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Maintaining treaty integrity in the face of biological disinformation warfare

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Russia has called for a Formal Consultative Meeting under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) to address its (fake) accusations against the US and Ukraine concerning biological research programmes. This meeting will start on Monday, 5 September.

Treaties are like Roses, published in CBRNe World, August 2022, pp. 61-64b

[From the introduction]

Article V of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) foresees in consultation and cooperation among states parties to address any problem concerning the implementation of the disarmament treaty. The First BTWC Review Conference (1980) agreed on the concept of a consultative meeting at the expert level and the Second and Third Review Conferences (1986 and 1991 respectively) developed and consolidated procedures to concretely implement Article V. Under them, a state party can also request clarification about an issue of concern in relation to the objective or application of one or more treaty provisions. Such a request, a state party should address to the BTWC co-depositaries, namely the Russian Federation (as successor to the Soviet Union), the UK and the US. States parties have repeatedly reaffirmed at review conferences – most recently at the 8th Review Conference (2016) – that any allegation of a breach of the BTWC obligation should receive a specific and timely response from the state concerned.

The Russian request in the Note verbale dated 29 June

On 29 June 2022, the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Office and other International Organizations in Geneva sent a Note verbale to its UK counterpart reiterating its ‘outstanding questions to the United States and Ukraine concerning the fulfilment of their obligations under the Convention in the context of operation of biological laboratories in the Ukrainian territory’. Because it received no replies from the US and Ukraine in bilateral consultations, it thus requested the convening of a formal consultative meeting to be held in Geneva from 18 to 22 July. Following an informal meeting on 27 July, this consultative meeting, to be chaired by Ambassador György Molnár of Hungary, will open formally on 26 August and then take place on 5, 6, 7 and 9 September (the 8th being a UN holiday).

This is only the second time a state party has called for a formal Article V consultative meeting since the BTWC’s entry into force 47 years ago. In 1997 Cuba requested such a meeting following its allegation that the previous year the US had released insect pests from a plane crossing the island resulting in serious economic damage. While today the US is again the subject of an accusation, the situation is considerably different. First, one depositary state is accusing another depositary state of a significant treaty breach. Second, both countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC). And finally, questions can be raised how Russia may or can proceed if the forthcoming consultative meeting fails to allay its concerns. Article VI, 1 foresees in the lodging of a complaint to the UNSC. However, Moscow already brought the matter three times before the UNSC earlier this year. In each instance, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) affirmed it has no indications to support Russia’s allegations of BTWC violations by the US or Ukraine.

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