The Geneva Disarmament Conversation Series discusses Coordination in Addressing Biorisks

January 4th, 2024

In August 2023, the Geneva Branch of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) launched the Geneva Disarmament Conversation Series (GDCS), thanks to the generous support of Switzerland. The Geneva Conversation Series offers a forum to engage with Geneva based delegates, UN agencies and Geneva based think-tanks, organizations and academic institutions working on human centered-disarmament and the wider peace and security agenda.

The most recent Conversation focused on “Coordination in addressing biorisks” and took place on 11 December 2023, on the margins of the 2023 Meeting of States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention. Previous Conversations dealt with the “New Agenda for Peace”, “Human-centred disarmament”, and “Developments in Artificial Intelligence”.

Ms. Mélanie Régimbal giving introductory remarks

In her introductory comments, Ms. Mélanie Régimbal, Chief of Service, UNODA Geneva Branch, recalled historic milestones in biotechnology development, underscoring the positive impacts on health and agriculture resulting from the use of such technology. Despite these advances, she raised concerns regarding the dual use nature of biotechnology, underlining possible global security risks associated with synthetic biology and, in particular, the potential for the production of engineered pathogens. Ms. Régimbal also reflected on the effectiveness of existing international frameworks and mechanisms, including the Biological Weapons Convention, as well as the active collaboration between UNODA and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The guest panelist and main speaker, Ms. Veronica Rovegno, Technical Officer in the Office of the Executive Director of the Health Emergencies Program at WHO, acknowledged the WHO’s commitment to addressing biosecurity risks, which, she indicated, continue to require attention as new and emerging technologies are increasingly applied to life sciences. The complexity of biosecurity, which encompasses scientific, public health, and environmental considerations, necessitated a coordinated and multistakeholder approach, she said. In this regard, she mentioned the Biorisk Working Group (UN-BRWG), which was formed in 2020 and is headed by UNODA and WHO. This collaborative initiative involves 30 organizations and focuses on efforts to mitigate and respond to biorisks by improving the UN system organizations’ capacities and coordination processes, as well as strengthening outreach to relevant stakeholders outside of the UN system through a multistakeholder engagement strategy. The Group’s renewed mandate focusses on expanding on the achievements realized in the first two years. Its three workstreams aim at fostering a biorisks community of practice, developing, testing and integrating guidance in response to deliberate bio-events and implementing an external engagement strategy that brings together all relevant stakeholder groups inside and outside the UN system.

Ms. Veronica Rovegno, WHO

During the Q&A session, participants discussed learning from past experiences, tightening controls in biotech development, existential risks, and challenges with existing treaty regimes. A representative of Uganda presented a successful framework tailored by WHO, designed to investigate biorisks through a combination of internal coordination and global collaboration. While recognizing challenges inherent in preemptive actions against emerging threats, the panel also   discussed  how to address exceptions, such as imposing sanctions, without hindering peaceful cooperation. Questions were raised about the UN-BRWG’s strategy and ongoing response procedures, with many participants underlining the importance of collaboration and inclusivity.

Participants ranging from 39 countries and organizations

The next Geneva Disarmament Conversation will take place at the end of January 2024.                   

Daihan Cheng