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Appeal on Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity

25-09-2002 Statement

ICRC's appeal to the political and military authorities and to the scientific and medical communities, industry and civil society on the potentially dangerous developments in biotechnology.

  Page contents:   Summary    |      Background    |    Appeal - Full text    |    To all political and military authorities    |    To the scientific and medical communities and to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries    

 

 Summary  

        

 Alarmed by the potential hostile uses of biotechnology, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appeals to:  

        

  •  all political and military authorities to strengthen their commitment to the international humanitarian law norms which prohibit the hostile uses of biological agents and to work together to subject potentially dangerous biotechnology to effective controls.  

  •  the scientific and medical communities, industry and civil society in general to ensure that potentially dangerous biological knowledge and agents be subject to effective controls.  

 Background  

The " age of biotechnology " , like the industrial revolution and the " information age " , promises great benefits t o humanity. Yet if biotechnology is put to hostile uses, including to spread terror, the human species faces great dangers.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in keeping with its mandate to protect and assist victims of armed conflict, is particularly alarmed by the potential hostile uses of biological agents.

Potential benefits of advances in biological sciences and technologies are impressive. These include cures for diseases, new vaccines and increases in food production, including in impoverished regions of the world.

Yet the warnings of what can go wrong are profoundly disturbing. The ICRC believes these merit reflection at every level of society. Testimony from governments, UN agencies, scientific circles, medical associations and industry provides a long list of existing and emerging capacities for misuse. These include:

  • Deliberate spread of existing diseases such as typhoid, anthrax and smallpox to cause death, disease and fear in a population.

  • Alteration of existing disease agents rendering them more virulent, as already occurred unintentionally in research on the " mousepox " virus.

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

  • Possible future development of ethnically or racially specific biological agents.

  • Creation of novel biological warfare agents for use in conjunction with corresponding vaccines for one's own troops or population. This could increase the attractiveness of biological weapons.

  • New methods to covertly spread naturally occurring biological agents to alter physiological or psychological processes of target populations such as consciousness, behavior and fertility, in some cases over a period of years.

  • Production o f biological agents that could attack agricultural or industrial infrastructure. Even unintended release of such agents could have uncontrollable and unknown effects on the natural environment.

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

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. It is essential that humanity acts together now to prevent the abuse of biotechnology.

The ICRC calls on all concerned to assume their responsibilities in this field, before it is too late. We must reaffirm the ancient taboo against the use in war of " plague and poison " , passed down for generations in diverse cultures. From the ancient Greeks and Romans, to the Manu Law of War in India, to rules on the conduct of war drawn from the Koran by the Saracens, the use of poison and poison weapons has been forbidden. This ban was codified in the 1863 Lieber Code during the US Civil War and, internationally, in the 1899 Hague Declaration and the Regulations annexed to the 1907 Hague Convention IV.

In February 1918, the ICRC launched an impassioned appeal, describing warfare by poison as " a barbaric invention which science is bringing to perfection... " and protesting " with all the force at [its ] command against such warfare, which can only be called criminal. "  This appeal is still valid today.

Responding in part to the ICRC's appeal, States adopted the 1925 Geneva Protocol, reaffirming the general ban on the use of poison gas and extending it to cover bacteriological weapons. This norm is now part of customary international law - binding on all parties to all armed conflicts.

The 1972 Biological Weapons Conv ention significantly reinforced this prohibition by outlawing the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, retention and transfer of biological weapons. As regards new advances in biotechnology and possible terrorist threats, this Convention covers all biological agents which " have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes " and includes the means to deliver such agents. (Article 1, 1972 Biological Weapons Convention). The ICRC deeply regrets that lengthy negotiations to strengthen this Convention through a compliance-monitoring regime did not come to fruition as expected in November 2001. This underlines the urgent need for a renewed commitment by all States to ensure effective control of biological agents.

The responsibility to prevent hostile uses of biotechnology lies with each State. But it extends beyond governments to all persons, especially to military, scientific and medical professionals and those in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

 

    

 APPEAL  

 of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity  

 

Alarmed by the potential hostile uses of biotechnology, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appeals to:

  • all political and military authorities to strengthen their commitment to the international humanitarian law norms which prohibit the hostile uses of biological agents, and to work together to subject potentially dangerous biotechnology to effective controls.

  • the scientific and medical communities, industry and civil society in general to ensure that potentially dangerous biological knowledge and agents be subject to effective controls.

    

 The ICRC appeals in particular:  

 TO ALL POLITICAL AND MILITARY AUTHORITIES  

  • To become parties 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 biological agents with potential for abuse, 

  • 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 biological warfare 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 biological agents with potential for abuse, and

  • To enhance international cooperation, including through the development of greater international capacity to monitor and respond to outbreaks of infectious disease.

 TO THE SCIENTIFIC AND MEDICAL COMMUNITIES AND TO THE BIOTECHNOLOGY AND PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRIES  

  • To scrutinize all research with potentially dangerous consequences and to ensure it is submitted to rigorous and independent peer review,

  • To adopt professional and industrial codes of conduct aimed at preventing the abuse of biological agents,

  • To ensure effective regulation of research programs, facilities and biological agents which may lend themselves to misuse, and supervision of individuals with access to sensitive technologies, and

  • To support enhanced national and international programs to prevent and respond to the spread of infectious disease.

The ICRC calls on all those addressed here to assume their responsibilities as members of a species whose future may be gravely threatened by abuse of biological kno wledge. The ICRC appeals to you to make your contribution to the age-old effort to protect humanity from disease. We urge you to consider the threshold at which we all stand and to remember our common humanity. 

The ICRC urges States to adopt at a high political level an international Declaration on " Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity " containing a renewed commitment to existing norms and specific commitments to future preventive action.

Geneva, September 2002