Combating Biological Weapons

By Crowley, Michael | UN Chronicle, June 1, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Combating Biological Weapons

Crowley, Michael, UN Chronicle

The tragic events of 11th September, coupled with the subsequent anthrax attacks and hoaxes, have greatly increased global concern over the risk of biological warfare, particularly bio-terrorism. However, the international community's attempts to strengthen the prohibition of biological weapons (BW) by negotiating a legally binding verification Protocol to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)--Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction-- foundered when the United States rejected the draft text at the July 2001 Ad Hoc Group negotiating meeting. This setback was reinforced and deepened at the fifth BWC Review Conference in 2001 when the United States called for the disbandment of the Group.

The United States position, taken as a result of its concerns over national security, corporate intellectual property rights and enforceability, has left unclosed a dangerous gap in the international control regime. What might then be done to make BW proliferation and use less likely? What role can the United Nations play in combating biological weapons? In discussing initiatives, it is important to examine areas where it might be possible to engage the United States Administration, and to build upon, expand and internationalize the elements of its proposals.

Tackling the BW threat should be a key priority for the United Nations over the coming years, as the likely consequences of inaction are stark. As Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the General Assembly on 1 October 2001: "It is hard to imagine how the tragedy of 11 September could have been worse. Yet, the truth is that a single attack involving a nuclear or biological weapon could have killed millions."

This article sets out the case for increasing the role of the UN system in BW control in four specific areas: supporting the BWC and enabling State compliance; criminalizing breaches of the Convention; disease surveillance and humanitarian assistance; and facilitating verification of compliance.

The case for reinforcing the BWC by establishing supportive institutions to promote adherence to the Convention has been raised repeatedly by its States parties, most recently at the adjourned 2001 Review Conference. The United Nations, particularly its Department for Disarmament Affairs (DDA), could well play a key role if such structures came into being. It has been envisioned that such interim supportive institutions I would comprise a representative committee of oversight formed from and mandated by the BWC Review Conference, and supported by scientific and legal advisory panels, and a small, dedicated secretariat. These bodies would be "interim" because their initial mandate would run only to 2006, when the Sixth Review Conference might amend or renew it; and "supportive" because they would support the effective operation of the Convention on behalf of the States parties collectively. They would give the BWC a focal point and continuity of attention in the five-year intervals between its Review Conferenc es. Possible roles for an interim committee of oversight and a secretariat could include:

* overseeing the effective application of the Convention and, in particular, following up the Review Conference's Final Declaration and decisions, and assisting States parties in implementing them;

* overseeing the operation of, and assisting States in complying with, the politically-binding information exchange confidence-building measures (CBMs), first introduced by the second Review Conference in 1987;

* facilitating the dissemination of information, such as Review Conference documentation, lists of States parties, CBMs, etc; and

* promoting universal adherence to the Convention and facilitating accession of States that are not yet parties to the Convention.

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