Experts discuss ODA’s pivotal role in supporting African states implementing the Biological Weapons Convention

January 2nd, 2024

On 6 December 2023, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (ODA) hosted a panel discussion focusing on the challenges encountered by African States Parties in implementing the BWC on the margins of the Third meeting of the Working Group on the Strengthening of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC.) The panel focused, in particular, on how ODA’s efforts on the continent are supporting African States Parties in addressing these challenges. The panelists included Lasconi Moungui Medi, Chief of United Nations Political Organs Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cameroon, Kadiatou Dao, Chief of Service Biosecurity/Biosafety, National Institute of Public Health Research, Ministry of Health, Mali,  Janes Mokgadi, National Contact Points of Botswana, Deputy Director, Justice and Security/CBNR agency, Ministry of Defense, and  Mohamed Rhajaoui, National Contact Points of the Kingdom of Morocco, Director, National Institute of Hygiene.

Eighty-one people participating this event

In her opening remarks, Ms. Melanie Gerber, ODA Political Affairs Officer, highlighted that the BWC had reached almost universal adherence, but underscored that among the twelve states currently not party to the Convention, six were situated in Africa. She further stressed that levels of implementation of the Convention at the national level varied. As a result, she said, many states, including states interested in joining the Convention, as well as States Parties interested in strengthening the implementation of the Convention at the national level, reach out to ODA with requests for assistance.

Africa’s biosecurity and biosafety landscape

The first segment of the panel focused on the biosafety and biosecurity landscape on the continent. Panelists were asked to set the scene for the discussion.  Kadiatou Dao pointed to the diverse levels of BWC implementation and related biosafety and biosecurity programs in African countries. She mentioned that these differences had arisen due to several factors, including limited engagement and awareness;  lack of inclusion of youth in the various related initiatives; disregard of the connection between the BWC and public health; and insufficient infrastructure. She also flagged that the limited involvement of women in the field of biosafety and biosecurity impeded progress.  Finally, she recognized the efforts made by ODA through its Youth for Biosecurity Initiative,  and noted that last year, 36 percent of all alumni were from African states.

Mohamed Rhajaoui focused on how the COVID pandemic clearly showed that no country on earth was safe from epidemics while stressing the vulnerability of African states to biological threats. Factors considered included economic stress, social inequalities, limited access to healthcare,  the impact of climate change, and the potential for bioterrorism.

Putting the BWC on the national “radar”

Lasconi Moungui Medi pointed out that in African countries biological weapons were not considered as relevant to their particular situations due to a lack of awareness on the subject. He also flagged the governments in the region had many competing priorities and the focus was usually on more pressing security, humanitarian and development needs.

Janes Mokgadi stressed that several disarmament commitments on the continent related to weapons of mass destruction  had been undertaken, including the African Union’s Common African Defence and Security Policy. She also underlined the importance of aligning the BWC and biosafety and biosecurity support at the national level and ensuring that BWC implementation is incorporated into the national security strategies.

Janes Mokgadi introducing continental disarmament commitments

Through its extra budgetary programming, ODA can support states in raising national awareness on the BWC by convening awareness raising workshops with national authorities. In 2023, ODA supported Namibia, The Gambia, Togo and Benin with national awareness activity bringing together all parts of the government and other relevant stakeholders.

Challenges in implementing the BWC

To implement the Convention, States Parties are required to adopt national implementing legislation, designate a National Contact Point (NCP) and to submit Confidence Building Measures (CBM). Today only 38 African states have designated an NCP, 14 have submitted at least one CBM and a handful have adopted national implementing legislation. Panelists all stressed the need for strong coordination, reinforced capacity and awareness raising to address national implementation challenges, particularly regarding NCP designation and CBM submissions.

ODA supports capacity building of designated National Contact Points through enabling tools such as the Guide to Implementing the Biological Weapons Convention as well as dedicated capacity building trainings such as the regional National Contact Point training it held in Addis Ababa in May 2023.

Regarding the adoption of national implementing legislation, Mogkadi flagged that BWC implementation takes time and, despite ratifying the Convention in 1992, Botswana’s, Biological Weapons prevention Act was only adopted in June 2018. Drafting and adopting legislation  usually faced obstacles and lengthy legal processes, he said. Mogkadi also stressed the key role played by assistance from international partners and specialized NGOs in identifying gaps and drafting legislation. Since 2022 and for the first time, ODA has an in-house team of lawyers dedicated to supporting African states on BWC domestication that can, at the request of States Parties, organize legal drafting workshops, conduct legislative gap analysis and support in national coordination around these processes.

Sierra Leonean delegate raising questions

In closing the event,  Sylvain Fanielle, Project Coordinator and ODA Legal Officer, acknowledged that ODA had increasingly been supporting State Parties in effectively implementing the BWC, as well as promoting its universalization among non-State Parties through its activities in Africa. He emphasized the importance of South-South cooperation, experience sharing, and network building among regional actors, and indicated that ODA encouraged states and other actors to reach out for assistance in reinforcing BWC implementation.

ODA’s activities on strengthening the universalization and effective implementation of the BWC in Africa have been made possible thanks to the generous contributions of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom in the framework of the Global Partnership against the Spread and Material of Mass Destruction Signature Initiative to Mitigate Biological Threat in Africa, as well as France and the European Union.

Mr. Fanielle providing closing remarks