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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 84, Cover design by Calvert's Press

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 84, Spring 2007

The 2006 BWC Review Conference
The President's Reflections

Masood Khan

There are two traps that await generals wanting to regale others with accounts of their campaigns: first, they may bore their audience with boasting and self-importance; and second, they risk attributing to their own skill and wisdom the results of the efforts of others, the prevailing political winds, and simple good fortune. I will do my best to avoid these pitfalls and give a straightforward account of the Sixth Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), as it appeared from the Chair.

The Sixth Review Conference (RevCon) was scheduled for November 20 to December 8, 2006, and from the moment that I was designated to be its President, I realised that I would have to work very hard to make it a success. The backdrop was grim. The NPT RevCon in May 2005 had ended in failure. World leaders who met in September 2005 failed to identify any agreed measures on the issues of security, disarmament, and nonproliferation. The Conference of Disarmament (CD) was still facing a prolonged impasse, and the mood was dark and dismal. Finally, the BWC needed to overcome its own history, particularly the bitter divisions arising from the failure of the Ad Hoc Group negotiations on a verification protocol and the suspension of the Fifth Review Conference in 2001.

As with all successful multilateral enterprises, the foundations for the outcome were laid many months before the Conference itself began. While wrangling commenced in late 2005 over whether the conference should be two or three weeks in length, I sensed that neither duration would be anywhere near long enough to resolve the difficult issues and political divisions. It would do no good to simply let delegations start slugging it out in the plenary sessions of the RevCon. We needed a basis for work; we had to mark out the perimeter within which a realistic yet positive outcome could be found.

This was not just my own idea: many States Parties had come to the same conclusion, and had started to look beyond the verification impasse. The largely unexpected success of the 2003-2005 intersessional process had illustrated to many States Parties, of various sizes and political persuasions, that there was a lot more to an effective BWC than the open-ended debate over whether and how verification should be pursued. Over the three years of this process, the practical focus of the meetings gradually cooled the political temperature. Most importantly, these meetings had showed that there was scope to work on a range of actions to strengthen the BWC, and that such work need not undermine - and could even strengthen the prospects for - the ultimate goal of many States Parties: which was still to develop a multilaterally-negotiated, legally-binding verification regime.

This, then, was the perimeter that was implicitly set out at the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) in April 2006. In their statements to the Committee, the European Union (EU), the Group of Non-aligned and Other States (NAM), and a new grouping of Latin American countries, all said - in effect - that while their ultimate aim remained legally-binding verification for the BWC, they accepted that this could not be achieved at the Review Conference and were therefore prepared to look at other measures. This approach, shared as it was across such a broad swathe of the political and geographic spectrum, created the necessary space for a more relaxed and flexible view of alternative proposals. It was a delicate balance, but there was enough of a common platform for me to be able to develop a consensus solution to the thorny problem of the agenda of the Review Conference.

Our first real achievement was agreement on an agenda. It may sound routine now but back in April 2006 this looked like an insurmountable barrier. It should be recalled that the 2005 NPT RevCon had only managed to adopt its agenda on the ninth day, and the thought of such a scenario being replicated in the BWC horrified me. However, the PrepCom closed on an optimistic note, with all the procedural issues settled and the scope of a possible outcome for the Review Conference starting to become clear.

For me, the next step was to further clarify the shape of a possible outcome, and to get the States Parties comfortable in working constructively towards it. In a series of consultations with regional groups and individual delegations, as well as at various seminars and workshops, I advocated three main elements of an outcome: a reaffirmation of important understandings about the Convention (such as the agreement that use of biological and toxin weapons is prohibited); confirmation that the Convention applies to all relevant developments in science and technology; and agreement on the various new ideas and proposals being put forward. I listed some of the areas where new proposals had been made or were expected, such as confidence-building measures (CBMs), a new intersessional process, implementation support, assistance and cooperation, and so on. However, I made it clear that this list was open-ended, and so did not attempt to examine the items in detail, or to judge or prioritise them in any way. This approach seemed to meet with approval, and I think many delegations found the blend of old and new, coupled with the open-ended but not-too-detailed treatment of the new items, reassuring and non-threatening.

I encouraged States Parties to circulate their proposals early, and to collaborate with others (including in other groups) to identify and perhaps merge similar ideas. I was very pleased with the positive response to this: States Parties did a lot of work in advance of the Conference, and many proposals were well-developed, widely available, and thoroughly discussed weeks beforehand. This made my task much easier, and reduced the risk of unexpected trouble. (Expected trouble I was quite prepared to deal with; the unexpected variety is much more of a challenge!)

