WASHINGTON -- The United States put a stop yesterday to an international effort, seven years in the making, to put teeth into the international treaty that bans germ warfare.
Fearing that proposed inspection requirements would expose U.S. commercial and military secrets to prying eyes, while offering few practical means of detecting covert germ-warfare programs in rogue states, Washington stood alone in rejecting the pact.
It was the latest in a string of international deals opposed by Washington and, coming on the heels of the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, sparked fresh accusations of U.S. isolationism.
The United States stands "alone in opposition to agreements that were broadly reached by just about everyone else," said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Senior Bush administration officials flatly rejected the isolationist charge, saying that Washington remains firmly committed to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which bans germ warfare, but that the 210-page plan to enforce it was unworkable and risky.
"It's not a case where the administration came in and said, 'Ah, another multilateral agreement we can trash,' " a senior official said.
He noted that the previous Clinton administration had similar concerns about the enforcement proposals, which would have forced U.S. biological weapons programs -- including secret work on antidotes to such weapons -- as well as commercial biotechnology companies to be open to international inspection.
"Those hundreds and thousands of biotech companies out there, that are not making biological weapons, [would be subject] to the same sort of inspection procedures as the Iranian Ministry of Health," said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"It provides us no upside, but poses substantial downside risk."
The United States fears that so-called rogue states may be secretly working on germ warfare and is especially concerned that terrorist groups will turn to the use of biological agents as inexpensive methods of mass destruction.
The problem with verifying a ban on biological weapons is that making a weapon and making its vaccine or antidote involves the same sorts of materials, research and laboratories, the official said.
Inspections would not necessarily prove that illegal weapons were being made, but could expose secrets about defences to such weapons. State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker said the draft protocol added "nothing new" to current U.S. verification capabilities, and instead posed "significant risks."
"We believe not having this protocol is better than having one."
Without U.S. support, the protocol is in effect dead.
John Manley, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister, rejected Washington's fear of having commercial biotechnology secrets exposed.
"We have a pharmaceutical and chemical industry as well, and the Europeans do as well, and we feel the protocol meets the requirements of commercial confidentiality," he said in a conference call from a meeting in Hanoi.
U.S. goes it alone
June 1, 2001: A Geneva meeting to draw up an agenda for a racism conference in South Africa ends in deadlock over whether nations that benefited from slavery should formally apologize and pay compensation, proposals the United States opposes.
May 1, 2001: President George W. Bush announces he wants to go beyond constraints of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile Treaty so Washington can develop a missile-defence system.
March 28, 2001: Mr. Bush announces the U.S. is abandoning the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that aims to cut emissions of so-called greenhouse gases. Other countries adopted the protocol this week, without the United States.
Jan. 2, 2001: A Bush spokesman says the new administration will demand changes to a treaty creating the International Criminal Court before sending it to the U.S. Senate for ratification.
Oct. 13, 1999: The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate rejects the comprehensive test ban treaty that aims to stop all nuclear testing, even though the Clinton administration negotiated the treaty and signed it.
December 1997: Washington refuses to sign the Ottawa Treaty that aims to rid the world of land mines, demanding an exception to allow it to use mines to protect its troops in South Korea. Washington refuses to go along with the accord.
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