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Bioweapons: ICRC urges stronger controls

15-11-2002 News Release 02/65

Geneva (ICRC) - The Fifth Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) ended in Geneva this week with a plan containing modest commitments by States to meet at regular intervals over the next four years.

While welcoming the fact that the agreement provides for a continuing diplomatic forum, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is concerned that the plan falls short of responding to current and potential threats from biological weapons. It therefore calls for further action – both internationally and nationally – to address those threats.

The ICRC considers that the 1972 BWC treaty, which bans the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons and reaffirms the ban on their use already contained in the 1925 Geneva Protocol, is vital for the security of humanity. Both these instruments enshrine the rule of customary humanitarian law that bans the use of poisons, toxins and gases in warfare. In the face of rapid scientific developments, however, it is now more urgent than ever that the rules governing biological weapons be strengthened.

In September 2002 the ICRC launched an Appeal on Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity calling on States, the scientific community, the biotechnology industry and civil society to ensure that potentially dangerous biological knowledge and agents are subjected to effective control. The Appeal also urges States to adopt a high-level political declaration in 2003 to reaffirm their adherence to the rules of international humanitarian law governing the use of biological weapons, and to make specific commitments to uphold those rules.

Indeed, there is an increasing risk that advances in the biosciences and the biotechnology industry may be misused for hostile ends, in violation of well-established intern ational law.  Today the potential for the use of poison and for the deliberate spread of disease is unparalleled.

The ICRC stresses the need for more effective practical action at future BWC meetings, and for other international and national measures to help contain the dangers of biological weapons.  It also renews its appeal to science and industry to shoulder their responsibility to ensure that advances in biotechnology are not misused.