Multiple Streams, Open Windows, and yet No Solution

How the Response to the Ebola Crisis Shaped the Discourse on Emergency Assistance under the Biological Weapons Convention

In: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations
Helge Schumacher University of Hamburg Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker Centre for Science and Peace Research, Interdisciplinary Research Group for the Analysis of Biological Risks Germany Hamburg

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Article VII of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) requires states to provide emergency assistance in the case of a deliberate bioweapons attack on any state party to the convention. Since no operational mechanism defining how to request or provide such assistance has yet been established, the painful lessons of the 2014–2016 West African Ebola crisis returned this topic to the agenda of the BWC. This study uses multiple streams analysis to investigate the impact of the Ebola crisis on the considerations of Article VII. While it revived the three streams of the debate—problem, policy, and politics—and opened a policy window, nevertheless, no political entrepreneur was able to couple the streams to produce policy output. As this window of opportunity begins to close, the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be the next focusing event shaping the BWC discourse on emergency assistance.

1 Introduction

This article addresses an underresearched, but important, aspect of an international treaty: the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The analysis shows that, although the West African Ebola crisis was strongly reflected within the BWC discourse, no emergency response mechanism was established. This was due to a lack of powerful political entrepreneurs. Additionally, the article sheds light on issue linkage in complex multilateral regime environments and the usability of John W. Kingdon’s multiple streams approach in international relations.

The relevant passage of the BWC on emergency assistance—Article VII—reads as follows:

Each State Party to this Convention undertakes to provide or support assistance, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, to any Party to the Convention which so requests, if the Security Council decides that such Party has been exposed to danger as a result of violation of the Convention.1

Whenever the states parties of the BWC negotiate in connection with this article, they solemnly point out that it has never been invoked. While this undoubtedly is a fortunate fact, it also obscures the bigger picture on Article VII: Today, nearly fifty years after its entry into force, there is still no functional mechanism for requesting or providing assistance under the BWC. The reasons for that are manifold, ranging from different interpretations of the convention text, via a variety of practical problems, to the simple fact that the states parties gave far more attention to discussions on other aspects of the convention (e.g., the lack of a verification protocol). This final point ceased to apply under drastic circumstances when the 2014–2016 West African Ebola crisis suddenly put this article back on the convention’s agenda.2 Although the epidemic was considered a “natural” outbreak, many states parties saw implications of the response for a biological attack. Any health emergency of this scale would likely have been addressed in a forum such as the BWC, simply because of the general questions on international assistance, preparedness, and response that it would raise. But the Ebola crisis had considerably stronger links to the security realm.

First of all, there was to the nature of the pathogen. As a viral hemorrhagic fever, Ebola is one of the famous “Dirty Dozen” of biological warfare agents, and is therefore closely related to the BWC’s core concern.3 It is also listed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as one of the six Category A bioterrorism high-priority agents “that pose a risk to national security.”4 Although bioterrorism was not originally the subject of the treaty, the focus of the negotiations already began to shift toward nonstate actors following September 11.5 The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the same period further fueled fears of an international terrorist organization obtaining the virus and using it for terrorist purposes. Even though it was disputed whether the motivation and know-how for this really existed, intelligence reports that have since been made public show that at least some of the states parties considered such scenarios to be quite realistic.6

Additionally, the generally fragile security situation in the region jeopardized the implementation of effective epidemiological control measures and posed a “risk of the outbreak reversing the ‘peacebuilding and development gains’ of the most affected countries.”7 This is why it was the first-ever epidemic that was seen as a threat to international peace and security and, therefore, addressed by a UN emergency health mission under a UN Security Council (UNSC) mandate.8

Nevertheless, a concrete operationalization of Article VII is still not in sight, and the final document of the 2019 Meeting of States Parties concluded “no consensus was reached on the deliberations including any possible outcomes of the Meetings of Experts,”9 which also incorporated two-day consultations on assistance, response, and preparedness. It is remarkable that such a major event with close links to the Article VII discourse of the BWC did not lead to the development of principles, let alone procedures or any other substantial policy output to operationalize Article VII (e.g., the implementation of a procedure to request or provide emergency assistance). Following Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz’s argument that such “nondecisions” give an equal, if not better, insight into public decisionmaking,10 this study investigates the BWC policy processes by: 1) providing the first-ever detailed dataset on past and present Article VII debates; 2) illustrating how the West African Ebola crisis shaped the discourse on emergency assistance under the BWC; and 3) seeking explanations for the nondecision on policy measures by using Kingdon’s multiple streams analysis (MSA).11

