U.S.'s rejection of biological-weapons treaty foolish
August 7, 2001
Of all the international treaties the Bush administration has scorned, the one on biological weapons may be the most serious. President Bush's action was foolish and shortsighted and it will come back to haunt us.
On July 25, the United States rejected a U.N. accord that would have enforced a 1972 treaty banning biological weapons. The treaty prohibited the development and possession of such weapons but has no provisions for checking on suspected violators. They are the only weapons of mass destruction whose proliferation is not currently deterred by an international inspection system.
About six years ago, negotiations began to strengthen the treaty, and now a final draft is nearly complete. Every one of the more than 50 nations involved in the negotiations supported the draft, except the United States, which repudiated it.
The Bush administration claimed it rejected the provisions because they could hurt the U.S. pharmaceutical industry and our biodefense program.
This is bogus.
U.S. pharmaceutical industry representatives have admitted that they could live with the treaty's provisions, if necessary.
What's more, the treaty's text contains elaborate protections for both industrial and biodefense secrets and would not threaten the U.S. biodefense program, much of which is already unclassified information. Inspections under similar chemical-weapons controls confirm that industrial and biodefense secrets can be protected.
The administration also claimed that the treaty would be too weak to catch cheaters.
This, again, is ludicrous.
The treaty helps gather information that is unavailable without on-site inspections. With the treaty in place, an international team could monitor countries that violate the biological-weapons ban. As a result, there would be fewer cheaters and we would have a much clearer idea of who they are and what their capabilities are. And there would be a multilateral institution in place for dealing with violators.
History shows that unilateral approaches are inadequate.
The two known large military biological-weapons programs in the recent past -- those of the Soviet Union and Iraq -- were both suspected by U.S. intelligence but their scope was badly misunderstood. As the Iraq case illustrates, only by getting inspectors in on the ground can the international community assess the true dimensions of such programs.
As a result of the Bush administration's action, a number of nations may be armed with biological weapons in the next decade or so. This would dramatically reduce U.S. capability to intervene in regional conflicts to protect our interests, and it would expose U.S. soldiers and civilians to horrible dangers if we do step in.
Bush has suggested no alternatives to the rejected treaty, and there seems to be little chance of the administration reversing its reckless course.
The challenge for the international community is to find a way to keep the treaty alive until a more thoughtful administration has the opportunity to consider it.
The best we can hope for now is that the international community independently passes the treaty, even if this means doing it without the United States on board.
Otherwise, the Bush administration will go down in history as having crippled the world's efforts to prevent the massive use of disease as a weapon of war.
Mark Wheelis is a senior lecturer on microbiology at the University of California, Davis, and is a member of the Federation of American Scientists. He is with the "Foreign Policy In Focus" project and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.