Background Briefing on Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference
MODERATOR: All right, everybody. We are in Geneva, where we just completed a fascinating day. And tomorrow the Secretary will be addressing the Biological Weapons Review Conference, which happens once every five years. To give you a sense of tomorrow’s event, we have two folks with us. We have [Senior State Department Official One], hereafter known as Senior State Department Official Number One. Sorry about that, [Senior State Department Official One.]
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Or make her Number One. She’s going to speak first.
MODERATOR: [Senior State Department Official One] and I have known each other a long time without a consideration. And then we have [Senior State Department Official Two] whose title is [title redacted], another old friend, hereafter Senior State Department Official Number Two. Take it away, [Senior State Department Official One.]
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Actually, I – we’ll let [Senior State Department Official Two] begin.
MODERATOR: Take it away, [Senior State Department Official Two]
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. Maybe I’ll just start really quickly. Well, in addition to the title that [Moderator] mentioned, last year I was asked to be – take on a different hat, an additional one as [Senior State Department Official]. And this was very much to prepare over the following year for this review conference. And as you know, this Administration has placed a premium on arms control and nonproliferation. The Biological Weapons – its full title is Biological Weapons and Toxin Convention – is one of the three pillars of the global WMD regime. It is the first treaty to ban an entire class of weapons, that is, biological and toxin weapons, entered into force in 1975.
And so again, as you know, this Administration has placed a premium on arms control, nonproliferation, multilateral engagement. In particular, this is an area that this Administration early on took an interest in. The major review that was issued by the Obama Administration was only the second to come out of the White House, which was issued in 2009. So the President specifically asked the Secretary of State to head our delegation out here. She’ll give our national statement tomorrow.
Now, the focus really is that, one, this is a cornerstone, as I said, of the global nonproliferation regime. But we are trying to make sure that this Convention is adaptable and is focused on the 21st century challenges out there. When the treaty came into force, basically we thought in terms of state actors. We all know that that world has changed. As a matter of fact, it’s 10 years since the United States experienced a biological incident. The anthrax letters killed a number of American citizens, caused billions of dollars in damage. So we know, from first hand, the havoc that can be wrought. Japan suffered a terrorist incident with biological weapons. And indeed, you look at al-Qaida. They have put out bulletins. You’ve seen things where they have called for people to work on biological and chem weapons. So it’s a real threat.
But the positive side of that story, in terms of adapting this Convention to 21st century challenges is that when you develop the tools to deal with a biological weapons incident, the result of which is disease, the same tools give you the same benefits for the global health security, because disease is disease, whether it’s the result of a weapons incident, whether it’s manmade, whether it’s the result of, say, a lab accident. So when you build the national capacities around the world to deter, detect, and deal with disease outbreaks, then you build capacity that’s got benefits for global health in general.
As a matter of fact, the Secretary has spoken about health security in speeches in the past, so it’s – again, this is certainly a long term interest approach. So as I say, it’s keeping to reconfigure this treaty to meet those challenges. And so [Senior State Department Official Two], I think, is going to talk about some of the elements that you could – themes that the Secretary may speak about, programmatic aspects we’d like to hear about.
But ultimately, in this brochure you’ve got some reference materials and a description of some of the programmatic elements we’re looking for. It’s not a press – it wasn’t designed as a press kit, but if you find it useful we just brought it along.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: This will be the first time that we’ve asked the Secretary of State to speak at this review conference. This is the seventh held. The themes that you’ll hear her talk about tomorrow are first, to essentially lay out why we think that continued cooperation against biological threats is important, the universality of a threat given travel times and the connectedness of the world today, and also the interconnectedness of the solutions – of the remedies. How building your national capacity to detect and respond to any biological threat enhances the security of the whole world, and that we do this together.
Second, she’ll give a brief recount of the United States’ efforts to comply with the Convention, which of course, includes destroying all of our biological weapons back in the 1970s. But more importantly is a proactive agenda we cooperate with dozens of countries including many in the less-developed world, not only through State and the ISN bureau, but through DHS, AID, CDC, DOD – all of these agencies play a role. We think we have a very positive record of cooperation.
