Clinton moves to inject new urgency into bioweapon concerns at Geneva event

In a surprise announcement, a senior State Department official said on Thursday that Hillary Clinton would appear next week at an international conference on biological warfare prevention and preparedness -- an event that even policy wonks had previously grumbled would likely prove dull and inconsequential.

The U.S. secretary of State's address -- tentatively slated for Dec. 7 -- to the Biological Weapons Convention five-year review conference in Geneva would mark the first time that such a high-level official has represented Washington at a BWC forum, according to Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation.

Speaking at a Thursday press conference, he said Clinton would offer "specific proposals" in three areas: increasing world capacity to detect and respond to disease outbreaks; working with the scientific and industrial communities to ensure that life-science technologies and materials are not misused; and "strengthening the implementation" of the 1975 agreement.

Issue experts said Clinton's brief presence at the Switzerland venue would draw substantial public attention to otherwise relatively modest efforts to counter biological threats. Earlier prognostications were that the 14-day BWC review conference, which begins on Monday, would play out with barely any notice on the world stage.

"It's a shock," Barry Kellman, head of the International Weapons Control Center at DePaul University's College of Law in Chicago, said after learning of the announcement. "I hope what she puts on the table is worthy of her appearance."

Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, sounded a similar note.

Clinton's upcoming appearance "is a most welcome indication of high-level political attention being paid to the bioweapons ban," she said in an e-mail response to questions on Thursday. "But the proof will be in whether she introduces significant new proposals to strengthen the treaty's compliance provisions or continues a regrettable, multiyear trend of more rhetoric about the severity of the bioweapons problem than action to reduce that threat."

The Biological Weapons Convention bans the development, acquisition or stockpiling of biological agents or toxins that lack a peaceful justification, as well as associated delivery systems.

The agreement includes 165 states parties plus 12 signatory states. Fewer than two dozen countries around the world have not signed the agreement, among them Israel, Kazakhstan and a handful of African nations, including Eritrea and Mozambique, according to the BWC's operating organization.

At the Switzerland conference, states parties will "review the operation of the Biological Weapons Convention, consider the intersessional work held since the last review in 2006, address relevant developments in science and technology, and discuss future activities," according to a Thursday statement issued by the U.N. office in Geneva.

Countryman insisted that the United States has done a great deal to "adhere to our [BWC] commitments." Initiatives include assisting other nations with disease detection and response, as well as promoting use of the intersessional process, he said. This meeting framework allows government specialists and technical experts to make progress on selected issues between the major five-year review conferences.

Countryman suggested that Clinton's attendance at the event is intended as a shot in the arm for international cooperation on countering germ threats.

"In addition to the steps that we have taken in favor of greater transparency and confidence-building measures about our own efforts, we'll encourage other nations to do the same, and present ideas on how countries can fulfill their obligation under the convention," Countryman told reporters in Washington.

Clinton is expected to emphasize that member states of the accord must not only refrain from bioweapon activities themselves, but also "take steps to ensure that there are no subnational actors on their territory that can develop these kind of weapons," he said.

A Vexing Conundrum: No Big Attack

Despite the oft-cited specter of biological weapons getting into terrorist hands, a major attack of this sort has yet to materialize, ironically making it challenging for policy specialists and advocates to generate much public interest in addressing and preventing such threats.

A biological weapons strike against a major city somewhere around the globe, perhaps in the form of a man-made epidemic, "could cause as much death and economic and psychological damage as a nuclear attack," Ellen Tauscher, the U.S. undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, asserted two years ago in laying out Obama administration policy.

Apart from the 2001 anthrax attack that killed five people and a handful of reports about disgruntled misfits experimenting with kitchen-made lethal substances such as ricin, the United States and the world to date have been largely spared from serious biological weapon threats.

With politicians typically focused on more urgent domestic or international crises of the day, the rarity of bioattacks has contributed to an amount of public lethargy, according to some issue experts.

"The best news is this is mostly because we have not had an attack," Kellman said. "When something happens," though, affected nations would certainly rue any gaps in preparedness, he said.

