By Yong-Bee Lim
Late last week, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) completed a Formal Consultative Meeting of BWC States Parties. This Formal Consultative Meeting mechanism, which has only been used once before in the history of the BWC, was invoked on June 29, 2022, through Russia’s triggering of BWC Article V. This invocation served as a further escalation and platform for the Russian Federation’s continued promotion of false allegations of U.S.-backed biological weapons laboratories located in countries like Ukraine. These allegations have been repeatedly refuted by the targeted nations and even international bodies like the United Nations.
The Formal Consultative Meeting included the Russian Federation formally presenting its concerns of alleged BWC violations by the United States and Ukraine, the U.S. and Ukrainian delegations’ responses to said allegations, and further statements and conversations from the 89 States Parties that attended the meeting.
The final determination of this meeting was, prosaically, that “no consensus was reached regarding the outcome of the Formal Consultative Meeting.”
While no formal consensus being reached may seem vague, this actually means something significant when added to additional information from documents that came out of the meeting. A key element to consider here is highlighted by Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Program at George Mason University. He noted that “no country has submitted a statement supporting Russian allegations” – a consideration that indicates that there was a consensus among nearly half the States Parties (42 that provided national statements during the meeting) that Russia’s allegations were false.
This Formal Consultative Meeting provides a potential foreshadowing of what may occur as countries prepare for the Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention through late November and December of this year. The Review Conference, which is held every five years, is a critical mechanism of the treaty for both planning the next five years of the institution, as well as potentially propelling major policy advances to address biological weapons issues. Given the outcome of this meeting, the BWC Review Conference is likely to lead toward two of four potential outcomes outlined this year by Jez Littlewood at this point: one where the meeting reaches an inconclusive end or one where incremental progress is made.
Whether it is inconclusive or incremental, the BWC is a keystone that helps build and reinforce norms against the research, development, and use of biological weapons. Further, it serves as a critical diplomatic forum for States Parties to communicate and come together to keep working toward a world where biological weapons are normatively and politically inconceivable.
There is a real risk that BWC implementation could slow or stall by the end of this year. This is unacceptable given how biological risks are rising. It would also create an unacceptable dent in confidence in international cooperation for addressing the world’s biggest systemic risks.
This is why it is key to focus on achievable gains in the upcoming Review Conference–and why any gains are more crucial than they may seem. Progress may take the form of further increasing the capacity of the BWC’s Implementation Support Unit, developing more robust measures for how states can cooperate and work toward addressing emergent biological events, and working on better mechanisms for assessing dual-use and biological weapons-related issues rising from advances in the life sciences and emergent and evolving technologies and disciplines. For our part, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) will continue to work alongside other civil society groups to help support the BWC and help it grow stronger into the future.