BWC Workshop in Geneva

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On 11–12 December 2015, ILPI’s WMD project organised a workshop on building a global civil society coalition to strengthen the BWC in GenevaUntitled

By Ingrid Marie Dybvig and Magnus Løvold
19 January 2016

The meeting was organised in collaboration with Chatham House, King’s College London (KCL), and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).  20–30 representatives from a variety of civil society organizations, research institutions, international organizations and a select group of states attended the meeting.

The meeting was aimed at supporting and strengthening the BWC by initiating discussions on:

  • the potential for an enhanced role for civil society organizations to the 2016 Eighth Review Conference and to the BWC more generally,
  • ways in which civil society actors can collectively organise more effectively to maximise their contributions and advance a shared agenda, and
  • next steps and strategies to mobilise resources.

Summary of the discussions

Several participants highlighted that civil society has an important role to play to uphold the norm against the weaponization of disease and to ensure the fulfillment of the aims of the BWC. Many participants also expressed the view that civil society has contributed to some of the most important achievements in disarmament in recent years, and that civil society has a special role to play in holding States Parties accountable to the public. Yet, several participants expressed the view that civil society is not organizing as efficiently in the field of biological weapons as in other disarmament and arms control fields. Participants also suggested that civil society engagement in the field of biological weapons is marked by significantly less enthusiasm and energy than in related fields, where civil society has taken on a more active role.

The workshop began by going through some of the civil society developments in the field of biological weapons since negotiations on a BWC Protocol broke down in 2001. Many participants referred to the Biological Weapons Prevention Project (BWPP) and the BioWeapons Report (later BioWeapons Monitor)—both established as a response to the failed efforts to strengthen the BWC through a legally binding protocol. It was pointed out that the sense of enthusiasm generated during the first years of the BWPP had since been waning, and that the future direction of the BWPP is currently unclear. Several participants pointed to the absence of a clear rationale and actionable objectives as the main reason for this loss of momentum, while other participants pointed to other factors, such as lack of funding and leadership.

The subsequent sessions looked at how civil society had organised themselves in other fields, and aimed to identify experiences and lessons learned for how civil society can successfully make an impact in the field of biological weapons. It was pointed out that civil society engagement with other arms and disarmament issues, including nuclear weapons, anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, and autonomous weapons could provide a useful model for future civil society organization in the field of biological weapons. According to one analysis, successful civil society campaign coalitions have five core characteristics: (1) A common call for change; (2) a shared identity; (3) a membership; (4) a leadership; and (5) a joint plan or strategy. The relatively young age of people involved in the campaigns noted above, as compared with most civil society actors currently engaged in the field of biological weapons, was noted.

While some workshop participants were worried about the potentially adverse effects of turning complex and technical issues into simple campaign messages, others argued that at least some international campaign coalitions had in fact built upon and therefore managed to reinforce the perspectives of scientific and technical experts. Some participants pointed out that the most successful campaign coalitions were those that managed to challenge and change the dominant discourse by introducing new evidence demonstrating the unacceptable nature of the weapons in question. In this context, several participants pointed out that the Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity (BWH) project of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provided an attempt at changing the predominantly security-based BWC discourse.

Suggested action points
The breakout groups and final sessions aimed to identify practical action points for civil society in order to strengthen/uphold the norm against biological weapons in the run-up to the 2016 Review Conference of the BWC. The suggestions included:

  • Establish a new civil society coalition in the biological weapons field. Participants suggested a number of advocacy/public outreach objectives for such a coalition, including (1) increase transparency in biodefense; (2) full participation for civil society in the meetings of the BWC; (3) a mechanism to investigate violations of the BWC; (4) an expanded BWC Implementation Support Unit; (5) education and awareness raising; (6) engagement of the scientific community through the motto “no scientist left behind”.
  • Build upon and expand the BioWeapons Monitor produced by BWPP since 2010. Several participants called for more advocacy-oriented monitoring with, for example, public ratings of states’ compliance with the BWC and an updated biological weapons risk analysis.
  • Design and initiate a process among interested and relevant civil society actors to arrive at a common call for change in the field of biological weapons and a common set of criteria for success at the 2016 Review Conference of the BWC. Participants suggested a number of ways such a process could be designed.
  • Intensify civil society fundraising efforts in the run-up to the 2016 Review Conference of the BWC. Participants identified a number of potential donors, including (mainly European) states, foundations, and industry actors.

The workshop demonstrated that it is possible to move discussions about civil society’s role in the field of biological weapons in a more constructive and action-oriented direction. It also showed that actors within the biological weapons community are open to the ideas and suggestions of actors from other fields, and that actors not previously exposed to this issue can be interested in further engaging with the issue of biological weapons. Most importantly, the discussions at the workshop indicated that it is both possible and desirable to contribute to the establishment of a new global civil society coalition in the field of biological weapons.

Relevant legal documents
The Biological Weapons Convention
The scope, strengths, and weaknesses of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)