by Alena M. James
Last week the Nepalese Government, working with the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, made efforts to develop strategies for the national implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention during the Workshop on National Implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). With assistance from the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific, the BWC Implementation Support Unit, and with financial support from the European Union, the workshop on implementing the BWC was held in Katmandu February 20-21.
During the workshop individuals representing 12 agencies of the Nepalese Government, officials from the UNRCPD, members from the EU, and subject matter experts gathered to discuss topics which must be considered for Nepal to start the ratification process of the BWC. Several topics discussed during the workshop included methods to enhance confidence-building measures by the state, treaty enforcement measures, the development of codes of conduct, and the establishment of biosafety and biosecurity standards. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, an international expert on CBRNs nonproliferation, and Yasmin Balci, a legal officer from VERTIC, a non-profit organization dedicated to advising states on the national implementation of BWC, provided their insight and expertise in helping Nepal’s agency representatives to initiate an effective trajectory towards ratification of the treaty.
Currently, there are 110 Signatory States to the BWC and 168 State Parties. However, ten signatory states have yet to ratify the treaty including Syria; which some allege as possibly having a BW program. Opening for signature in 1972, the BWC was the first treaty to outlaw a specific type of WMD. The treaty was enforced in 1975 and bans the production, stockpiling, and use of biological weapons. Its purpose is to prevent the proliferation and use of such weapons by members of the international community.
Since its inception, the BWC has faced a plethora of challenges especially with regards to its verification process. Unlike the NPT and the CWC, the BWC does not have a verification regime to ensure state compliance. As a result, the BWC holds review conferences every five years to discuss challenges facing the BWC and mechanisms for improving verification protocol. So far, the use of confidence building measures have been the primary tools used by the treaty to prohibit these weapons. There are six measures that BWC member states must adhere to which includes the declaration of past offensive and defensive programs, the declaration of vaccine production facilities, and the active exchange of scientific information between states. The primary goal of the measures is to encourage all states to be both open and transparent regarding state supported scientific research and development operations.
The reliance on states voluntarily complying with the confidence building measures and the work-in-progress verification system of the BWC have been attacked by many critics as the BWC’s most fundamental weakness. Despite this criticism, one aspect of the BWC that deserves applause is the collaborative efforts of the UN, the BWC Implementation Support Unit, and the EU aiding countries to move towards national implementation of the BWC. In the absence of an authorized verification regime, this collaborative group of intergovernmental organizations has stepped up by taking an active approach in getting countries to uphold their commitments to the BWC. The collaborative group has done so by making workshops such as those held in Kathmandu possible.
The workshop held in Nepal is one of several workshops hosted by the UNODA, the Support Unit, and the EU in the past few months to generate BWC compliance. These workshops are a part of the EU’s BWC Action project which sets out to provide human resources, logistical resources, financial resources, and equipment to states in order to reach universal compliance of the BWC. On September 3, 2013, the collaborative group orchestrated the Regional Workshop on the National Implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention in South and South-East Asia. Like the workshop held in Kathmandu, this workshop brought together a number of key individuals to discuss BWC implementation strategies. In early December 2013, the UNODA worked with United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa (UNREC) to host two national workshops in the countries of Benin and Burkina Faso facilitating open dialogue regarding the implementation of the BWC.
While critics of the BWC point to the lack of a verification body as a weakness, it seems this appears to be promoting active participation by intergovernmental organizations like the EU to encourage states who have not ratified the BWT to do so. Such active participation and international collaboration is exactly what the global community needs in order to promote international security against the threats of such WMDs.
In August 2013, the international community witnessed the alleged use of another type of WMD prohibited by the CWC. Syria, a then non-party member of the CWC, was accused of deploying chemical weapons on its own civilians. The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government has not yet been confirmed and speculations on the deployment of the chemical weapons by rebel forces continue to circulate. An analytical study executed by MIT professor Theodore Postol and former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd, suggests plausibility in the idea that the rebel forces fighting against the Bashar Al Assad regime may be responsible for using chemical weapons against civilians. Such a suggestion, if confirmed true, would exculpate the Syrian government.
As the international community’s investigation of chemical weapons deployment in Syria continues, there is already an important lesson that the Syrian case portrays. This lesson lies in the inability of the UN and the CWC’s verification regime, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPWC), in identifying the perpetrators of the attacks. This ambiguity of the origin of the chemical weapons demonstrates a futuristic challenge that the international community could experience if a state not party to the BWC (or who has not yet ratified the treaty) faced alleged uses of biological weapons. It is for this reason that the collaborative efforts of intergovernmental organizations like UNODA and the EU, must continue to facilitate open dialogue regarding universal compliance of the BWC. The workshops held by the UNODA in states that have not yet ratified the Biological Weapons Treaty provide an active approach that pushes to make universal compliance of this 42 year old treaty a reality.
The initial coverage on the Workshop on National Implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in Nepal can be found at unrcpd.org.