It gradually became clear that there was broad support for an outcome based around a new intersessional process, improved implementation support arrangements, concerted action on universalisation, improved CBMs, and - rather more delicately - some sort of modest but practical and realistic Article X measures that would address States Parties' needs regarding peaceful scientific and technological development. Consequently, as my consultations continued, I started gently to steer delegations towards such a package.

As the conference drew closer, I began to consider the tactics of the operation, in close consultation with my colleagues Ambassador Doru Costea of Romania and Knut Langeland of Norway, who would chair the Committee of the Whole and the Drafting Committee, respectively. We considered how to manage the three short weeks we had, how to maintain the positive atmosphere that had so far characterised the preparations, and how to deal with potential problems.

Our foremost concern was to avoid a return to the "trench warfare" that had bedevilled the Fifth Review Conference, where delegations had split along regional group lines in bitter disputes over verification, Article X and other sensitive issues. We wanted to preserve the accord that had emerged at the PrepCom, and retain the support of a broad, cross-regional range of States Parties for a positive, practical outcome. We decided the key tactic should be to keep delegations busy and to keep the discussion moving. We would run several issues in parallel, so that if one got bogged down or overheated, we could instantly switch focus to another. We would alternate the "article-by-article review" meetings of the Committee of the Whole with informal meetings devoted to "cross-cutting" issues: issues that either did not naturally fall under a particular article of the Convention, or which had for one reason or another become controversial or sensitive. Set-piece debates would be carefully limited: we agreed that we would quickly suspend any meeting that threatened to degenerate into unhelpful rhetoric and recrimination. We also planned to make intensive use of facilitators to take individual issues out of the big conference room, and develop them in smaller groups.

Having agreed our tactics, we developed a programme of work accordingly. In consulting States Parties on this, I was careful to emphasise the need to keep the general debate short: I wanted to conclude it in the first two days of the conference. I asked delegations to keep their statements brief and focussed, as I was concerned to avoid an unhelpful political dispute breaking out before we had even begun the substantive work of the Conference, destroying the positive atmosphere and consuming precious time. I got the impression that many States Parties thought that three weeks was more than enough time, but I did my best to persuade them that we could not afford to waste a minute. Indeed, throughout the Conference, my greatest worry was time: I never thought we had enough.

In the event, the general debate did run to schedule. I was grateful to those States Parties who participated, as they overwhelmingly heeded my request for short, focussed statements. This was a promising sign.

As Doru Costea commenced his article-by-article review in the Committee of the Whole, I again began to worry about the time. As agreed, Doru Costea was moving briskly through the articles and I held one or two "cross-cutting" sessions. Despite the fact that arguments had begun in earnest on contentious issues and the key differences among delegations, the atmosphere remained constructive. However, States Parties were generating a huge volume of proposals and text, and it was clear that we risked getting bogged down in a disorganised mass of interlinked and competing proposals. I was faced with a dilemma: my instinct was that the situation called for a text from the Chair, but many delegations were already complaining that the pace was too fast. If I gave them a text, would it be a step too far, too soon? In the end, my concerns about the time constraints won out, and working intensively with the Secretariat, I produced an "outline" text drawn from the proposals made to date. I released this at the end of the first week (hoping that rather than provoking instant heartburn, the weekend might provide an opportunity for calm digestion).

To my relief, the reaction was positive: naturally, everyone complained bitterly about various parts of the content, but all seemed to welcome the text itself. The three-part structure of the procedural report, final declaration, and "decisions and recommendations" was received well, which greatly helped in structuring the rest of the work.

So far so good... Relieved, Doru Costea resumed his work on the article-by-article review, and I began to appoint facilitators to work on text for the decisions and recommendations section, starting with text on the 2003-2005 meetings, universalisation, and the Implementation Support Unit (ISU). As material was developed in the Committee of the Whole during the course of the second week, I added facilitators for national implementation, CBMs, and the 2007-2010 intersessional process. The facilitators reported regularly to my informal plenary meetings, and the system seemed to be working well: text was being fairly rapidly developed and refined.

But now we found ourselves facing two serious problems, one logistical and the other deeply political. The first was how and when to finish the Committee of the Whole. Doru Costea was doing an excellent job, and I was loath to ask him to stop before he was ready (and, formally, to lose his services). But time was pressing, and we needed soon to hand the text over to the Drafting Committee. The second problem was that while work was proceeding very well, under the respective facilitators, on "action plans" for universalisation and for national implementation, a proposal for a third action plan, on Article X implementation, became controversial. The Article X disagreements threatened to pit the NAM against the Western Group, though there was in fact some common ground on the substance of Article X itself. We thus faced the "trench warfare" situation I had feared from the beginning. This needed to be diffused.

