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The first meeting of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Biosafety (BSWG-1) marks the beginning of a process to develop a protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and to operationalize one of its key — and most contentious — components. BSWG-1 got off to a cautious if predictable start in Aarhus. While unproductive in terms of written documentation, the meeting did reveal several interesting dichotomies, including strikingly divergent perspectives on biotechnology and a fracture in the G-77/China bloc, over elements to be included in the protocol. The meeting firmly established the CBD among the roster of environmental treaties that straddle the realms of environment and trade. It set a precedent for transparency, welcoming NGOs into its deliberations. Finally, the meeting highlighted the issue of liability, which some called the crux of the biosafety issue.

PRE-NEGOTIATION AND A CAUTIOUS START: Reflecting on his experience chairing many CBD negotiations, BSWG-1 Chair Veit Koester (Denmark), stated in his opening remarks, “Every meeting which starts a process is as important as a meeting which completes it.” Cognizant that compromises will later be conditioned on positions developed during this early phase in the elaboration of a biosafety protocol, the Chair exercised flexibility in entertaining a broad range of views. Indeed, the pre- negotiation phase consists mainly of identifying and defining issues as well as formulating positions. It can be argued that issue identification took place within the CBD itself, as Article 19.3 calls specifically for a biosafety protocol. Therefore, BSWG-1 primarily represented a forum for articulating country and bloc positions.

At BSWG-1, governments identified the range of issues that the future biosafety protocol might address. The shopping-list quality of the Working Paper on the structure of a future protocol did not contain the compromises characteristic of a bargaining process but rather reflected the airing of views.

The Chair’s frequent requests for input on matters of substance were often met with silence. Several delegates admitted privately that they had come to Aarhus primarily to learn about the issue, and were not prepared to formally put forward their position. Indeed, many delegations did not have a negotiating mandate. It seemed that most regional and political blocs required additional time to coordinate as caucuses met constantly throughout the meeting.

Nevertheless, when it did come time for delegates to put words to paper, the Contact Group whose job it was to combine proposals for the structure of a protocol spent an afternoon and part of an evening juxtaposing words for a non-negotiated working paper. The working paper amounted to no more than three short sections, organized into ten items identified as included in all proposals, 38 items identified as included in some but not all proposals, and 28 terms proposed for definition. Clearly, governments were not willing to be cavalier over even these preliminary moves.

A FRACTURE IN THE BLOC: If the pace of pre-negotiations proved predictable, even plodding, the split in the G-77/China position in Aarhus was surprising. As an engine for economic development, biotechnology is particularly attractive to some countries, but a threat to others lacking the technical capacity to utilize it. Although it is clear that biotechnology is an issue that does not unite developing countries, the puzzling result of BSWG-1 is why certain delegations allowed these differences to fracture the bloc in the preliminary phase of this Working Group.

The biosafety issue potentiates the growing split between the middle income developing countries (primarily in Latin America) and the least developed countries (primarily in Africa). In this sense, it is another example of the gradual dissolution of the G-77 as a monolithic coalition, comprising over 130 countries with vastly different economic conditions. With GRULAC now openly disagreeing with the rest of the G-77 over the need to include socioeconomic considerations and liability and compensation in a protocol, the question on the minds of some leaving Aarhus is how this will affect the dynamics of future CBD meetings.

THE PROMISE, THE FEAR, AND THE SOCIOECONOMICS: Another striking dichotomy (actually a trichotomy) in Aarhus was the manner in which the technology was perceived by delegates and observers. Many predictably touted the benefits of biotechnology in such fields as medicine, environmentally-benign industrial processes and agriculture. Yet the perception that biotechnology involves uncontrolled experimentation with dangerous LMOs remains powerful in the public psyche.

This wariness was plainly manifested during opening comments on the definition of Living Modified Organisms (LMOs). One African delegate, representing a country without a biotechnology industry, cautioned that modern biotechnology was capable of reviving ancient bacteria extinct for millions of years. This prompted a correction from a Latin American molecular biologist, who reminded the delegate that such feats are only accomplished in Hollywood movies.

Listening to interventions on LMOs and their safe handling, transfer, use and disposal, it was not clear whether delegates and observers had come to regulate an already complex and fecund activity, or to turn the meeting into a referendum on biotechnology. African delegations in particular emphasized repeatedly the dangers of biotechnology. Additionally, on the last day of the meeting a coalition of eight environmental NGOs, including Greenpeace International, called for a moratorium on the release and marketing of all genetically modified organisms and products until a biosafety protocol was in place.

Reacting to this, one EU delegate stated privately that the call for a moratorium was too strong, pointing out that, had such a moratorium existed thirteen years ago when scientists first discovered the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, the world would not now have a series of multiple drug therapies just recently approved for treatment of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The new treatments, which some have labeled a potential AIDS cure, would not have been possible without the commercial production of LMOs and their products sold as research tools for biotechnology.

Amid the yeas and the nays, some delegates came with a third perception of the new technology, worrying about its socioeconomic impacts through agricultural substitution. This is probably the toughest issue of all. New food products developed through biotechnology have the potential to displace millions of agricultural jobs in developing country economies primarily dependent upon commodity exports. Many Northern governments took the position that socioeconomic considerations are issues of national concern that should not enter into a protocol on biosafety. There is no simple answer to this problem, breathtaking in its potential for global economic dislocation, although the CBD does allow “equity” to enter into decisions about resource use (CBD Article 1).

TRADE, ENVIRONMENT AND LIABILITY: The first meeting of the Working Group marks a turning point in the balance of lobbyists attending the CBD and its subsidiary bodies. This meeting saw a large contingent of industry organizations representing their considerable proprietary interest in these proceedings. As with meetings of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the balance of representation seemed more or less evenly split between industry and environment. The CBD is now firmly established among the roster of treaties linking trade to the environment.

Perhaps most worrying to industry is the inclusion of liability clauses in the protocol, favored by most developing countries (and Norway), opposed by some developing countries and most developed ones. While the term “liability” is open to interpretation, many delegates and observers were left wondering aloud whether opposition to including liability in the protocol meant that governments were unwilling to hold their industries accountable for failures to adequately test LMOs, particularly those intended for field release. Many questioned the effectiveness of a biosafety protocol lacking compliance incentives based on product liability.

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION: NGOs expressed satisfaction with their ability to make interventions in the Plenary. This is in contrast to the closed proceedings of the biosafety contact group that met at COP-2, which excluded all observers from all-night negotiating sessions on the mandate for a biosafety protocol. As always, the ongoing concern for NGOs is the issue of transparency and public participation. While a good precedent was set at BSWG-1, it remains to be seen whether this openness will extend to future sessions, when the gloves come off and delegates get down to the real business of negotiating a protocol.

CONCLUSION: The negotiation of a global biosafety protocol augurs to be slow and painstaking. Some delegates recalled the workings of the biosafety protocol contact group at COP-2, where negotiating blocs spent hours arguing over the placement of commas in the text. For this reason, the Working Group took a decision not to discuss its work at the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties, in order to avoid any unnecessary backtracking.

After almost ten years, the international community has come full circle on biosafety. The call for governments to negotiate a global protocol, which came in 1988 at the inception of negotiations that eventually led to the drafting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, has finally been answered.

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