By Jesus S. Domingo
The 9th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BWC) concluded in 2022 represents a significant step forward for the convention. According to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the outcome of the conference is “a glimmer of hope in an overall bleak international security environment.” A major achievement was the agreement to create a working group to discuss, inter alia, compliance and verification, and the possible resumption of negotiations on a formally binding protocol, ending a 20-year deadlock that had prevented discussion of these issues in previous BWC conferences.
The Philippines’ delegation played a proactive role during the conference. It was tasked by the conference presidency to facilitate deliberations on international cooperation and assistance and to help lead in the drafting of the outcome document. The delegation also drafted and coordinated the approval of the Joint Statement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The BWC defines pillar “B” in the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) alphabet, which consists of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear armaments. While the convention seeks to halt the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons, it also has non-security and civilian applications. For example, exchanging information on research centers and laboratories, and on outbreaks of infectious diseases and similar occurrences caused by toxins, are part of the BWC’s confidence-building measures. This helps to meaningfully advance overall biosafety ― protecting people from germs ― and biosecurity ― protecting germs from people. In addition, the BWC policy and practitioner community includes stakeholders from various fields, such as public health, scientific research, pharmaceuticals and other related industries, both governmental and private.
Despite the importance of the BWC, it is not as well-supported as other WMD treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). These treaties have fairly thorough protocols for inspection and verification of state compliance and are bolstered by the well-resourced Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), respectively. On the other hand, the BWC has no compliance and verification framework as of yet and is currently only being backstopped by the four-person Implementation Support Unit. Efforts to develop protocols for treaty compliance and verification have been blocked for the past two decades, highlighting the significance of the 9th Review Conference.
The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a global biosafety and biosecurity catastrophe. In response, the global community, led by the World Health Organization, developed international and national infrastructure for biosecurity and biosafety. Regional organizations such as ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation were also preoccupied with managing the pandemic. For its part, the Philippines established the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases as early as 2014. It was fully activated in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic and continues to remain operational and vigilant.
The Philippines has also played a crucial role in WMD issues and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) issues at the regional level. It established the CBRN Center of Excellence in Southeast Asia in Manila and actively participates in the ASEAN Regional Forum and other ASEAN mechanisms. Bilaterally, the Philippines has also conducted WMD/CBRN training and capacity-building activities with partners including Australia, the European Union and the United States.
In terms of national implementation measures, the Philippines’ National CBRN Action Plan holistically prepares the country for CBRN challenges. The BWC and other WMD regimes are highly prioritized in the contingency planning of the Philippines’ security sector actors, including the National Security Council, National Disaster and Risk Reduction Council (NDRRMC), Anti-Terrorism Council, etc. The ATC’s Program Management Center is currently spearheading efforts to draft the Philippines’ implementing legislation for the BWC. Moreover, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and other related agencies implement the country’s Strategic Trade Management Act. The diplomats of the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs play an overall coordinating role in the country’s BWC efforts.
What more can the Philippines do to push the BWC process forward? Advancing the BWC is a matter of connecting the dots ― synergizing related activities and stakeholders. A creative, out-of-the-box approach is also necessary to complement the formal U.N. conference process at the global, regional and national levels. The BWC is usually subsumed under general WMD and CBRN activities, as well as in overall disarmament, non-proliferation, arms control, strategic trade and counter-terrorism plans and programs.
Treaty regimes such as the BWC need champions, and the Philippines has a pool of experts in international organizations, government agencies, uniformed services, civil society and academia. Over the years, the Philippines has developed a respected corps of BWC experts in numerous sectors. Finally, mention must be made of the Filipinos who have been on the world’s frontlines for the BWC, biosecurity, and biosafety: the national corps and global diaspora of nurses, doctors, medical technologists and other health professionals who keep humanity healthy and safe ― the ultimate aim of the convention.
About the Author
Jesus S. Domingo is presently serving as the undersecretary for Civilian Security & Consular Affairs at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. He was previously ambassador to New Zealand and the Pacific (2016-2022), and assistant secretary for the United Nations (2013-2016).
Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts, and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts, and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Flickr/United States Mission Geneva
This article was published in The Korea Times on 29 March 2023 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.