Answering those questions will help scholars and practitioners to understand the discourse of Article VII and the dynamics of the BWC negotiations in general. This will contribute to the development of further studies on the BWC as well as strategies to overcome obstacles in the production of policy output at this critical phase of the convention, where it is feared that financial and political constrains could weaken the BWC.12 From a theoretical perspective, this study presents an interesting case of “regime complexity”13 at the health-security nexus. Furthermore, it provides an input to the discussion on the suitability of the MSA for analysis in the field of international relations.14

To understand the special mechanics of the case, the next section contains a brief introduction to the BWC in general and to Article VII in particular. The subsequent analysis starts by outlining the methodology used, before conducting the MSA, laying out the three streams: the problem stream, the politics stream, and the policy stream. This is then used to derive conclusions regarding whether open policy windows were in place and political entrepreneurs were able to couple the streams to gain policy output. Finally, these results are discussed in a broader context, generating theses on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the discourse in the future.

2 Case Description

2.1 The Biological Weapons Convention

The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BTWC)—in short the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)—entered into force in 1975. With 183 states parties, it has today almost reached universality. However, there is neither a verification protocol nor an international safeguarding organization. To develop the convention, a Review Conference (RevCon) is organized every five years. With the aim of generating technical and political input for those conferences, the Intersessional Process (ISP), which takes place in the period between the RevCons, was established in 2001. This ISP consists of annual Meetings of Experts (MX s) followed by annual Meetings of States Parties (MSP s) to “discuss, and promote common understanding and effective action.”15 Via this mechanism, ideas can make their way from MX working papers to binding obligations over the years (see Figure 1). While other arms control treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention partly abandoned the principle of consensus,16 it is required for all decisions within the BWC.

Like most arms control treaties, the BWC is an independent multilateral treaty and as such not part of the UN framework. While it nevertheless has close operational ties to the UN system, its status comes with some peculiarities; for example, regarding budgeting issues. Also, the Regional Groups differ from the UN standard, consisting of the Cold War threefold division into the Eastern European Group (EEG), the Western Group (WG), and the Group of the Non-Aligned Movement and Other States (NAM).


Figure 1

Layers of undertakings under the Biological Weapons Convention

Citation: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 28, 4 (2022) ; 10.1163/19426720-02804001

Source: Adapted from Millett 2009, 31

Biological and toxin warfare weaponizes illness and poisoning, often by utilizing already existing or modified communicable diseases. It is therefore the role and intention of potential actors to define whether an outbreak is occurring “naturally,” accidentally, or intentionally as an act of warfare or terror. This is also why the BWC not solely is discussed within the logic of international security, but also is connected to the arena of international public health.17 This overlap can be observed in both directions. For example, while questions of resilient public health structures, laboratory safety and security, and malicious nonstate actors are aired within BWC meetings, the World Health Assembly explicitly addressed the “deliberate use of biological and chemical agents or radionuclear material that affect health” when revising the International Health Regulations in 2005.18 The increasing overlap between health and security not only is subject to the critique of securitization,19 but also creates “regime complexity”20 for the states parties. Issues involved in this complex range from arms control, via matters of counterterrorism, public health, livestock and agricultural security, up to the UN Biodiversity Convention.

2.2 Emergency Assistance under Article VII of the BWC

Although Article VII never received as much attention as other articles of the convention, over the years some relevant discussions on various aspects of emergency assistance were held, and it was included in the working program for the ISP in 2014 and 2015. Besides practical problems for its implementation, the debates also revealed fundamental differences in the interpretations of the convention’s text. These include the need for a parallel request for outbreak investigations under Article VI, the duplication of existing mechanisms outside the BWC, as well as the role of the UNSC in approving the provisions of Article VII in case of its activation by a Member State. In a detailed study of the genesis of the BWC, Jean Pascal Zanders has explained that some of the reasons for the different interpretations can be found in the ambiguous wording of the article, which was derived from a number of major changes made during the drafting of the convention.21

Referring to the role of the UNSC, the eighth RevCon in 2016 reached the agreement that “in view of the humanitarian imperative, the Conference encourages States Parties in a position to do so to provide timely emergency assistance, if requested pending consideration of a decision by the Security Council.”22 Other RevCons declared the nature of the assistance to be humanitarian (not military), made reference to nonstate actors as perpetrators, and highlighted the roles of UN organizations as well the receiving states parties in the response phase.

3 Methods

3.1 Data Collection and Preparation

To assess the impact of the West African Ebola crisis on the discourse on emergency assistance under the BWC using multiple streams analysis, several preparatory steps were first conducted.