And finally, she’ll lay out three areas in which we propose this review conference consider for further action. I should note that the review conference does not amend the Convention. What we do is we meet and agree on items we want to focus on in the next five-year period. We have found the last two five-year periods, what they call the intercessional period, to be extremely valuable in bringing together not only many different countries, but filling a room not just with arms control specialists and diplomats but with scientists, industry, law enforcement officials, defense officials, for a genuinely multi-sectoral approach to global health security.
So she’ll put out ideas in three areas – first, the interface of health and security, that is what can we do to enhance the surveillance and response capability of all nations? Secondly, a proposal on national implementation – how can we get states to report more regularly more useful information about their compliance with the Convention in a way that promotes transparency and builds confidence among state’s party that the Convention is respected? And third, on science and technology, to have a discussion about measures the scientific community needs to take to build the consciousness of the risks of bio-science research. We know the tremendous benefits. We wish to encourage those. But a good discussion about responsible, ethical behavior by researchers in this intercessional period is what we’re pushing for. So again, none of these proposals change the Convention; they are, rather, ideas for where to focus our work in the next five-year period. Many other countries are making similar ideas.
I’ll close just by highlighting two areas that I think will not be so highlighted in the end. There are a couple of areas where there are disagreements within the Convention state’s party. One is in the area of verification. A number of states look at the BWC as they look at other arms control agreements, the Nuclear Nonpro Treaty or the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ask, why don’t we have a protocol for verification for intrusive inspections? The United States and a number of other countries believe that the very nature of biological research is such. It is so decentralized, it requires relatively simple equipment, fairly simple level of scientific knowledge, that you simply cannot design a verification mechanism that would work in the way that the IAEA works in the nuclear field. So this is one area where there are different views among state’s party.
Second is what we call Article 10. Article 10 of the Convention requires states to exchange information and technology. We believe, as I said, the U.S. has an excellent record, along with many other developed nations, in genuine two-way exchange with countries on scientific knowledge, on technology, on best practices. Some states, particularly in the nonaligned movement, believe there should be a more centralized, regularized mechanism to require and enforce this kind of technology exchange.
Now as I said, these are two longstanding issues in the Convention. I don’t expect either one of them to prevent us from having a successful inclusion – conclusion of a very forward-looking agenda for the next five years. There’s far more consensus than there is discord among the members of the Convention.
And with that, I think we have a few minutes for questions.
QUESTION: Can I ask just one simple one?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: I get that essentially what you do at these revcons is to look at what you’re going to work on for the next five years. Do you believe that the Convention itself does need to be formally adapted, the language changed, presumably re-ratified by everybody, to deal with the 21st century threats that you were talking about, or not?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: If I might, I would say no, we’re not looking for any amendment because we think it’s flexible enough, and [Senior State Department Official One] mentioned this intercessional process that’s been a huge success of these last five years. What we’d like to do is further enhance and institutionalize that process. So instead of, say, having this group [Senior State Department Official One] was talking about, this huge convening forum here that brings together diplomats, scientists, NGOs, law enforcement, animal and health experts together, instead of, say, just come in, having a meeting and then sort of going away, our idea is to have an institutional process where you have working groups. And I think we sketch out sort of three baskets there where you would develop recommendations then for the state’s parties, that you have a continuing dialogue.
And again, the rapid pace of change in biological sciences is so extraordinary that, for example, science and technology is one of the areas that we’d like to see a working group or an ongoing one established to try and keep up with that. For example, there’s the other non-nuclear (inaudible) of the chemical weapons convention obviously deals with chemical weapons. But what’s fascinating science here is you have a convergence of chemical and biological areas. You could now chemically synthesize biological pathogens. So it’s extraordinary how rapid a change. And we believe that you need to, as I say, institutionalize this dialogue to try and stay ahead of that curve, both for traditional arms control security issues and also because, as we were talking about, this sort of health security and the extraordinary challenges we face in today’s global world where we all know disease knows no borders.
