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Source: The Economist (US), June 16, 2001 p3.

Title: Bugs in the system; Biological weapons; The frail ban on
biological weapons.(International)(Brief Article)

Full Text COPYRIGHT 2001 Economist Newspaper Ltd.

THESE weapons make even seasoned generals quake in their boots. Colin Powell, commander of the forces that pushed Iraq out of Kuwait in the Gulf war and now America's secretary of state, once admitted that, as a soldier, biological weapons scared him "even more than tactical nuclear weapons". A dozen or so countries are suspected of dabbling in biological black arts. Scores more would have the expertise to do so if they chose. And though efforts are under way to shore up the complete ban on such weapons written into the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention ( BWC ), advancing science, together with diplomatic differences over a new "compliance" protocol for the BWC, is threatening to make it even harder than before to uphold the ban.

Several years ago plans to destroy the remaining legal stocks of the virus that causes smallpox-a disease supposedly now eradicated-were dropped on advice from America's intelligence services, among others, that North Korea and other countries were secretly experimenting with the stuff. Others suspected of illegally developing biological weapons include Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Pakistan and Syria (the only one in this group that has not ratified the BWC ). There are concerns about Russia, China and Taiwan.

The effort to bolt some monitoring provisions on to the BWC got a big push after Russia, one of its depository powers, admitted in the early 1990s that the Soviet Union had built up a huge biological-weapons programme. International inspectors then concluded the same thing about Iraq. The sense of urgency is now heightened by fears that scientific advances in the treatment of diseases could eventually be misused to attack particular ethnic or age groups. This would remove one of the biggest deterrents to the use of biological weapons: their unpredictable consequences.

Yet talks in Geneva on a draft protocol to help countries show they are keeping the BWC 's rules and to help show up potential offenders are stalled. Iran leads a group of countries that wants western governments to ease tough controls on trade in biological substances. This proposal is a non-starter. Meanwhile America in particular worries both that industrial inspections may compromise valuable commercial information and that inspectors will sometimes have too few powers to pick up signs of wrong-doing. A recent report by the Stimson Centre in Washington concludes that the business concerns are overdone, while the inspection regime as now proposed is indeed too weak to help uphold the ban. An American veto, or demand for a delay to fix the inspection rules, others argue, would put the talks at risk. Either way, the November deadline for a finished protocol looks optimistic.

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