BioWeapons Prevention Project

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

How do countering bioterrorism and the BWC relate to each other?

Concluding Summary

This discussion is finished. Click here to download the concluding summary.

Animesh Roul - "Bioterrorism and the BTWC" - 8 February 2011 ↓expand↓

Despite the continued carping of naysayers, issues like the intentional use of pathogens and biological weapons proliferation concerns remain at the top of national security strategists’ agendas, especially in the post-2001 era of anthrax letter attacks and anthrax scares in the USA and elsewhere (e.g. in India and Sri Lanka).

More than state actors, biological weapons are most dangerous when acquired, developed or used by non-state actors like terrorists, religious cults, and Mafia syndicates. We are aware of bioweapons activities by Aum Shinrikyo (Japan) and the Rajneesh cult (Oregon, USA). And we know about Al Qaeda’s Abdur Rauf, a Pakistani microbiologist who has reportedly searched every corner of Europe to obtain anthrax spores and equipment for an Al Qaeda bio-laboratory in Afghanistan to weaponize the pathogens, and last but not least, Menad Benchellali’s covert activities and his quest to weaponize ricin, before his arrest in early 2004 in his bio/chem-laboratory in Lyon, France.

It is in the public domain now how international terrorist outfits like Al Qaeda have made unexpected moves in developing a bioweapon capability. Chem/bio weapon manuals are being circulated in Jihadi web forums over the internet which makes the bioterrorism threat more plausible. Here are two recent events which reaffirm my belief that the bioterrorism threat is not a US specific issue anymore and that Jihadi groups are showing renewed interest in acquiring or developing biological weapons. In early 2009, a Kuwaiti Islamist named Abdullah Al-Nafisi openly propagated how a biological attack with anthrax spores is much more effective than other forms of terrorist tactics. In October 2010, an Indian terrorist group claiming to be the Indian Mujahideen (Assam) threatened to launch biological warfare in Assam if their supporters were not released from state prison.

Obviously these developments call for stronger national and international measures to tackle bioweapons proliferation and terrorism, whether state or non-state sponsored. It is equally imperative for countries to promote international efforts to ensure the safety and security of biological agents and toxins. In this context, we need to underscore that the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is the only international multilateral instrument which exclusively focuses on biological weapon issues, which can prevent bioterrorism. Article IV of the BWC prescribes obligations for States Parties to implement the BWC through appropriate national measures including legislative, regulatory or any appropriate penal laws that prevent the proliferation of dual-use products and technology for illicit weapon purposes to States as well as non-state actors. Of course, we also have UNSC Resolutions 1540 and 1673 that urge all countries to adopt and enforce appropriate effective national laws that will prohibit and prevent non-state actors to manufacture, acquire, possess, develop, transport, transfer or use biological weapons (along with nuclear and chemical weapons). The other relevant article of the BWC is Article III which prohibits the transfer of bioweapons agents. And during the Fourth Review Conference it was agreed and noted that States Parties should devise “ways and means” to ensure that individuals or sub-national groups are effectively prevented from acquiring bioweapons agents through transfers.

Even if the importance of bioterrorism was recognized in 2003 and subsequently by Italy on behalf of the European Union in 2006 during the Sixth BWC Review Conference, the issue never received adequate and undivided attention during the second phase of the intersessional meetings. The bigger question remains: Is the BWC strong and effective enough to tackle threats like bioterrorism or bio-crime? Unfortunately, the answer is negative. The BWC in its present form is silent about the abuse and misuse of modern life science research with its dual use potential. And the BWC is not universal either: 19 states have not signed it, and 13 states have still to ratify it though signed the Convention a long time ago. As State compliance is imperative for the future prevention of bioterrorism or any form of bio-crime – as proliferation could occur through rogue States or due to laxity within states’ bio-offence (of for that matter bio-defence) programmes. So, stringent domestic laws adopted by States Parties which complement the BWC at large, would be vital for preventing terrorists, crime syndicates and rogue scientists from misusing biological materials.

At the forthcoming 2011 BWC Review Conference, the States Parties and experts will have a golden opportunity to deliberate bioterrorism issues and how to devise counter-mechanism at the national and international level. Perhaps the issue could find adequate space in future intersessional meetings where a comprehensive and focused review could be undertaken of the necessary measures to deal with bioterrorism and bio-crime within the ambit of the BWC.


David P. Fidler - "The BWC's role in countering bioterrorism: critical or falling behind the policy curve?" - 22 February 2011 ↓expand↓

Animesh Roul’s initial contribution on the relationship between the BWC and bioterrorism asserts that (1) the threat of bioterrorism is very serious, (2) the BWC is critical to preventing bioterrorism, and (3) the BWC process has not adequately addressed bioterrorism in Review Conferences or intersessional meetings and should do so at the upcoming Review Conference in 2011. These arguments deserve some critical attention as governmental, intergovernmental, and non-governmental experts prepare for the 2011 Review Conference because, without question, the problem of bioterrorism will be part of the policy mix. The harder issue is how should bioterrorism be part of reviewing and re-thinking the BWC’s functions in global biosecurity.

