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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bio-weapons Treaty

Air Date: Week of

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United States opposition to enforcement mechanisms forced the postponement of recent biological weapons treaty talks. Host Steve Curwood talks with Edward Hammond of The Sunshine Project about bio-weapons controls.



CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. With bio-terrorist attacks fresh in the news, the international treaty that bans biological weapons still lacks enforcement provisions. One reason? The United States firmly opposes a verification system that requires each nation to admit international inspection teams. Every five years nations meet to review this 1972 treaty, and at the latest gathering earlier this month in Geneva, American objections led to suspension of the talks.

I'm joined now by Edward Hammond of The Sunshine Project, an Austin, Texas-based bio-weapons think tank that's critical of the U.S. position on the treaty. Welcome to Living on Earth.

HAMMOND: Hi Steve. Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: Why did the United States object to putting an enforcement protocol into place that would include international inspections?

HAMMOND: Well, they cited two main reasons why they didn't want the verification mechanism. The first was that they feared that there would be spies sent in on United Nations inspection teams who might steal the U.S. bio-technology industry's secrets. And the second objection was that UN inspectors would be troublesome in U.S. laboratories, that they would be a distraction from the work of our scientists.

CURWOOD: The U.S. is one of, what, 145 signers of this treaty. Why did this objection on the U.S. part force suspension of these talks?

HAMMOND: Well, the convention generally operates by consensus. And so, moving forward, creating new mechanisms, requires that all the countries be in agreement. And what the United States did is they said that they would not move forward with any new legally binding mechanisms. And one step beyond that they said that they would remain in negotiations to prevent other countries from moving ahead without them.

CURWOOD: The U.S. did offer an alternative plan to make bio-weapons illegal. Why wasn't this enough for other countries?

HAMMOND: The U.S. didn't want any new legally binding, obligatory international mechanisms to promote inspections of facilities that were capable of producing biological weapons. And that differentiated the U.S. position from that of the European Union or developing countries very substantially, because they favor a new international regime that would include mandatory inspections of bio-technology facilities.

CURWOOD: The Biological Weapons Treaty was promulgated back, what, in 1972 or so. And the American negotiators put a lot of emphasis on their assertion that some countries that signed and subscribed to the Biological Weapons Treaty are violating it. And this summer they were naming names. They said Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and so on. How big a problem is non-compliance?

HAMMOND: Well, non-compliance is a serious problem. And, in fact, the verification system was intended to address that, but the U.S. has stalled it. The difficulty with the U.S. emphasis on non-compliance right now is that it really needs to be implemented in a fair way across the world so that all countries are subject to the same scrutiny. And the U.S. needs to present evidence. Unfortunately, so far, all they've done is denounce countries that they believe are producing biological weapons, but they haven't presented any evidence to back those allegations up. And it's important that allegations be investigated in a fair way across the world. So, if the U.S. is going to insist that Iraq or Iran or North Korea respond to the allegations that it's made, then the U.S. itself must also respond and justify its own bio-defense activities.

CURWOOD: Where does the United States stand, itself, in terms of compliance with the Treaty?

HAMMOND: There's a certain gray area, because the Convention permits research for defensive or prophylactic purposes. Now, where precisely the line lies between defensive and offensive research is something which has never been defined. I think that the program to genetically engineer anthrax or the activities building the production facility in Nevada and also the United States' promotion of the use of biological agents to eradicate coca and opium poppy in the drug war are all admitted activities on the part of the United States government. The question is how will other countries around the world eventually judge them? And a number of countries and a number of independent experts that work on biological weapons believe that the United States has already crossed the line.

CURWOOD: How do you think the events of September 11th may have influenced the American position negotiating in Geneva on the Treaty? I mean, terrorists aren't going to sign on to this Treaty no matter what.

HAMMOND: Yeah. Unfortunately, it appears to have influenced the U.S., in the sense that it has further backed away from international legally binding mechanisms to prevent the spread of biological weapons. And it's a political solution that's needed, and it's vigilance and inspections which are going to create a system where the political price of developing biological weapons is very, very high.

The U.S. position, which emphasizes spying and which emphasizes unilateral military action as opposed to an international collective cooperation system, is one that I believe will ultimately promote instability. And with the failure of the review conference, because of the U.S. refusal to cooperate, I fear that the signal that's been sent is that there's no consensus against biological weapons in the international community anymore, and that this might, in fact, spark a biological arms race.

CURWOOD: Edward Hammond is the U.S. Director of The Sunshine Project on biological weapons control, based in Austin, Texas. Thanks for talking with us, Mr. Hammond.

HAMMOND: Thank you. Thank you for having me.



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