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US Proposes to Relax Controls on Biological Weapons Development
Edward Hammond is Director of the US office of the Sunshine Project, a small international nonprofit organization dedicated to biological weapons control (101 West 6th Street, Lower Level, Austin TX 78701; 512/494-0545; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Even as US citizens suffer through the biggest biological weapons scare of modern times, the Bush administration is promoting a plan to relax international controls on bioweapons testing and development. The new US proposals come just weeks before diplomats are scheduled to review international biological weapons control efforts, and set the stage for what could be the biggest challenge ever for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), the 1972 agreement that prohibited development, acquisition, and stockpiling of biological weapons. When the review meeting begins in Geneva on November 19th, the BTWC will be faced with a proposal that could destroy one of the most treasured accomplishments of international arms control.
In addition to the dismantling of Article I, the US has made another proposal to shift the arms control focus away from prevention of biological weapons. Instead of stopping development in the first place, the US wants a form of extraterritorial jurisdiction that focuses international efforts on punishment of use of some kinds of biological weapons. The result would be abrogation of foreign jurisprudence in favor of applying of America's law abroad, with attendant extradition conflicts (or kidnapping in so-called "snatch and grab" missions).
International criminalization of biological weapons has been promoted by non-governmental organizations for years; but in order to be effective, it must be applied fairly and evenly, to all persons, regardless of official position. In the US conception, however, penalties only apply to "lethal intent," meaning only to those people who use (or threaten to use) biological weapons. The proposal would not apply the same standards to users of other types of bioweapons that target plants, animals, materials, and crops, such as Agent Green (or hoof and mouth disease), which can result in human suffering and death through starvation and poisoning of the environment. In the US conception, even some anti-human bioweapons wouldn't be punishable, for example, the US "non-lethal" weapons for crowd and riot control.
The emphasis on use rather than prevention is a paradigm shift in international efforts that paves the way for countries to start programs to develop biological--and, especially, biotechnological--weapons. Why? Because the US proposal would only apply the teeth of international law after biological weapons are used, instead of while they are being developed. Thus, countries with bad intentions will be given a green light to proceed with bioweapons research because they will have little to fear from the international community.
That would amount to a 75-year legal setback for arms control to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibited use--but not development--of biological (and chemical) weapons. That Protocol was augmented by the BTWC in large part because its success was very limited. For example, several European powers ratified the Geneva Protocol; but then used chemical weapons in their colonial possessions in Africa and Asia. Fascist Italy, a Protocol party, invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and used more than 300 tons of chemical weapons; but the League of Nations did not act. Prohibitions based solely on use, in other words, have proven malleable and their enforcement depends on who is the victim. This phenomenon did not end with decolonization. Using a logic similar to that of European colonial powers, the US is using the Drug War as a pretext to deploy biological weapons in Latin America and Asia. (See <www.sunshine-project.org>, the Sunshine Project website, for examples of major powers violating use restrictions on chemical and biological weapons.)
The attack on Article I has transformed the upcoming Fifth Review Conference of the BTWC (beginning November 19th) into a critical meeting. If the world fails to emphatically and unequivocally reaffirm the Article I prohibition on all forms of biological weapons, the Convention's utility in preventing biological weapons development will be severely reduced. Future meetings of the BTWC would be reduced to focusing on arguments over which biological weapons are "acceptable" and which are not, a grave setback. The spirit of the convention would be dead.
So far Europe has signaled that it is likely to roll over and play dead. Instead of criticizing the recently revealed US projects "Clear Vision" and "Bacchus," to develop biological weapons production facilities in Nevada, to genetically engineer anthrax, and to test biological bombs (see The New York Times, September 4, 2001), Germany has lent its approval. According to the German Foreign Ministry's chief bioweapons negotiator, "With regard to the research in the USA, the US government stated through a spokesperson of the Department of Defense that the projects aimed solely at the development of protection measures. The German government does not have any hints to the contrary." In other words, Germany has indicated agreement to the US's opening the floodgates on biological weapons research and development. With Europe so weak, developing countries may be the best bet for progress.
Stopping the US must be the first priority; but with arms control agreements on the verge of failure to control biological weapons, alternative means of prevention are an increasing focus of non-governmental organizations. Among the options is taking verification of the BTWC into NGO hands through a network using open sources and information freedom laws to promote transparency--and denounce violations--of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. More than a dozen specialized non-profits endorsed such an effort in early October.
It is also often the case that agriculture, public health, and environment ministries have a strong understanding of the dangers of biological weapons and the authority to take steps to improve security. In fact, in the late 1990s developing countries supported addressing the dangers of hostile abuse of biotechnology in the UN's Cartagena Protocol on genetically modified organisms. Their efforts were squelched by a commerce-obsessed North.
Led by environmental and agriculture officials from over 30 countries, the African Union recently endorsed a continent-wide Model Law on Safety in Biotechnology that criminalizes hostile use of genetic engineering. In the Philippines, health and environment officials quashed a proposal to use biological weapons to eradicate marijuana.
Governments should urgently pursue alternative means to protect
against the development of biological weapons. But in the coming
weeks, all eyes turn to Geneva, where beginning on November 19th,
the BTWC will be tested as never before. It is critical that Article
I be upheld in its entirety, and that US proposals to create a
system that is permissive of biological weapons development be
clearly rejected. It remains to be seen if governments will muster
the will. If they do not, the unthinkable possibility of legalized
biological warfare may shortly be upon us.