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Report on "Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity"

30-06-2003

Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Geneva, 30 November - 2 December 2003

 Document prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross
in consultation with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Item 5.3 of the agenda)
 

 


 
 
Executive summary 

 

The extraordinary advances made in the field of biotechnology can improve our lives in many ways. At the same time, the current lack of effective controls to ensure that new biotechnological advances are not used for hostile purposes is disturbing. The inability of States to agree on a compliance-monitoring protocol to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention underscores the inadequacy of the current response. Based on these concerns, the ICRC launched an Appeal on “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity” on 25 September 2002 urging governments, the scientific and medical communities, industry and civil society to assume their part of the responsibility to prevent this risk of misuse from becoming reality by taking a range of preventive measures.

The Appeal calls on governments to reaffirm, implement and reinforce the rules of international law prohibiting the use of biological weapons enshrined in the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. As a complement to the efforts made in the context of the Biological Weapons Convention, the Appeal calls for a ministerial-level Declaration by States, in which the y would reaffirm their commitment to existing norms and agree to take effective measures to prevent the hostile use of biotechnology. The ICRC is discussing with governments how such a Declaration could be adopted.

Still, preventive measures are necessary in a variety of fields in order to establish effective controls. The scientific and medical communities, as well as industry, must also contribute if an effective “web of prevention” is to be created. Key measures they are urged to take include the development of codes of conduct, effective regulation of research programmes, controls on dangerous research and agents and the incorporation of the concerns raised in the Appeal into scientific and medical education. Reaching out to these target groups is part of the current strategy to promote the objectives of the Appeal.

It is proposed that the Council of Delegates adopt a resolution highlighting the concerns of the Appeal. A common Movement position on this issue can add significant force to the ICRC’s Appeal, particularly as a preparation for the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, where parts of the measures called for in the Appeal are included in the proposed Agenda for Humanitarian Action. National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies can also make a significant contribution to achieving the concrete objectives of the Appeal by promoting it on a national level with key target groups.   

   
1. Introduction 

 

The extraordinary scientific and technological advances brought on by the “age of biotec hnology” can benefit humanity in countless ways. New vaccines, new cures for diseases and increased food production can profoundly improve our lives. At the same time, however, there is a growing concern that biological agents could be used for hostile purposes such as poisoning or the deliberate spread of disease. This concern has only been heightened by the failure, after 10 years of diplomatic efforts, to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention through the adoption of a compliance-monitoring protocol.

The implications of the misuse of biotechnology could be devastating to humanity. The ICRC, in keeping with its mandate to protect the victims of armed conflict, is profoundly concerned about this danger. While the main responsibility to prevent the hostile uses of biotechnology lies with each State, preventive action is required at every level of society to reduce the risk. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement must also assume part of this responsibility. It is an integral part of its mission to prevent human suffering and protect human dignity to help ensure that the life processes at the core of human existence are never manipulated for hostile ends.

As part of preparations for the 28th International Conference, it is proposed that the ICRC, the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their International Federation adopt a common position on this issue. The topic of “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity” is a key component of the proposed Agenda for Humanitarian Action, which will be negotiated during the Conference. A resolution by the Council of Delegates would underscore the gravity and urgency with which the Movement views these concerns before they are negotiated with States.

 

2. Background 

 

In response to its grave concerns about the capacity for misuse of new biotechnological advances and the lack of effective controls, the ICRC launched an Appeal on “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity” on 25 September 2002. The Appeal is aimed at political and military authorities, the scientific and medical communities, industry and civil society. It focuses on the “risks, rules and responsibilities” related to biotechnological developments and their potential use for hostile purposes.

 Risks - Advances in biotechnology carry great potential to benefit humanity. If these same advances are turned to hostile uses, they bring enormous risks   for all human beings. Examples of developments that give rise to our concern include:

· the alteration of existing disease agents to make them more virulent, as already occurred unintentionally in research carried out in Australia on the “mousepox” virus;

· the creation of viruses from synthetic materials, as occurred in 2002 using a recipe from the Internet and gene sequences from a mail-order supplier;

· the creation of novel biological warfare agents for use against an adversary in conjunction with corresponding vaccines supplied to one’s own troops or population;

· the production of biological agents that could attack agricultural or industrial infrastructure;

· the possible future development of ethnically or racially specific biological agents; and

· new methods to covertly spread naturally occurring biological agents to alter physiological or psychological processes, such as con sciousness, behaviour and fertility, in target populations.

These examples are profoundly disturbing. In the past, scientific advances have all too often been used for hostile purposes. There is a real possibility that new developments in biotechnology will be misused if urgent action is not taken. Many of these developments could make the hostile use of biological agents, including in the form of weapons, more attractive, more lethal and more difficult to detect.

 Rules - The taboos against the use in war of “plague and poison” – found as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Manu law of war in India, and in the rules on the conduct of war drawn from the Koran by the Saracens – have been passed down for generations in diverse cultures. The rules of international humanitarian law prohibiting the use of biological weapons have been enshrined in the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. These rules must be reaffirmed, implemented and reinforced. In addition, the impasse in diplomatic efforts to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention raises troubling questions concerning the commitment of governments to existing norms and to addressing the dangers identified above.

