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Summary: I attended the recent Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) meetings in Geneva as an observer. My overall take is that (perhaps unsurprisingly) the BWC is dysfunctional and slow and not very useful in preventing biorisk. I also hand-wave about whether paying for people to visit the BWC is cost-effective.

What Happened

You can read helpful summaries of each day’s meetings written by a civil society disarmament expert, and there are also complete recordings on UN TV. If you just want to hear my overall analysis, you can skip to the next section.

The first week comprised the Working Group on Strengthening the BWC and focused on possible verification mechanisms, and improving the structures, processes, and finances of the Convention. We heard from a series of scientific and governance experts about how other related treaties (on chemical and nuclear weapons) work and what the BWC could learn from them. We also heard about the history of negotiations in the BWC and what that means for discussions now; this is useful as many of the country delegates are themselves new-ish but the issues have been under consideration for decades.

Country delegates would ask questions of the experts, and also had the chance to make statements and give oral summaries of working papers they had submitted. Mostly the discussions were at least on-topic, except for on several days there was a ~20-minute digression arguing about the Russo-Ukrainian war.

In terms of substantive topics discussed, I think we didn’t make much progress:

  • The delegates discussed the annual submission of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) where countries list all their biolabs and describe steps taken to mitigate risks. All countries are meant to submit these reports annually, but 2021 was the first year where more than half the signatories of the BWC did so. Many delegates opined about how it is sad so many countries don’t submit and that we should make it easier to do so. The value of the CBMs themselves is dubious though given countries could easily leave off any labs they didn’t want the world to know about, and submissions are often incomplete, secret, or nonexistent.
  • Everyone seemed to agree that the BWC was underfunded and that other countries should contribute more, but no breakthrough is in sight for structural reform.
  • Probably most importantly, for the first time in 20 years the delegates discussed ‘verification’ measures, that is how to check whether countries are lying about having bioweapons programs. The experts and countries generally agreed this is a lot harder than for nuclear weapons, where it is more obvious that a facility is for weaponization rather than peaceful uses, and satellite imagery makes nuclear facilities easier to spot. Conversely, bioweapons labs can be small and nondescript, and easy to conceal as labs doing legitimate work. The US, I think reasonably, argued that there are so many biolabs in the world (>10,000 depending on how you count) that we could probably only inspect a small fraction of them each year, and therefore that a dodgy lab could easily get away without being inspected for decades. Even if it were inspected, it would be hard to realise, let alone prove, that it was pursuing weaponization. Russia and China complained that the US was just not committed to the BWC and verification. So some progress was made in the sense of discussing a few important issues, but we still feel very far away from an effective verification protocol, if indeed one is possible.

The second week was the annual Meeting of States Parties (MSP), which at the best of times is more political and less object-oriented towards discussing actual biorisks. This year, on the first morning of the meeting, the Russian delegate disputed the rules of procedure for the remaining three days, and this led to a long debate about whether ‘observers’ such as NATO and the EU could officially join the meeting. This impasse couldn’t be solved, and so the next 48 hours of meetings were replaced by backroom talks to try to get a resolution. These failed, and late on the last evening the delegates passed a report essentially saying that they met, didn’t decide anything, and would meet again next year. This excerpt gives a sense of the broader problems with the UN regarding underfunding:

Interactions continued in the main conference room until 18:00 when it had to be vacated as the audio system requires staffing to run it.  The MSP moved a short distance to Salle XXVI.  There was also no interpretation available at such a late hour and inevitably this put some delegates at a disadvantage.  At 21:00, a number of the other room systems, such as the projector and audio equipment, shut off on a timer as part of the UN cost saving measures.  This led to delegates having to speak loudly to be heard.

Unimportantly, but symbolically, the escalators were switched off and the heating reduced to save the UN money, as well.

What I Think

I am glad the BWC exists. Boo bioweapons! The fact that lots of countries will frown at you if you decide to be a rogue state and produce and deploy bioweapons despite the BWC is surely on the margin helpful.

However, my guess is that the BWC will have a rather small part to play in driving biorisks to very low levels this, and moreover that it is not a very promising avenue to pursue. I mainly just have intuitions and opinions to back this up. I expect if a country thought it could gain a major strategic advantage by flouting the BWC they would do so with relatively few compunctions. And to get to a position where we could effectively monitor and prevent countries from pursuing bioweapons programs, I think we would need something closer to ‘build a world government’ than ‘tweak the BWC and throw it an extra few million dollars’. (Building a world government may still be a good idea, it would just be very hard.) So personally, I am now less keen to work for the BWC directly or as a diplomat at these negotiations (though possibly for some people this would be a great choice).

A somewhat separate question is how valuable it is for junior biosecurity people to visit the BWC as observers. NTI|Bio paid for me to go as part of their Youth Delegation. I am grateful to them, and glad I went and overall had a nice time![1] Apart from being enjoyable for me, which isn’t a sufficient reason to spend altruistic dollars, probably the main value was meeting various other interesting people within the NTI Delegation, and from other orgs. The meetings themselves were exciting to be in at first (‘wow, I’m at the UN!’) but oftentimes fairly boring thereafter. The question is whether flying people to Geneva (which is a very expensive city to be in!) is cost-effective compared to something much less good but much much cheaper and more scalable like watching a session or two online together remotely and reading the summaries, discussing what we saw, and having some guest speaker and networking calls. As well as the nice vibes of being in person, an important thing this would miss out on is that as imperfect as it is the BWC meeting in Geneva does act as something of a Schelling point for lots of interesting biosecurity people to gather and meet each other. Additionally, the official side events are in-person only.

Overall, I am quite unsure whether this is cost-effective to run, and I am not a grant-maker so don’t have a great sense of the market of other interventions we could fund instead. I think personally I wouldn’t make an altruistic donation for someone like me to spend a week at the BWC meetings.

