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U.S. Statement at the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)
December 9, 2013

Meeting of the States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention

Statement by Christopher Buck, Head of Delegation
United States of America

December 9, 2013


Madam Chairman, distinguished delegates, colleagues:

We are assembled here this week for an important purpose:  to seek common understanding and effective action to strengthen the implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention.  That is not, of course, a task accomplished in one or two simple steps.  It involves diplomatic work here in Geneva and elsewhere, but it also involves efforts by other communities:  by legislators, law enforcement professionals, public health experts, export licensing and customs officials, and the research community, for example.  It is a broad-ranging effort, and progress is sometimes slow and incremental.  That means that it is also sometimes frustrating — but it is vitally important work that needs doing, and my delegation is committed to supporting you, Madame Chairman, and working with other delegations to take practical steps to advance our common goal.

The work conducted in a number of offensive biological weapons programs in the last century amply demonstrated the devastating potential of biological warfare.  That potential has grown with the scientific advances of the last forty years, reaffirming the wisdom of our predecessors when they agreed in 1972 to ban these weapons absolutely.  But the world has changed since then, and the problem is more complex than it once was:  technological advances, broader access, and lower costs have put biological weapons within reach of a much wider array of individuals and groups—and some of those individuals and groups have already demonstrated their intent to acquire and use these indiscriminate weapons.

This Convention focuses on the threat of deliberate acquisition and use of disease as a weapon.  But we must remain mindful that the disease threats most countries face most of the time are natural in origin.  In an increasingly interconnected world, those outbreaks also pose a threat to health, the global economy, and our security.  Indeed, today’s health security threats arise from at least five sources:

  • The threat of acquisition or use of biological weapons by States or non-State actors;
  • The risks posed by advances in biological science capabilities, which have incredible beneficial potential, but also pose risks related to accidental release or deliberate misuse;
  • The emergence and spread of drug-resistant pathogens;
  • The vulnerabilities created by the globalization of both travel and the food supply; and
  • The emergence of new pathogens.

I am not suggesting that there is no difference between a deliberate and a natural disease outbreak.  Nor am I suggesting that we should seek, in this forum, to take on tasks that would duplicate the work of the World Health Organization (WHO).   But I do wish to reaffirm the value of recognizing this nexus between health and security interests.   Wherever possible, we should aim to promote actions that will help States Parties to address threats and vulnerabilities regardless of the origin of an outbreak:  they will be needed in the event of an attack, but they will be sustained because they also make a contribution to public health.  My delegation does not agree that there is a need to define which types of cooperation are “relevant” to the BWC and which are not.  It seems clear to us that this nexus of health and security interests means there is a broad area of cooperation that is both directly relevant to the security aims of the Convention and to the undertakings set out in Article X.  This is important cooperation that can significantly and measurably reduce the risks posed to the interests of BWC States Parties.

Madam Chairman,

I’ve said that this is important, but difficult, work, and tried to explain, at least in part, why we believe that is so.   But another important question is how we should go about it.  We need to adapt our approaches to the new paradigm created by the 7th RevCon, which allows for iterative discussion of the same topics from one year to the next.   We have not yet grappled with this issue, but it is crucial to our future work.

First, we should seek to achieve greater convergence, building on understandings that have been reached in the past to add clarifying detail or address new issues.  If we agreed on something last year, then  we should seek to build on that understanding rather than simply reaffirming it, focusing our energy and efforts on new substance and greater articulation of the outputs we seek.   In this process, we should also strive for specificity:  “constructive ambiguity” is a popular term among diplomats, but it is much less popular with those who have to implement the decisions.  So we should aim to be concrete and specific in describing our shared understandings, or they are unlikely to result in effective action.  With this as our premise, my delegation is of the view that, if we can only agree on generalities or recourse to previously agreed language, then a substantive report will not provide a useful return on our collective investment of time and effort, and we should therefore rely on a factual summary prepared by the Chairman.

The report, however, is only one tool to advance common understanding and effective action.  The interactions we have as delegates over the course of this week, and the collaborations we pursue over the coming year, also contribute, albeit in a more ad-hoc manner.  But we should also give thought to the end of the intersessional period and the 8th Review Conference.  Should we work toward a report at the end of the intersessional period that makes specific, consensus recommendations to the RevCon, as was advocated by the U.S. and many others at the last RevCon?  If not, how do we see the momentum generated by four years of discussion being carried forward?

I’m not certain it is realistic to expect an answer to that question this week – but I hope we discuss it, because we are halfway through the intersessional period, and my delegation believes that we need to begin focusing on what comes next.