First, building on work done by the BWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU),23 common understandings and additional agreements regarding Article VII reached at previous ISP s and RevCons (1987 to 2018) have been identified. The results have been visualized in an interactive Article VII Discourse Map.24 This map contains all the relevant paragraphs of final documents of MSP s and RevCons, as well as related working papers from states parties, clustered by topic. In this way, the map provides a thematic breakdown of the discourse over recent decades. It illuminates, for example, the introduction of new topics such as nonstate actors, the evolution of policy solutions such as an emergency request procedure, and the development of common positions such as the evolving consensus on the humanitarian nature of assistance. This preparatory step creates a backdrop against which the current discourse can be analyzed in a way that is sensitive to the context of the previous negotiation process.

Second, all related verbal interventions during the 2019 ISP cycle were transcribed, creating a 68,855-word text corpus. The year 2019 constitutes the midpoint of the 2018–2020 ISP and is therefore a crucial waypoint in the discourse. The 2018 cycle already set the stage for ideas and arguments, and it was unlikely that any more would be developed from scratch in 2020, only one year ahead of the RevCon in 2021. The 2019 cycle therefore can be seen as representative of the 2018–2020 ISP discourse. It consisted of two events:

  • BWC Meeting of Experts on Assistance, Response and Preparedness (MX4) on 6–7 August 2019, and

  • Consideration of the MX4 Factual Report during the BWC Meeting of States Parties (MSP) on 5 December 2019.

Third, the transcribed interventions were coded according to content and intervening actor. The coding scheme (see Table 1) has been developed in an iterative process,25 resulting in 331 coded segments in 19 elements of discourse connected to the Ebola crisis, clustered in four thematic areas (see Figure 2).

Table 1

Coding scheme

1st level coding

2nd level coding




Current Lack of Structured Response

Emerging Threats

Health-Security Nexus

Socio-Economic Consequences

Emergency Request Mechanism

Role of UN Security Council

Dedicated Article VII Mechanism

Unconditional Assistance

Bio-Medical Units

Assistance and Response Database

Request Form

Multi-Agency Coordination

“One Health” Approach

Command & Control

Integration of Existing Capabilitites

Role of International Organizations

International Coodination Body

Receiving Assistance

Capacity Building

Strengthening National Capacities

Exchange of Genetic Material and Information

Funds for Preparedness and Assistance

This content analysis is used to inform the subsequent multiple streams analysis (see Figure 3) not only in a qualitative (e.g., what is the position of certain states parties?), but also in a quantitative way (e.g., which elements have been addressed more than others?).

Finally, three interviews with long-time observers of the BWC were conducted to obtain background information on the negotiation process. Due to the diplomatic and formal character of the meetings, it is essential to grasp what is going on behind the scenes, accompanying the official statements.


Figure 2

Elements of Biological Weapons Convention Article VII discourse connected to the 2014–2016 West African Ebola crisis in the 2019 Intersessional Process

Citation: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 28, 4 (2022) ; 10.1163/19426720-02804001


Figure 3

Processing of qualitative and quantitative data within the multiple streams analysis

Citation: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 28, 4 (2022) ; 10.1163/19426720-02804001

3.2 Multiple Streams Analysis

To understand why the revival of the Article VII discourse has not yet led to substantial policy output, a multiple streams analysis was carried out. Building on the famous garbage can model26 for decisionmaking in “organized anarchies,” MSA was developed by Kingdon27 to understand “how problems are recognized, how and why they are added to the decision agenda, and how they are matched with policy solutions.”28 As major process streams, he identified “(1) problem recognition (2) the formation and refining of policy proposals, and (3) politics.”29 Events and changes in the problem or politics stream contain the potential to open up a policy window.30 At that point, political entrepreneurs may couple the streams with a certain solution from the policy stream to create policy output; for example, the adoption of a measure (see Figure 4).


Figure 4

Multiple streams framework for emergency assistance under the Biological Weapons Convention

Citation: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 28, 4 (2022) ; 10.1163/19426720-02804001

Source: Adapted from Kingdon 2014; Zahariadis 2008; Tomlin, Hampson, and Hillmer 2008; Mu 2018

This framework was chosen for three reasons. First, its adaptability to the case is high. While it is true that the MSA poses one of the “least elaborated”31 theories in the field, this is precisely its strength. The “flexible metaphor”32 of the three streams as well as the vagueness of some of the incorporated concepts33 allow for adaptation to the specific policy context and research question. Second, the concept of the three streams is also suitable for presenting very different aspects of the discourse in a structured way to illustrate the impact of the West African Ebola crisis. Third, the MSA provides explanations of what happens in the black box “political system”34 between input and output. This is especially helpful for assessing possible reasons for a case of a nondecision.

