BWC only holds power on paper, expert says

The 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention has good intentions, but because it contains no enforcement mechanism, it only holds power on paper and very little in reality, according to David E. Hoffman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and contributing editor to Foreign Policy.

For much of December 2011, the BWC signatories will meet in Geneva for the seventh review conference, held every five years. Hoffman has little hope that the conference will produce much more than a few tweaks to the convention, according to Foreign Policy.

“The treaty is pretty tattered, and the review conference won’t change that,” David Hoffman wrote, Foreign Policy reports.

Hoffman said that there is little contained in the treaty that could halt a determined effort by a country or terrorist organization to build an illicit biological weapons program. The USSR, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and apartheid-era South Africa all developed programs in defiance of the treaty.

As evidence of the lack of enthusiasm for the treaty among its signatories, Hoffman points out that last year only 73 of the 163 of the states parties sent in their annual declaration forms.

U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both concluded that any verification mechanism in the BWC would be fatally flawed. Rapid technological advances in the biological sciences have moved forward ahead of the traditional means to keep countries to their word. Biological weapons research can be easily hidden and most research is dual-use, Hoffman wrote in Foreign Policy.

Laura Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and a special representative on the BWC, recently said that part of the U.S. strategy will be to focus on the development of health security.

“So we’ve got to work together to strengthen disease surveillance and detection capabilities around the world, as well as national and international preparedness, coordination, and response capabilities,” Kennedy said, reports.

Hoffman concluded that, while a laudable goal, health security is outside of the basic mission of the BWC and there are already large agencies, such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, that deal with them.

Kennedy said that the aim of the BWC is to rid the world of biological weapons, and to do so, countries must participate in confidence building measures like submitting annual declarations. Yet, there is no penalty for countries that fail to submit their declarations and many of them are not even made public.

“Some ‘confidence building’ measures,” Hoffman wrote in Foreign Policy. “The concerns that were originally behind the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention—the horrors of germ warfare— have not disappeared. It would be nice to see more than just a talking shop at the review conference in Geneva.”