The threat of bioterrorism
Roul’s analysis hinges on the assertion that bioterrorism is a clear and present danger. However, controversy still surrounds the question of the severity of the threat of bioterrorism. Roul mentions examples that he believes support the seriousness of the threat (e.g., references to Al Qaeda interest in bioweapons), but skeptics also use these and similar examples to argue that the threat of bioterrorism is exaggerated and hyped for reasons that have little to do with serious policy making on biosecurity. So, round and round we go in the absence of any credible and transparent understanding of terrorist intentions and capabilities concerning bioweapons.

This unresolved debate tends to lead the BWC into two different policy cul-de-sacs. If, as Roul argues, bioterrorism is such a severe threat, then policy makers really should not rely on a slow-moving treaty designed to achieve non-proliferation objectives among states, but should concentrate on faster, more flexible policy tools and strategies purpose-built for targeting actual and anticipated terrorist activities. If the threat of bioterrorism is not urgent and pervasive, then moving the BWC process more ambitiously into the bioterrorism policy space seems misguided given the plethora of other problems the BWC and its states parties face, such as managing non-proliferation in a context of rapidly developing science. In short, we do not have to resolve the debate about the severity of the bioterrorist threat to understand that privileging the BWC in policy thinking about bioterrorism faces significant questions of adequacy and priority.

The BWC and the prevention of bioterrorism
Roul’s argument that the BWC is critical to the prevention of bioterrorism presents us with a different conundrum that underscores doubts about the significance of the BWC in addressing bioterrorism. Roul grounds his position in the obligations BWC states parties agree to undertake, such as the duty to implement in national law the prohibition on the development, production, stockpiling, and transfer of biological weapons. If BWC states parties comply with this obligation, the argument goes, then the BWC contributes something essential to the prevention of bioterrorism. This obligation now applies to the vast majority of the international system, yet Roul claims that bioterrorism is a growing global security threat. If BWC states parties have been and are complying with these obligations (as required by international law), then the BWC could not be the critical policy instrument to prevent bioterrorism because, we are asked to believe, the danger of bioterrorism is increasing in a context of treaty compliance. In other words, even with robust BWC compliance, something crucial is missing—we would need more than the BWC to prevent acts of bioterrorism effectively.

Reviewing the opposite side of this coin, if BWC states parties have not been complying with their binding legal obligations (as some of Roul’s analysis suggests), then why would policy makers believe that increased reliance on the BWC is the critical policy step to prevent bioterrorism when non-compliance would suggest that countries do not think much of the BWC? Non-compliance could signal many things, including that BWC states parties do not believe, given their respective political priorities, that either bioweapons proliferation or bioterrorism are as important as many experts claim. Or, non-compliance could indicate growing state interest in developing biological weapons, and the threat of state proliferation would rival, or surpass, the threat of bioterrorism, bringing into question the very object and purpose of this treaty. Whatever the reason for non-compliance, we’d have to wonder about the effectiveness of the BWC as the centerpiece of bioterrorism prevention.

Put differently, either way I turn with respect to BWC compliance, I confront questions about the prudence of anchoring bioterrorism prevention in the BWC and its process. Of course, we see these doubts already played out in the way states, intergovernmental organizations, and non-governmental actors have attempted new strategies against bioterrorism outside the BWC process, including the UN Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 1540, drawing INTERPOL into the bioterrorism prevention and response capability set, and integrating concerns about bioterrorism into strengthening global and national disease surveillance and response capacities through WHO’s International Health Regulations (2005).

These newer policy approaches reinforce BWC obligations (e.g., Resolution 1540 overlaps with BWC obligations to implement the prohibition on bioweapons development) and go beyond what the BWC can accomplish through, for example, increasing early warning and response capabilities (e.g., INTERPOL and IHR). The search for and creation of these other strategies against bioterrorism does not mean that the BWC and its process are irrelevant in this context; it simply means that the BWC is not the critical bioterrorism prevention mechanism whatever the level of compliance and non-compliance the BWC experiences. Rather, the BWC is part of the policy mix, but certainly not on the cutting edge of where states have taken bioterrorism policies.

Bioterrorism and the BWC process
As Roul notes, bioterrorism has already been integrated into the BWC Review Conferences and intersessional meetings, but, in his opinion, ineffectively. At this point in his analysis, Roul argues that the BWC is “not strong or effective enough to tackle threats like bioterrorism” because it lacks provisions “about the abuse and misuse of modern life science research with its dual use potential.” Assuming Roul is correct in his assessment of the BWC’s content, why did he argue earlier that the BWC is the only multilateral instrument that can prevent bioterrorism when the BWC is apparently substantively deficient with respect to confronting bioterrorism? In addition, the “modern life science” problem threatens the non-proliferation agenda as well as the BWC’s potential contribution to preventing and responding effectively to bioterrorism—so we have a much bigger problem on our hands with the BWC than bioterrorism if Roul is correct.