Although Kingdon’s MSA is one of the most commonly used frameworks for analyzing agenda-setting processes,35 the approach has been subject to substantial critique. Edella Schlager points out that MSA is not sensitive to the role of institutions or to interactions between the three different streams.36 Referring to the latter, Kingdon acknowledged in his second edition that the streams certainly do come together occasionally throughout the agenda-setting process. However, he also highlights the analytical merits of a differentiated understanding of the dynamics in each of the three streams and the momentum of coupling at an open policy window.37 While other frameworks explicitly consider the role of institutions, this is in fact underrepresented in MSA. However, looking at the BWC, institutional factors such as political parties and the variety of “institutional venues”38 where proposals can be promoted do not hold such a prominent role as they hold in a national governance system. Since the BWC is neither a domestic issue nor significantly discussed outside the relevant policy community, other agenda-setting theories that draw on aspects of societal conflict and mass mobilization39 are also not suitable to analyze this particular discourse.

While MSA was initially also developed to understand domestic public polices in the United States, Michael Lipson40 showed that it can be applied to the international context in a useful way by adapting the politics stream. Other benefits that come with MSA are its focus on the temporal dynamics of a discourse as well as the close attention it pays “to sectoral developments in policy communities in which only specialists usually participate.”41 Both of those aspects are of great importance for analyzing how the Ebola crisis shaped the discourse on Article VII of the BWC.

4 Analysis of the 2019 Intersessional Process

4.1 Problem Stream

According to Kingdon, issues qualify as problems “when we come to believe that we should do something about them.”42 He defines three mechanisms by means of which this occurs: feedback, focusing events, and spillovers. All of them can be found in the discourse on emergency assistance under the BWC in an interconnected manner.

First, the RevCons and the ISP can be seen as institutional feedback mechanisms since they are suitable to “evaluate and oversee implementation.”43 Those regular meetings lower the threshold for adaptation and allow for certain issues to be included on the agenda. Under the impact of the Ebola crisis, states parties decided that Article VII would be one of the four fields of work in the 2016–2020 ISP.

Second, this agenda-setting qualifies the 2014–2016 West African Ebola crisis as a focusing event. Such events draw the attention of policymakers and the general public on a certain issue. Kingdon explicitly names disasters and “the latest epidemic” as examples.44 The high number of references to the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) during the debates underscores that mechanism.

Third, the influence of the Ebola crisis can partly also be seen as a spillover effect. This refers to the influence of subjects similar to the original topic;45 in this case, the influence of the “natural” outbreak of EVD in context of the (biological weapons-related) BWC. Japan highlighted those similarities, arguing that “when a public emergency takes place, we are not sure whether they are natural, or accidental, or deliberate ones, and we cannot afford to wait for which is a case by analyzing the situation.”46

In this regard, the health-security nexus was addressed, but also the indirect implications of responding to a “natural” outbreak in an insecure environment. Some delegations also made reference to disruptive socioeconomic consequences following severe outbreaks, and the possibilities of targeted attacks on agriculture and its negative economic effects (up to severe food shortages) were discussed. Additionally, spillovers from other topics could be observed, including, for instance, the risks of emerging threats. Those were associated with new pathogens, biotechnological developments, nonstate actors, and global trends such as globalization, migration, mobility, and climate change.

In the light of those identified problems, many delegations voiced their worries about the absence of a structured response mechanism under Article VII and underscored the urgency of the matter. The UK illustrated the situation quite simply in this regard: “We can’t wait because if there were an incident tomorrow, what do States do?”47

4.2 Politics Stream

Of course, political factors do influence the process of addressing identified problems with the right policy measures. Some of the factors that Kingdon presents are primarily domestic in nature, including public mood and election results,48 and are therefore not suited to assessing the discourse in an international arms treaty.

Building on Lipson’s ideas about reshaping the politics stream of the MSA for understanding choices in international organizations, this analysis draws on three alternative pillars: the multilateral setting, politics within BWC Member States, and politics and organizational culture within the BWC/UN system.49 These include the general political mechanisms of coalitions and bargaining50 as well as the “jurisdictions and interests of the agencies involved.”51

Assessing the quantity of interventions clustered by discourse elements and (groups of) actors reveals which states parties and Regional Groups push which topics in the agenda-setting process (see Table 2). Through this analysis, the following patterns could be observed.

It seems that the Ebola crisis entrenched common roles of assistance, where the more powerful states assist the less powerful states. In this sense, it is no surprise that the Western Group (WG) lobbies for more multiagency coordination following their experiences in mounting relief operations with many different national and international actors. Their calls for urgent action may also be related to the critical coverage of their efforts by the media, academia, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO s) in WG countries.

