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Preview of the Review Conference for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)

Thomas Countryman
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
December 1, 2011


MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Our briefer today is Ambassador Thomas Countryman. He is the Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation at the Department of State, and he is going to provide a preview of the Review Conference for the Biological Weapons Convention next week in Geneva, Switzerland. He will begin with opening statements and then we will open up the floor to questions, and I will provide instructions once we finish the opening remarks.

Mr. Ambassador, the floor is yours.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Thank you, Saul, for this opportunity. Thank you all for coming today, and for giving me the chance to say a few words about why the meeting that begins next week in Geneva, the Review Conference of the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, is important to international security.

President Obama, in his speech in Prague two years ago, outlined a vision of the world that would be more secure for nations and for individuals, a vision of the world in which the threat of nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, would be greatly reduced. And although nuclear weapons perhaps get the most attention, a key part of our Administration’s policy has been to ensure that we continue to use all the existing tools to reduce the threat from all weapons of mass destruction. And in this regard, continued adherence, expanded membership, and strengthened implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention is key.

The world has changed a lot since the Biological Weapons Convention was signed back in 1972. Most importantly, the convention has been overwhelmingly successful in establishing a global norm against the production and use of biological weapons. At the same time, the threat has shifted. Back in 1972, the main threat was from national programs in which states sought to develop biological weapons. Now today, it’s still possible that a state may seek to develop and use a biological weapon against its adversaries, but today we are increasingly concerned that the real threat comes from terrorists and non-state actors, and we had a dramatic demonstration of this 10 years ago in this city, in the case of the anthrax attacks that occurred here.

At the same time, the technology and the knowledge in the life sciences is advancing so rapidly that there are greater opportunities for misuse of this technology. In preparing for the conference that opens next week, we’ve consulted widely and we have listened to our partners, not only in the international community, not only among diplomats and arms control specialists, but also to the scientific community, the business community, and to others who have a crucial stake in the safe development of the life sciences. And so we will seek to bring specific ideas to the Review Conference to increase the effectiveness of the convention.

Now, our overall goals are well-described in President Obama’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, which was released two years ago. That strategy has a clear, overarching goal for the United States: To protect against the misuse of science to develop or use biological agents to cause harms. Now, the advances in the life science since that time are overwhelmingly positive, giving greater hope for the health and prosperity of the world’s population. And while we embrace that progress, we need to take steps to minimize the risks that could be posed by potential misuse of that technology.

These goals from our national strategy are what inform our approach to the BWC Review Conference this month. We want to see that Review Conference move our collective efforts forward, and to see the convention, and the steps that countries take to adhere to the convention, continue to adapt to this wide range of biological threats that we may face in this coming century.

If I could take a moment to emphasize what the United States has done in the international arena, in order to adhere to our commitments and to realize the goals established by the Biological Convention – Biological Weapons Convention.

First, we have a strong record on providing targeted and sustainable international assistance to build capacities in all countries to detect and respond to an outbreak of disease, regardless of whether the cause is intentional, or accidental, or purely natural, and to seek to break down barriers to international responses. Within the Department of State, just the bureau that I head, International Security and Nonproliferation, in the last year has worked with more than 44 countries around the world to build their capacity to respond to these threats. In addition, we coordinate across the U.S. Government related efforts by Health and Human Services, by the Agency for International Development, the Center for Diseases – Disease Control, and the Department of Defense, to assist other nations in this regard.

Second, we have promoted use of the intersessional process – that is, the time between each RevCon every five years – and made it more effective. We have worked with partners to bring together not only diplomats, not only arms control specialists, but also national security, law enforcement, public health, scientific and academic communities, and the private sector, as well as intergovernmental organizations, including the World Health Organization, Food and Agricultural Organization, and others that previously had not worked together on this topic, but who share a common stake in the prompt response to any biological threat that can appear.

We seek to continue this trend, to build upon these past intersessional processes, so that the BWC continues to be the premier forum for international and intersectoral information exchange, coordination, and cooperation. And we’d like to see this Review Conference set goals for the next intersessional process to increase the level of interaction among experts and to look for more concrete results in such discussions. It is not an exaggeration to say that the most important work of the Biological Weapons Convention is not what occurs every five years in the Review Conference, but rather the ever more intensive exchange of ideas and cooperation that occurs in the intersessional process.