The policy fix for this deficiency would have to involve plugging this hole in the treaty, either by re-interpreting or amending it because the alleged problem involves a lack of substantive coverage of critical new scientific challenges. However, Roul makes no specific recommendations along these lines, identifying instead only more deliberations on, and “focused review” of, bioterrorism at Review Conferences and intersessional meetings. What exactly should be added to the BWC or included in the BWC process in terms of new and additional measures or mechanisms for preventing bioterrorism is not made clear, leaving the “golden opportunity” of the 2011 Review Conference for bioterrorism prevention more than a bit ambiguous.

Given all the talking about bioterrorism that has already taken place in the BWC process, putting the relationship between the BWC and bioterrorism on a new footing—as Roul argues is necessary—requires specific suggestions for changing how things currently function. If the bioterrorism prevention agenda simply constitutes more support for better compliance with existing BWC obligations, increasing the number of BWC states parties through the universalism strategy, and increasing cooperation links with other stakeholders (e.g., INTERPOL, WHO), then nothing has changed because BWC states parties have been engaged in those activities for some time now.

To conclude, the BWC and bioterrorism relate to each other because BWC states parties have included their concerns about bioterrorism in the BWC process. The effectiveness of this integration of bioterrorism into BWC diplomacy is questionable because (1) we have no consensus on the severity of the bioterrorism threat, (2) serious doubts exist about the potential of the BWC to be a “game changing” instrument of bioterrorism prevention and response, and (3) existing efforts to knit the BWC into a wider network of more innovative strategies against bioterrorism draw policy attention increasingly away from the BWC towards approaches designed specifically with bioterrorism as the target.


Gary A. Ackerman - "The BWC's role in countering bioterrorism: A strong supporting actor" - 27 March 2011 ↓expand↓

Animesh Roul has outlined many of the traditional arguments for enhancing the role of the BWC in countering bioterrorism, while David Fidler has presented a somewhat more skeptical riposte, cautioning us to question some basic assumptions before rushing headlong into steering the BWC regime in a significantly new direction. While Fidler’s prudence provides a useful brake on rash amendments to the BWC, we should likewise be cautious about throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and overlooking any potentially valuable contributions that the BWC might make to countering bioterrorism.

I will direct my brief comments towards the three facets of the problem highlighted by Fidler, since they do a good job of capturing the essence of the debate. With respect to the threat of bioterrorism, I agree with Fidler that the magnitude of the current threat is controversial – for every doomsayer, there is a doubter who can point to the quite unfruitful forays made thus far into the bioweapons realm by even well-resourced sub-national groups like Aum Shinrikyo and al-Qa`ida. Aside from the 2001 case of envelopes laced with Bacillus anthracis spores, the results of previous attempts at bioterrorism have been decidedly modest. Indeed, non-state weaponization of biological agents has remained rather unsophisticated and certainly not at the level required to cause the catastrophic morbidity and mortality numbers often portrayed by policymakers or in the media.

Yet, we make static threat assessments at our peril, especially in a domain as dynamic as the intersection between the biological sciences and international terrorism. So, while the current bioterrorist threat may be equivocal, this does not prevent the future threat from looming large. Indeed, all indications are that emerging biotechnologies will facilitate the production of bioweapons with a smaller physical and technical footprint. This is important not only because it might make detecting violations of the BWC more difficult (dealt with in a separate discussion thread), but also, from the point of view of bioterrorism, because it enables the proliferation of biological capabilities to ever smaller and lower-resourced entities.

From the advent of “gene fabs” to the marketing of agricultural UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), the direction of technological change and, more importantly, the commercialization thereof, suggests that the number of people, the level of skills and the cost of equipment and raw materials needed to produce a viable mass-casualty bioweapon will continue to decrease in the coming decades. At the same time, the global reach of education in the Internet age will enable an increasing number of people living in both the most and least developed areas of the world – including among them at least a small number of future malefactors – to receive a technical education in the life sciences that is at least adequate to understand and exploit these more user-friendly technologies. Where exactly the tipping point lies, the time when technological advance intersects with mass-casualty motivation, is unclear, but the accelerating pace of progress in biological science and engineering suggests that this point will be reached sooner rather than later. Several surveys that I have conducted of experts from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds all seem to converge on the conclusion that we cannot be sanguine, even in the near future, about the prospects for large-scale bioterrorism. If this is the case, then it will be necessary to muster all the forces we can to counter an escalating threat, which would include the BWC if it can be shown to have some value in this regard.