The Non-Aligned Movement and Other States (NAM), which partly considered themselves as potentially on the receiving end of assistance, stressed questions relating to the implementation of the emergency request mechanism as well as issues of capacity building. The latter is central to the NAM throughout all BWC negotiations. Article X of the convention aims at “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information” for peaceful purposes.52 In common with many other NAM members, Cuba recognizes a direct connection to Article VII: “The application of Article X of the convention is essential to build national capacity. Developed States Parties need to provide contributions to developing country partners.”53 In the eyes of NAM, the promise of Article X is not being upheld by many industrialized nations. While the analyzed data only reflects the discourse on Article VII, it is striking that it often reflects the overall positions of states parties toward the BWC and the willingness to improve it. This may indicate that the Article VII discourse is just seen as another vehicle to push for certain agendas within the convention.

Table 2

Addressed elements of Biological Weapons Convention Article VII discourse by actors connected to the 2014–2016 West African Ebola crisis in the 2019 Intersessional Process

Other reasons for certain positions are not solely found in the specific BWC context, but within a wider strategic approach. For example, Russia, as a UNSC veto power, has a strong interest in strengthening the role of the UNSC within an Article VII mechanism. The requirement of a UNSC decision maximizes Moscow’s control of any possible future scenarios, as it was observed to do regarding the chemical attacks in Syria.54

Nevertheless, the Article VII discourse has a number of peculiar features. Compared to other (missing) parts of the convention, Article VII is less controversial since it is seen as an “expression of international solidarity aimed at presenting a potential aggressor with the prospect of united opposition from all other States Parties.”55 While assistance in the case of an emergency is a universal humanitarian principle, its implementation also can be used politically to ease tensions or generate progress in deadlocked negotiations. For example, a joint initiative on biomedical units for Article VII missions was put forward by a coalition of the UK and Russia in 2018, despite the diplomatic skirmishes between the two states following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal during that time.56

4.3 Policy Stream

To address problems with political output, fitting policies need to be identified and agreed on. Kingdon describes this process as evolutionary: ideas are floating in a “primeval soup … with policies originating, mutating, and evolving within policy communities.”57 While some ideas perish, others survive and change over time. This process is also influenced by the heterogeneity of the community of specialists. A tight community would produce a more coherent set of solutions, while more fragmented and diverse communities may result in “disjointed policy, lack of common orientations and agenda instability.”58

In fact, the ISP embodies a policy microcosm where all of those aspects can be observed. During Meetings of Experts and Meetings of States Parties many ideas are brought up, discussed, modified, supported, and opposed. The solutions presented in connection to Ebola can be clustered in three broader areas: the emergency request mechanism, multiagency coordination, and capacity building.

4.3.1 Emergency Request Mechanism

Despite the efforts by the World Health Organization (WHO) and others to strengthen international assistance in health emergencies, many states parties underscored the importance of a dedicated BWC mechanism.

Discussing the role of the UN Security Council, states parties expressed different understandings on how to operationalize the mechanism. While some states “emphasize the central role of the Security Council in taking any decision to provide such assistance,”59 others stress that “the provision of assistance under article seven should not be conditional on the action or finding by the UN Security Council with respect to the investigation of alleged use”60 or even lobby for a mechanism separate from the BWC.

Less controversial are more technical suggestions such as the establishment of a roster of rapid deployable biomedical units, an assistance and response database to match needs and offers, as well as request-form guidelines to ensure a quick and structured response, which gained “broad support”61 from the states parties.

4.3.2 Multiagency Coordination

In line with the “One Health” approach, many different agencies could be involved in preparedness and response activities, requiring cross-sectoral coordination and cooperation as well as clear chains of command and control in case of an incident. Several delegations urged for a timely establishment of a central coordination instrument “because, if you do not have effective command and control and coordination, there is no effective response. And people will die. And there will be significant economic and societal consequences.”62

To create a BWC mechanism, states parties highlighted the need for integration of existing capacities at national and international levels. In terms of the latter, the role of international organizations still needs to be defined to avoid duplication, while some states suggested an international coordination body at the UN.

To ensure smooth operation as well as local ownership, some delegations noted that states parties need to prepare their national structures to receive assistance in case of an Article VII request.

