Article 20. Information-sharing and the Biosafety Clearing-House

533. Article 20 establishes the Biosafety Clearing- House (BCH). The BCH is an information exchange mechanism to assist Parties to implement the Protocol. It is established as part of the Clearing-House Mechanism (CHM) created under the CBD (see Box 35). The BCH is an information repository and a central vehicle for implementing the Protocol. Many provisions of the Protocol require Parties to submit information to the BCH, and it has a special role in relation to exchange of information on LMO-FFPs (Article 11).

534. The BCH will use electronic and other systems for the exchange of information relevant to the Protocol. It will also provide access to other international biosafety information exchange mechanisms. The BCH will be developed in stages, commencing with a “pilot phase” that aims to collect basic information and explore the mechanics of establishing and operating the BCH. This pilot phase is underway. After the Protocol has entered into force, the Parties will draw on the experiences of the “pilot phase” to decide at their first meeting how the BCH will function.

535. Given the central role of the BCH in the operation of the Protocol, the availability, accuracy and accessibility of relevant information through the BCH will be crucial. In addition to practical considerations, one question which may arise is the extent to which information made available through the BCH will be moderated and/or verified. If such a function should be performed, then a further question arises as to who should fulfil this function – for example, the Secretariat, or some other body.

536. Article 20 addresses a number of issues:

537. Article 20(1) establishes the BCH as part of the Clearing-House Mechanism that was created by Article 18(3) of the CBD.

Box 35. The Clearing-house Mechanism of the CBD (Article 18(3) CBD)

Article 18(3) CBD

The Conference of the Parties, at its first meeting, shall determine how to establish a clearing-house mechanism to promote and facilitate technical and scientific cooperation.

Article 18(3) of the CBD created a mechanism to translate the goal of partnerships and cooperation into action –the Clearing-House Mechanism. The CHM was created to “promote and facilitate technical and scientific cooperation between the Parties to the CBD” and is a key to achieving the CBD's three principal objectives. It also facilitates access to and the exchange of information on biodiversity around the world. It is a network of Parties and partners working together to facilitate implementation of the CBD. The Parties directed the CBD Secretariat to take a leadership role in facilitating the implementation of the CHM, and also created an Informal Advisory Committee (IAC) to provide the Secretariat with feedback and advice through the CHM development process. The activities of the CHM are directed by the CBD COP as well as by the advice of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice. The CBD COP designated 1996-1998 as the Pilot Phase of CHM operations, during which activities and services would evolve in response to the needs of countries and partners working to implement the CBD. The Parties also made a commitment to commissioning an Independent Review of the CHM after completion of the Pilot Phase. This report was published in September 1999.

The CHM depends on a decentralized process to gather and organize the information that its users need. Driving this process are networks of focal points, international centres and institutions with expertise that co-ordinate initiatives among themselves on topics of common interest. Each focal point also contributes to the Clearing- House information system, which is then made accessible to all users. In this way, focal points encourage networking among government agencies, expert groups, non-governmental organizations and private enterprise at all levels.

538. Article 20(1) sets out two main objectives of the BCH:

539. The effective operation of the BCH will depend on the active participation of developed country Parties, developing country Parties and Parties with economies in transition. The availability of technological resources in developing country Parties and Parties with economies in transition is an important consideration in the design of the BCH and will motivate efforts to develop information exchange mechanisms within the BCH that are not internet- or electronic- based. Operation of the BCH will also depend on resources and training being provided to developing country Parties and Parties with economies in transition. Prior to the entry into force of the Protocol, the Secretariat organized regional workshops on the BCH.

540. The special role of the BCH in relation to LMO-FFPs is addressed in Article 11.

541. Article 20(2) sets out three principal functions of the BCH:

Box 36. Existing international biosafety information exchange mechanisms: examples

The BCH may draw on a wide variety of existing mechanisms. The following examples provide access to a range of information, including existing national regulations on biosafety.

542. Article 20(3) requires Parties to make available to the BCH specific categories of information. Article 20(3)(a) refers to information required by Parties for the AIA procedure, some of which is expressly required to be submitted to the BCH, which includes:

543. In addition to the categories of information specifically mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (e) of Article 20(3), Parties are also required to submit to the BCH:

544. Information on national focal points and competent national authorities designated in accordance with Article 19 will also be made available through the BCH.

545. Under Article 20(3), Parties are to make information available to the BCH “without prejudice to the protection of confidential information”. Protection of confidential information is addressed in Article 21. During the pilot phase of the BCH (see Article 20(4)), it was decided that the BCH should not contain information which is to be treated as confidential (for the procedure for determining whether specific information is to be treated as confidential, see commentary on Article 21).

546. While this approach may be helpful in maintaining open public access to the BCH, it may also create difficulties. In practice, certain detailed information regarding a LMO may not be available on the BCH due to confidentiality requirements. For example, under the AIA provisions of the Protocol, a Party of import should notify its decision on the first import of a LMO to the BCH (as well as to the notifier, see commentary on Article 10(3)). However, if certain detailed information about that LMO has to be kept confidential, then on the basis of information available through the BCH it may not be possible for a subsequent exporter to determine with certainty whether a LMO which has been authorized by a Party is the same LMO that it intends to export to that Party.

547. Article 20(4) requires the COP/MOP to take a decision at its first meeting on the way the BCH will operate, and provides for ongoing review of the BCH. Given the role to be played by the BCH, it is important that a fully functioning BCH has been developed by the time the Protocol enters into force.102 Work on the BCH began prior to ICCP1 (in accordance with ExCOP decision EM–I/3, paragraph 13) and was continued under a pilot phase. The pilot phase was launched in April 2001. A series of regional meetings were launched by the Secretariat to provide the special groups of countries identified in Article 20(1)(b) with an opportunity to discuss their needs and expectations with respect to the “pilot phase”. Issues addressed during the pilot phase included:

Box 37. Pilot phase of the Biosafety Clearing-House

The pilot phase of the Biosafety Clearing-House can be accessed at: http://bch.biodiv.org/Pilot/

The BCH website address may change with the entry into force of the Protocol, but will be accessible through the main CBD website at http://www.biodiv.org

548. Options for the structure and operation of the BCH, together with reports on the BCH “pilot phase”, will be considered and decided upon by the first meeting of the COP/MOP. In addition, the BCH structure and operations must be reviewed by the COP/MOP on an ongoing basis after their first meeting.

549. As noted above, during the pilot phase of the BCH it was recognized that there were a series of challenges for its effective functioning. These include:

Access

550. In relation to the format and language for information, in the pilot phase, the Secretariat developed common formats for the submission of information to the BCH on, for example, transboundary movements of LMOs, national laws and regulations, bilateral, regional and multilateral agreements, and risk assessment summaries. The pilot phase of the BCH was in English, but the BCH is being designed to accommodate all UN languages at a later stage. In terms of accessibility, work is also being undertaken to identify alternatives to internet-based information exchange – for examples through printed materials or CD-ROMs.

Validation of data

551. This is an issue which the COP/MOP will have to consider. The ICCP recommended that countries establish a national focal point for the BCH which would be responsible for validating data registered on the BCH for that country. Entry of data onto the BCH would be limited to certain registered entities.

Coordination and accessibility

552. Guidelines were being developed in the pilot phase for the interoperability of the BCH with other databases, and links to other information sources, such as the OECD Biotrack and UNIDO BINAS systems. Coordination and accessibility of information may be aided by unique identification systems for LMOs to facilitate searches for information on specific LMOs (see Box 34).


102 ICCP Recommendation 3/3, paragraph 6, UNEP/CBD/ICCP/3/10, Annex.

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