BioWeapons Prevention Project

BioWeapons Prevention Project
Civil society preparations for the 7th BWC Review Conference 2011 The Authors

How do we ensure global accountability of biodefence activities?

Concluding Summary

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Kirk C. Bansak - "Toward a culture and regime of transparency" - 14 September 2011 ↓expand↓

In his 1978 essay “Cooperation under the Security Dilemma,” Robert Jervis argued that the security relations between countries are most unstable when two conditions are met: (1) offensive forces have the advantage over defensive forces and (2) defensive postures and forces are not distinguishable from offensive ones.1 It is widely accepted today that biological weapons fulfill both of these criteria: the offense has the advantage because of the difficulty in defending against the wide range of biological threat agents that could be used in such weapons, and offensive and defensive activities are not easily distinguishable because of the dual-use nature of the life sciences. Occupying an uneasy position in the middle of this precarious situation is biodefense, which has the peaceful aim of swaying the offensive-defensive balance in favor of the defense but inadvertently threatens to exacerbate feelings of insecurity between states, which may perceive biodefense pursuits as being a cover for developing offensive capabilities.

In order to allow for biodefense activities to continue without destabilizing effects, countries need to ensure as well as demonstrate the peaceful nature of their national biodefense programs. To exhibit this orientation towards nonaggression, the international community must endeavor for global accountability of biodefense activities. The seemingly most obvious solution to this challenge would be creating a legally binding international monitoring mechanism. However, the collapse of negotiations on a verification protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 2001 and discourses on the topic since then have revealed this pursuit to be politically and (some argue) practically impossible. How then can global biodefense accountability be achieved? A starting point within immediate grasp is the institution of transparency measures. The formation of a global culture of transparency through the integration of various measures could offer a more comprehensive solution in the future.

Transparency can be conceptualized as having two general orientations. First, there is internal transparency—that is, transparency within and between a country’s government institutions. Internal transparency with regard to biodefense requires an effective oversight system that is empowered by the appropriate laws, including BWC national implementing legislation, and structured in such a way that prevents over-compartmentalization of information on biodefense activities. Second, there is external transparency—that is, transparency provided to the rest of the world (including the public) in order to enhance outside confidence in a country’s responsible behavior. External transparency with regard to biodefense can take several forms, including sharing information on research and development activities and granting access to biodefense facilities, while, of course, avoiding the risk of jeopardizing national security or proprietary information.

While internal transparency and external transparency may at first glance seem separate, the two are in fact interlinked. To begin with, internal transparency is a prerequisite for good external transparency. If a country’s own authorities cannot keep track of what is occurring within their institutions and their territory, they cannot properly represent such things to outsiders. The Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s provides a good case in point, as both General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s and then Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s efforts to come clean to the outside world about the massive Soviet biological weapons complex were impaired by inadequate oversight structures, which could not rein in the powerful military commanders who controlled and continued to support the program.2 In addition, external transparency reinforces the impetus for internal transparency. If a country decides to display its inner workings to the outside world, it will be motivated to get its own house in order. Indeed, effective external transparency should incorporate the sharing of insights into one’s internal transparency arrangements. Hence, transparency is better implemented as an interlocking complex than as a set of discrete measures, as a policy approach rather than singular actions.

With regard to the external orientation, biodefense transparency can also be conceptualized as having two objects. First, there is transparency with regard to one’s capabilities. This aligns with traditional understandings of strategic transparency rooted in nuclear policy, which stress the sharing of numbers, types, locations, metrics, and technical information.3 However, the dual-use nature of biodefense renders transparency with regard to capabilities a deficient approach to achieving mutual confidence. In fact, transparency with regard to capabilities in its raw form could serve to exacerbate tensions, as biodefense work often involves materials, activities, and expertise that could be misused for offensive biological weapons work with relatively few technical barriers to conversion.4 The second, and more effective, possible object of transparency is intent.5 Destabilizing suspicions are fueled not simply as a result of a country’s assessments of the technical capabilities of another country; they are also the result of hostile political relations that cause countries to question each other’s intent. Though admittedly a bit less concrete than a focus on capabilities, transparency approaches focused on exhibiting the peaceful intent of biodefense activities are vital. The implementation of transparency as a broad policy of openness comprising interconnected measures, as described earlier, reflects this intent-centric approach to transparency and offers powerful possibilities to assuage international distrust.

While the Biological Weapons Convention has some serious weaknesses as an article of international law—namely its lack of an enforcement mechanism and its institutional deficit—it has evolved from existing as a mere legal document to comprising a broader treaty regime that includes not only binding obligations but also “principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue-area.”6 The type of transparency approach described above, which might be limited at first by voluntary initiatives, would fit snugly into that BWC regime space and ideally mature into a widely adopted set of normative practices. If performed properly, transparency can help to achieve accountability and to reveal accountability, both of which are necessary to ensure mutual commitment among nations to the non-possession of biological weapons.

  1. Robert Jervis, “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” in Robert Art and Kenneth Waltz, The Use of Force, 7th ed. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009), pp. 44-71.
  2. David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Anchor Books, 2010), pp. 301-303, 339-357, 424-438.
  3. Annette Schaper, “Transparency and Secrecy in Nuclear Weapons,” The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, no. 34 (Stockholm, Sweden, 2005), pp. 1-22.
  4. Gregory D. Koblentz, Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), pp. 67-70.
  5. Kirk C. Bansak, “Biodefense and Transparency: The Dual-Use Dilemma,” Nonproliferation Review 18, no. 2 (2011): 349-368.
  6. Stephen D. Krasner, “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables,” International Organization 36, no. 2 (1982), pp. 185-205.