4.3.3 Capacity Building

Many delegations highlighted the need to strengthen national capacities in addition to developing a BWC response mechanism and urged capacity-building efforts by states in a position to do so. In this regard, many references were made to Article X of the BWC, which guarantees the “fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information” for peaceful purposes.63

To foster preparedness and response, the exchange of genetic material and information could be important, while at the same time the property rights of the countries of origin should be taken into account. The responses to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and other emerging pathogens in the past illustrated how difficult the balance of those interests can be.64 Despite existing funds at the WHO and the World Bank, some states parties called for the establishment of specialized BWC funds for preparedness and assistance measures. NAM, in particular, demands such a fund, especially for developing countries, as a means of “promoting capacity building through more effective active cooperation with relevant regional and sub-regional organizations that have mandates relevant to assistance and protection against biological weapons.”65

4.4 Policy Windows, Political Entrepreneurs, and the Coupling of Streams

According to Kingdon, changes in the problem and politics streams are particularly prone to creating a momentum that opens policy windows that allow for policy output:

A problem is recognized, a solution is developed and available in the policy community, a political change makes it the right time for policy change, and potential constraints are not severe.66

The open window allows the actors to produce policy output. According to MSA, implementation of policies is not to be taken for granted, but depends on a certain mechanism. When “solutions or policies flock to the window when it opens,”67 political entrepreneurs have to apply coupling to the three streams by emphasizing how certain policies address certain problems as well as creating and using political momentum by investing time, energy, reputation, and resources.68 “Policy entrepreneurs play a major part in the coupling at the open policy window, attaching solutions to problems, overcoming the constrains by redrafting proposals, and taking advantage of politically propitious events.”69 They therefore need certain qualities such as political power, negotiation skills, and persistence.70 Those actors do not always have to hold formal positions or have to be specific persons, but also can be institutions or policy networks of an open or hidden nature.71

Due to its existence in a relatively obscure corner of international relations in general and in the shadow of other arms control treaties in particular, the BWC lacks political entrepreneurs in the sense of “political champions”72 from outside the BWC realm that place a specific focus on the BWC. After Bill Gates’s famous warning on health security during the 2017 Munich Security Conference,73 some hoped he would provide financial and political support for the BWC.74 While this did not happen, UN Secretary-General António Guterres addressed issues of assistance, preparedness, and response when he introduced his disarmament agenda. Explicitly referring to the Ebola crisis, the disarmament agenda urged the development of “a framework that ensures a coordinated international response to the use of biological weapons.”75 This push led to a small number of concrete policy activities within the BWC such as systematic assessments of roles and responsibilities in case of a biological attack and a series of tabletop exercises.

Within the BWC, certain states parties are pushing specific elements of the discourse and trying to couple the three streams. South Africa, for example, regularly addresses the most complex issue of operationalizing the emergency request mechanism by (joint) working papers on this topic, including specific suggestions for forms and guidelines. Russia and the UK lobby for their concept of biomedical units as a component of the response mechanism. India put forward the idea of a database for response capacities, while the UK and Japan have stressed the importance of multiagency coordination as a lesson from the Ebola crisis.

Some of those coupling activities were strong enough to gain support from many delegations and detailed suggestions were made in the reports of Meetings of Experts. Nevertheless, no policy output was reached at the subsequent Meeting of States Parties and the problems of emergency assistance under the BWC remain unsolved a year ahead of the ninth RevCon.

5 Discussion

5.1 Of Open Windows and Flyscreens

The analysis above indicates that the 2014–2016 West African Ebola crisis opened a window of opportunity for policy output regarding Article VII of the BWC. However, no actor has yet been able to couple the three streams of the discourse to implement a specific solution. The reasons for this are manifold, and not all of them are sufficiently captured by the MSA approach.

While the Ebola crisis affected all three streams of the discourse and favored coupling in that way, there were also spillovers from other parts of the convention and outside the convention, invisibly blocking the open window like a flyscreen. For example, it is hard to imagine that Iran would accept an emergency request mechanism that granted a prominent role to the UNSC, while Russia would probably not approve the opposite.76 Additionally, in the past, parts of the NAM were unwilling to develop other parts of the convention as long as there is no progress on Article X and a legally binding protocol to the convention. This illustrates the veto problem in consensual international treaties. Furthermore, the difficult financial situation of the BWC eclipsed many of the substantive debates within the 2019 MSP.

It could be argued that powerful political entrepreneurs would have been able to couple the streams anyway, at least to push for less controversial solutions such as the establishment of an Article VII database. Here, the fragmentation of the community of specialists could provide an explanation. Some of the interventions revealed fundamental differences in the understanding of the suggested policy solutions, which do not derive from political considerations but rather are operational in nature. For example, regarding the Article VII database, not only questions of financing and the politically controversial role of the ISU are hindering implementation, but also different ideas of what information it should contain, how it should be used, and the differences with the existing Article X assistance database. This “lack of common orientations”77 and “common language”78 could hamper the selection of solutions from the policy stream during the coupling process.