Therein lies the rub: The dearth of serious bioweapons incidents has diminished the global sense of urgency to act, but detection of illicit activities and prevention of future attacks could require stepped-up U.S. and international attention. As the 20th century French existentialist Jean-Paul Sarte once remarked, it would be better to "see the truth clearly before it is too late."

Washington's 2009 strategy for countering biological threats focused on strengthening global health security and developing "a rigorous, comprehensive program" to verify compliance with pact, Tauscher said at the time.

Some experts said this week that since announcing its strategy two years ago, Washington has been sluggish in bolstering BWC-related initiatives to tighten security on pathogenic biological agents and has done little to enhance the "transparency" of the U.S. biological sciences sector, as the policy promised. This type of openness has been touted as a means of helping ensure that no illicit activities are taking place under the guise of research.

Nor have other governments worldwide been very active lately on the matter, according to Smithson.

Absent a strong leadership role by Washington or other powerful capitals at the Geneva event, little further progress in addressing potential biological threats is expected in the immediate future, independentl specialists said.

"So long as certain governments -- including the U.S. government -- are not prepared to move forward into a more proactive stance, I think it would be very difficult for this review conference to put the treaty on a stronger footing," Smithson said in an interview prior to Countryman's announcement.

Based on limited Obama initiatives to date and Countryman's brief remarks this week, it remained difficult to discern how aggressive the administration is now prepared to be in advocating for stronger BWC implementation, she said in a subsequent e-mail.

"Inviting one person to visit the home of the U.S. biodefense program at Fort Detrick, Md. -- a 2009 U.S. 'transparency' proposal -- won't cut it," Smithson said.

A Verification Regime?

Earlier in the year, there were some calls for Washington to help resuscitate moribund international negotiations over creating a verification regime for the biological weapons treaty. However, that idea has since been dashed.

A six-year global dialogue aimed at establishing a protocol for verifying implementation of the convention collapsed in 2001, when the Bush administration withdrew support for a draft agreement and a number of other states parties sought language that could have weakened the regime (see GSN, Nov. 18, 2003). Negotiations over verification of the treaty have not since resumed.

"I don't personally think that the [2011 review conference] is going to serve as a referendum on whether to return to negotiations which were abandoned a decade ago," Laura Kennedy, who will lead the Washington delegation at the Geneva conference, told Global Security Newswire in a July interview.

"The aftershocks from 2001 and 2002, when the negotiations collapsed -- and collapsed with a lot of hard feelings -- are still felt," Smithson said.

Countryman said the Obama approach to BWC verification, like the prior Bush policy, would continue to be that mandatory inspection and monitoring programs used for verifying international compliance with nuclear and chemical arms control agreements are inappropriate in the biological sphere.

"It's understandable that there would be a desire to see the same thing in the Biological Weapons Convention," he said. "And we take seriously the concern of our partners in that regard. However, our concern, which is also shared by a large number of nations, is that what you need are tools that work, tools that effectively enforce the goals of the convention."

The senior official laid out three justifications for the U.S. position.

"Biological sciences is too broad a category, with both knowledge and materials too diffuse, and with materials capable on a very small scale -- unlike nuclear or chemical -- of creating such weapons," Countryman said. "So you can't identify the facilities that would need to be verified."

Secondly, "it's very difficult to identify the activities that are objectionable or potentially proscribed," he continued. "In the very inherent nature of the life sciences, almost everything is dual-use, and to identify techniques that are applicable only to weapons or only to peaceful uses is, in fact, impossible."

Finally, he said, verification is virtually impossible on the scale that would be required.

"The sheer number of places where research is done and the degree of intrusiveness that would have to be undertaken to make it work, I think, precludes an effective verification technique based upon nuclear or chemical [arms control agreements]," said Countryman, a career Foreign Service officer who became head of the State Department's so-called ISN Bureau in late September.

Activities related to the BWC are supported by a three-person Implementation Support Unit based in Geneva, which the U.S. diplomat termed "a model of efficiency."

Washington will continue an emphasis on confidence-building measures and enhancing transparency as a means of encouraging implementation, he said. To date, such measures have involved voluntary public declarations of particular substances used in research settings, specific laboratories involved in permitted biological activities, and disease outbreaks that might raise BWC-related suspicions.

