US proposals to the BWC were rebuffed by non-government organisations for undermining the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, weakening national biosafety laws and leaving loopholes for non-lethal bioweapons. The Conference ended in disarray as US rejected compliance yet again. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on her visit to the BWC Conference in Geneva.
The Fifth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) opened Nov. 19, with the United States accusing Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Sudan and Syria of operating clandestine biological weapons programmes. The accusation met with angry denial from Iraq, Iran and Libya.
The US statement, delivered by Under Secretary of State for Arms Control, John Bolton, reiterated US rejection of both the draft Protocol and the Ad Hoc Group negotiating process in July. Ranking the threats of BW, Bolton noted that, beyond al Qaeda, the most serious concern was Iraq.
The US called for national measures to enhance criminal extradition agreements with respect to BW offences and legislation to make it a criminal offence to engage in activities prohibited by the BWC. It asked countries to adopt and implement regulations restricting access to dangerous micro-organisms and their domestic and international transfers. Countries were also asked to report internationally any releases or adverse events that could affect other countries, to sensitise scientists to the risks of genetic engineering, to explore national over-sight of high-risk experiments and to establish a code of conduct for scientists working with pathogens.
Those measures would "control access to dangerous pathogens, deter misuse, punish those who misuse them and alert states to their risks".
US is seeking a mechanism for international investigations of suspicious outbreaks of disease or alleged BW incidents. Countries would need to "accept international inspectors upon determination by the UN Secretary General that an inspection should take place". But then it advocates "setting up a voluntary cooperative mechanism for clarifying and resolving compliance concerns by mutual consent".
US proposed that countries should adopt and implement strict biosafety procedures based on World Health Organisation (WHO) or equivalent national guidelines, support the WHOs global disease surveillance and response capabilities, and develop capacity for rapid emergency medical and investigative assistance in the event of a serious outbreak of infectious diseases.
The US open accusation has compounded the already tense and bitter atmosphere left over from the derailed final session of the AHG in July. The proposal to endorse national biosafety regulations based on WHO or equivalent national guidelines undermines an important multilateral agreement that already exists - the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol negotiated in Jan. 2001 and signed by more than 100 countries (see "Biosafety protocol just beginning, this issue).
In a workshop, co-sponsored by the Sunshine Project, the Third World Network and ISIS, the relationship between GM and bio-weapons was elaborated. Lim Li Lin from the Third World Network made clear that the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol aims to implement biosafety law globally to regulate the transboundary movement and use of many genetically modified organisms. In place of a binding multilateral verification protocol, the US basically wants bilateral measures and non-binding commitments.
Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project (www.sunshine-project.org) pointed out that adopting USs proposal would even counteract efforts to support the BWC, such as the African Model Law on Biosafety, which was developed with input from more than thirty countries and adopted by the African Union. This Model Law treats hostile use of genetic engineering as a crime, providing for incarceration of anyone convicted of development, acquisition, or use of genetically engineered pathogens or products thereof for hostile purposes.
I presented ISIS statement on the need for international control of both GM and Bioweapons, then signed by 23 organisations and individuals in 9 countries. (See "GM & biological weapons. Scientists call for international watchdog" www.i-sis.org.uk and previous article.)
Hammond also spoke to the Convention, pointing to an important loophole developing in the BWC in so-called non-lethal biological weapons. These include the weapons to eradicate narcotic crops in the illegal drug trade that are falsely labelled as "biological control" agents. These are fungal pathogens of the opium poppy, coca and marijuana plants, some of which are life threatening to human beings. In a globally televised program, the inventor of several of these agents has boasted that he is developing biological weapons.
There was a strong feeling among the non government organisations present that both the BWC and the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol are needed for effective control of GM & bio-weapons, and that the synergies between the two multilateral agreements should be explored and built upon.
The talks ended abruptly on 7 December without agreement. A move by US to block new means for verifying compliance precipitated a unanimous vote to adjourn until next November. The US not only demanded formal termination of the conventions remit to establish a verification protocol, but also that five named states, including Iran and Iraq "terminate their offensive biological weapons programmes and fully comply with their obligations". It ignored the fact that eight other nations including Russia, China, Israel and US have similar programmes.
One angry UK government official was reported as saying that Britain has a profound difference with the US, "Britain still believes that multilateral arms control has a future".
Article first published February 2002