The first day of the 2014 Meeting of Experts kicked off with statements from States Parties. As is often the case in the context of the BWC, S&T already looks like becoming a forum for the discussion of several long-standing bones of contention, as well as specific trends and developments. The Opening Statement from Pakistan for example, which is aligned with a larger group of states parties (the non-aligned movement) reflects some of the key diplomatic challenges related to the discussion of advances in S&T in this forum.
The delegation expressed it’s concern about ‘…new developments in Science and Technology that have the potential for uses contrary to the convention. ‘
The statement went on, to outline in a general sense, Pakistan’s anxieties regarding to the field of Synthetic Biology. In response the statement called for states to employ ‘the utmost transparency’ and ‘confidence building measures’ the report also outlined the need for strict regulation of the field to ensure that ‘it does not lead to any concerns related to safety and security as well as incidents of proliferation that have no justification for prophylatic, protective or other peaceful purposes’. The reference to ‘purposes’ of course, is associated with long-standing questions about how how to ensure that defensive state programs are not a cover for offensive programmes. Unlike it’s sister treaty the Chemical Weapons Convention, the BWC has no such legally binding compliance assurance mechanism, which involves for example independent inspections of certain facilities capable in theory of producing weapons.
Indeed, the need to ensure compliance was the focus of the Russian Opening Statement. The Russian delegation outlined an initiative which would involve a ‘collegial examination’ of how to strengthen the convention through a legally binding instrument. The Delegation also pointed to a mandate which stretches back to 1994. This mandate was agreed upon before the last major (and ill-fated) attempt to develop a compliance verification mechanism. This initiative has attracted the attention of a few of those looking on.
However, it quickly became apparent that things might not be straightforward, even at this early stage, when the Delegation referred to 3 out of 27 states who had not responded positively to their questionnaire. While 3 out of 24 isn’t much – some states are more equal than others in the context of the BTWC, so this begged the question whether any of these three states could have enough clout to kill the proposal. The question was left unanswered by the statement, as the Russian Delegation chose only to identify who had responded. They did not identify who had responded negatively to the proposal.
The US were also eager to clarify that they had declined to respond, rather than gone against the proposal. They did state however that going back to a previous negation process would be ‘Counter Productive’. Such resistance at such an early stage leaves little room for optimism for the fate of this specific proposal. However, there is an informal meeting the evening being hosted by the Russian Delegation, so more to follow on this issue.
Going back to the statement from Pakistan however, it’s concern about the need for controls on of research and biotechnology in the name of security were juxtaposed with it’s commitment to ensuring that developed states share advances in science and technology with developing countries ( this requirement is referred to in article X of the convention). In particular Pakistan asserted that ‘the potential dual-use nature of emerging technologies in itself should not be used as a pretext for proscribing or restricting their availability to developing countries for peaceful purposes’.
Such sentiments, reveal the complex political environment in which discussions about S&T occur in the context of the BTWC. Added to this, they also serve to demonstrate the rhetorical way in which poster-boy fields, such as Synthetic Biology are used as a type of short-hand in the discussion of a range of issues related to advances in S&T which face the regime. The fact that there is no specific agreement in the BTWC about the definition of Synthetic Biology is beside the point.
More to follow Wednesday, when S&T is addressed as a Standing Agenda Item.
-This article has been updated in order to clarify the US position.-