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Functional Perspective on the Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention

11-12-2006 Statement

Presentation by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Special meeting on combating the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, their delivery systems, and related materials, Permanent Council of the Organization of American States Committee on hemispheric security, Washington, 11 December 2006

The International Committee of the Red Cross very much appreciates the opportunity to address the OAS Committee on Hemispheric Security on an issue of common interest and concern.

For more than two thousand years prohibitions on the use of poison have been enshrined in the codes of warfare of diverse ethical systems and cultures. In more recent times the 1925 Geneva Protocol not only reaffirmed the long-standing taboo not to use asphyxiating and poisonous gases but extended it to cover bacteriological weapons. With the adoption of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, States strengthened that prohibition by extending it to development, production and stockpiling.

Yet despite the existence of well established norms and customary law rules against poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease, there are ample reasons for vigilance. Developments in microbiology, genetic engineering, biotechnology and biochemistry are proceeding at a rapid pace. Many believe the twenty-first century will be the century of a " biotechnological revolution " . The results of such a revolution could facilitate the development and use of biological or chemical weapons either in armed conflict or as a means to spread terror among civilians.

"... effective prevention will only occur if all the stakeholders have a broad understanding of the risks (...). This should lead to the creation of a "culture of responsibility" within the scientific and industrial community, which is the most direct and effective means to ensure that humanity ultimately benefits from new advances.  
Therefore the ICRC calls for determined action by States to completely exclude the possibility of using biological agents or chemical substances as weapons in the future. Such action should include:
  • First of all, increased efforts to ensure universal adherence to the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention;

  • Second, the adoption of national implementing legislation, where it does not yet exist;

  • Third, an engagement of all relevant national actors in the implementation of the two treaties and in preventive efforts.

With regard to universal adherence, the ICRC invites States of the Americas who have not yet joined the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention to undertake the necessary political and administrative procedures in order to adhere to those two conventions. Three countries in the Hemisphere are still not party to the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, and three others are still not party to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.

The full impact of universal adherence for preventing the use of biological and chemical weapons as a means of warfare will only be felt if the obligations contained in the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention are implemented at the national level. States need to adopt legislative and administrative measures. Such measures include the enactment of penal legislation as well as ensuring security and oversight of agents causing disease, known as pathogens. They should also be drafted in such a way as to provide for the identification of technical advances in the biological and chemical fields which might be put to hostile use, in order to effectively counter such a threat.

Concerning the Biological Weapons Convention, all States in the region have legislation allowing for the application of at least some of its provisions. However, only a small number of these laws allow the complete fulfilment of the requirements of the convention, particularly with regard to laboratory safety and security, as well as to awareness raising measures aimed at the public health sector and the scientific and industrial communities.

Concerning the Chemical Weapons Convention, 30 States in the hemisphere have designated a national authority charged with enforcing the convention. However, of the 32 State Parties to the convention, only five States seem to have provided for the means necessary for the full compliance with this treaty.

In the context of improved national implementation it is also noteworthy to mention the regional expert meeting on weapons and International Humanitarian Law which was held in Buenos Aires in August 2006. 68 experts from 18 countries of the region participated as well as the Chairman of the OAS Committee on Hemispheric Security, and a representative from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Hopefully the detailed discussions and exchange of views which took place between governmental experts regarding requirements on how to implement both conventions will translate into concrete actions at the level of the States in the very near future.

As in the past the ICRC stands ready to support and advise governments on the development of implementing legislation through its network of legal advisory services. In this hemisphere, the main ICRC advisory service is in Mexico. You can have access to it through any of our delegations, starting with the delegation in Washington.

Scientific and technical advances in the fields of chemistry or the life sciences involve multiple stakeholders. It is therefore crucial for S tates to enter into dialogue with all these actors which include the public health sector, life scientists, industry, law enforcement agencies and the defence and security community. Only through such a multidisciplinary approach will all the relevant actors be in a position to come to understand their role as indispensable partners.

The ICRC hopes that the first links which have been established last year at the intersessional Biological Weapons Convention expert meeting between governmental officials and the scientific community will be further enhanced over the coming years. The central legal pillars are certainly the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, but effective prevention will only occur if all the stakeholders have a broad understanding of the risks associated with the scientific and technical advances. This should lead to the creation of a " culture of responsibility " within the scientific and industrial community. The ICRC considers that such a " culture of responsibility " is the most direct and effective means to ensure that humanity ultimately benefits from new advances. There is also an obvious need to ensure that all universities offering curricula in life sciences and in chemistry include at least one mandatory session on the risks, the pertinent rules of national and international law and the responsibilities of scientists to prevent the hostile use of their research and its practical applications.

States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention are about to adopt the Final Document of the 6th Review Conference. The ICRC hopes that the Final Declaration will have reaffirmed unambiguously the obligation of States Parties to respect and ensure respect for the absolute prohibition of biological weapons. It seems also most probable that States Parties will have agreed to an intersessional work programme in the run-up to the next Review Conference in 2011. Such an intersessional programme on various issues relevant to the Convention will certainly contribute to universalizing and further strengthening it at international and national levels.

With regard to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the ICRC sincerely hopes that in-depth preparations in view of the 2008 Second Review Conference of this convention will already start in 2007 in order to ensure that States Parties will be in a position to address successfully all relevant issues at that Review Conference, in particular those issues related to scientific developments and which might have profound implications for the continued relevance of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Now to sum up: considering the massive increase in the number of potentially dangerous agents and their proliferation among multiple actors, humanity risks losing the struggle against poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease. But this is not inevitable. We can minimize the risks by focusing our joint efforts on reaffirming existing legal and ethical norms and engaging not only government experts but also all relevant scientists and industry in cooperative preventive action.

I would like to conclude by going back to 1918. Following the use of chemical weapons in World War I, the ICRC issued an impassioned appeal, stating that if warfare by poison were accepted, and I quote, "we can only see ahead a struggle which will exceed in barbarity anything which history has known so far. It protests  with all the force at its command against such warfare".  

 Today, this appeal is as valid as ever.

 Thank you.