This brings us to the next element of the discussion, the suitability of the BWC as a mechanism for countering the threat of bioterrorism. Fidler accurately points out the problem from a policy standpoint of relying on the BWC for bioterrorism prevention – either noncompliance by states parties with Articles III and IV renders the BWC useless from a bioterrorism perspective, or full compliance is the best that one can do and is patently insufficient if one assumes a growing threat. This conundrum is rooted, no doubt, in the fact that the BWC was never designed to tackle the problem of sub-state use of biological weapons head-on – as a creation of states, it is primarily directed towards states parties and will most likely always remain so. Fidler is therefore essentially correct, except – and most crucially – in his presumption that the international community is necessarily in favor of “…anchoring bioterrorism prevention in the BWC and its process”. I therefore agree wholeheartedly that – contrary to what Roul seems to imply – the BWC cannot act as the linchpin of global bioterrorism prevention. But it does not need to.

Other international efforts, of which Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673 are but two examples, will clearly be needed. However, the BWC can still play an important role when one views countering bioterrorism from the perspective of a layered defense. This approach to protecting against complex threats acknowledges that there is no silver bullet; no single countermeasure will ever be foolproof or perpetually stable. Rather, the idea is to place many defensive layers before adversaries so that the strengths of one layer compensate to some extent for the weaknesses of another. Thus, the overall effort can benefit from synergies that increase not only the probability of detection and interdiction, but also the risk and cost to the adversary, hopefully to the point where an attack may not even be attempted. In the bioterrorism context, such a layered defense would conceivably be made up of intelligence, law enforcement, non-proliferation, export control, disease surveillance, prophylaxis and a host of medical and social consequence management measures. There is no reason to a priori assume that the BWC cannot make important contributions to one or more of these layers, or even form a layer in and of itself, so long as we recognize that the international community cannot put all its bioterrorism prevention eggs into the BWC basket.

This brings us to the matter of the BWC process with respect to bioterrorism and here again I find myself agreeing with Fidler that endless rounds of often circular discussion of bioterrorism do not serve the process very well if they do not result in substantive recommendations and measures for change. In this spirit, I offer just three specific, albeit modest and preliminary, suggestions for measures that might be adopted by the states parties (if necessary, in the form of a protocol to the existing agreement) to enhance the BWC’s contribution to bioterrorism prevention:
  1. Integration with other countermeasures: If nothing else, the parties should create a mechanism for ensuring that any efforts taken under the auspices of the BWC (especially with the purposes of ensuring compliance with Article IV), complement, rather than act at cross purposes to, other multilateral efforts to counter bioterrorism. The benefits of coordination in this regard cannot be overstated, for there are many cases where a policy measure might be judged effective in isolation (e.g., purely in terms of interstate proliferation), but overall has a negative impact on security because it negates or dilutes the impact of other measures working in a different context (e.g., bioterrorism).
  2. Leverage existing multilateral infrastructures for biosecurity education: Most experts maintain that, at least for the foreseeable future, we should be less concerned with terrorists becoming scientists than scientists becoming terrorists, which the case of Bruce Ivins, the putative perpetrator behind the 2001 “anthrax letter” attacks, would seem to bear out. Keeping this in mind, I believe that the existing BWC process might have a role to play in reinforcing the need for global biosecurity education in the life sciences, and perhaps even in creating a framework for the dissemination thereof. Professor Malcolm Dando and Dr. Masamichi Minehata are among those who have pointed out the urgent need for such education of life scientists in both developed and developing nations. It is far from inconceivable that the states parties could use the BWC regime to reaffirm the importance of implementing such education at the national level, and facilitate the universal synchronization of both resources and best practices in this regard.
  3. Setting standards: Although it is often quixotic to expect explicit detail from multilateral endeavors, another concrete contribution that the BWC process could offer is to set standards for the “necessary measures” under Article IV. While any such standards would most likely be voluntary, a concerted effort by states parties to flesh out, record and publish best practices for biosecurity, would be a welcome addition that is, I believe, within the mandate and ability of the BWC process. At the very least, states might define such standards in the negative by outlining what would constitute gross negligence on the part of a state in terms of its obligations under Article IV, specifically with respect to non-state actors.

In sum, I would be highly skeptical of the BWC’s capability, on its own, to prevent bioterrorism. Countering this highly dynamic and complex threat will undoubtedly require more focused mechanisms. It would be equally unwise to attempt to reorient the BWC substantially in the direction of dealing with non-state actors, since that would probably detract from its core purpose of preventing interstate biological weapons proliferation. At the same time, the friction of international politics makes the prospects any time soon for a completely separate international convention dealing specifically with bioterrorism exceedingly slim. At best we might expect further United Nations resolutions or more bilateral or regional arrangements. Therefore, in order not to make the best the enemy of the good, we should leverage the primary international agreement concerning biological weapons, the BWC, to play as constructive a role as possible in international efforts to prevent bioterrorism. The ideas I have presented above are no doubt full of holes and may be non-starters for a whole host of reasons. However, I have attempted to at least illustrate that the BWC regime can indeed be “tweaked”, if you will, to bolster its role in countering bioterrorism. As long as we temper expectations, that is.


