board, political guidance for mechanism, a board to determine areas of work, target audience for outputs, number of participants from different political groups and, finally, institutional support and its funding in order to ensure effective and efficient functioning of the mechanism board.

The next presenter, Dr Lajos Rózsa, Scientific Advisor at The Institute of Evolution, ELKH Centre for Ecological Research, HU, held the attention of the participants at a very high level using captivating facts concerning The Natural History of Bio-Warfare. “Every day peoples´ intention for biological warfare is quite common. Consequently, we should be prepared and expect biological aggression to re-emerge anytime, anywhere, in most diverse forms, including bio-crimes and bio-terrorism,” he pointed out. He was followed by Prof Roberto Mugavero (President, OSDIFE), who gave his contribution presenting the “new tools for biological threats prevention”.

The final presentation was delivered by Ambassador Tibor Tóth who shared his views on key issues concerning leadership in control of critical technologies. He concluded the seminar with the optimistic message that the present special situation could act as a momentum changing competitive security to cooperative security. Ms Beata Varga, Activity Manager in the CSE Pillar, RACVIAC, closed the Seminar with words: “I would like to extend our gratitude to all of you for participating in this event organized by RACVIAC – Centre for Security Cooperation. This was – in several years – the first BWC related event of RACVIAC but, due to the significance of the topic and to the upcoming BWC Review Conference (in 2022), most probably not the last one.”