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The Biological Weapons Convention: A Collision of Science and Diplomacy

Sruthi Katakam February 27, 2023

I walked into Salle XIX of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, immediately dwarfed by the vaunted ceilings and endless rows of desks. As delegates filed in, taking their seats behind placards bearing their country’s name, I made my way to a desk with the placard, ‘FAS.’ This desk was to be my home for the next three weeks as I watched the Ninth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention unfold.

As a Scoville Peace Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, I was granted the opportunity to join Senior Fellow Jenifer Mackby at the BWC RevCon as a member of the FAS delegation. While I did my best to prepare for the conference, reading working papers submitted by delegations, talking to experts, and – of course – studying the treaty itself, nothing could have prepared me for the intense, exasperating, and singularly unique mix of science and diplomacy I observed.

Jenifer Mackby and Sruthi Katakam at the FAS desk in Salle XIX.

The Biological Weapons Convention is a treaty written in 1972 that prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, and stockpiling of biological weapons. States Parties meet every five years to review the convention, update its mandate, and make decisions on future areas of work. The main goal of the RevCon is to produce a final document, a summary of discussions and a collection of recommendations for future progress.

The first few days of the RevCon consisted of the general debate, during which national delegates, NGOs, and international organizations read their introductory statements. This part of the conference left me feeling incredibly optimistic, as most states expressed a deep interest in cooperation and compromise in the pursuit of mutual progress. However, once the article-by-article review of the treaty began, my optimism waned. Delegations proposed dozens of amendments and additions, and disagreements on sentences, phrases, and even words permeated the discussion. It seemed to me like the hope suffusing the opening statements would be quickly buried in bureaucracy.

As someone with a science background, my initial reaction to this crawling pace of negotiations was one of unfamiliarity. Scientists make decisions based on facts and figures, and deal strictly in the black and white. Science is nimble, adaptable, completely devoid of gray! Why were these diplomats unable to do the same? However, the reality of science is far more like the practice of multilateralism than I had first understood. The careful addition – and subsequent debate over – two or three words to a sentence reminded me of experimentation in the lab, keeping everything else constant while changing only the smallest variable. The abundance of ideas but dearth of resources to accomplish said ideas is a feeling any scientist can relate to. Even the practice of delegations taking sides on an issue, or in-fighting erupting, can both be found in the scientific community. Multilateralism, while at times seeming like a thankless task, is as integral to the functioning of our world as the scientific method.

Sruthi outside the Palais des Nations on a rare cloudless day, with the Alps visible from the building’s patio.

This RevCon was unique for several reasons. First, having been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of biological threats (albeit naturally occurring ones) was front of mind for everyone. Second, the Russian invasion of Ukraine colored much of the debate, as Russia’s aggressive military behavior was reflected in the Russian delegation’s aggressive participation in the debates. The delegates relentlessly shut down any mention of the Ukraine invasion, citing lack of relevance to the content of the BWC. For this reason, many attendees were nervous that no consensus on a final document would be able to be achieved. Luckily, around 7 PM on the last day of the RevCon, the delegates reached consensus on its final document. The content of that final document, however, was much attenuated from initial aspirations during the first days of the conference. By 8 PM we had moved to a smaller conference room as Salle XIX was closed, and the UN translators had gone home. I listened through my earpiece as delegates expressed their happiness and gratitude for the work that had been done and the potential resting within the final document. While the Ninth RevCon did not achieve all it could have, it did indeed pull the BWC a little further into the 21st century. Further, it did so while preserving the ideals of multilateralism within an incredibly volatile geopolitical space. Even still, it is hard for me to not feel bitter about the many innovative and operationalized proposals that were left on the cutting room floor.

My work at FAS centers around biosecurity and biodefense – how can we craft policy that strengthens America’s resilience to biological threats of all kinds? My experience at the BWC directly informed many of the projects I now work on, including comparing different proposed biological weapons verification regimes for the Convention and examining the use of international institutions in disinformation campaigns. Further, the webs of negotiation and diplomacy I witnessed at the RevCon reminded me of the importance of coalition-building, opportunity recognition, and relentless policy entrepreneurship in the pursuit of equitable progress, both at home and abroad.

As one of the youngest attendees of a conference that resulted in little movement forward, it was painfully clear that my generation will inherit the looming presence of biological threats, both natural and deliberate. My experience at this conference talking to country delegates from across the world, attending side events on biorisk and biosecurity, and learning about the intricate – and often infuriating – intersection of science and diplomacy, sharpened my desire to live within this intersection and work to integrate scientific knowledge into geopolitical realities. I hope to learn and grow into a physician-policymaker, so I can both care for those affected by medical and biological threats and work meaningfully to prevent and protect against them at an international scale.

Sruthi Katakam is a Fall 2022 Scoville Fellow with the Federation of American Scientists.