Jez Littlewood - "The BWC’s contribution: do the basics well and prepare for the unexpected" - 6 April 2011 ↓expand↓

The fundamental purpose of a review conference is to bring states parties together so they may individually and collectively review the operation of the Convention and assure themselves (and the wider world) that its provisions are being realized. A few things flow from this that are relevant to the discussion on bioterrorism and the role of the BWC in countering, mitigating, and contributing to other efforts to prevent the use of biological or toxin weapons by non-state actors.

If the context for biological weapons changes between review conferences, or over a longer period of time, then implementing the provisions of the Convention requires either a fundamental overhaul or a tweaking as Ackerman notes. In such a dynamic context the task of states parties is therefore to steer the future direction of implementation in such a way that results in action, whether national, bilateral, regional, international, or in other ways, that results in outcomes that address, and presumably reduce, the new or emerging threats or risks.

The context for biological weapons has changed since 1975, and indeed, since 1991 and 2001. But that context is not just a change in terrorism or a change in scientific and technological developments. The Convention is no longer the ‘lone monolith’ it was in the mid-1970s. Rather, it is more the foundation or ‘crucial keystone among numerous instruments and initiatives in our collective defences against poisoning and deliberate disease.’1 Thus, the BWC will not collapse or become irrelevant if states parties fail to agree upon specific measures to address bioterrorism, even though that would be a detrimental outcome in 2011. Equally, the threat of bioterrorism is not necessarily affected by what is and is not agreed by states parties or at the review conference. It is affected by action, and inaction, that could flow from the review conference or other decisions. It is this requirement for action that is the key. Assuring themselves, as states parties, that the provisions for biological disarmament are being realized, or not, in 2011 is insufficient. They have to assure others, not least the wider world, and non-states parties. Furthermore, their obligation, individually and collectively, is not simply to ‘assure’ but also to take action that ‘ensures’ the realization of biological disarmament through non-proliferation and national implementation. That now entails addressing the bioterrorism threat in an appropriate manner.

Fellow contributors from the US and India have raised important points in the discussion about bioterrorism and the role of the BWC in meeting that challenge. In considering past activity, it is important to note that the failure to acknowledge the bioterrorism issue in any substantive way in 2006 or the intersessional work program between 2007 and 2010 is due to politics within the Convention. Some states parties simply opposed the efforts of the US, and others, to put bioterrorism more squarely on the agenda. Their opposition was in part simply because certain proposals came from the US, in part because certain proposals over-emphasized bioterrorism and UNSCR 1540 (2004) in relation to other issues, in part because certain states parties want to ensure that the BWC only deals with states, and, in part because a number of parties object to UNSCR 1540 (2004) and other measures related to terrorism and, thus, could not be seen to be accepting those measures in another forum.

Like Ackerman I recognize the inherent challenges both Fidler and Roul identify, and also come to the view that in 2011 states parties should aim to agree on measures that contribute to efforts against bioterrorism. I disagree, however, with the implication of my colleagues that an effective BWC would result in an end to the bioterrorism threat or that a bioterrorism event – or more likely events in the plural – would mean an ineffective BWC. No agreement is a guarantee and use of biological and toxin weapons or a violation of the Convention does not necessarily mean the BWC is worthless and useless. It certainly would be detrimental, but there have been violations (the Soviet offensive program up to 1992), non-compliance issues (technical in terms of non-fulfillment of obligations and non-technical in terms of Iraqi activities after 1991) and interest in and use of biological weapons by non-state actors (Dark Harvest Commandos; Rajneeshees; Aum Shinrikyo; the US Anthrax mailings; and, Al Qaeda’s statement of interest in biological weapons). The BWC has lived through all of these, survived, and remains a necessary agreement.

How then to address bioterrorism under the Convention? At the fundamental level it is about two things: first, doing the basics well; and, second, being prepared for the unexpected.

With regard to the first, the efforts at enhancing national implementation, raising awareness among the scientific community, and addressing international weaknesses can be continued within the Convention and by external agencies and arrangements. The BWC, as the foundation against all offensively-orientated interest in biological weapons regardless of actor, must focus on its core constituency: states. Thus imploring, assisting, and cajoling states to implement the necessary measures to both prohibit and prevent the acquisition of biological weapons has to be continued.

With regard to the second issue, note that bioterrorism to date has not come from predominate expected terrorist groups of their time. This suggests a need to be prepared for the unexpected. States parties could very usefully address this issue through strengthening Articles VI, VII and X of the Convention in 2011 (investigations, assistance, and cooperation). The lack of an agreed investigation procedure under the Convention in the second decade of the twenty-first century is anomalous. A process that establishes procedures for investigations of alleged use by any actor, on request would be a significant aid to a large number of states parties who lack the ability to investigate alleged use on their own territory. Linked to this, bolstering assistance procedures in the event of use, would also strengthen the Convention and serve to mitigate any terrorist use of bioweapons, thus, potentially, making them an unattractive option. Finally, linked to Article X, implementation assistance and peaceful cooperation efforts focused on the bioterrorism threat could boost the governance of dual use goods, aid states parties, raise awareness of the issue, and make both states parties and the BWC more resilient in the face of actual use. Such cooperation does not have to be solely under the ambit of Article X, but could more usefully link efforts in other fora such the UNSCR 1540, WHO, FAO, OIE, and the G8 Global Partnership to the Convention.

