By Brian Rappert
3 May 2011

International efforts to place limits on the means and methods of conflict have undergone something of a transformation in recent decades.  Traditional state centered approaches deemed arms control and disarmament as matters of NATIONAL SECURITY.  As such they need to be handled by a tight coterie of government officials working behind closed doors and high walls.  In contrast, the negotiation and implementation of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions represent examples where governments have work openly and closely with international organizations and civil society.  In part, such co-operation stems from recognition of the limitations of hiding out of sight concerns that bear directly on the accountability of governments.

Perhaps nowhere are these limitations more apparent than in relation to biological weapons.  Especially given the increasing widespread availability of sophisticated biotechnology capabilities, many have argued that attempts to police and prevent the deliberate spread of disease require the active contribution of a wide range of groups.  Practicing life scientists, research centers, professional associations, and others outside of government have been asked to contribute to what has been termed as a ‘web of prevention’ .

Over the last decade, as the cornerstone of the international ban of biological weapons, the meeting of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) has sought ways to diversify participation.  The so-called inter-sessional processes of 2003-5 and 2007-2010 witnessed an overall movement towards greater openness and inclusion.  With topics such as codes of conduct as well as the education of scientists on the agenda for these meetings, barring those outside of the apparatus of the state from the meetings would have rendered them sterile.


Access has never been ‘full’, but through coming up with novel designations for attendees or using the appropriate labels for certain sessions, those that made their way to Geneva for the meetings of the BWC have experienced a definite movement in the direction of openness and inclusion.


On 13-14 April 2011, the Preparatory Committee for Seventh Review Conference of BWC met to agree the terms for the review conference scheduled between 5-22 December 2011.  During those two weeks the future direction of the BWC will be agreed by states party to the treaty.  Governments were faced with the question of whether to continue in the emerging spirit of openness or to fall back on past practices.


It is unfortunate then that when the Ambassador Paul van den Ijssel of the Netherlands – Chairman of the Preparatory Committee and President of the Seventh Review Conference – proposed to extent the practice of greater openness and inclusion into the review conference that some states spoke out against this.  As was the case before, in the latest rules of procedure only the plenary sessions – sessions that only occupy a small percentage of the total time of a review conference – will be expected to be held in public.  Even they too might be closed off.


It is also unfortunate how the onus was placed for any attempts to negotiate greater openness.  So a proposal at the Preparatory Committee made to respond to the objections by some states to greater openness called for the non-plenary sessions to be open unless the decision is reached to do otherwise.  Yet in the end though, the BWC agreed that these sessions will be closed unless the decision is reached to do otherwise.  This places the burden of justification on those seeking openness.  Within the context of the consensus based procedures of the BWC, it may only need one state to voice concern against any move to become more open  to ensure the default of secrecy.

An implication of these rules is that it makes it difficult for those outside of state delegations to plan for or justify attendance at the two week long December Review Conference.  While the architecture of the Palais des Nations poses viewers with many fascinating questions about the materiality of diplomacy, waiting in the conference lounge area in the hope of being let in the main proceedings is hardly a way many can afford to spend their time.  Certainly it provides a poor basis for encouraging any change in the attitudes of those in the life sciences who might regard the world of international diplomacy as aloof and detached.


A remarkable aspect of the rules agreed for the BWC is how they compare to other arms control and disarmament treaties.  It is my experience that many of the government delegates to the BWC are the same as those for the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – an agreement far more focused on operational military concerns than the largely preventive concerns that drive the BWC.  Yet the latter provides far more opportunities for attendance, participation, and questioning by civil society.  What is more, those non-governmental groups that do attend the CCW overtly identify themselves as campaigners working to challenge state practice.  In the BWC, by contrast, interventions from civil society are exceedingly polite and largely offered in the spirit of aiding governments through providing specialized expert advice.  Academics, science academies, think tanks, and policy organizations all offer to lend a hand.


Could it be that the marginalized role of civil society in the BWC is politically possible specifically because of the softly, softly approach taken by civil society, rather than despite it?

Posted in: Biological weapons and toxins, CCW, Cluster munitions, Landmines,