UK Proposes Boosting UN Bio Probes

Michael Nguyen

A British proposal to strengthen the capabilities of the UN secretary-general to investigate alleged uses of biological and toxin weapons has run into resistance from the United States.

At the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Annual Meeting of Experts, held in Geneva July 19-30, the United Kingdom proposed updating procedures enabling the secretary-general to investigate alleged chemical and biological weapons use. The procedures have not been revised since 1989.

British officials proposed the measure as a way to publicly prod the United States into reconsidering verification measures for the BWC. That treaty prohibits the stockpiling and development of biological and toxin weapons but lacks strong verification measures. In 2001 the Bush administration shot down efforts to craft a verification protocol, claiming that a draft was too deeply flawed and that biological weapons were “inherently unverifiable.” (See ACT, December 2002.)

The British proposal suggested updating procedures first permitted by a 1982 UN General Assembly resolution authorizing the secretary-general to conduct investigations of alleged violations of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons. This authority has been invoked several times to investigate alleged uses of chemical weapons, most notably during the 1980s when Iraq and Iran traded allegations of chemical weapons use, but no investigations of alleged biological or toxin weapons use have been initiated.

The 1982 resolution does not authorize the secretary-general to investigate alleged development or stockpiling of biological weapons. The scope of the United Nation’s work was last refined in 1989 when a Report of Qualified Experts set out technical guidelines and procedures for the process.

Richard Lennane, secretary of the Meeting of Experts, described the reaction to the British proposal as “cautious.” He said that, although many representatives at the meeting understood the need to update the secretary-general’s procedures and methods, some questioned whether such measures were useful, saying they were a poor alternative to the draft BWC verification protocol.

In addition to the proposal on investigations, the British draft suggested that states-parties revise procedures on how to calibrate and certify laboratories, make aircraft and equipment available for an investigation team to act quickly, and share national epidemiological information. Lennane said that the 1989 procedures for certification were outdated and were primarily intended to deal with chemical weapons, while the other procedures were not addressed 15 years ago.

The strongest opposition to the British proposal came from the United States. Guy Roberts, acting head of the U.S. delegation, said that it was inappropriate for the BWC states-parties to revise a UN mechanism, saying such discussions should take place in the United Nations itself. Moreover, Roberts said, available mechanisms in the BWC and the United Nations “remain viable and that revisions to their scope or procedures are neither necessary nor appropriate.” U.S. resistance also is based on its reluctance to proceed on any process that could create a standing inspectorate for biological weapons, either inside or outside the office of the UN secretary-general.

However, a western European official said that the U.S. criticisms were “off target” because any changes to the guidelines would take place through the United Nations, if at a December meeting, states-parties decided in their final report to pursue that course of action.

This Meeting of Experts was a part of the BWC “new process” outlined in the Final Document of the Fifth Review Conference in 2002. Rather than continue work on the draft protocol that would have added verification measures to the BWC, the Final Document established a series of annual meetings, beginning in 2003, to discuss scientific and technical methods of strengthening the convention.