  1. Piers D. MILLETT The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in context: from monolith to keystone Disarmament Forum 3 2006 UNIDIR


David P. Fidler - "The BWC and bioterrorism: Getting beyond political pragmatism and policy déjà vu" - 6 September 2011 ↓expand↓

In this first offering of the second round of contributions on the BWC’s role in countering bioterrorism, I review the first round, identify messages that emerged, and describe an approach for BWC states parties to consider for the RevCon.

Pragmatic consensus on addressing bioterrorism

In the first round, all contributors agreed that the RevCon will and should address bioterrorism. The contributors’ reasons were not the same, but they shared a pragmatic understanding that the RevCon could not politically ignore bioterrorism. Animesh Roul favored BWC action because bioterrorism is a clear and present danger. Gary Ackerman supported RevCon attention because bioterrorism might become a bigger problem in the future than it is today. Jez Littlewood stressed that RevCon activity on bioterrorism is advisable because we should prepare for the unexpected. I argued that bioterrorism will be on the agenda because the BWC process has already brought this issue into its deliberations.

Underneath this consensus is, however, a more interesting theme. Except for Roul, who argued the BWC “is the only international . . . instrument . . . which can prevent bioterrorism,” the contributions saw the BWC as only one element in a complex effort against bioterrorism. Ackerman argued that the BWC “cannot act as the linchpin of global bioterrorism prevention.” Littlewood noted that other instruments and initiatives are as important as the BWC in the bioterrorism realm. I asserted that the BWC process is not, has never been, and probably never will be at the cutting edge of efforts to address bioterrorism. This convergence supports devoting some BWC attention on bioterrorism but suggests that RevCon failure on this issue would not be a crisis for bioterrorism policy or the BWC’s future.

Agenda making for the RevCon on bioterrorism

The second message from the first round is that the contributions did not demonstrate consensus on what the RevCon should do. Only Ackerman and Littlewood made specific suggestions that, consolidated into one list, consist of these ideas:
  1. Improve state party implementation of the BWC;
  2. Strengthen specific provisions in the BWC, especially Articles IV, VI, VII, and X;
  3. Coordinate BWC efforts on bioterrorism with other multilateral efforts on this issue; and
  4. Leverage the BWC process to reinforce the need for biosecurity education in the life sciences.
None of these ideas is new; they have been part of BWC debates about bioterrorism for years. The first round did not address why these ideas have not gained much traction before. Without an explanation for why, at this RevCon, political or other conditions make progress on these topics more likely, an agenda based on these ideas represents policy déjà vu.

In addition, three of the ideas (i.e., 1, 2, and 4) are frequently advanced to strengthen the BWC within its traditional non-proliferation remit and are not specific to bioterrorism as a different kind of problem. The principle emerging from these suggestions is that the best thing the RevCon can do for bioterrorism is strengthen the BWC's contributions to non-proliferation of biological weapons by states. This objective is already the normative purpose of the RevCon, with or without bioterrorism as a topic. The consensus noted earlier that the BWC is not the most important venue for addressing bioterrorism means that highlighting bioterrorism as a key reason to strengthen the BWC carries little credibility.

A process-based approach for addressing bioterrorism in the BWC

A different approach could build off Ackerman's suggestion that the RevCon should focus on ensuring that any BWC effort on bioterrorism is coordinated with other initiatives. First, the RevCon could catalogue what exactly the BWC process has done to date with respect to bioterrorism and assess the effectiveness of these efforts, including the level and quality of coordination with other efforts.

Second, the RevCon could decide to have states parties periodically report to the UN Secretary-General on BWC-based efforts to address bioterrorism, their concerns about the bioterrorism threat, and their requests for UN or other multilateral consideration or action on bioterrorism problems. These reports could evaluate BWC interactions with other efforts on bioterrorism. The states parties could adopt a report at review conferences and at the half-way point between conferences. For the report issued between review conferences, the RevCon could establish a BWC Bioterrorism Commission of representatives from states parties and non-governmental organizations to develop the report for the Secretary-General.

This approach could identify bioterrorism as relevant to the BWC’s main purpose but keep the BWC's role in perspective. The reports could serve as a mechanism for keeping tabs on interactions among the many efforts focusing on bioterrorism and make BWC deliberations on bioterrorism more timely and relevant for these other efforts. Going in this direction does not mean bioterrorism becomes more or less important to the BWC. Rather, it means that BWC states parties could address their responsibilities concerning bioterrorism in a more realistic, transparent, and productive fashion.


