Workshop in preparation for the Eighth Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference

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On 19–20 September, ILPI, in cooperation with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit, organised a two-day workshop for Geneva-based diplomats on the science and politics of biological weapons and biology-related security issues.

By Daniel Frederik Mandrella

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which entered into force on 26 March 1975, is the main international legal instrument addressing biological weapons. Its provisions include a total ban of the development, production, and stockpiling of all biological weapons. While the prohibition itself is total, the Convention suffers from not having a formal verification mechanism confirming compliance. In addition, 21st century scientific and technological developments, including the emergence of ‘synthetic biology’ and genetic-engineering techniques such as CRISPR, have brought to the fore the increasing interconnection between international security and science and technology. When the States Parties meet for the Eighth Review Conference of the BWC starting on 7 November 2016, they will have to take stock of these developments. On the one hand, the States Parties must ensure that advances in science and technology do not undermine national or human security. On the other hand, they must make sure that scientific progress is not held back by overly restrictive security stipulations.

As part of its on-going Weapons of Mass Destruction project funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ILPI, together with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the BWC Implementation Support Unit, organised a two-day workshop in Geneva on 19 and 20 September 2016 for diplomats and delegates. The aim of the seminar was to give practitioners insight into the science and politics of biological weapons, so as to prepare them for the upcoming negotiations. The first day of the workshop, hosted by GCSP in the Maison de la Paix in Geneva, included panel discussions and presentations by distinguished scientists, outlining recent developments in science and technology, as well as the possible security implications that might arise from those developments. Afterwards, the workshop moved on to discuss practical matters of the negotiation process, ending with a panel discussion featuring Ambassadors Tehmina Janjua from Pakistan and Beatriz Londoño Soto from Colombia.

On the second day of the workshop, the delegates were taken to the Spiez Laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland, the official Swiss institute for protection against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. There, Spiez scientists gave insights into next-generation sequencing technology and other recent advances in the biological sciences, detailing the laboratory’s contributions to global health and biological weapons arms control. The visit ended with a tour of the facilities including the bio-containment laboratory that is certified to handle contagious pathogens of the highest risk groups. The visit to the laboratory provided valuable insights into the practicalities of bio-preparedness and biological weapons arms control, as well as the complex relationship between scientific advances and national and international security.