Feel free to message me if you want to talk about your experience at the BWC, ask more about mine, or discuss any of this more!

Disclaimer: These views are my own, my guess is NTI would disagree. Of course, there are many people who know far more about the BWC and have been to its meetings for many years, who are better qualified to write about this (and I encourage you to! Including commenting here disagreeing). I think the existence of such people isn’t sufficient reason for me not to have a go writing up some of my own thoughts though. I did so fairly quickly (2 hours) and have not run this by anyone.

  1. ^

    I even experience my first snowfall! :)

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First, thanks for writing this up. I mostly agree with the points being made, but I disgree with some of the conclusions.

Yes, the BWC is dysfunctional, and yes, it's unlikely to materially reduce bioweapon risk below the (currently low) levels they are at today. But, as you say, it's better for it to exist than not. I think the counterfactual here is critical. If we look at the BWC compared to other weapon bans, it's somewhat weaker than the IAEA, though arguably stronger than the NPT, and it's weaker than the CWC, though chemical weapons are used more. On the other hand, it's far stronger than the ban on landmines, the ban on exploding / fragmenting bullets, etc. And one difference is obvious, and in my view central - having an annual meeting where states come to recommit and discuss progress on a ban.

I also think it's good to have junior people attend, to give them experience with international systems. It's a cheap convention compared to running something elsewhere focused on biorisks, and it serves that purpose well.

Additionally, the BWC is also a place (the only place?) for experts to inform State representatives and the international community of emerging risks - a function which I worry will be tested in coming years, and could be critical. 

Lastly, it's very good for states and NGOs to continue to use as a Schelling point. It has become a key place for announcing efforts towards reducing risks, which are planned beforehand in order to announce them there, and which are motivated in part because there is a place to talk about them. 

Thanks good points, I don't think we disagree directionally, perhaps just on how important some of these effects are. It feels like a very difficult epistemic problem to attribute how much the relative absence of bioweapons use is attributable to the BWC - I know roughly nothing about exploding bullets and the like, but maybe they are just more useful than bioweapons for most belligerants? And therefore are used more irrespective of how strong the relevant treaties are. But yes, agree that these aspects still provide some value :)

Yeah, I don't think there's a ton of benefit it trading hypotheticals and counterfactuals here, especially because I don't think much of anyone's intutions will be conveyed clearly, but I do think it's worth noting that it's not obvious to me that the convention didn't have a large counterfactual impact over the past 50 years.

I was part of a youth delegation to the BWC in 2017, and I think the greatest benefit I got was that it raised my aspirations. I'm not sure I'd previously conceived of myself as the sort of person who could speak at the UN. I also heard an expert bowing out of dinner early because they had to go finish their slides for the next day, and realized there isn't some upper echelon of governance and society where everyone is hypercompetent and on top of things; even at the friggin' United Nations people are making their slides the night before.

I don't know how much of an effect this had on my decision to start a biosecurity meetup the next year and eventually transition to full-time biosecurity work, but I think it played a role. There are other benefits too; Schelling-point NGO networking, collecting lived-experience stories that make your understanding of diplomacy more vivid, and creating a pressure of prior consistency that increases the chance of that a delegate will continue to work on biosecurity (YMMV on whether the last item is a benefit).

Thanks for sharing, yes motivational benefits do seem important too!

Thanks for sharing your reflections here! I was rather taken aback when reading the headline and remain so after reading your "What I think" section:

You write that you're "glad the BWC exists," but also that you're "weakly against the BWC." Did I understand correctly that you mean that you're glad that the legal agreement exists but are weakly against supporting or engaging in work to uphold the convention (at least the kind of work that is currently undertaken with that aim)? If so, could you explain whether you think that the durability and strength of the agreement is largely unaffected by such work; or that such work has value but less value than alternative efforts; or that such work has value but should be left to "others" (maybe: "non-EA-minded people" who are less focused on reducing unconventional risks)?

Whatever the answer to the above, I'm somewhat concerned by the normative effects of the phrasing you chose, and would be curious to hear your thoughts on those concerns. What I worry about is that your title and parts of the write-up suggest that the BWC and its surrounding structure is bad, is a waste of resources, and should thus be dismantled, or at least neglected even more than it already is. I share your sentiment that it's good to have the BWC as some backstop against state development of biological weapons programmes; and I believe that this backstop works mostly through normative means (rather than some material enforcement mechanism). I further believe that such normative measures consist of how the BWC is spoken about (whether it is taken seriously, appreciated as important, etc) and of dedicated events to bring together relevant stakeholders (i.e. those people who might contribute to upholding and further developing the convention). The concern is that articles like yours contribute to undermining both.

Thanks, useful thoughts, I think I roughly agree with you and will change this. I suppose the tradeoff I was facing with the title (not that I spent any time weighing up different options consciously) is between brevity, accurateness, and interestingness. I think the more complete title would be something like 'Updating weakly against the Biological Weapons Convention being as important to work on as I thought'. I think I will change the title to 'Reflections on the BWC' so that people who only see the title don't get a negative vibe (I agree we want people overall to think good thoughts about the BWC). And then if people are interested enough to read the post, they will see that I raise, quite sloppily/intuitively, some drawbacks. More than me arguing the BWC is -10 on some scale of goodness, what I was thinking is it moved from +20 to +10 or something.

I haven't thought about it lots but I think I would endorse something like 'the BWC should continue to exist, and should be larger and bigger and better, but it is less of a central priority than I thought, and so people who care about prioritisation and don't have individual reasons that the BWC is unusually good for them should strongly consider focusing more on something else'.

Thanks for writing this, I enjoyed reading your thoughts!

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