What Future for Biological Weapons Control?

We have just experienced a barrage of media attention to the events of September 11th 2001. Much less attention has been paid to the memory of the anthrax attacks in the USA during the following weeks which paralysed postal services, caused widespread fear and disruption, and killed five people. Although the culprit has not been identified, there are strong suspicions that the anthrax — which had been ‘weaponised’ to ensure it would be spread as widely as possible — came from inside the USA’s own biological weapons research programme.

It has long been recognised that the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) has serious weaknesses. Unlike other arms control régimes, the BTWC does not even have a secretariat to monitor developments in science, push countries to ratify the Convention, etc. Basically, the BTWC relies on the good faith of its signatory states.

A group of leading states, including Britain, has been actively attempting to establish a verification and control protocol to the BTWC. Seven years of work by an Ad Hoc Group under the auspices of the BTWC culminated in a Chairman’s text which it was hoped would be agreed at an AHG meeting in July 2001, and then approved at the Fifth Review Conference in November/December. These plans were blocked by the USA which would not agree to the text at the AHG, and on the very last day of the review conference destroyed the proceedings by proposing the AHG be disbanded and its mandate to propose methods to strengthen the BTWC ended. This was rejected by the others and the conference was adjourned.

The US’s public reasoning for opposing agreement on the Protocol was that it was too weak to be effective, but as the US had previously been working on watering down the arrangements in the draft it seems that the truth is somewhat different. In reality the US is concerned about the extent to which a rigorously effective protocol would expose its own biodefence programmes.

In September 2001, the New York Times revealed that during the Clinton presidency the US had secretly built and tested a model of a Soviet anthrax bomb and constructed a facility in Nevada where ‘weapons-grade’ bacteria could be produced. This work would have had to be declared and could have been inspected, if the compliance and verification protocol had come into force. The US has always been anxious to protect its biotechnology industry on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, but secrecy inevitably builds the sort of suspicion which could fuel a biological arms race. The US should not need to be reminded that both the Iraqi and Soviet biological weapons programmes were hidden behind a screen of civilian activities. Although the US insists that its research is purely defensive, its very secrecy undermines confidence in US intentions.

The immediate response of the US to the anthrax attacks has been to further invest in biodefence, with an additional 3 billion dollars to be spent on biodefence research in 2003. No-one seems to have questioned whether this increased programme will be secure enough against the risk of individual or state-sponsored terrorists gaining access to dangerous agents. (The parallels with nuclear proliferation are obvious.)

Genetic technologies are at the forefront of this new research and scientists have talked of a “molecular arms race”. The anthrax used in the letter attacks in the USA was not genetically modified, but if it had, for example, been made resistant to the antibiotics used to prevent people exposed to the organism from developing the disease, the outcome could have been far worse.

Imagine the reaction if it had been revealed that Iraq had been involved in the secret production of an anthrax bomb, rather than the US! Double standards fuel weapons proliferation and heighten international tensions.

Most observers agree that there is little hope of strengthening the BTWC while the US is under the Bush administration. However, there is an opportunity for those countries which led the drive for a verification protocol to work with others to establish the practicality of some of the proposed systems, and to demonstrate their effectiveness — in much the same way as steps have been taken by many countries to ensure the survival of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in the face of US opposition.

The UK government has already identified a series of such steps in a recent Green Paper† and deserves encouragement to continue taking a leading rôle in developing compliance and verification methods.

†UK Government Green Paper April 2002

Based on information published by Gene Watch UK Briefing, 4 Aug 2002. http://www.genewatch.org

What sort of treaty is SORT?

The Bush-Putin “Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty” signed in May this year is beginning to seem a rather poor substitute for the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty START II which it replaced. Here are eight reasons to be deeply concerned:

  1. Even 3,400 strategic nuclear warheads are still enough to end civilisation as we know it.
  2. The weapons taken off active service can be stored rather than destroyed. (The storage process simply involves separating the warhead from the ballistic missile and storing them separately.)
  3. Only strategic nuclear weapons and not tactical ones are covered by the agreement (and the US has indicated that it is looking to have a smaller, more flexible nuclear arsenal — ‘bunker-busters’ and ‘mini-nukes’.)
  4. The existing weapons will remain on hair-trigger alert — the aging Russian arsenal being of particular concern.
  5. The agreed warhead numbers apply only to 2012 with no step-by-step intermediate reduction targets.
  6. Only 90 days’ notice of withdrawal from the treaty is required. (Both countries could therefore do little for several years without being in breach of the treaty, and then withdraw after three months without having taken significant action, if it became politically expedient.)
  7. Either signatory is allowed to return to any force level it desires after ten years.
  8. The treaty puts no restrictions on the development of ‘missile shields’, thus leaving the US free to continue with its development of National Missile Defence and space weapons.