QUESTION: Can you say which countries are pushing for – if any, are pushing for the verification protocol?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So far – you’ll see in your packet an example of a summary of a U.S. proposal. We posted on the website of the Convention our specific language for proposals, and a number of other countries have done the same. So far, we have not seen any country that has posted a proposal for a verification mechanism. It’s a common element of rhetoric among a number of non-aligned states and among a number of allied states as well, who simply disagree with us about the impossibility of concluding such a mechanism. So there’s a wide array of states that believe a Convention like this needs a protocol for verification.
QUESTION: There’s not a risk of something like the (inaudible), where there’ll be an in-run around the normal process by some group of like-minded countries?
QUESTION: I’ll take that one as a yes. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I don’t know the details.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think for one, this Convention runs by consensus. And as [Senior State Department Official One] said, that by and large there’s sort of a traditional attachment to the goal of the verification regime. That’s, for example, the position of the neutral/non-aligned movement, which is about a hundred and – it’s a huge chunk of the (inaudible) the international – it’s (inaudible), for example.
But as I say, it’s more sort of a standard thing, but not the big sort of floor piece. I would perhaps identify – I mean, Iran is one country that, for example, the prepcon that we had here last April, which went extraordinarily smoothly, Iran was the one country that was isolated in terms of trying to specify a specific focus on verification at the review conference.
QUESTION: Wouldn’t we like a verification process with Iran, so we can go in there and start poking around?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, one – this goes back to this notion of the changing nature of the threat out there. In terms of biological terrorism, how do you conceivably verify that?
MODERATOR: I think the point that [Senior State Department Official Two] is trying to make is that false verification is worse than no verification, in the sense that it gives you this sense of security that is not warranted.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’ve got no bias against verification. We have a bias in favor of things that work. And we simply don’t believe you can design a verification mechanism in this field that will achieve the goal of giving genuine confidence about other countries’ programs and intentions.
QUESTION: But is that because they – the threat now is really not so much countries as opposed to the non-state actors?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It’s not because of that, but I agree with the sentence. We think there is more reason to be concerned about sub-national actors and terrorists than about states. The BWC has been an enormous success in establishing an international norm that really treats biological weapons, as the preambles say, as abhorrent to the conscience of mankind. And even those countries that have not signed the Convention would not dream of making the argument that they have the right to pursue such a program.
MODERATOR: Do you want to go a little deeper on why you can’t verify?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well again, the dual-use nature. Because the same facilities that can produce equipment that would be used as a biological weapons – are the same facilities, the same substances that are vital for our industry, pharmaceuticals, our health, and so on. So it’s how you distinguish between the essential, vital, peaceful uses of the biological field and something that would be a biological agent. And as I say, that’s a huge problem just within, say, State programs. But then when it comes to, say, terrorism – and unlike the nuclear field, where you need massive infrastructure, complex programs, and so on, it’s – especially with the geographic changes in technology, it’s not that difficult to synthesize the materials. I mean, sort of –
MODERATOR: Anybody can do it in their basement.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: In their garage. That A-student in high school biology.
QUESTION: So if I might push just a little bit more on that. So basically, right now, as you go towards this revcon, is this really your main concern about these verification –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, it’s an issue out there. We’ve tried to sort of reframe the debate as have a lot of countries, in terms of talking about enhancing confidence in our minds.
QUESTION: What about proliferation? What about – I mean, verification obviously, but what about proliferation? I think that’s a much greater concern than verification.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And our proposals are aimed at that. The programs that we do through State, Defense, DHS, are designed at providing the kind of security at biological research facilities around the world that will prevent the misuse or the diversion of any of these materials. So that’s an active step against proliferation. We also believe that enhancing a country’s ability to detect early a biological outbreak and to respond effectively is, in fact, a deterrent against the development of biological weapons. If all countries are well-prepared to respond, the value, either to a state or to a terrorist organization, of biological weapons will decline. So it’s a – inherently both a health security measure and a deterrent measure.
MODERATOR: Anything else?
All right, guys. Thank you very much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks.
MODERATOR: Appreciate it.
QUESTION: Thank you.