Outcomes Related to the 7th Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
MR. VENTRELL: Hi, everyone. This is Patrick from the Press Office. Today we have with us Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Affairs Mr. Thomas Countryman. He’s going to conduct an on-the-record session today to discuss outcomes related to the 7th Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention Review Conference which concluded in Geneva, Switzerland yesterday. After his initial opening remarks, he will take questions.
And so without further ado, I’m going to turn it over to the assistant secretary.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Thank you, Patrick, and good afternoon, everyone. The United States is pleased with the outcome of the 7th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention that was adopted yesterday in Geneva. The final document adopted a program for what we call the intercessional period, the next five years before the next review conference, that will focus on three major topics: first, strengthening implementation of the convention, that is, the implementation legally and practically by each of the states party; second, a regular and systematic review of scientific and technological developments in the life sciences relevant to the convention; and third, continuing to build capacity to deal with disease outbreaks, including capacity building in bio-safety, bio-security, disease surveillance, preparedness, and response.
These are the three areas that the United States emphasized when Secretary Clinton spoke to the conference on December 7th, and we’re pleased, of course, that they are the focus of the final document. They were adopted not because the United States pushed them but because we selected the topics that it is clear the majority of states party agree are essential for future development. These are the very topics at the intersection of public health and international security that will help all the nations of the world confront some serious challenges in the years ahead. And so we are happy to see that these are the primary focus of the intercessional period.
Throughout the convention, the review conference, and throughout the period leading up to it, the United States consulted closely with countries around the world, not only our closest allies but many in the non-aligned movement as well, in order to get to this consensus document. We set a positive tone throughout the conference, of course highlighted by the Secretary’s speech in Geneva on December 7th. And afterward, the delegation led by Ambassador Laura Kennedy did an absolutely outstanding job of both listening to the concerns of our partners and putting forward a positive agenda that has resulted in consensus.
So we are happy with the results. We think they are significant for not only the United States as we move ahead on advancing the President’s national strategy for countering biological threats, but that they have the same value for all of our partners around the world who share this concern about potential biological and toxic threats.
And with that, I’d be happy to take some questions.
MR. VENTRELL: Operator, can we go ahead and see if there are questions?
OPERATOR: Thank you. We will now begin the question-and-answer session. If you would like to ask a question, please press *1 and record your name. One moment, please, for the first question.
Our first question comes from Daniel Horner with Arms Control Today.
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Ambassador. Thank you for doing the call. I had a couple questions. First, before the conference, there was quite a lot of discussion about expanding the mandate of the intercessional process to give it more power to make some decisions. And as I understand it, that wasn’t part of the final document. And then also, there’s been a lot of discussion about the implementation support unit, expanding that, increasing staff and so on. And my understanding was that didn’t really happen either. Can you give some details on those elements, please?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Yeah, thank you, Daniel. The United States, like many other delegations, favored both a modest expansion of the implementation support unit – and to remind others who are new, this is a very lean treaty. There is a unit of only three people tasked with implementing the intercessional work of this convention. We favored a modest expansion of that number. In today’s financial environment, even that modest expansion was not acceptable to some members, some states’ party, and so that expansion did not make it into the consensus document.
On the question of decision-making in the intercessional process, again, we favored a very modest innovation that would allow decisions to be taken still only by consensus, as in the review conference itself, so that the convention and the process could be a little bit more nimble. Again, there were concerns expressed by some other states about the implications of allowing even a limited range of decisions to be made in the intercessional process, and so that was not adopted. Still, I think that these are modality issues rather than issues of substance, and it doesn’t change our assessment that we’re satisfied with this outcome.
OPERATOR: Once again, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1.
One moment for the next question.
Next question comes from Nicole Gaouette with Bloomberg News.
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Ambassador. Thanks for doing this. You’ve mentioned that one of the priorities is going to be building capacity to deal with disease outbreaks. Were there any specifics – specific plans or goals that you set out? And if so, could you share?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: No. The final document of the review conference does not go into that kind of detail in terms of setting goals. Rather, what it does is identifies the topics that will be covered by the meetings of expert groups and the meetings of state parties that take place each of the next five years. So the goal is expressed only in general terms of building capacity to deal with disease outbreaks, including those potentially due to use of biological weapons – in other words to cover natural outbreaks as well as intentional attacks, since you need the same response mechanism for both. And these will include such topics as biosafety, biosecurity, preparedness, surveillance, response, and crisis management.