Throughout this treaty, both countries are blatantly ignoring their responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to completely eliminate nuclear weapons. It looks more like a stitch-up between two major nuclear powers determined to retain their nuclear supremacy.

[Based on an article in SGR Newsletter No 25, August 2002]

One Year Later: Families for Peaceful Tomorrows

In all the media coverage of the September 11th anniversary I did not see any mention of the profoundly moving and dignified statement issued by the brave group of American families of September 11th victims who are united by their view that “war is not the answer”.

“Losing loved ones to these extreme acts of violence has affected us deeply. It is something from which we will never recover, not in one year, not in a lifetime, but in the days, weeks and months following that terrible day of loss we have received incredible gifts. We gained each other — because we spoke out positively about our opposition to war and violence... we gained the love and compassion of new friends all over the United States and all over the world....

“We have also gained critics, and their criticism has given us another gift. It has made us consider what it means to be an American citizen.... We have also come to recognize our kinship with other innocent victims of terrorism and war... people from Hiroshima, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, Iran, Colombia, Ireland.... For us September 11 was a day when the walls came down. It was a day when we realised that there were no barricades high enough, no bombs big enough, and no intelligence sophisticated enough to prolong the illusion of American invulnerability. Since that day, it has bcome clear to us that America must fully participate in the global community....

“The deepened awareness that America is an integral part of a shared globe is central to Peaceful Tomorrow’s mission.... We must move beyond seeking revenge and instead seek accountability for actions that foster violence. We must conquer injustice by creating a just world.”

The full statement can be obtained on

http://www.peacefultomorrows.org/writing/sept1102statement.html or from Joanna (tel: 8543 0262)

Maureen Sanders

We were very sorry to learn of the death of Maureen Sanders at the end of August. She was a stalwart member of WDC/CND for many years, loyal and selfless, and generous in her hospitality to us all. Sadly she had suffered from increasingly poor health in recent years.

The ‘greening’ of Aldermaston

A 13-page ‘public information leaflet’ published at the end of August told us that the Aldermaston atomic weapons establishment is to be transformed by creating tree-lined boulevards and piazzas, wildlife ponds, a recreational pavilion, and running and cycling tracks for the 3,600 AWE employees.

“We want to improve the appearance of Aldermaston from its existing industrial factory image to that of a science and technology centre — one that is more fitting to our reputation for world-class science and that will enable greater accessibility for the academic and business communities.” What the leaflet doesn’t tell us is that the £2·5 billion development includes new laboratories for testing the next generation of Trident warheads.

War is not inevitable!

The Movement for the Abolition of War is a relatively new group founded by Bruce Kent to continue the idealism of the 1999 Hague Appeal for Peace when a mass gathering of young people at the Hague produced an Agenda for Peace in the 21st Century.

Their message is simplicity itself: war is not inevitable. Human beings already have all the tools, skills and laws needed to abolish war. The international community could end arms sales, introduce economic justice, honour international law, support a reformed and democratic United Nations, develop techniques for conflict prevention and mediation, and give peace education top priority for the next generation.

“War must cease to be an admissible human institution,” says Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Joseph Rotblat. At the start of the 20th century 20% of those killed in war were civilians. Today the reverse is true: 80% of those killed in war are civilians. What hope is there for the poorest nations in the world if rich and educated countries such as our own persist in regarding war as an acceptable instrument of foreign policy?

At a meeting at Friends House on October 3rd psychologist Dorothy Rowe will talk on ‘Friends and Enemies’. Further information can be obtained from 11 Venetia Road, London N4 1EJ or www.abolishwar.freeuk.com

Campaign to Free Vanunu

Mordechai Vanunu (sentenced to 18 years for revealing details of the secret Israeli nuclear weapons programme to the Sunday Times newspaper) has now been in prison for nearly 16 years. At one of his regular visits to his brother in May, Asher Vanunu was asked by Mordechai to pass on the following message: “Thank you to all the people working on my behalf and on my cause. It is time to work on disarmament, here in Israel and all over the world.”† Some of the money raised by the Vanunu campaign is now being deposited into a special account to allow Mordechai some financial independence upon his release.

At the moment there is no certainty that the Israeli authorities will actually release Mordechai on April 22nd 2004, or whether they will let him leave the country. The weekly vigil outside the Israeli embassy (junction of Kensington High Street and Kensington Court) has been held every Saturday 12·00–2·00pm for 11 years and is committed to continue until Mordechai’s release — a constant reminder that Mordechai is admired and remembered. Over 225,000 leaflets have been distributed and more than £4,500 has been collected. Come along for any part of the two hours you can manage.

The 10th Vanunu Benefit will be held on November 16th 7·30pm at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square. Further details and tickets from Helen (tel: 8681 1060)

† It is reported that Mordechai is receiving fewer letters these days, so please continue to write to him —

Dr Mordechai Vanunu,
Ashkelon Prison

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