U.S. BWC Proposals: Useful but Insufficient

December 2001

By Seth Brugger

Although a good beginning, U.S. proposals to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) fall short of what is necessary for a well-rounded plan to combat germ weapons.

Improving upon member states’ domestic implementation of the convention is a logical place to start when trying to make the accord stronger. The U.S. plan also contains some common-sense non-proliferation measures, such as requiring states to secure and regulate access to dangerous microorganisms and to explore national oversight of “high-risk” experiments. (See U.S. Presents Alternatives to BWC Protocol at Review Conference.)

However, the package does not include mandatory investigations of suspect facilities and consultations on possible noncompliance. Making measures such as these compulsory is necessary for a robust regime that would help keep watch over BWC member states and hold them accountable for potentially illegal activities.

Instead of embracing rigorous non-proliferation measures to help curtail germ weapons proliferation, the Bush administration appears to place more stock in reactive biodefense activities. For example, the United States is reported to have undertaken secret biodefense projects, such as developing a biological-agent production facility and a model biological bomb. It is also planning to produce a genetically modified, more potent form of anthrax to see if the strain could defeat the anthrax vaccine currently used by the U.S. military. (See ACT, October 2001.) Washington rejected the protocol, in part, to protect defensive projects such as these from international scrutiny, but that approach is unnecessary and only breeds suspicion.

The United States can no longer afford to tilt its policy toward defensive measures. Combating biological weapons is difficult, and the United States needs every tool available to fight biological arms, including both biodefense work and non-proliferation measures. The administration must do a better job at striking a balance that will allow it to pursue both areas successfully.

U.S. allies and the international community should work to retain the best of the administration’s proposals but should not consider the U.S. package a suitable replacement for the protocol. At the review conference, BWC member states should push for challenge inspections of suspect facilities, which would help deter countries from undertaking germ warfare programs.

The Bush administration’s alternatives are certainly better than nothing, and fights over resurrecting measures from the protocol should not prevent agreement on any of the administration’s ideas. But BWC member states must make clear to Washington that non-proliferation is a high priority and that more robust measures must be put on the negotiating table.