Next week, as the conference begins, Secretary Clinton will be in Geneva to address our – to make our national address and to make specific proposals in three areas that we see as key. These are, specifically, health and security – how we can increase the capability of countries around the world to detect and to respond to the outbreak of disease, and how we cooperate to counter such an occurrence. Secondly, in science and technology, to take account of the very rapid pace of technological development in this field to ensure that we’re doing everything possible to build up a conscious culture of responsibility in the scientific and industrial community that ensures and prevents the misuse of such technology. And third, we’ll present specific ideas on strengthening the implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention. 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, not only to refrain from such programs themselves but to take steps to ensure that there are no sub-national actors on their territory that can develop these kind of weapons.

What was stated in the Biological Weapons Convention preamble back in 1972 remains true today, that the use of such weapons would be repugnant to the conscience of mankind. This is our effort – as we have every five years – to ensure that we haven’t lost that moral judgment and that we are taking every anticipated step that we can in order to ensure that we keep the world safe from the misuse of such weapons.

And with that, I’d be happy to take some questions.

MODERATOR: All right. Before making your question, please wait for one of my colleagues to give you the microphone, and provide your name and affiliation.

Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. Elaine Grossman with Global Security Newswire and the National Journal Group. Thank you for that presentation. A couple of questions. One is: Will this be the first time that a U.S. Secretary of State has addressed one of these five-year review conferences for the BWC? And second, could you address what critics are saying – and when I say critics I mean even to include experts in the bio-defense community who would otherwise be quite friendly to the administrations of the – I’m sorry – the policies that the Obama Administration has laid out, critics who are saying that the U.S. could have – in the past couple of years since laying out that strategy – could have done so much more to push implementation, even here at home, to increase transparency in the U.S. life sciences community and to promote these objectives abroad?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Okay. On the first question, yes, this is the first time that the Secretary of State will participate in the review conference of the BWC. On the second question, I believe there is always more that we can do. We take seriously and listen to those who have criticism and suggestions, whether within the U.S. or overseas about what more we can do. We take seriously the fact that the United States needs to set an example for itself and for the rest of the world in implementation of this and other arms control and nonproliferations agreements, and we always seek to do so, and I welcome any such idea, any such suggestions.

At the same time, I think we have a positive record. I do think that we are leading the world in terms of posting, for example, our reports on compliance with the convention in a public way. The convention does not require that the documents that report our compliance be public documents. They are rather shared with other states’ parties, confidentially. But we took the decision that ours should be public and should be subject to inspection, to questioning by other nations. We hope others have done the same thing. We hope to see that become the norm rather than the exception among states’ parties. So I think we have a strong record on implementation. We can always do more and we look forward to receiving ideas on what more the 163 members states party to the convention can do.

MODERATOR: I’ll take our next question from this side, please.

QUESTION: Yes. I am Ana Baron from Clarin, Argentina. I know you were in Buenos Aires recently on the frame of this review. I wanted to know a little bit about the visit went, who did you see and all that. And also, as you know, there have been some signals that Argentina is changing with respect to Iran. There’s been some kind of openness. So I would like to know if that was discussed during your stay there and if there is some kind of concern about that. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Well, thank you very much. I was in Argentina two weeks ago, the first opportunity I’ve ever had to visit, and it was beautiful. It was a beautiful spring day. And I appreciated the opportunity to meet with the deputy, the vice foreign minister – and you’ll help me with the names – Mr. D’Alotto?

QUESTION: D’Alotto, yes.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Right. And with the under secretary, it’s Ms. Nascimbene, is that correct?

QUESTION: That’s correct.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Thank you. And the trip was very specifically in connection with the Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference. As I said, we have made an effort across the world to consult with all parties. It’s not literally possible to consult with every party, but we have made an effort to reach out to states from every geographical region to ensure that we’ve listened to their ideas for the conference and to present our own ideas for the conference. Because Argentina played a very positive role in reaching the consensus that was achieved at the last conference five years ago, I wanted to make sure that this was a trip that I did myself. And I think the results are positive. I think that we will – we have a good understanding across many different groups – many different regional groups, that is – of what we hope to accomplish, and I think the results will show themselves.

The other part of your question does not have to do with the Biological Weapons Convention, but because my trip occurred at the same time that the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors was considering the latest report from the Director General on possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, we, of course, discussed that. And we were glad to see Argentina, along with 32 of the 35 members of the Board of Governors, join in endorsing this Director General’s Report and demanding yet again that Iran cooperate fully with the IAEA. So not only a lovely trip, but I think one where we listened very well to each other.

