The Obama administration in Geneva yesterday formally revealed its new strategy for strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).
Anticipating the release of the White House’s “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats,” Dr. Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Global Security Newswire last Friday: “What’s important is the U.S. government is giving political attention to this issue, and making it clear the U.S. is not a one-trick pony and that in addition to the very ambitious nuclear agenda, the government is also very concerned about biological weapons.”
Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher did indeed proclaim the administration’s commitment to the issue. However, the strategy has drawn criticism for reaffirming the Bush administration’s opposition to creating an international monitoring system to verify treaty compliance…
It is important to understand why the Bush administration announced eight years ago that a BWC verification protocol was “not in the best interests of the United States and many other countries.” First, the Bush team felt that the protocol’s provisions were overly influenced by particular nations’ demands. According to FAS, Iran, who played a key role in the deliberations of the Ad-Hoc Group tasked with drafting the protocol, “insisted throughout that all export control regimes, and particularly the Australia Group arrangements, be totally abolished.” In addition, according to Dr. Tucker, Russia sought to define the “types and quantities” of pathogens and toxins banned by the agreement, thereby limiting its scope. Russia and Iran continue to seek such provisions.
An intrusive verification protocol was also perceived by the Bush administration, and perhaps now by the Obama administration, as a burden to biodefense research and the growth of the biotechnology industry. Although a broad interpretation of the BWC, particularly Article X, allows for the production of small amounts of hazardous biological agents for peaceful study, a verification protocol would subject the U.S. biodefense and biotechnology complex to “increased inspection costs and bureaucratic hurdles.” Moreover, the access required for inspections could also threaten to expose vulnerabilities in the U.S. biodefense shield or reveal lucrative pharma-industry secrets.
These concerns appear not to have changed since the Bush administration’s rejection of the verification protocol in November 2001. Meanwhile, biotechnology has continued to advance at a revolutionary pace, advanced techniques have been disseminated around the world and throughout populations, and the biological dual-use dilemma has been amplified. Given these trends, some doubt that effective monitoring through a verification protocol is possible. For this reason, Undersecretary Tauscher explained, “We have carefully reviewed previous efforts to develop a verification protocol and have determined that a legally binding protocol would not achieve meaningful verification or greater security.”
Verification protocol aside, the Obama administration’s new strategy contains a collection of objectives to mitigate biological threats. One of those objectives is to promote global health security, which includes providing assistance to other nations to bolster their disease surveillance, detection, diagnosis, and response programs. Such an approach links security with public health, thereby countering not only nefarious biological weapon threats but also natural infectious disease outbreaks. The White House strategy also includes a variety of confidence and transparency building measures.
But in a press release yesterday, the experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies suggest it may take more far-reaching steps than are presented in the new strategy to truly impact the BWC. A close look at the White House strategy document makes it seem more like a reiteration of recommendations generally supporting biological threat reduction rather than a fresh roadmap for strengthening the BWC as an effective central pillar. In fact, the 23-page document’s emphasis on the BWC is limited to a brief pledge in the introduction to uphold the treaty’s obligations, fleeting mentions in a few bullet points, and a single subsection about the need to revitalize the BWC in one of the seven strategic objectives.