Gary A. Ackerman - "Style and forethought in addressing bioterrorism at the RevCon" - 14 September 2011 ↓expand↓

Following on from the broad opening discussions, I will limit my response to a brief comment on the status of the discussion thread, followed by a little elaboration of my previous suggestions. David Fidler has performed an admirable service in summarizing the first round of discussions and I find myself endorsing almost all of his major conclusions, the primary one being an emerging consensus among the contributors that even though the BWC is neither absolutely necessary or by any measure sufficient for countering bioterrorism, it does have a constructive role to play. I furthermore agree with his inclination that proposals for countering bioterrorism within the framework of the BWC should consequently be driven by a pragmatism that recognizes this limited, albeit potentially important, role.

In this vein, Fidler competently develops one of the suggested approaches from the first round – using the RevCon to strengthen the ability of the Convention to facilitate coordination across the growing number of multilateral initiatives directed towards countering bioterrorism. In my previous contribution, I also noted that a possible role for the BWC is initiating the establishment of standards for Article IV as well as taking a lead in facilitating international biosecurity education. These are all tasks that could be taken up for discussion at the RevCon, and indeed would be suitable matters for Fidler’s proposed Committee on Bioterrorism. My fellow contributors and I have already outlined the direction such discussions might take, yet thinking about their implementation has led me to consider another perspective for how the RevCon could be used to support the broader effort to counter bioterrorism.

This is derived from the very essence of international conventions and the negotiations surrounding them – that they provide, if nothing else, a forum (very much in the classical sense) for countries to exchange national opinions and air their policy preferences in a more or less equal setting. Irrespective of which agreements are reached or not reached, they provide a high-level, “captive” audience focused on the issue at hand. Viewed from this perspective, the BWC presents a singular opportunity for the propagation of new ideas into the international policy discourse. Less elitist and constrained than a Security Council meeting, it provides a venue for the introduction and dissemination of, say, best practices or educational initiatives. The Review Conference, therefore, may have intrinsic value as a focal point or catalyst for “knowledge diffusion” regarding bioterrorism (and in fact any other facet covered by the BWC) – presuming such ideas are prudently and effectively marketed to the states parties. This suggests that equal attention be paid to the style of any new proposals as to their substance.

Bearing this in mind, as well as the aforementioned need for pragmatism, one way to implement such an approach in the case of countering bioterrorism could be to bandwagon on existing efforts directed towards state-level proliferation. In other words, in what might be somewhat ironically termed a “dual use” approach, those interested in introducing new proposals to counter bioterrorism at the RevCon could frame them as supplements or corollaries to existing efforts to prevent the use of biological weapons by states. A trite example would be a reaffirmation of the general norms against bioweapons use, with the inclusion of explicit reference to both state and non-state perpetrators.

One additional idea builds on Jez Littlewood’s admonition to prepare for the unexpected – or what others have termed “Black Swan” events – in the realm of bioterrorism. While we might not be able to predict exactly the form that a future bioterrorism event might take, we do know that one of the attendant dangers in the wake of any large terrorist event is overreaction on the part of states, what John Steinbruner and others have characterized as an “autoimmune reaction”. In such a situation, the actions taken by a state can have economic, psychological, and – most relevant in the context of the BWC – international political repercussions that dwarf the harm caused by the initial event itself. Setting up mechanisms ahead of time, with the goal of minimizing international misunderstandings and maximizing the provision of multilateral assistance might thus be a fruitful use of the RevCon’s resources.


Jez Littlewood - "Exploiting practical synergies while avoiding adverse political rhetoric" - 24 September 2011 ↓expand↓

As round two of our discussions on this forum demonstrate, identifying the different approaches to how we think about bioterrorism and the BWC and interrogating each other’s ideas in this area leads to identification of areas of convergence and divergence. Going beyond that, further discussion has permitted ideas to be brought into focus and allowed us to recognize that an idea or proposal may serve more than one purpose.

Thus, I would support David Fidler’s approach to assess what the BWC has done – or more accurately what its states parties have done vis-à-vis countering bioterrorism in the Convention’s name – and exploring the scope and effectiveness of coordination between the BWC and other arrangements, as an activity worth undertaking in the period between 2012 and 2016. Likewise, having states parties report periodically on their efforts makes sense – though in practical terms they would likely have to report to each other or the Implementation Support Unit and request that such reports are passed to the UNSG or other organizations. Gary Ackerman’s suggestion that states parties bandwagon the bioterrorism efforts on state counter-proliferation efforts is also sensible.

However, in supporting the above – assessing the state of play, reporting to each other, and bundling or bandwagoning efforts in one area to serve multiple purposes – we should recognize these are not departures from existing practice. For example, states parties first encouraged the adoption of ‘Legislation regarding the physical protection of laboratories and facilities to prevent unauthorized access to and removal of microbial or other biological agents, or toxins’ at the second review conference in 1986. Consistent efforts have been made to illustrate that effective implementation of the BWC, which has shifted over the last two decades to encompass both state efforts at acquisition and proliferation and non-state efforts at the same, does not require a completely different set of mechanisms or approaches to address “state” or “non-state” interest in biological weapons. The physical protection of laboratories illustrates that and in reality, whether or not good practices in the realm of biosecurity or export licensing or raising awareness of biological weapons issues in the scientific community is packaged, marketed and sold under the “state” or “terrorist” label is not significant at the implementation level. It may, however, be significant in garnering political support or engendering political revulsion. Likewise, enhancing reporting on implementation has been central to efforts since 1986.