QUESTION: So there were no difference from your (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: No. I would not say there are differences. I think we share a common objective of seeing Iran end any doubts about its programs and make clear that it cannot – will not – pursue nuclear weapons. We are in agreement on that point.

QUESTION: And in others? Because it was said – sorry – it was said that the Argentina, there was this kind of a triangle with Venezuela concerning buying arms to Iran and all that. So that’s why – are you concerned at all about that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Not very. No. I think that Argentina has been a solid partner in honoring United Nations Security Council resolutions and in preventing the dangerous proliferation of materials that are related to weapons of mass destruction. So we talk about those things, but I’m not concerned.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Are there any additional questions?

QUESTION: Hi. Dan Horner from Arms Control Today. I had a couple questions as well. First, 10 years ago the U.S. essentially stopped the discussions on a verification protocol and has not indicated an interest in resuming them. But other countries, including some of the U.S. allies, have said that there needs to be some work on that in some form. So are you planning anything to respond to that, or are the transparency measures you mention – that will constitute your response to that request or that pressure?

And second question, I guess, is somewhat on process. You mentioned the need to get consensus, but given what’s going on internationally, and particularly what’s gone on with regard to the Chemical Weapons Convention in the last two weeks, would you be willing to take decisions without consensus? And how would you handle situations where one or two countries are preventing a consensus. Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Okay. You’re not just a good expert on arms control, you’re a good journalist, and you’re looking for areas of conflict, which is appropriate. I have to say that, compared to many other international meetings I’ve been involved with, I see a far greater landscape of consensus and cooperation at this meeting in Geneva than I see for conflict. I think the differences of opinion, while they matter and while they may be deeply felt, do not amount to the kind of head-on conflict that can be dangerous in other international meetings. And for that reason, I’ll take the second part of your question, non-consensus outcomes, as hypothetical and decline to answer it.

On the first part, it is a good question. It is well established in arms control agreements that there needs to be verification of some sort. We have it in technological areas, nuclear weapons, and chemical weapons that are very different from biological weapons, and it’s understandable that there would be a desire to see the same thing in the Biological Weapons Convention. We understand that, 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. And it has been the conclusion, not just of the Bush Administration but of the Obama Administration, after a careful up-and-down review of the issue, that a traditional verification mechanism, as employed in other arms control agreements, would not have the desired effect of strengthening the convention when it comes to biological weapons. That remains our position. It remains our belief that not only increased transparency, additional confidence-building measures – 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.

MODERATOR: Are there any other questions?

QUESTION: Could I just ask you to elaborate on that last bit? What other measures are you looking at that could be a stand-in, at least at this time, for more comprehensive verification regimes?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: First, I don’t look at them as a stand-in. What we need to do is to assess the goals of the treaty and to ask ourselves the hard questions. Not ask ourselves, “What have we done in another treaty, in another context, in a branch of science that requires a far greater concentration of both physical technology and of scientific know-how than biological weapons requires -- ” don’t use those as a basis for a comparison. Rather, ask ourselves, “In the real world, with the possibilities inherent in the life sciences for the creation of biological weapons, what can we do to increase confidence among parties?” I’ve mentioned that already – our own transparency, our own efforts to bring, for example, to the United States, to our research facilities, not only the small, international staff associated with the BWC, but other nations as well to see exactly what research we do.

To come at it from another way, we have to ask ourselves different questions. For traditional arms control verification, whether nuclear or chemical, it required a few things. First, you have to be able to define what facilities, what locations, or activities or items you are specifically concerned about. Secondly, you need to have some objective indicators that would tell you whether or not a proscribed activity is taking place. And third, it has to be feasible to give access to that limited number of facilities in – with a mechanism that enables people to verify whether or not such an activity is taking place.

There’s a problem with biological weapons, that all three of those basic issues cannot be met. 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. So you can’t identify the facilities that would need to be verified. It’s very difficult to identify the activities that are objectionable or potentially proscribed. They’re simply – 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.

And third, 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. We have well-established verification mechanisms for the Nonproliferation Treaty and for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And the United States is a foremost advocate of using those verification mechanisms and making them stronger. And our whole issue between the IAEA and Iran is the intention and capability of Iran to frustrate and to deceive those verification mechanisms. So we do not have any ideological objection, we do not have a practical objection, a national objection to a verification mechanism. We have a decided bias in favor of something that works.

MODERATOR: Final question.

