Bush treaty moves put us in danger

September 05, 2001|By Barbara Hatch Rosenberg

PURCHASE, N.Y. - Once again, with critical global interests at stake, the Bush administration has blocked action by the rest of the world - this time on a vital treaty to monitor the ban on biological weapons.

After nearly seven years of negotiations in Geneva, what was intended to be the final session to complete the treaty ended Aug. 17 in disarray.

The administration decision reverses a bipartisan drive since the Nixon era to augment international biological weapon controls. The reversal comes at a particularly critical time - when biotechnology is unleashing powerful discoveries that could be misused to tailor new diseases for deliberate spread as weapons.

There are 143 countries involved in negotiating a treaty to monitor compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, which outlaws development and possession of such weapons but has no verification provisions.

Rejection of the biological weapons treaty follows an administration pattern of arrogance in conducting foreign policy that seems almost designed to create antagonism.

To avoid another publicity fiasco like the one that followed its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the White House announced that the U.S. delegation would remain after rejecting the biological weapons treaty until the negotiating session disbanded in order to prevent other nations from reaching a biological weapons agreement among themselves.

The reasons given for rejecting the treaty are disingenuous and intended for a public audience that lacks sufficient technical information to evaluate them. The administration insists that the treaty is too weak even though its weak points reflect concessions insisted upon earlier by the United States.

It objects that the treaty would not catch cheaters with certainty, although the chief U.S. negotiator, Ambassador Donald Mahley, has testified in Congress that it would "complicate the efforts of countries to cheat."

And the administration claims that the treaty would threaten confidential national security and commercial proprietary information even though the treaty has greater confidentiality safeguards and is less intrusive than the Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by President Bush's father in 1993 and ratified by the Senate.

The administration's true motivation has been amply demonstrated since it took office: a philosophical aversion to the restrictions imposed by any treaty.

Provisions for safeguarding confidential bio-defense and business information are necessary, of course, and their adequacy in the draft treaty is attested by the strong support of every U.S. ally and all of Europe, Latin America, Japan and many other countries.

During the drafting of the treaty, our allies consulted with and had the support of their biotech and pharmaceutical industries, many of them multinational corporations with headquarters or affiliates in the United States.

Americans will be a prime target if these weapons are ever used either strategically or as an instrument of terror. Even if they are never used, the proliferation of biological weapons could lead to the escape of deadly genetically engineered germs from laboratories and the permanent establishment of new and uncontrollable diseases in the biosphere.

There are no weapons that can "take out" an epidemic, nor are there any defensive measures for protecting the public from biological weapons.

Although preparations for limiting or responding to a biological attack are important, we can't afford to turn down any measure that would contribute to prevention. Unilateral actions alone won't do it.

Refusing to join the rest of the world may turn out to be a costly U.S. mistake.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg is chairwoman of the Federation of American Scientists' Working Group on Biological Weapons and a research professor of natural science at the State University of New York at Purchase.

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