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Science and the Environment

15-04-2003 Statement

59th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Agenda item 17 - 15 April 2003. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in keeping with its mandate to protect and assist victims of armed conflict is alarmed that the extraordinary recent advances in the field of biotechnology, many of which have a great potential for misuse for hostile purposes, have not been subject to adequate controls and oversight at the national and international levels. Our concern is heightened by the impasse, after ten years of negotiations, in diplomatic efforts to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention through the adoption of a compliance monitoring protocol. In light of these concerns the ICRC very much welcomes the 2001 Commission on Human Rights resolution on Human Rights and bioethics, which highlights the need for a life sciences ethic at the national and international levels.

The ICRC is fully conscious of the great benefits that advances in the biosciences have brought and will bring to humanity. But it also calls for further urgent action – internationally and nationally- to address the threats to humanity that these advances can also create.

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 on the " mousepox " virus.

  • The creation of viruses from synthetic materials, as occurred last year using a recipe from the Internet and gene sequences from a mail order supplier.

  • The possible future development of ethnically or racially specific biological agents.

  • The creation of novel biological warfare agents for use in conjunction with corresponding vaccines for one's own troops or population.

  • New methods to covertly spread naturally occurring biological agents to alter physiological or psychological processes of target populations such as consciousness, behavior and fertility.

  • The creation of biological agents that could affect the makeup of human genes, pursuing people through generations and adversely affecting human evolution itself.

Many of these developments will make the hostile use of biological agents, including in the form of weapons, more attractive, more lethal and more difficult to detect. The ICRC considers these examples of potential misuse, which have been identified by both governments and reputed scientific bodies, to be profoundly disturbing. The life processes at the core of human existence must never be manipulated for hostile ends. In the past, scientific advances have all too often been misused. New developments in biotechnology will almost certainly be abused if urgent action is not taken before it is too late.

These new realities led the ICRC to launch, last autumn, an " Appeal on Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity " . This Appeal (available on www.icrc.org/eng/bwh) calls upon all political and military authorities to strengthen their commitment to the prohibitions of biological weapons contained in both the 1925 Geneva Protoco l and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and to subject potentially dangerous biotechnologies to effective controls.

The Appeal calls 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 preventative actions. At this stage the ICRC is inviting States to participate in initial discussions to explore how the international community could adopt such a declaration. A draft Declaration to serve as a starting point for discussion among States is available for interested Governments. The ICRC would welcome dialogue with interested delegations on this matter. 

The ICRC Appeal is also addressed to the scientific and medical communities as well as the pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries. Each of these groups bears particular responsibility for preventing the hostile use of new technologies. Proposed preventive measures include the establishment of effective controls on dangerous biological agents, facilities and knowledge and rigorous peer review of the possible implications for hostile use of the technologies being developed, produced and exported. The ICRC Appeal also calls for the adoption of scientific and industrial codes of conduct and the inclusion in scientific education of training on the legal and moral responsibilities of scientists.

The ICRC welcomes the fact that other important bodies have also begun calling attention to the risks that unregulated developments in biotechnology can present. New initiatives in this area include the adoption in 2002 of a resolution by the World Medical Association on the responsibilities of the medical profession and governments in preventing biological warfare, and a resolution the same year by United Nations World Health Assembly recognizing that disease surveillance is an important part of combating biological weapons.

The Interna tional Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent this December will also address the challenges of " Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity " . The ICRC calls on governments and interested organisations represented here to assume their responsibilities as members of a species whose future may be gravely threatened by abuse of biological knowledge. The absolute prohibitions of the hostile use of " plague and poison " contained in ancient codes of war and modern international humanitarian law must be upheld and strengthened. Far from being abstract legal documents these norms may be one of the essential tools to protect humanity from its worst instincts and from the perversion of the fruits of scientific progress.