QUESTION: Dan Horner again. You mentioned the work being – the importance of the work being done in between sessions. Could you say a little bit more about what you’re planning to do with regard to the intersessional process, and in particular, what your thoughts are about the implementation support unit – possibly expanding it or making it permanent, as has been discussed in some proposals? Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: The second question is easier. The Biological Weapons Convention is unique in that it has a support unit composed of only three employees. It’s a model of efficiency for any national or international organization. We think because of the importance of the work that’s being done between sessions that we will be completely open to any proposals for expanding the unit. We, like the other states party, have financial constraints, but we think that the money spent on this small staff has been well spent, and we’re open to an expansion of that staff.

On the first question, can we say something about what else we do in the intersessional? Is that --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Yeah. First, I think there will be discussions that, again, may be bounded by budget constraints about how often people should get together and talk. We think there’s room for more frequent interaction, and in particular, more frequent meetings of specific experts. You don’t need somebody like me at every discussion. You need someone who is an expert in the life sciences, in emergency response, in public health, for specific experts discussions in each of those categories. And we would hope to see a more ambitious agenda of such a – on such topics during the intersessional process.

Second, we think it can be more interactive. Some folks love to go to Geneva. Others, not so much. The wonders of modern technology make it possible for more rapid interaction and exchange of information through electronic means than previously, and we should take advantage of this if we hope to keep up with the advances in the life sciences themselves.

And third, we should think a little bit about getting more results-oriented. What do we want to see in terms of recommendations or ideas that come out of the intersessional and are reported back to the intergovernmental process and the review conference. So I hope that Secretary Clinton and the delegation can propose some specific ideas in this regard next week.

MODERATOR: Mr. Ambassador, we have a question from our colleagues at the New York Foreign Press Center. New York, go ahead with your question.

QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon, sir. This is Shehabuddin Kisslu from Bangla News 24. As you mentioned earlier about the nonproliferation treaties – and I’d really like to know about your thoughts on India and Pakistan, that they are having the tense situation there, and they didn’t sign the CTBT. And the second part is how (inaudible) for the least and developing countries – least developing countries and the developing countries. How much will (inaudible) some of these threats in coming century?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Okay. Thank you. The first question is a good one, but goes beyond today’s topic. I’ll say just very briefly that the United States believes that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is valuable for the goals of reducing the threat of nuclear weapons, and we look forward to the day that it is possible for all countries to sign and ratify it.

On the second question, the importance of the Biological Weapons Convention to less developed countries, if I’ve understood your question correctly, there’s a couple of very important points. First, if we experience an outbreak of a dangerous, virulent disease anywhere in the world, we will not know, at the first moment, whether it was the result of a terrorist attack, of an accident, or, as we have seen in several cases in recent years, a natural transmission from the nonhuman environment into human society of a new virus or a new microbe.

We won’t know that right away, and it’s not the first question we should answer. Rather, the first thing we need to do is to take immediate action to identify the organism we’re dealing with and to begin to fight it, to begin to provide health services to those who are most directly affected.

Now, you’ll note that in especially these cases in which an organism of some sort has gone from the natural environment into the human environment, it has been lesser developed countries that have been disproportionately affected by such diseases, whether they’re the Ebola virus or Swine Flu or Avian Flu that have caused us concern.

So while some of the less developed countries may not have the same capability and the same immediate ability to develop measures, they have, in fact, been enthusiastic participants in the intersessional process that has helped them to realize that even if they don’t face an enemy who may use biological weapons against them, they have an obligation to provide biological security to their citizens. And they’re eager for the help and the cooperation that we give. And again, the largest part of our spending in helping nations to develop response capabilities, and in general, to develop bio-security plans is spent in the developing world. And that will continue to be our priority.

QUESTION: I mean, just a supplement, sir, do you mean any awareness program that will be adopted in the review convention? Any awareness program like for those less developed countries that are not able to protect themselves by (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: I think it’s all about awareness, and it’s something that we preach whenever we can, is at every level, we need to build awareness within the United States, not just in the scientific and academic community, but among the general public about the importance of preparedness for biological outbreaks.

We have to do the same in terms of building awareness between countries that national governments can cooperate in this field. And yes, there is certainly a need to develop awareness campaigns in lesser-developed countries, and that is part of the biosecurity engagement program that the Department of State manages.

Thank you very much for your attention. I hope it’s been useful to you.

MODERATOR: Thank you all very much.

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