This brings us to our fundamental political problem within the BWC: the question of action and demonstrating action that has been undertaken. The next intersessional process should be about ‘effective action’, that illusive and ignored third leg of the 2002 post-protocol rescue mission that established the intersessional process ‘to discuss, and promote common understanding and effective action’ on specified topics. Arguably, the first intersessional program successfully completed the ‘discuss’ aspect of that mandate and the second intersessional program has made good headway in promoting common understandings. Effective action, in contrast, has been ignored since in order to determine whether or not any action has been taken, and if it has been effective or ineffective would require states parties to establish some form of structured information-sharing mechanism. Any discussion of structured fora – and the plural is a deliberate inclusion – for sharing of information will, inevitably, invoke the ghost of the BWC Protocol for some states parties. Therefore, what the seventh review conference needs to do is recognize that many of the good proposals on the table are as equally relevant to the state and the non-state realms. They should also accept that going beyond the strictures of the existing intersessional program of work will require them to move back towards the establishment of formal structures for the sharing of information. To make some progress in the bioterrorism realm, states parties will have to exhibit a new level of maturity in their discussions on the subject and how it does, or does not, connect to the BWC or impact on the actions of states parties. Such a new level of maturity would recognize – as we contributors have in my view – the following.

First, that the labels “bioterrorism” and “state program” are actually not important when it gets to real implementation within a state and between states. A particular policy initiative or action might focus on bioterrorism effectively, but it is also highly likely to have positive implications for countering state programs and vice-versa.

Second, coordinated efforts require a discussion of the problem and possible policy responses, promotion of activity to cajole allocation of resources to implement the agreed actions, actual action (implementation) on the agreed responses, and, finally, some level of reporting back to all involved parties.

Third, that the above is a continuous process.

In short, states parties would discuss implementation of the Convention and not rule in or rule out topics on the basis of state or non-state risks. Furthermore, they would recognize that a process is required to move things forward collectively and that process has three components to it: discussing the problem openly; agreeing on a range of positive actions that could be taken to address the problem; and, establishing a reporting process to share information and demonstrate action in a given area. That looks and sounds like an intersessional process. Furthermore, it subtlety shifts the emphasis to the “effective action” part of the intersessional work program mandate agreed in 2002 and reaffirmed in 2006.

In summary therefore, both of my US colleagues have proposed useful additions to the next work program beyond 2011. My suggestion to states parties is that they be adopted and implemented: however, I also suggest that the dichotomy between “state” and “terrorist / non-state” be left to the rhetoricians at the review conference. Sensible states parties, and sensible people, must surely have now realized that good implementation practices serve both needs rather well.


Comments on this discussion are welcome at roul.animesh[at]

    Animesh Roul

    Animesh Roul is a co-founder and presently, the Executive Director (Research) of the Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi. He is involved with independent think tanks, media houses, and policy organizations in India and abroad and contributes regularly to web portals, Newspapers, and scholarly journals. He specialises in Islamic fundamentalism, WMD terrorism, armed conflict and issues relating to arms control and proliferations in South Asia. Recently he authored 'India Country Report' in Bioweapons Monitor 2010 (BWPP).

    Gary Ackerman

    Gary Ackerman is Assistant Director for Research and Communication at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). Prior to taking up his current position, he was Director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Research Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. His research encompasses various areas relating to terrorism and counterterrorism, including terrorist threat assessment, terrorist technologies and motivations for using chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons and the modeling and simulation of terrorist behavior. He is the co-editor of Jihadists and Weapons of Mass Destruction (CRC Press, 2009), author of several articles on CBRN terrorism and has testified on terrorist motivations for using nuclear weapons before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security.

    David Paul Fidler

    David P. Fidler is the James Louis Calamaras Professor of Law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, USA. He is one of the world's leading experts on international law and global health, which expertise includes issues concerning bioterrorism and biological weapons. His publications include Biosecurity in the Global Age: Biological Weapons, Public Health, and the Rule of Law (Stanford University Press, 2008) (co-author with Lawrence O. Gostin).

    Jez Littlewood

    Jez Littlewood is an Assistant Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) and the Director at the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies (CCISS) at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He holds a First Class B.A. Honours degree (1995) from the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford where he also completed his PhD in September 2001. Between July 1998 and December 2001 he served as an Advisor to the United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs in Geneva during negotiations to strengthen the BWC. In January 2002 Dr Littlewood joined the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies at the University of Southampton. In January 2005 he was seconded to the Counter-Proliferation Department of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office as an Advisor on biological weapons controls, completing that service in April 2007.