 Responsibilities - These risks and rules generate responsibilities for governments, the military, the scientific and medical communities as well as the pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries. The ICRC’s Appeal called on these parties to ensure that advances in biotechnology are not diverted for use as weapons or for other hostile purposes. Specifically, the Appeal urged:

 all political and/or military authorities:  

  • to adhere to the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention if they have not already done so, to encourage States which are not parties to become parties, and to lift reservations on use to the 1925 Geneva Protocol;
  •  to resume with determination efforts to ensure faithful implementation of these treaties and develop appropriate mechanisms to maintain their relevance in the face of scientific developments;
  • to adopt stringent national legislation, where it does not yet exist, for implementation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, and to enact effective controls on activities and materials with potential for poisoning or the deliberate spreading of disease;
  • to ensure that any person who commits acts prohibited by the above instruments is prosecuted;
  • to undertake actions to ensure that the legal norms prohibiting poisoning and the deliberate spreading of disease are known and respected by members of armed forces;
  • to encourage the development of effective codes of conduct by scientific and medical associations and by industry to govern activities and the use of materials with potential for poisoning or the deliberate spreading of disease; and
  • to enhance international cooperation, including through the development of greater international capacity to monitor and respond to outbreaks of infectious disease;

 and the scientific and medical communities, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries:  

  • to scrutinize all research with potentially dangerous consequences and to ensure it is subjected to rigorous and independent peer review;
  • to adopt professional and industrial codes of conduct aimed at preventing poisoning and the deliberate spreading of disease;
  • to ensure effective regulation of research programmes, facilities and biological materials that may lend themselves to misuse, and supervision of individuals with access to sensitive technologies; and
  • to support enhanced national and international programmes to prevent and respond to the spread of infectious disease.

To complement and reinforce the efforts of States in the framework of the Biological Weapons Convention, the Appeal called for a ministerial-level Declaration by States that would reaffirm the legal basis of the existing prohibitions of biological weapons and commit States to a range of preventive actions such as those described above.

 

3. A common Movement position on Biotechnology, Weapons and humanity 

 

To maintain the credibility and momentum of the ICRC’s concerns and help ensure that the objectives listed in the Appeal are achieved, a commitment by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as a whole to promote the Appeal is needed. National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their International Federation are encouraged to support the ICRC’s initiative on “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity” for the common purpose of protecting humanity from poisoning and the deliberate spread o f disease.

The current strategy involves two kinds of activity: discussions concerning a high-level political Declaration, and attempts to reach out to the scientific community.

 3.1. A high-level political Declaration  

The ICRC has invited States to participate in initial discussions to explore how the international community could adopt a ministerial-level political Declaration as called for in its Appeal. In connection with the launch of the Appeal, the ICRC prepared “Draft elements for a possible Declaration by States on Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity .” These have served as a starting point for discussion among States. National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies can contribute to the adoption of such a Declaration by encouraging their national governments to take interest in, support and ultimately sign it.

 3.2. Reaching out to the scientific community  

In part, the Appeal represents an attempt to reach out to the scientific and medical communities and to industry. This involves making contact with target groups such as medical researchers, academic scientists, scientists working in industry, and defence scientists, and explaining the measures they are being urged to take. The next step is to enlist support for the Appeal among national academies of science, major biotechnology companies, and other organizations, especially for the measures pertaining directly to their particular fields.

Disease surveillance, criminal law, public-health preparedness, international law, codes of conduct and education can all be instrumental in reducing the risk of poisoning and of the deliberate spreading of disease. Each measure taken in any of these areas is necessary, but none is in itself sufficient to reduce this risk. Preventive measures must enhance each other so as to form a “web of prevention.” This basic concept is a valuable communication tool to convey the need for a synergy of action between the different entities involved, and to raise awareness among them of their own roles in relation to the roles of others. The concept of a “web of prevention” encapsulates the full range of measures called for in the Appeal.

National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies can play a critical role in disseminating and promoting the Appeal among their countries’ scientific and medical communities as well as industry – i.e. among groups not usually involved in dialogue on international humanitarian law and humanitarian aid. The ICRC offers its support for these efforts.

Several National Societies have already promoted the Appeal among groups such as national medical associations, and some have organized roundtable discussions bringing key actors at the national level together.

   

4. Conclusion 

 

In order to effectively address the risk of new biotechnologies being used for hostile purposes highlighted in the ICRC’s Appeal of September 2002, urgent preventive action must be taken. The ICRC will continue to promote the measures proposed in its Appeal among its various target groups. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement can reinforce these efforts by adopting a common position on “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity” cont ained in the proposed resolution below. National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies can play a significant role on the national level by engaging in a dialogue with the relevant parties, raising awareness among the general public, and promoting the actions called for in the proposed resolution and the ICRC Appeal.

   

Resolution 

 

The Council of Delegates,

 recognizing that advances in biotechnology carry enormous potential to benefit humanity;

 deeply concerned by the risk that the same advances could be put to hostile use;

 regretting the inability of the Fifth Review Conference of States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention to agree on a compliance-monitoring regime;

 stressing the need to ensure that ancient taboos and modern laws against poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease are upheld and reinforced in the face of new scientific developments:

 1. endorses the Appeal of the ICRC on “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity;”

 2. encourages the ICRC, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their International Federation to promote the “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity” initiative with national authorities, the scientific and medical communities, industry and civil society; and in particular:

 a. to call on States party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention to resume efforts to ensure that these treaties are reinforced in the light of scientific developments and faithfully implemented; and

 b. to urge the scientific and medical communities and the biotechnology industry to ensure that the use of biotechnology for hostile purposes is prevented through the development of codes of conduct and strict controls on dangerous research and biological agents;

 3. supports in particular the call on States to reaffirm their commitment to the existing norms prohibiting the hostile uses of biological agents in a high-level political Declaration; and

 4. requests the ICRC to report to the 2005 Council of Delegates on the progress made in promoting the measures proposed in the Appeal on “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity.”

   

Reference documents* 

Agenda for Humanitarian Action , 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 2 to 6 December 2003   

Appeal on “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity,” ICRC, 25 September 2002.   

Summary report of informal meeting of government and independent experts on “Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity” held in Montreux, Switzerland, 23-24 September 2002. Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity 

 

 CD 2003 - 5.3/1  

 Original: English