Chandré Gould - "Practical suggestions for increasing transparency and accountability of biodefence programmes" - 27 October 2011 ↓expand↓

As Kirk Bansak has pointed out, there are at least two ways in which biodefence programmes may pose a threat to the norm against biological weapons:
  • the line between defence and offense is easily crossed, particularly when the materials and equipment used for developing defences are indistinguishable from those used to develop a weapons capability; and
  • the existence of a biodefence programme may suggest to a state’s adversaries that the state is pursuing a secret biological weapons programme; this suspicion will be a consequence of existing hostile political relations.
Bansak argues that the way to address this problem is to increase transparency, and he draws a distinction between internal (national) and external (international) transparency. Increasing transparency so as to demonstrate compliance with the BWC, he suggests, is a remedy to the potential threats to international security posed by biodefence programmes.

This way of seeing the problem of course assumes that the states in question are indeed committed both to non-proliferation of biological weapons and feel sufficiently secure to voluntarily share information about their biodefence capabilities. Herein lies the conundrum, because it is precisely such states that do not pose the biggest threat to the norm. Those states that do pose a threat to the norm, are those that will be unwilling to be transparent and those from which a high level of transparency is required. This is a tremendous challenge for States Parties to the BWC, particularly since verification measures are not on the table.

National oversight systems, aimed at fostering ‘internal transparency’ in Bansak’s terms, may seem to be a logical solution but face several constraints. The first is that oversight is necessarily resource intensive. It requires systems, skilled and knowledgeable human beings and the capacity to monitor and question activities, as well as the willingness of those engaged in biodefence programmes to share information. In addition, as pointed out by Roffey and myself in a recent article in The Non Proliferation Review: “domestic oversight by itself is unlikely to completely prevent activities that may be questionable or even in direct contravention of the BWC because the individuals involved in the oversight are likely to agree on the threats posed to their national security and on measures needed to protect against such threats.” This is not to say that national oversight, particularly civilian oversight should not be encouraged, indeed it should. However, it is probably necessary to resort to a basket of measures aimed at increasing internal and external transparency.

Roffey and I have suggested these could include:

The creation of an international mechanism that encourages and then protects whistleblowers. If one considers that to date the “most extensive information on prohibited programmes has so far depended on defectors and intelligence” (Roffey and Gould, 2011: 559) the institution of an international mechanism to encourage and support whistle-blowers is vital to the identification of potential violations of the treaty.

A mandatory code of conduct and practice for national biological defence R&D programmes. The purpose of such a code would be to “help biodefence scientists recognise what constitutes defensive R&D (in contrast to offensive work), provide information about BWC obligations, and create a mechanism for reporting potential BWC violations.”(Ibid: 564)

Increased information sharing between states parties to the BWC. It is proposed that “informal annual or biannual meetings between states parties that have declared biodefence programmes in their CBMs may encourage these states to increase transparency and share information, and may encourage other states to declare their programmes.” Ideally at least parts of these meetings should be open to States Parties which do not have biodefence programmes. In such meetings information about biodefence R&D can be shared and scientific papers presented. (Ibid: 565)

Finally, it is necessary to improve the current confidence building measures. Discussions to this end have already taken place amongst States Parties in the run up to the Review Conference in December and it is likely that in the coming years attention will be paid to addressing the current shortcomings of the CBMs, as an essential measure to increase transparency and accountability.

Increasing confidence that States Parties’ biodefence programmes do not venture into risky activities that cross the line between defence and offence is essential to the health of the BWC. As such, it is necessary for States Parties to consider measures that should include, but go further than, addressing the shortcomings of the existing Confidence Building Measures.

  1. Roger Roffey and Chandre Gould (2011): Preventing misuse of the life sciences, The Nonproliferation Review, 18:3, 557 – 569.


Victoria Sutton - "Regulatory systems need to be simple and cost-effective" - 4 December 2011 ↓expand↓

In seeking internal and external transparency as a solution to global accountability of biodefense activities, our outlook can best be summed up in this translated quote from Voltaire, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Putting it into the context of governmental efforts toward transparency, resource intensive, expensive regulatory systems should not be the goal for all governments. Rather, seeking a cost effective method of transparency would be an excellent first step, to understanding the scope of the need for oversight. Cost effective regulation must be balanced with other priorities for each government, and accepting steps toward transparency would build confidence and make great headway toward a common understanding of biosecurity. A solid first step would be to demonstrate an online registration system for facilities to develop a network for communication, training and internal resource and capacity building. It is simple, cost effective and a first step toward oversight. The registration site is a first step toward a cost effective method for collecting this kind of information and keeping it secure.


Comments on this discussion are welcome at clevestig[at]

    Kirk C. Bansak

    Kirk C. Bansak is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is specializing in international security studies and Asia Pacific regional studies. Prior to that, he worked as a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where he focused on chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation issues. Recent works of his have been published by the Nonproliferation Review, Arms Control Today, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He received his BA from Harvard University in 2009.

    Chandré Gould

    Chandré Gould is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. Between 1996 and 1999 she was an investigator and evidence analyst for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where she was involved in the investigation of Project Coast - the chemical and biological weapons programme of the Apartheid government. She continued research into Project Coast after the TRC. She has written widely on the South African chemical and biological weapons programme and the trial of Dr Wouter Basson, the head of that programme. In 2006 she obtained her PhD from Rhodes University. Recent publications include a 2009 book co-edited with Brian Rappert, titled ‘Biosecurity: Origins, transformations and practices’ (Palgrave). She has been engaged in various initiatives in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa to discuss dual-use issues with life scientists and to develop educational programmes on dual-use issues. She is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa’s Working Group on Biosafety and Biosecurity.

    Victoria Sutton

    Victoria Sutton is a Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy at Texas Tech University.