Another reason for the deadlocked situation may lie in the growth of “international regime complexity.”79 Many delegations have mentioned the problem of parallel structures in relation to an Article VII mechanism. While there were already large overlaps with other international bodies and treaties before (e.g., WHO, Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], World Organisation for Animal Health [WOAH], Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons [UNSGM], Nagoya Protocol, International Health Regulations, UN Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact), the Ebola crisis triggered a revision of the international community’s preparedness and response capacities, including the establishment of an emergency fund and standby medical units, as well as the strengthening of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN).80

The narrow focus of this study on one ISP cycle allows detailed mapping of the discourse and shows that the Ebola crisis had a big impact on the Article VII negotiations. Nevertheless, it is only a snapshot of a complex bigger picture, neglecting spillover effects from other parts of the BWC and beyond. To take them into account, a broader analytical frame must be applied. There are promising attempts to strengthen the MSA by systematically taking into account the historical and institutional context of policymaking.81 In the case of the BWC, this should include logics of bloc formation and neocolonialism. For example, it is striking that despite the active engagement of the Global South in the discussions, the most Ebola-affected countries themselves—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—did not participate in the discourse at all. At the same time, states parties from the Global North that had a prominent role in the international Ebola response were significantly involved (e.g., the United States, the UK, Japan).

Given the vague MSP report and fact that only one ISP cycle is left before the ninth RevCon, it is questionable if any substantial progress will be made on Article VII. But while the policy window that the Ebola crisis opened up via the problem stream was likely to be closed due to the temporary nature of crises,82 another focusing event is looming on the horizon of the BWC negotiations: the global Covid-19 pandemic.

5.2 Covid-19 as a Wild Card for the Article VII Discourse?

The Covid-19 pandemic will undoubtedly influence the BWC debates and, in a way, it already has because the scheduled 2020 MX and MSP as well as the 2021 RevCon have been postponed for a year. When the MSP finally took place, it was subject to an unscheduled interruption in the interest of infection prevention since “a room full of people focused on the issues of deliberate disease is inevitably going to be sensitive to concerns about the spread of infection.”83 When the states parties meet for the BWC revision in 2022, nearly all of them will have been affected by the pandemic. This firsthand experience and individual conclusions could lead to a stronger involvement of many states parties. Others may change their traditional perspectives since they have moved from the provision to the receiving end of international assistance.

The pandemic once again demonstrated the great implications of major biological events, regardless of their origin. These insights could influence the states p willingness to act to strengthen the BWC to prepare for deliberate biological attacks. On the one hand, there have been many examples of bi- and multilateral assistance and international initiatives in response to the pandemic such as the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program. We can also observe “disaster diplomacy”84 at work: when Covid-19 cases in India rose dramatically in April 2021, despite the protracted Indo-Pakistani conflict, whose latest severe standoff was as recent as February 2019,85 India’s archenemy Pakistan expressed solidarity with its neighbor and offered medical supplies. The statement by Pakistan’s foreign minister Nabeel Qureshi that “We believe in a policy of humanity first,”86 reflects how Article VII, due to its humanitarian nature, could also be seen as an entry point for making progress in deadlocked BWC negotiations. On the other hand, nationalistic and protectionist tendencies the Covid-19 pandemic have also been politicized at the international level. This is true not only for travel restrictions87 and the availability of personal protective equipment,88 but also for the question of the disease’s origin.89 The Covid-19 pandemic may reinforce the concerns of some states that emergency assistance missions will never be purely humanitarian, but will always have an unavoidable overlap with questions of origin and attribution. Interestingly, while the lab-leak theory on Covid-19 received growing public and academic attention,90 this elephant in the room was hardly addressed during the 2021 Meetings of Experts.91 The further handling of this politically sensitive issue will have a great influence on whether the obstacles in the negotiations will grow or can be overcome.

Despite those implications, Covid-19 is seen as less capable of weaponization than Ebola and is therefore discussed less as a security issue. This circumstance could reinforce calls for clear mandates in the realm of health security to deconflict “regime complexity.” Under this view, the WHO would stay in charge of pandemic preparedness regardless of its origin, while the BWC could focus on its core arms control objectives.92 In line with this idea, twenty-five heads of state and international agencies have already lobbied for an international pandemic treaty in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, which could make some aspects of the Article VII discourse obsolete.93 Nevertheless, experts and practitioners urge utilization of lessons learned from Covid-19 to modernize the treaty, while “the present pandemic must be the catalyst for strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention.”94 Considering those circumstances, the impact of Covid-19 as a focusing event on the Article VII discourse has the potential to be greater than was the case in connection with the Ebola crisis.95 However, it remains to be seen if this will lead to substantial policy output regarding emergency assistance, preparedness, and response under the BWC.

