U.S. DROPS BID TO STRENGTHEN GERM WARFARE ACCORD
Protecting the interests of the US biotech industry, which has concerns over inspection, apparently takes precedence over all
U.S. Drops Bid to Strengthen Germ Warfare Accord
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 19, 2002; Page A01
The Bush administration has abandoned an international effort to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention against germ warfare, advising its allies that the United States wants to delay further discussions until 2006. A review conference on new verification measures for the treaty had been scheduled for November.
Less than a year after a State Department envoy abruptly pulled out of biowarfare negotiations in Geneva, promising that the United States would return with new proposals, the administration has concluded that treaty revisions favored by the European Union and scores of other countries will not work and should not be salvaged, administration officials said yesterday.
The decision, which has been conveyed to allies in recent weeks, has been greeted with warnings that the move will weaken attempts to curb germ warfare programs at a time when biological weapons are a focus of concern because of the war on terrorism and the administration's threats to launch a military campaign against Iraq. It also comes as the administration, which has angered allies by rejecting a series of multilateral agreements, is appealing to the international community to work with it in forging a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.
The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which has been ratified by the United States and 143 other countries, bans the development, stockpiling and production of germ warfare agents, but has no enforcement mechanism. Negotiations on legally binding measures to enforce compliance have been underway in Geneva for seven years.
The administration stunned its allies last December by proposing to end the negotiators' mandate, saying that while the treaty needed strengthening, the enforcement protocol under discussion would not deter enemy nations from acquiring or developing biological weapons if they were determined to do so. Negotiators suspended the discussions, saying they would meet again in November when U.S. officials said they would return with creative solutions to address the impasse.
Instead, U.S. envoys are now telling allies that the administration's position is so different from the views of the leading supporters of the enforcement protocol that a meeting would dissolve into public squabbling and should be avoided, administration officials said. Better, they said, to halt discussions altogether.
"It's based on an incorrect approach. Our concern is that it would be fundamentally ineffective," a State Department official said. Another administration official said the "best and least contentious" approach would be to hold a very brief meeting in November -- or even no meeting at all -- and talk again when the next review is scheduled four years from now.
Amy Smithson, a biological and chemical weapons specialist, said the administration is making a mistake by halting collaborative work to strengthen the convention. "It sounds to me as though they've thrown the baby out with the bath water," said Smithson, an analyst at the Henry L. Stimson Center. "The contradiction between the rhetoric and what the administration is actually doing -- the gulf is huge. Not a day goes by when they don't mention the Iraq threat."
The Stimson Center is releasing a report today that criticizes the U.S. approach to the convention. Drawn from a review by 10 pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology experts, the document argues that bioweapons inspections can be effective with the right amount of time and the right science and urges the administration to develop stronger measures.
"To argue that this wouldn't be a useful remedy would just be a mistake. I think it's because they're looking through the wrong end of the telescope," said Matthew Meselson, a Harvard biologist who helped draft a treaty to criminalize biological weapons violations. "We're denying ourselves useful tools."
The administration has focused publicly on a half-dozen countries identified by the State Department as pursuing germ warfare programs. Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton said the existence of Iraq's bioweapons project is "beyond dispute." The U.S. government also believes Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Libya and Syria are developing such weapons, he said.
Meselson concurred with the administration's position that a limited enforcement provision for the bioweapons treaty could not provide confidence that countries are staying clean. But he said that a pact establishing standards and verification measures would deter some countries while also helping to build norms of international behavior.
Bolton, on the other hand, told delegates to last year's review conference that "the time for 'better-than-nothing' protocols is over. We will continue to reject flawed texts like the BWC draft protocol, recommended to us simply because they are the product of lengthy negotiations or arbitrary deadlines, if such texts are not in the best interests of the United States."
With only hours to go at the meeting, Bolton stopped U.S. participation in the final negotiations. He said of the resulting one-year delay, "This gives us time to think creatively on alternatives."
In Bolton's view, each country should develop criminal laws against germ warfare activities, develop export controls for dangerous pathogens, establish codes of conduct for scientists and install strict biosafety procedures. The administration has proposed that governments resolve disputes over biowarfare violations among themselves, perhaps through voluntary inspections or by referring the case to the United Nations secretary general.
Such an approach is "at best ineffectual," said the specialists gathered by the Stimson Center. At worst, they concluded, the approach could damage U.S. interests because it would not be structured to deliver "meaningful monitoring."
"If a challenge inspection system is not geared to pursue violators aggressively, then it does not serve U.S. security interests," the 65-page report states. The participants strongly favored establishing mandatory standards backed by penalties and "robust" inspections, which goes significantly further than the proposed protocol backed by the EU and other nations.
The State Department Web site has not yet been changed to reflect the change in policy. It says, "The United States is committed to strengthening the BWC as part of a comprehensive and multidisciplinary strategy for combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. . . . We would like to share these ideas with our international partners."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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