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Another Chance to Join In Is Wasted

by Jonathan B. Tucker

Copyright � 2001 International Herald Tribune
Monday, July 30, 2001

The Bush administration's decision to reject a draft protocol designed to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention is another damaging setback for international efforts to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Because the convention does not include mechanisms for monitoring compliance, it is basically a gentlemen's agreement - which was systematically violated by the Soviet Union and Iraq. After unsuccessful efforts to strengthen the treaty by negotiating a series of voluntary "confidence-building measures," member states of the convention established a forum in Geneva in 1994 to negotiate a legally binding inspection system.

Now, after six and a half years of negotiations, the United States has backed out. On Wednesday in Geneva, U.S. negotiator Donald Mahley argued that the draft protocol "will not enhance our confidence in compliance and will do little to deter those countries seeking to develop biological weapons." Moreover, it would put U.S. national security and confidential business information at risk.

Such an argument does not stand up to scrutiny.

The protocol, while imperfect, strikes a reasonable balance between giving member states confidence that other countries are complying with their treaty obligations and protecting legitimate business and national security secrets.

Because disease agents have legitimate uses in biomedical research and could be grown in commercial facilities, such as vaccine plants, the U.S. government has never believed that the convention is verifiable to the same level of confidence as other arms control treaties.

Instead, the key aim of the protocol is to provide greater information about, and access to, dual-capable facilities and activities that could potentially be misdirected for bio-warfare purposes. Such increased transparency would have a useful deterrent effect by complicating the efforts of countries to cheat on their obligations under the convention. The golden rule of multilateral arms control is that the rights and obligations established by a treaty must apply equally to all of the participating states. Thus if the United States wants to inspect bioindustrial sites in countries of proliferation concern, such as Russia and Iran, it must be willing to accept the same types of monitoring activities at plants on U.S. soil.

The Bush administration claims that the protocol would put valuable trade secrets at risk, but it has failed to work constructively with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries to devise practical approaches to inspections that would yield useful information without exposing companies to industrial espionage.

The U.S. decision to abandon the protocol, combined with its rejection of other multilateral arms control agreements such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, threatens to unravel the fabric of treaties that provides the main legal bulwark against the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Nonproliferation is one area where the United States cannot go it alone.

The writer directs the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program in the Washington office of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

Author(s): Jonathan B. Tucker
Related Resources: CBW, Treaties & Regimes
Date Created: 1 August 2001
Date Updated: -NA-

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