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UN: U.S. Names States Suspected Of Germ-Warfare Programs

  • Robert McMahon

A meeting to review the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention has begun with a U.S. decision to "name and shame" countries it believes are violating the treaty. Those accusations, against Iraq and Iran among others, are not new to arms-control experts, but it is not clear whether the U.S. charges will lead to any new international agreement on how to verify compliance with the biological weapons treaty.

United Nations, 20 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. State Department official has begun a three-week conference on strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention by naming five countries believed to be developing germ-warfare programs.

U.S. Undersecretary for Arms Control John Bolton said yesterday in Geneva that Iraq, North Korea, and "probably Iran" -- all signatories of the 1972 treaty -- are developing biological weapons. He said Libya and Syria also are believed to have such weapons, and Sudan has expressed strong interest in such a program.

All of the countries cited deny the charges.

Bolton said the U.S. decision to name countries at a diplomatic treaty review session highlights growing concern about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction since the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that killed an estimated 4,500 people.

He also reaffirmed U.S. opposition to a legally binding inspection plan for the biological-weapons treaty, which had been negotiated for more than five years. Bolton said a protocol on inspections would not be effective against countries and non-state actors already believed to have germ-warfare programs: "Just as we can no longer rely solely on traditional means to fight a war against terrorism, we need to look beyond traditional arms control measures to deal with the complex and dangerous threats posed by biological weapons."

Bolton made alternative proposals to strengthening the treaty, including a call for member states to tighten export and domestic controls against such materials, and intensify dialogue on nonproliferation issues.

He also proposed empowering the United Nations secretary-general to order inspections of sites when there is suspicion that the treaty has been broken. But UN Undersecretary-General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala told reporters it would be difficult for the secretary-general to initiate investigations without a mandate from the UN Security Council.

Bolton spoke with special concern about Iraq, saying the United States strongly suspects Iraq has taken advantage of three years without UN inspections to improve its offensive biological weapons. He said the existence of such a program is "beyond dispute."

Iraq's ambassador in Geneva, Samir Al-Nima, rejected the charges. He said the 11-year-old UN inspections regime has made it impossible for Iraq to accumulate the kind of materials needed for biological weapons.

Al-Nima told United Nations Radio that he fears the accusations from Bolton are a precursor to U.S. military operations against Iraq: "They are envisaging Iraq as a target, a second target for an attack. We view Bolton's statement very seriously as a prelude to aggression against Iraq."

The Iraqi ambassador also repeated Baghdad's opposition to further UN weapons inspections, which are a condition for lifting economic sanctions. He said Iraq would agree to such inspections only on condition that other countries in the Middle East -- namely Israel -- are also inspected for weapons of mass destruction: "We reject the idea that Iraq only be singled out. We think this is a discriminatory policy. It's aimed to put pressure on Iraq for a political purpose, and we are determined not to accept or not yield to such policy of blackmailing or pressuring of Iraq."

Jonathan Tucker is a former biological-weapons inspector for the United Nations in Iraq and currently works on nonproliferation issues at the independent Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Tucker tells RFE/RL that it is particularly important to have on-site inspections for germ weapons, which are easier to shield than chemical or nuclear weapons. He says commercial plants used to make vaccines or bio-pesticides can be converted to the clandestine production of biological weapons: "That's exactly what Iraq did. That was Iraq's strategy. They tried to veil the illicit production of biological weapons under the cover of legitimate activity. So that means that you can't obviously look into a vaccine plant from a satellite. You have to get on site."

But the United States opposes making any such inspections a mandatory part of the Biological Weapons Convention. It argues, in part, that this would open up its military and industrial research centers to the world, while not guaranteeing that other countries are following the same rules.

Rachel Bronson is deputy director of the national security program at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. She tells RFE/RL she was surprised by Undersecretary Bolton's statement in Geneva, which focused on the alleged abuses of mostly Muslim and Arab states.

She says this risks antagonizing the Muslim and Arab world at a time in which the United States is trying to build support for its international antiterror campaign and finish its war in Afghanistan: "What strikes me as strange is that John Bolton decided to up the ante [raise pressure] by naming names in a public forum like Geneva, rather than leave it to internal documents, like State Department documents, that we've relied on in the past. It's a strange time, and I don't think it's a smart time to change policy on that."

Bronson believes the United States will face a lot of opposition in the Arab world and elsewhere to its position at the Geneva conference, which ends on 7 December. She says this will likely result in a moderation of the U.S. position.

Tucker says the administration of President George W. Bush appears to be committed to protecting the U.S. pharmaceutical industry at the expense of strengthening the treaty. U.S. pharmaceutical firms have opposed binding inspections as an intrusion on intellectual property.

Tucker acknowledges that most of the burdens of an inspection protocol would have to be assumed by Western states, which have the largest bio-technology and pharmaceutical facilities. But he says an inspection standard should be broad rather than narrow: "There will always be countries that either stay out of the regime or refuse to comply. But the question is, should one design a regime for those pariah states or for the vast majority of states that are either in good compliance or are more likely to cooperate with the [inspection] regime?"

Other speakers on the first day of the biological treaty conference included Russia, China, and Canada, which expressed support for a multilateral, legally binding treaty.

In his statement, Bolton said there are states other than the ones he named which the United States will be contacting privately to discuss whether they are pursuing offensive biological-weapons programs. Among those states are believed to be Russia, China, and Israel.