Gupta, Aarti. 1999. "Framing 'Biosafety' in a Transnational Context: The Biosafety Protocol Negotiations under the Convention on Biological Diversity." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (BCSIA) Discussion Paper E-99-10. Cambridge, MA: Environment and Natural Resources Program, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
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Controversy swirls around all aspects of the use of biotechnology in diverse sectors such as agriculture and medicine. This paper examines a multinational effort to formulate legally binding rules for "bio-safety" or the safety considerations associated with trade in the products of modern biotechnology. Negotiations for a Biosafety Protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity were begun in early 1996, and were due to be completed in February 1999 in Cartagena, Colombia. However, no agreement was reached, and this outcome was widely characterized as a critical failure. To ascertain failure, however, one requires a conception of success, yet what could "success" have meant in this case? What trans-national rules, if any, could have garnered widespread legitimacy, in the climate of extreme contestation and value dissensus surrounding all aspects of biotechnology use and regulation? I address this question through exploring whether there was any shared understanding within this negotiation about what "bio-safety" constituted, and what the scope and objectives of this international coordination effort were. In examining this, I map the divergent perspectives on biosafety within these negotiations, and explore the rationales (scientific, ethical, legalistic) used to justify narrower or broader conceptualizations of this still nebulous concept, as well as the potential for cross-communication across these in forging shared understandings. In particular, the paper examines whether a reliance upon scientific rationales to define the parameters of the problem has particular legitimacy in a transnational context requiring some form of cross-cultural communication.
The paper concludes that a shared understanding of biosafety was precluded within this negotiation: this was largely because, given divergent underlying beliefs about the nature, knowability and acceptability of risks posed by use of genetic engineering (narrowly or broadly construed), the objectives pursued within these negotiations by different contending parties were fundamentally incompatible with one another. While some sought flexibility in decision-making for genetically modified organisms through the vehicle of the protocol (a flexibility premised upon reliance upon a precautionary approach), others sought predictability in decision-making for genetically modified organisms (a predictability premised upon reliance upon sound science). This fundamental conflict over the raison d’être of a biosafety protocol proved impossible to transcend. I conclude by noting lessons from this case for transnational governance of decision-arenas characterized by high uncertainty and value conflicts-—in particular, the need to reconceptualize the notion of "sound science" before it can serve as a legitimate norm of governance in such areas.
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