Science in Society Archive

US Proposals to BWC Rebuffed

US proposals to BWC were rebuffed by non-government organisations for undermining the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, weakening national biosafety laws and leaving loophole for 'non-lethal' bioweapons. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on her recent visit to BWC Conference in Geneva.

The Fifth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) opened on Monday, 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.

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. US 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 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".

The 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 WHO's 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.

In a workshop at the Conference, 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 pointed out that adopting US's 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 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"). The basic tools and materials for making bio-weapons are the same as those used in 'legitimate' GM applications. There is little or no effective defence against bio-weapons, and GM may be worse. While bio-weapons are made under strictly contained conditions, many dangerous experiments are being done without adequate safety precautions, and hazardous GM products released into the environment as if they were safe.

In a statement to the Convention afterwards, Hammond also pointed to an important loophole developing in the BWC: the 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 ngos 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.

Sources: "Acrimonious opening for BWC Review Conference" by Jenni Rissanen, The Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy Nov. 19, 2001.

" The Sunshine Project Statement to the 5th Review Conference of the
Biological Weapons Convention" by Edward Hammond, 21 November 2001

Risk of Using Biological Agents in Drug Eradication, A briefing paper with emphasis on human health. Sunshine Project Backgrounder Series, Number 4, February 2001

Article first published 03/12/01

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