Chair Veit Koester opened the second session of the Open-ended Ad Hoc Working Group on Biosafety by urging delegates concentrate on core issues and identify the elements of a biosafety protocol for their next session. Under his guidance, delegates displayed a cooperative spirit and agreed to a structure for discussions and the programme of work for this meeting as well as future meetings. After previous meetings characterized by some as talk shops, many BSWG-2 delegates left Montreal satisfied they had at last begun to move from generalities to specifics and taken substantial steps toward a protocol. Despite this progress, some fundamental disparities of opinion, particularly regarding the scope of the protocol, remain, which threaten to derail the process when negotiations get underway.
If the initial questions raised at BSWG-2 on advanced informed agreement (AIA) alone are indicative of negotiations to follow, delegates have a sizable task ahead of them. Delegates discussed whether AIA will be required for all LMO imports or only under certain conditions, whether importing or exporting countries will be responsible for assessing and managing risks from LMOs, which party will be responsible for notifying and taking action in case of unintended movements, whether there will be any legal requirement for compensation or liability placed on producers or exporters of LMOs, and whether LMO-containing commodities will be treated under this protocol at all. Equally lengthy debates are also looming over risk assessment and management, responsibilities for unintended movements of LMOs, compensation and liability, and treatment of commodities produced with LMOs.
The developing countries insistence on addressing the impact of the movement of LMOs on socio-economic conditions could prove to be the most troublesome. Many, but not all, developing countries and developing country NGOs expressed strong concerns about the ramifications of LMO transfers, such as loss of employment and export markets, uncontrolled growth in the power of multinational corporations and an dangerous expansion of the concept of patentability. In contrast to BSWG-1, which witnessed a rift among developing countries, BSWG-2 saw a seemingly more unified G-77/China, at least in their call for a study on socio-economic issues in response to a developed country call for a study on genetically-modified commodities. While both proposals for studies were ultimately withdrawn in favor of roundtable discussions, the G-77/CHINA exhibited a strong, if fleeting, unity on the issue. Some observers cautioned, however, that several deep-seated divergences of opinion remain unsettled and will likely emerge at future meetings.
Other position shifts were also apparent, most notably in the cooperative demeanor of some developed country delegations that were, as one observer noted, obstructive at BSWG-1. Some delegations that previously appeared adamantly opposed to the development of a protocol provided cautiously constructive interventions in Montreal. While it is far too early to assume an emerging consensus on a protocol or a successful outcome, the behavior of some delegations exhibited an acknowledgement of the importance of being at the table" as the negotiations unfold and consensus on its necessity emerges.
Failure to achieve that consensus would not bode well for the Convention or the state of the worlds biological resources. The Convention has devoted a considerable amount of its time and energy to this issue, drawing criticism from some that there are a myriad of more urgent threats to biodiversity, such as habitat loss, overproduction and consumption and increased population pressure. Given the fluctuations in country and regional positions, it is too early to speculate on successful outcome.
In the calculations of some, the likelihood of agreeing on a draft text is great. However, any adopted protocol must still be ratified. Because of the perceived threat of strong international oversight and difficulties with ratification, successfully completing a protocol will be tempered by the fact that its effectiveness is limited if it is too restrictive. Nonetheless, a protocol lacking sufficient restrictions would prove equally ineffective- leaving delegates between an LMO and hard place. Biotechnology is expanding at an unprecedented rate and any unforeseen consequences may not wait on the adoption or ratification of a protocol.
The Chair invited delegates, for the next meeting, to submit legal texts on some of the items discussed and said the Secretariat will propose text as well, which will hopefully take the process one step further toward a protocol. However, as the potential commitments become more focused, so too must the subjects to which they apply and, as seen at this meeting, consensus is anything but clear. There are a number of difficult questions awaiting future BSWG meetings and the whether any or all of them emerge at the next session meeting remains to be seen. Only one thing remains certain. Given the magnitude of the protocols possible implications, the urgency of the problem and the relatively short time frame for negotiations, some tough decisions will need to be taken soon. As one observer noted, these global negotiations in particular do not have all the time in the world.
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