Now, so the specifics are not covered in the final document, but of course the United States has a well established set of programs through a number of different agencies. From the State Department and my bureau, we have the Biosecurity Engagement Program. We have similar initiatives, each with a slightly different focus from Health and Human Services, from the National Institutes of Health, from the Center for Disease Control, from the Department of Defense, from USAID, all with a common goal of enhancing public health, and each of which touches in some way on this issue.
So we have very well developed programs of – for example, disease surveillance and disease containment that are already active around the world. The BWC RevCon has proven – or the BWC itself has proven to be a unique tool – a multidimensional, multinational tool – that can bring together in this annual conferences not just diplomats but also scientists, public health officials, law enforcement officials, those who will have the very challenging job at this nexus of public health of public security in case we ever face such an emergency.
So to make it shorter, the document doesn’t do that kind of detail, but the United States, like many other countries, has very detailed and developed programs that we will continue to implement.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Question comes from Daniel Horner with Arms Control Today.
QUESTION: Hi. Yeah. A couple other questions, if I could. First of all, in her remarks, Secretary Clinton talked about bolstering international confidence. As you mentioned, that’ll be one of the topics for the intercessional process. But were there any concrete commitments by the parties to do that, to increase transparency and so on, by the United States or any other parties?
And then secondly, with regard to the previous question I asked, you said you had favored some very modest changes, which weren’t adopted. Can you talk a little bit about why those changes weren’t adopted, given that they were rather modest, as you characterized them? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: On the first question, one of the things you’ll see in this 40-page final document is that the conference acknowledged the need to enhance state parties participation in confidence-building measure submissions. Each of the states parties should submit an annual report talking about its biological activities. In practice, it’s only about half the states party that do so on a regular basis. And so increasing the participation rate and making the information that’s submitted more relevant, more valuable to other states, was a good topic of discuss and one that will continue in the intersessional process.
QUESTION: Pardon me. If I could just follow on that. It’s basically calling for greater adherence to a commitment that was previously made, right? There’s not any new commitment on transparency or anything related to conference-building and a verification or anything along those lines?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Yeah. I think that’s a fair statement, but with a couple of comments. One that the intersessional process will look at the question, can we make the prescribed format for these confidence-building measures more informative, more useful, and less onerous so that they are filled more frequently.
The other comment is that, very much a part of the Secretary’s speech on December 7th, and what we stressed repeatedly throughout the conference, is that all nations can make greater efforts in transparency that go beyond the requirements of the Convention. The United States is trying to set an example in this regard. So for example on the sidelines of the conference we did a number of public events that talked about our bio-preparedness program at home – how we manage it, that talked about the kind of assistance we do with many countries around the world. We demonstrated with a interactive display how the United States posts online its annual report to the BWC. It’s not required to make these documents public, but we think it sets a good example for not only other countries but the public to have access to the information that we report. And I think this was well-received.
Although, there’s no new specific requirement on transparency as a means to build confidence and national implementation. There’s no new specific requirement, but I think it’s the trend, and I think there is growing support among the states party to demonstrate that kind of transparency. We’ll continue to try to be one of the leaders in that field.
And I’m sorry. You’re other question was about very modest changes. The – it’s hard to say exactly why. I mean, the easy answer is because it’s a consensus-based organization, and that means if a few people feel strongly enough about it, they can prevent this change being made. I think on the – and so even for the modest budget increase that would be required to expand the size of the ISU, this was a legitimate concern for countries that are feeling financial pressure these days. On the question of decision-making, again, we don’t think it was a radical change, because the principle of consensus would still be protected. But again, for some smaller countries, it might have meant that the – they would have to send representatives to every, single meeting, because there would always be the potential of a decision being made.
That’s the argument we heard. I think there were other arguments with less validity against these two ideas. But I think in the end, it is concerns about budget that prevented what we thought were modest and very beneficial steps forward from being taken. But once again, we do not let that detract from our satisfaction with the result on the substance.
MR. VENTRELL: Do we have any other questions in queue?
OPERATOR: No further questions.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay, everyone. Happy holidays to all of you, and thanks, Assistant Secretary for the briefing.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Okay. Thanks to all of you. I hope you have a great holiday.