Biological Weapons Treaty Needs Teeth

Debora MacKenzie is the Brussels correspondent for New Scientist, a weekly international science magazine

The U.S. and its allies go to the brink of war to get United Nations inspectors into guarded buildings where Iraq may be hiding biological weapons. And a Russian defector to the U.S., once a high-ranking official in the Soviet germ warfare program, says Russia continues to develop biological weapons under the guise of defensive research.

One thing has become clear: Whatever the U.N. team finds in Saddam Hussein's palaces, the world will be only marginally safer from the threat of germ warfare as a result of the inspection. That's because there is little to stop another nation or another fanatic or even Iraq once the inspectors go home from going after the perverse power that a bit of anthrax or botulin toxin has given Saddam. There is only one real answer: Watch everyone by finally giving some teeth to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.

The 140 countries that belong to the convention, including the United States, Iraq and Russia, have renounced using germs and their toxins as weapons. But there are no legal means to check whether members are keeping their promises. Even Iraq could not be inspected for biological weapons without special permission from the U.N. Security Council. Earlier this month in Geneva, treaty members tried again to put verification procedures into the agreement. The talks have been hamstrung by President Clinton's refusal to consider a type of inspection that European Union countries, and most others, think is essential to deter prospective bio-warriors.

While there are big differences between the U.N.'s unfriendly inspections in Iraq and the friendly, just-checking sorts of inspections proposed for the treaty, the Iraqi experience has taught us what works. Technical experts must be free to go anywhere--breweries, biotech companies, fertilizer plants which are perfectly legitimate but easily converted to disease factories--at random, on short notice. There are two major objectors to this approach: Russia and the U.S.

Russia was one of the major backers of the 1972 treaty. Yet in 1992, it admitted that it had kept its own bio-weapons program running all along. Indeed, it may still exist. Russia also rejects every kind of inspection but the kind forced on Iraq.

Russia wields little moral force in the negotiations. The U.S. position, however, is crucial to an agreement. But President Clinton wants inspections under the treaty only when there is already obvious cause for suspicion, say, an odd disease outbreak. Such clumsiness is rare, and when it occurs things have already gone too far.

Russia suffered one such incident back in 1979 with an outbreak of anthrax downwind of its closed military facilities in Sverdlovsk, now called Yekaterinburg. The world learned last month, from Russian defector Kanatjan Alibekov, just how immense Russia's germ warfare program was, and possibly still is, yet the anthrax incident was the only time the outside world had an obvious cause for suspicion.

And what about prospective bio-warriors messing with diseases more common than anthrax--severe food poisoning, for instance;would an escape of those germs raise anyone's suspicions? Even Iraq would not have attracted a suspicion-based inspection in the 1980s, when its bio-weapons program might have been nipped in the bud.

President Clinton argues on behalf of the U.S. pharmaceuticals and biotech industries that random inspections are unacceptable because they will expose trade secrets. But there are straightforward technical means of allowing inspectors to look for incriminating evidence without revealing a confidential gene sequence or production process. Some negotiators in Geneva are privately questioning whether the U.S. isn't hiding behind the worries of its biotech companies to avoid inspections that might reveal more biological weapons research than Washington would like to admit. A highly speculative, and in any case avoidable threat to industrial profit should not be allowed to undermine the creation of an inspection regime that might actually prevent the next Saddam. As long as governments and would-be terrorists think they can get what they want by waving a bit of anthrax around, we desperately need a treaty with all the teeth it can get.

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