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Source: The Economist (US), June 16, 2001 p4.

Title: Stop the clock, support the ban; Biological Weapons Convention;
Strengthening the ban on biological weapons.(Leaders)

Full Text COPYRIGHT 2001 Economist Newspaper Ltd.

IS THE century that was pockmarked by the tank and the atomic bomb to be followed by one blighted by the test-tube? Until now arms control has meant curbing numbers of countable tanks, ships, aircraft and bombs, or monitoring mostly prominent events, such as nuclear tests and missile firings, or even at a stretch tracking suspiciously large quantities of harmful chemicals. But the task of controlling biological-warfare agents-like the horrifying weapons they can be made into-makes the hair stand on end.

With the wrong knowledge, test-tube-sized quantities of bacteria, toxins and viruses could spread plague or smallpox, two of history's most virulent killers; or wipe out animal stocks with foot-and-mouth disease or swine fever; or destroy crops with rusts and blights. Marry this to modern biotechnology and it may be possible eventually to direct these easily-hidden horrors at a particular group, thereby removing a deterrent to the use of such weapons: their unpredictability.

All the more troubling, then, that the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention-known as the BWC -still has no means to monitor its sweeping ban on the development, production, stockpiling or acquisition of biological warfare agents. Thirty years ago there was no sensible way to do so. A new "compliance" protocol was due to be presented to a five-yearly BWC review this November. But the effort is faltering.

Since the next shot in the battle over the protocol is likely to come from the United States, where the Bush administration has made no secret of its unhappiness with some of its provisions, America will be an easy target for a finger-pointing row at the next, supposedly final, drafting session next month. Better for those who want to curb the biological menace-not even all BWC -signers do (see article)-to avoid a bust-up and find ways to build on the work done so far. For, if this protocol falls, there will be plenty of blame to spread around.

One country on which to spread it will be Russia, which for years maintained a vast illegal biological-weapons establishment, despite being a depository power for the BWC. It is trying to narrow the blanket biological ban in ways that will allow some research it has never quite stopped. Another blame-worthy country is China, which has no wish to admit snoopers to its labs and recently delivered a fierce attack on the draft protocol. Or blame Germany and Japan for wanting too many commercially-inspired restrictions on inspections.

And by all means blame America. It, too, has wanted to limit inspections to protect confidential business information in a lucrative industry. Yet its own inspection trials in 1995 and 1996 raised concerns about the limits being put on some sorts of visits (those aiming to clear up anomalies in declarations of work being done, not the tougher inspections to be carried out when actual wrong-doing is suspected). These could not clear the good guys, let alone snag the bad guys, making them worse than useless. Yet the Clinton administration did nothing. Some dispute the American results, but even some protocol supporters acknowledge these bits of the rules are weak. Inspections need to provide answers, not just more questions.

The purpose of the protocol has never been "verification" of the precise sort that can be applied to tanks or nuclear tests. In the biological business, under a sinister regime every brewery or yogurt maker could be up to no good. Rather, the aim is to enable companies and countries to demonstrate compliance, while using the process of declarations, visits and the close tracking of outbreaks of disease to make cheating harder.

Some of the protocol's critics in America are pushing to drop it entirely or renegotiate it all. Like the convention itself, it includes words they dislike about encouraging legitimate research and trade. But without these, many countries simply would not sign. Attempting a sweeping reformulation would thus scupper the entire effort. Other governments are keen to adopt a protocol in November no matter what.

A better approach would be to stop the clock and set a limited period in which to tinker with the protocol's inspection rules so as to produce better results. Such a proposal from America-it's broke here, so let's work to fix it-combined with wording allowing for the adoption of new and better verification techniques in the future, could produce a protocol really worth having. In the biological nether world, reliable information will be well nigh impossible to get without some international means to gather it and investigate it properly. If this opportunity is tossed away, it will not easily come again.

 
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