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ICRC Meeting with States on a Ministerial level Declaration in support of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, tentatively entitled "On Preventing the Misuse of the Life Sciences for Hostile Purposes"

30-01-2004 Statement

Statement by the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, Geneva, 30 January 2004.


On 30 January 2004, the ICRC President hosted a meeting in Geneva with States about beginning a process to draft a ministerial level declaration on preventing the misuse of the life sciences for hostile purposes. This follows on from the launch of the ICRC's Appeal on Biotechnology, Weapons & Humanity in September 2002. All States were invited to participate. The statement on this page sets out the ICRC's views. 

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me heartily welcome to you this meeting. On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross, thank you for attending.

Some of you are more familiar than others here with the reasons for the ICRC's initiative for a Ministerial level Declaration, tentatively entitled On preventing the Misuse of the Life Sciences for Hostile Purposes . The invitation letter to this meeting that you received sets out some of the background for the ICRC's concerns in this area. But I'd like to take this opportunity to offer a few additional remarks about why you've been invited to this meeting and what the ICRC hopes you will achieve.

The ICRC launched a public Appeal on Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity in September 2002. This is not something the ICRC undertakes lightly or often, but there is precedent. In 1918, in the wake of a devastating World War in which poison gas was used, the ICRC called for a global ban on chemical weapo ns in a vigorous public Appeal. This contributed to the achievement of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which formed the precursor for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

In addition, the ICRC would also be expected, in keeping with its mandate to protect and   assist victims of war, to respond to the use of biological weapons in armed conflict – a task for   which neither we, nor the broader international community are well prepared.

The ICRC's Appeal on Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity , launched 84 years after our first Appeal in this field, arises from the same grave concerns about the effects on humanity of poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease. In addition, there have been two disturbing developments in recent years.

First of all, rapid advances in the life sciences – advances which will be beneficial in many ways – also mean that the potential for their hostile misuse is increasing. Simply put, science is furnishing us with capabilities in biotechnology simply undreamt of before, even when the Biological Weapons Convention was negotiated in the early 1970s. Moreover, the technologies that underpin such advances are rapidly and irreversibly proliferating, just as they are becoming more powerful and potentially more harmful.

Greater understanding and ability to manipulate the building blocks of life should, in principle, bring with it greater responsibility. But our contacts with a cross-section of the professional life science community and industry have failed to reassure us that there's sufficient awareness of existing legal and ethical responsibilities to prevent poison and the deliberate spread of disease, commensurate with these life science advances.

In response, the ICRC has begun a policy of outreach to the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, to academic research institutions, and to scientific and medical associations in order to promote and disseminate this vital understanding. From this dialogue it's clear to us that a high level political declaration would send a clear signal to scientists and industry that their governments consider preventing hostile use of their materials, expertise and equipment to be important, and so should they.

For many years, practical efforts to prevent hostile use of the life sciences have been viewed by many not as universal responsibilities, but as something arranged by government experts at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Although such efforts are essential, there has been a certain lack of urgency to effectively reduce the risk of hostile use. High-level political understanding and commitment has been fleeting, at best. We need to turn this situation around.

The stark truth is that broader and deeper commitment is needed at a senior political level to tackle the difficult challenges involved in reducing the risk of hostile use of the life sciences. And, political leaders need to engage science and industry in this effort if preventive measures are to be successful. That's why the ICRC proposed a Ministerial level Declaration.

It's clear that the Ministerial level Declaration and its preparatory process could (and should) reinforce efforts in the Biological Weapons Convention process. This understanding was well reflected in the Agenda for Humanitarian Action adopted by the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent last December, including by all States party to the Geneva Conventions represented at the Conference. This exercise is not – and must not – become a parallel exercise to the Biological Weapons Convention.

With this in mind,   the question we have asked ourselves – and which we urge your authorities to consider – is the following:

 Is the BWC expert process more or less likely to succeed if it's accompanied by a high level affirmation of its noble purpose, and increased ministerial attention is paid to the challenges that the BWC regime faces?  


Our proposal is for a short, politically binding document to be adopted by Ministers at a well-publicised side-event during the 2004 UN General Assembly that would reaffirm existing international law norms, recognise the challenges they face and commit States to a range of preventive actions. The ICRC is prepared to do whatever it can to assist you, and to facilitate your work in this regard. But your governments will have to contribute the effort necessary to finalize a Declaration. It will be have to be agreed upon by you.

Today's agenda can thus be broken into two simple questions:

1. Is there a wide enough basis of support in this room to embark on a drafting process with a view to achieving a Ministerial level Declaration?

2. If there is the requisite will amongst you, is the approach and timeline the ICRC has outlined in its'food for thought'paper a reasonable basis on which to begin?

Since the launch of the Appeal in 2002, the ICRC has consulted informally with many of you on the feasibility and likely substance of such a Declaration. The overwhelming impression we have is that you would welcome it because you can indeed see the benefit of a high level political statement of support for international norms against hostile use of the life sciences.

A few of you have raised specific problems with a Declaration. Certain of you would like more references to non-compliance, others to assistance and cooperation, nuclear disarmament or to other issues than you have seen in the draft elements we have offered for your consideration. The ICRC understands the importance of these concerns, and appreciates why you have raised them.

Thus far, the draft elements have been fashioned the way they are – on the basis of your informal comments - in order to reflect the common ground found in international humanitarian law, public opinion and the preamble of the BWC: that we must

1. " exclude completely the possibility of [biological ] agents and toxins being used as weapons " , and

2. that " no effort should be spared to minimize this risk " .

We're very conscious that a final product will have to be broadly acceptable, as well as concise and straight to the point. However, if the international community is to achieve this, then it will have to be on the basis of constructive compromise that stays close to this common ground; that is, abhorrence of poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease.

You have studied the draft elements for a Declaration and will have noted that it is intentionally modest. In a few minutes we'll invite you to sh are your thoughts and comments with those in the room on the proposed Ministerial level Declaration and preparatory process. I would be grateful if you would indicate in your statements whether the specific reservations you may harbour would prevent you from trying to build political will, in order to make the world safer from the threat of poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease.

Following 16 months of formal and informal contacts on this subject, we hope this meeting will produce a clear indication about if and how to proceed. It's not a decision to adopt a Ministerial Declaration, but instead to begin the effort to prepare one .

To recap: we would invite you to address 4 specific questions, in addition to any general comments you wish to make:

1. Could such a Declaration bring " added value " to international efforts in this field?

2. Whether you are positive or maintain certain reservations, could you agree to participate in a preparatory process?

3. Is the " food for thought " paper a basis for proceeding? And,

4. Should such a process be facilitated by the ICRC or a State?

It's the ICRC's strong conviction that new, and increasingly perilous, circumstances call for a Ministerial level Declaration. This political reaffirmation would take the world forward in the context of the work of the Geneva Protocol and the Biological Weapons Convention, and help to minimize the growing risk that these vital taboos will be undermined. It's time to do the right thing.

I thank you.