There is currently no enforcement mechanism or verification regime backing up these measures, but the U.S. team nonetheless views this transparency as helpful.

"Not only can these help give states the confidence that the convention is being upheld, but we can -- even if we don't agree on this point -- move forward on the basis of consensus on other steps that will make the convention ever more effective," Countryman told reporters.

Pick Your Threat -- And Find Some Cash

There are lingering disagreements between Washington and its partners over whether BWC implementation should be limited to bans on state-sponsored bioweapons activities, or if instead the treaty could be used to enhance defenses against potential terrorist uses.

"A number of people [in the international community] don't take the threat of bioterrorism very seriously," despite the U.S. view that a bioterror attack is likelier than pathogen use by a nation state, Kellman said.

In either case, a general disinclination to take on a more ambitious agenda for implementing the convention is compounded by tighter resources not only in Washington but worldwide, he said.

"There isn't any money," Kellman said. "Progress is slow. Nobody is taking biological weapons very seriously."

The Obama administration is also battling a widespread global perception that the United States has a covert biological weapons program, despite expert views to the contrary, both Kellman and Smithson observed.

Debate in policy circles tends to devolve into these longstanding differences between member nations, and detailed implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention itself becomes "sort of a sideshow," Kellman said.

"When resources are so short, why fight about spending resources when there is no consensus even about the big picture?" he said.

Doing Nothing Much or Achieving Progress?

"To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual," Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891. By this standard, the Biological Weapons Convention review conference might have its work cut out for it.

The seventh session of its kind, the BWC event is set to begin with general debate on Monday and Tuesday, after which the work of hashing out and drafting a final consensus document begins. A draft schedule indicates the conference is to close on Dec. 22, but Kellman said early expectations for progress have been so low that he "wouldn't be surprised at all if it ends early, on the 16th."

Convention meetings over the past several years have typically focused on issues such as disease tracking, a crucial task yet one that is not central to the convention's objectives, Smithson said.

Clinton and her team should avoid "sidestepping the core security issues of the treaty by focusing on disease surveillance and response, which are of vital importance but more the domain of the World Health Organization than the BWC," the issue expert said following Countryman's remarks.

"I hope that the review conference returns to those hard security issues, particularly strengthening the practices that can help confirm compliance with the treaty's prohibitions," she said a day earlier, in a Wednesday interview.

"Their main task should be how to strengthen the confidence-building measures declarations, which at present are voluntary but should be mandatory, and also strengthening the content of those declarations," Smithson said. It should be made clearer exactly which substances and activities a member nation must divulge, she explained.

Smithson said she also wants to see BWC member nations agree to improve "the transparency and oversight of [biological] defense programs" and return to "a discussion of verification and inspections under this treaty."

Paul van den IJssel, a Dutch disarmament ambassador and president-designate of the new BWC review conference, told GSN earlier this year that he would like to see debate over verification options reopened at the upcoming event (see GSN, July 7).

"For many countries it's difficult to accept we would not have any discussion in the future of compliance and verification," van den IJssel said. "It should not be swept off the table; that's basically what they tell me."

Smithson -- author of a new book on the 1995 success of international watchdogs in Iraq -- said a new BWC verification regime should be "based in no small part on the genuine experience of biological inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission, who went into the field and uncovered a covert biological weapons program."

Like Countryman, however, Kellman said he could not imagine a BWC verification regime that is modeled after traditional approaches used for other arms control agreements.

Kellman added that he was skeptical that confidence-building measures, while helpful, could be a sufficient means of ensuring compliance.

Rather, Kellman recommended strengthening controls over pathogens; monitoring research that could lead to weaponization; focusing on the bioterror threat; and, working harder to bolster international preparedness.

"For the first time in over a decade, the Biological Weapons Convention states parties are in a position to take significant steps forward in shaping the future of the convention," van den IJssel said in the statement released on Thursday. "We should -- and we must -- capitalize on this."

Though international diplomats and issue specialists might differ on details, Smithson said, "the RevCon needs to get back to business."

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