Now one month ago, my contract with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) ended. It was an unexpected 6-month stint to assist the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) with organising a series of four regional workshops in preparation of the 8th Review Conference of the BTWC next month. These workshops were sponsored by the European Union (EU) under Council Decision CFSP/2016/51 of 18 January 2016 (Project 4). They targeted Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Astana, Kazakhstan on 15–16 June), Latin America (Brasilia, Brazil on 22–23 August), South and South-East Asia (New Delhi, India on 29–30 August), and Africa (African Union Commission, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 13–14 September).
One consequence was of course that silence descended over The Trench. A UN contract automatically implied that any statement, any article or other public contribution had to be vetted by persons in higher pay brackets. At times this made things difficult for me, as my colleagues could testify. Indeed, so much happened during those six months: the two meetings of the Preparatory Commission of the BTWC Review Conference in April and August, a Russian proposal to negotiate a new treaty on terrorism with chemical weapons (an idea that incredibly was welcomed in the tall corridors of the UN in Geneva on the argument that is would give the otiose Conference on Disarmament something concrete to work on), the publication of the third report of the Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) on the use of chemical weapons (CW) in Syria, new allegations of CW use in both Iraq and Syria, and, of course, the outcomes of the work that I was doing in support of the BTWC.
But the project also offered many joys. There was the opportunity to participate once again in one of the EU’s signature programmes in support of disarmament and non-proliferation. Indeed, ‘once again’. The current EU Council Decision is the fourth in support of the BTWC since 2006. Ten years ago, before the 6th Review Conference set up the ISU, I had the pleasure as director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project (BWPP) of being entrusted with the implementation of the first Joint Action (as the decision was then called). During its 2-year running period the BWPP organised three preparatory meetings for diplomats and four regional conferences (South-East Africa, South-East Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East). It also laid the foundations for EU assistance with national implementation of the BTWC obligations to requesting states parties. (See the web page maintained by the ISU.)
From this first Joint Action I took away how expectations from the convention in capitals could be quite different from issues being put forward in the diplomatic gatherings in Geneva. And that there was not always effective communication between the Geneva-based missions and their respective capitals. It was indeed a pleasure to note how matters have improved considerably over the past decade, but a lot of work remains. Another lesson identified was that irrespective of whether government officials were approached top-down (as in the case of the EU Council, which acted through the foreign ministries) or bottom-up (as the BWPP was doing via local civil society outreach and education), the problems encountered were quite similar. Indeed, stakeholders in the convention — whether ministries or other government agencies, parliamentarians, scientists and academics, or civil society entities — had to be identified and brought together. In June 2008 this insight led to a Norwegian-sponsored initiative for a combined approach in Malawi to promote the country’s ratification of the BTWC. With the help of local and regional network members the BWPP identified and invited a range of governmental and non-governmental stakeholders and parliamentarians to a seminar in Lilongwe, which eventually proved to be the first step along the path towards ratification.
A second joy was the ability to engage with officials responsible for BTWC matters in capitals. Things had definitely improved over the past decade. People participating in the regional workshops came from different backgrounds, but all had awareness of the BTWC and core challenges facing the convention. I also noticed the impact of years of regional interaction and cooperation among officials, scientists and other experts, meaning that the debates were driven by shared interests and understandings as well as common concerns. Whereas during the first Joint Action a lot of effort went into explaining the basics of the BTWC and the reasons why countries should be concerned by possible biological weapon-related threats in their region, today the regional variations in assessing challenges and proffered solutions envelop disarmament with a much richer texture than can ever be appreciated in the meeting rooms of the UN. Indeed, if one conclusion can be drawn from the 2016 BTWC World Tour (as I started calling the series of events on Twitter – see, e.g., here) then it must be that disarmament actually lives. Great progress is being made with the implementation of the BTWC (and its norm against the weaponisation of disease and the life sciences) on the local and regional levels, even if the lack of outcomes at meetings in Geneva can be the source of intense frustration. This less visible ‘disarmament in (daily) action’ is quite different from ten years ago, if it then existed at all.
The hard shoulder
And a third and final joy was to be able to collaborate with the ISU and the Geneva Office of UNODA. I met great people who managed to run happy ships despite the great stress that more than occasionally permeated all aspects of work. Whether it was battling the UN’s bureaucracy (epitomised by UMOJA — Swahili for ‘united’ — an on-line administrative management tool that is supposed to bring together every branch and twig of the UN family, but actually represents an extensive centralisation of bureaucratic power in New York accompanied by complete diffusion of responsibility), changing or lack of timely decisions by states parties, or meeting short-notice deadlines, there was always occasion for a joke to make people get back to their desks with a smile. Seldom a harsh word, and a lot of mutual support. As an outsider on the inside, I definitely appreciated the certainty of backup when everything appeared to be going down the drain. Having experienced the BTWC process as a civil society operator and a member of the Belgian and EU delegations, this third angle was definitely most instructive. Another facet of ‘disarmament in motion’, for sure. And one the outside world appreciates little, alas.
A state of mind
Over the next weeks, as the BTWC 8th Review Conference takes off hopefully for a successful flight, I will write up more of my impressions of disarmament implementation, as well as comment on developments around the world. Despite all the great experiences of the past half year, it is good to be back in The Trench and to be able to freely shout out over the din out there.