6 Conclusion

Providing the first detailed picture of the Article VII negotiations, this article shows that the 2014–2016 West African Ebola crisis impacted the discourse on emergency assistance under the Biological Weapons Convention in several ways. As a focusing event, it underlined the urgency to act in the problem stream as well as the politics stream. Additionally, the actors related many of the suggested solutions in the policy stream to the Ebola crisis. While this opened a policy window, political entrepreneurs were not able to apply coupling of the streams to generate substantial policy output.

Kingdon’s multiple streams analysis is a useful tool to assess and describe this mechanism. This study shows the applicability of the approach beyond domestic policy issues and enriches the growing body of case studies using the MSA within the international sphere. However, it does not explain all aspects that influence the tangled processes of developing a multinational arms control treaty, such as extraneous considerations, and needs further adaptation to multilateral settings.

As the window of opportunity opened by the Ebola crisis begins to close, the Covid-19 pandemic may keep the window open for a while. Even though Covid-19 is considered less of a security issue than Ebola, the dramatic worldwide consequences of the pandemic have raised awareness of the need for an Article VII mechanism under the BWC. At the same time, this very same concern led to activity in other parts of the overlapping health-security nexus, creating increasing regime complexity with incalculable effects on the BWC. Additionally, the debates on the origin of Covid-19 may hamper the constructive development of the convention. These circumstances, alongside financial issues and internal conflicts in one of the Regional Groups, call into question whether a significant push on the matters of assistance, preparedness, and response under the BWC will be possible during the next Revision Conference in 2022.


States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention 1972.


Zanders 2018, 1.


Dando 2006.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2018.


McLeish and Feakes 2008.


Doward 2015; Gunaratne 2015; Maron 2015.


Burci 2014, 29.


UNSC 2014.


BWC Meeting of the States Parties 2019, 5.


Bachrach and Baratz 1963, 632.


Kingdon 1984.


Guthrie 2021b.


Alter and Meunier 2009.


Lipson 2007; Cairney and Zahariadis 2016.


BWC Meeting of the States Parties 2017, 4.


Notte 2020.


Kelle 2007.


WHO 2005, 3.


Burci 2014; Kelle 2007.


Alter and Meunier 2009.


Zanders 2018.


Eighth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention States Parties 2017, 14–15.


BWC ISU 2018.


Schumacher 2021.


Mayring and Fenzl 2014; Schreier 2012.


Cohen, March, and Olsen 1972.


Kingdon 1984.


Henstra 2010, 1.


Kingdon 2014, 87.


Kingdon 2014, 168.


McLendon and Cohen-Vogel 2008, 31.


Cairney and Zahariadis 2016.


Herweg 2016, 125.


Easton 1957, 384.


Béland and Howlett 2016.


Schlager 2007.


Kingdon 2014, 227–229.


Baumgartner and Jones 1993, 25.


Cobb, March, and Olsen 1976.


Lipson 2007.


Zahariadis 2016, 12.


Kingdon 2014, 109.


Kingdon 2014, 100.


Kingdon 2014, 87.


Kingdon 2014, 190.


Japan 2019, BWC MX4, First Meeting, 01:14:08 in Schumacher 2022.


UK 2019, BWC MSP, 00:19:08 in Schumacher 2022.


Kingdon 2014, 145.


Lipson 2007, 84.


Kingdon 2014, 159.


Kingdon 2014, 155.


States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention 1972.


Cuba 2019, BWC MSP, 00:44:46 in Schumacher 2022.


Koblentz 2019.


UNODA n.d.


Guthrie 2020, 2.


McCann 2012, 12.


Kingdon 2014, 143.


Russia 2019, BWC MSP, 00:59:18 in Schumacher 2022.


Pakistan 2019, BWC MSP, 00:41:17 in Schumacher 2022.


Chairman of the Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of Experts on Assistance, Response and Preparedness 2019, 8.


UK 2019, BWC MX4, First Meeting, 00:53:06 in Schumacher 2022.


States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention 1972.


Rourke 2020; Fidler 2012, 2007.


NAM 2019, BWC MX4, First Meeting, 02:34:34 in Schumacher 2022.


Kingdon 2014, 165.


McCann 2012, 12.


McCann 2012, 13.


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Anonymous BWC expert #1, conversation with the author, Geneva, 6 August 2019.


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Anonymous BWC expert #2, conversation with the author, Geneva, 8 September 2021.


Jakob 2020, 346.


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Trezza 2020; see also Shang, Whitby, and Dando 2022; Velicer 2021; Saunders 2021.


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