I played for time: we would wrap up the Committee of the Whole, the report of which would essentially be another iteration of the Chair's text. We would then assign pieces of the text to different facilitators for further work. Doru Costea could continue his work as a facilitator for several articles. We would not convene the Drafting Committee: Knut Langeland would also work as a facilitator. The text the facilitators developed and cleaned up would be regularly incorporated into revised versions of the Chair's outcome text. This would keep everyone busy, and make the most efficient use of the rapidly diminishing time available. And in the meantime I would look for a solution to the action plan problem.

Such a solution proved difficult to find. The political tension started to mount, manifesting itself in other parts of the text, (bizarrely, it seemed, over questions like the references to the Chemical Weapons Convention and decisions of previous review conferences). It was clear that such disputes would only be settled in the context of an overall deal on the final document. I then felt justified in launching my own proposal to merge the national implementation and Article X action plans into a single plan on "comprehensive implementation of the Convention". This was a genuine attempt to bridge the gap, and certainly had some logic to it: Article X should be implemented along with Article I, Article III, and all the other articles of the BWC. But I was under no illusion as to the prospects for success, especially with the time constraints: after a couple of drafts it was clear that even with the most creative "wordsmithing" the text could not be made more acceptable to one side without becoming less acceptable to the other.

With all the cards now pretty much on the table, and only one day to play with, it was time to cut the final deal. The comprehensive implementation action plan would be dropped, and to preserve mutual honour, the universalisation action plan would not be called an action plan; both national implementation and Article X measures would remain elsewhere in the text. Through the heroic efforts of the facilitators and key delegations, solutions were found for a consensus list of topics for the 2007-2010 intersessional process, CBMs, and the ISU. Following intensive "shuttle mediation" on my part late into the Thursday night, Iran and the United States graciously and prudently accommodated each other's positions, though this required frequent contacts with their capitals. The last outstanding elements in the text were cleaned up "live" on the big screen in the conference room. With just an hour to spare on the final Friday afternoon, we were ready to adopt the final document.

The final gavel was a very satisfying moment. We had reached a momentous agreement, and set the BWC back on course. The result has been criticised in some quarters as not ambitious enough, and some observers have characterised the lack of discussion on verification as "taking the easy way out". I hope this account does something to dispel these perceptions. There are certainly aspects that could have been better: the outcome on CBMs was less than many had hoped, and it would have been a triumph - and a big step towards healing a long-standing rift - if an action plan on "comprehensive implementation" had indeed been agreed. But the outcome we reached should not be underestimated.

The establishment of an Implementation Support Unit is a major step forward, as is the decision on universalisation action. The new intersessional process will build on the success of the previous one, and coupled with the ISU will make a significant difference to the effective implementation of the Convention. Even the modest revisions to the CBM process will play a part, and these can be built on in future. Most importantly, the RevCon successfully conducted a full-fledged article-by-article review after a gap of ten years. The "interregnum" was removed.

If I were to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of my Presidency, I would say we made good progress in four areas:

(a) banishing the word "failure"; putting success on the table; defining what success was in the particular circumstances, and then delivering it;

(b) fostering good interpersonal chemistry among negotiators and encouraging them to hold meetings in their respective capitals;

(c) consulting with civil society representatives on a regular basis; and

(d) efficient and effective conference management.

Our weakest point was the media. Perhaps because it concluded successfully, the coverage of the RevCon was meagre and even the UN media did not find the story sufficiently interesting, despite the fact that multilateral diplomacy on security and disarmament issues has been buffeted with failures for years. The BWC RevCon was the first concrete breakthrough, and yet reporting on it remained lukewarm and sporadic at best. With greater effort, I think, we could have created more awareness about the BWC and its review process.

Another plus point: this was a considerate and user-friendly conference. No late night sessions, no red, blood-shot eyes, no flared tempers, no breakdowns - logistical or substantive. What was the critical ingredient in all of this? My answer: good preparation, a very mature cast of negotiators and a highly professional and efficient Secretariat. And was there a silver bullet? Yes, the agreement between the US and Iran on the last day, without which the RevCon could have unravelled.

I am confident that the agreements reached at the Sixth Review Conference have the potential to make a significant contribution to reducing the risks posed by biological weapons worldwide, and I am grateful to all those - States Parties, civil society and international organisations - that played their parts constructively in achieving this outcome. The challenge now is to convert these agreements into action, and here, as I said throughout the conference, there is no time to lose.

Ambassador Masood Khan, Pakistan's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, was the President of the Sixth Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which was held in Geneva from November 20 to December 8, 2006.

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