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CONTACT: Global Green USA
Green Cross International and Affiliates Organize Roundtable on Developing a Comprehensive Global Biosecurity Regime
Experts Urge States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention to Utilize the 6th Review Conference to Take Several Important Steps to Reduce 21st Century Threats of Disease Outbreaks, Biological Accidents, and Bioterrorism
WASHINGTON / GENEVA - November 29 – Over fifty experts, diplomats and representatives of international organizations participated in a day-long roundtable discussion on global biosecurity and biosafety issues – sometimes called “bio-risk management” – at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 8, 2006. Organized by Green Cross International and three of its national affiliates in the United States (Global Green USA), Switzerland (Green Cross Switzerland), and Russia (Green Cross Russia), the conference was hosted by United Nations Deputy Secretary-General of the Conference on Disarmament Tim Caughley and keynoted by Ambassador Masood Khan, President of the BTWC (Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention) Sixth Review Conference (RevCon). The general purpose of the conference was to raise key issues and recommendations regarding the prevention of, and response to, outbreaks of disease globally and to strengthen the existing international ban on biological weapons. This discussion took place less than two weeks before the opening of the BTWC RevCon in Geneva on November 20th (scheduled to run through December 8, 2006).
The Threat of Disease Outbreaks, Biological Accidents, and Bioterrorism
Although over three-quarters of the world’s nations have now joined the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) banning the use of biological pathogens as weapons, participants agreed that bio-threats still exist in several potential and serious forms: naturally occurring diseases, illicit, secret state weapons programs (including possibly those described as “defensive” military research efforts), intentional use by non-state actors and terror organizations, and biotechnology laboratory accidents.
It was emphasized that several examples over the past decade of disease outbreaks point clearly to the dangers faced by the world community. The outbreaks recently of ebola virus, avian bird flu, SARS, and other dangerous diseases all illustrate the ongoing threat of naturally occurring illnesses.
Several dozen countries still remain outside of the 35-year-old BTWC – some 25 less than have joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), indicating that there may still be some concern about state development of biological weapons. In addition, the lack of a verification and enforcement regime under the BTWC was also raised by participants as grounds for serious concern.
Terrorist threats have also been found to be real. The as yet unsolved anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001 killed five people, injured another seventeen, but impacted U.S. government operations and general security concerns in a major way. The non-lethal food poisoning attacks by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh sect in the U.S. in 1984, and the unsuccessful efforts by the Japanese terrorist group, Aum Shinrikyo, to use anthrax in 1993 (while they were testing use of chemical nerve agents as well) all emphasize the potential terrorist threat. Currently, the Al Qaeda terrorist organization has specifically stated publicly that it is seeking weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – nuclear, chemical, and biological – and recent reports indicate that it may be specifically researching biological pathogens for use as terror weapons. Moreover, it was noted that the lack of success in these terrorist attacks also indicates that bio-attacks face many formidable implementation challenges, i.e. to weaponize biological pathogens, and one must therefore not over-estimate the threat from terrorist groups.
Finally, participants raised the threats of laboratory accidents in recent years, which underline the dangers of working with small quantities of dangerous pathogens, as well as inadequate pathogen security at research laboratories in some countries.
Response Mechanisms to Bio-Threats
Participants agreed that there was no “silver bullet” approach to respond to these threats. In the area of disease identification, it was emphasized that the “speed of identification” of an outbreak is central to effective response. There was also much discussion about the need for a global strategy or roadmap for international cooperation, and it was recommended that the World Health Organization be much better funded and able to carry out its global mission.
Furthermore, experts and diplomats urged States Parties to the BTWC to utilize the 6th Review Conference as an “important opportunity for the international community” to take several important steps:
• To universalize the Convention, i.e. encourage non-signatories to join.
• To address recent scientific and technological developments in the biotech area in order to help implement a more comprehensive biosecurity regime.
• To confront the threat of bioterrorism by addressing the security of biological pathogen collections and research laboratories globally, including international trade.
• To develop a cooperative synergy amongst States Parties and non-governmental organizations in order to help establish a more effective global network.
• To make progress in holding States Parties accountable by passing national implementation criteria.
All participants recognized the need for the BTWC to take non-state actors fully into account, since this may be the most important threat, in addition to laboratory accidents and naturally occurring disease outbreaks, in the 21st century. The BTWC does prohibit the transfer of biological agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and means of delivery to any recipient whatsoever, but does not explicitly refer to the issue of bioterrorism, which was not thought to constitute a threat when the Convention was negotiated. Presumably, in combination with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, unanimously adopted in 2004, and UNSC Resolution 1673 in 2006, it does prohibit any support or assistance to bioterrorism and requires States Parties to take necessary national measures to prevent such activities in regions under their jurisdiction.
Some participants also argued the need for an expanded BTWC support staff – at present it is a small office housed within the United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs (UNDDA) in Geneva – to coordinate key goals of the Convention, i.e. to assist States Parties with National Implementation and to promote universality. Nevertheless, all participants agreed that the Review Conference was a time for reemphasizing the importance of the Convention and for initiating confidence-building measures (CBMs) to help strengthen and revitalize the historic arms control regime. It was also recognized at the same time that the three intersessional meetings held in 2003-2005 in Geneva were very helpful in overcoming the negative atmosphere left among States Parties from the 2001 Review Conference, and an emphasis was placed on the importance of further intersessional meetings in 2007-2010.