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The Dangerous Status Quo on Biological Weapons

20 Nov 2017
By Thom Dixon
Despite the Geneva Convention, biological weapons remain a deadly threat.

The lead-up to next month’s Biological Weapons Convention meeting in Geneva can at best be described as taking place in a climate of well-contained enthusiasm. But can states afford to be apathetic on these weapons?

The annual meeting of state parties for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) will occur in Geneva on 4-8 December. This is the first meeting of state parties since the five-yearly review in late 2016 and things are not looking good. The first and oldest international agreement to ban an entire weapons class is under threat from what can best be described as a lack of political will.

In 2016, the outcome of a year’s worth of preparation was the diplomatically low-hanging fruit of agreeing to continue doing what is already being done. The issue is that what is being done isn’t suitable to the rapidly changing world of biotechnology, the threat of state-sponsored biological weapons programs and non-state bioterrorism.

Agreeing to “make progress on issues of substance and process for the period before the next Review Conference, with a view to reaching consensus on an intersessional process” isn’t going to cut it in today’s changing world. That this agenda item comprises three of the five days at the upcoming meeting indicates where things have gotten to.

Last month the Belfer Centre for Science in International Affairs released a report on the publicly known and unknown elements of North Korea’s biological weapons program. Nuclear weapons programs are easier to track due to their accompanying detonations and ballistic missile tests, but biological weapons programs are inherently dual-use, allowing bio-pesticide plants to be effective covers for weapons programs. At a press conference in 2015, South Korea and the US declared “North Korea is assumed to have 13 types of biological agents including anthrax and the plague, and it is possible that it would use them in bioterrorism or in an all-out war.”

However, the days when conventional state-sponsored programs were all one had to worry about are long gone. The rapid acceleration of biotechnology over the past decade has extended the use of inherently dual-use technologies to a growing cohort of individuals and organisations. These technologies boast a larger set of life science capabilities than at any other time in human history.

Whether it be in plants, animals or people, the technological landscape is undergoing disruptive change. In the last decade it has become possible to make genetic changes in half a day that have previously taken more than 500 generations of breeding. Engaging with crucial technological developments like gain-of-function experiments, potential pandemic pathogens, genome-editing technologies, gene drives and synthetic biology is essential to the long-term relevance of the BWC. It needs to work in a symbiotic partnership with these evolving technologies and that means engaging with and openly debating accelerating developments.

Another issue facing the ongoing viability of the biological weapons convention is one of finance. Back in 2016, 62 per cent of state parties owed a combined total of USD$596,519 (AUD$800,000) to the treaty in unpaid assessed contributions for the 2001-2016 period. If there are insufficient funds meetings cannot be scheduled, staff cannot be recruited and contracts cannot be renewed.

Contracts for the three people who constitute the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) of the convention were due to expire in April this year. So in March, Russia, the UK and the US took the extraordinary step of writing a joint letter calling for state parties to address the urgent need of their assessed financial contributions.

During 2017, voluntary funding was supplied by Australia, Canada, Germany and India, but in the ISU report to the 2017 meeting it states that “challenges persist with respect to the financial situation of the BWC and continuing attention needs to be given to its financial arrangements and the significant arrears owed by some”.

These challenges have impacted on pre-meeting consultations for December’s summit. Consultations weren’t initiated until September, leaving just a few months for state parties to conduct negotiations. The chair of December’s meeting was only nominated in August, when normally they are nominated at the end of the previous year. Months of preparatory time have been lost due to a lack of supporting contributions. Brazil in particular stands out, owing more than three-quarters of the deficit.

This is clearly not the time for states to be drawing down engagement with the BWC. Health security concerns only heighten with population growth, population density and increases in international mobility. Biological risks—be their origin natural, accidental or intentional—are significant and the ISU plays an important role in raising awareness of the associated risks and providing assistance to states looking to mitigate them.

More than words are needed to affirm global support for a ban on biological weapons and more of the same is no longer suitable for today’s or tomorrow’s world. There is a pressing need for state parties to openly discuss modern biotechnologies. Eyes should be on the outcomes, or lack thereof, of the 2017 BWC meeting.

Thom Dixon is a councillor with Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW, a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow and Young Leader with the Pacific Forum CSIS.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.