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Annan warns of risks from biotechnology

Annan spoke to about 600 guests at the ceremony in St Gallen

(Keystone)

Kofi Annan – on his last visit to Switzerland as United Nations Secretary-General – has warned of the rapidly increasing risks posed by biotechnology.

Receiving the Max Schmidheiny Freedom Prize in the eastern city of St Gallen he urged the creation of global safeguards.

Annan warned of "catastrophic" results if recent advances in biotechnology, including gene manipulation and work with viruses, fell into the wrong hands.

"As biological research expands, and technologies become increasingly accessible, this potential for accidental or intentional harm grows exponentially," he said in a speech at St Gallen University on Saturday.

"Even novices working in small laboratories will be able to carry out gene manipulation."

Annan's warning comes after he called in May for a global forum on biological terrorism, saying current treaties were too weak, and governmental and commercial initiatives too scattered.

Rules

He likened the current consensus-building phase over life-sciences rules to the debate around nuclear technology in the 1950s that preceded the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"We lack an international system of safeguards to manage those risks. Scientists may do their best to follow rules for responsible conduct of research. But efforts to harmonise these rules on a global level are outpaced by the galloping advance of science itself," he said.

He was awarded the Freedom Prize, which honours exceptional scientific, political and entrepreneurial initatives, in 2003 but ill health at the time prevented him from accepting it in person.

The chairman of the Max Schmidheiny Foundation, Professor Peter Gomez, paid tribute to Annan as a "guiding light in the struggle for freedom and as an exceptional figure who has given a human face to the idea of a world community".

Annan has already said that he will donate the SFr100,000 prize money ($803.900) to the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Geneva prize

On Monday, he will be in western Switzerland to receive a prize from the Foundation for Geneva, awarded for his contribution to the reputation and image of the city during his two terms in office.

Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger is due to give a speech at a ceremony attended by 500 guests.

In the morning Annan is scheduled to inaugurate the new building of UNAids in the city and also open the sixth review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention.

He is expected to stress the importance of renewed measures to help prevent both states and non-state actors, including terrorist groups, from obtaining biological weapons.

In an earlier message to parties of the convention, Annan said: "It is increasingly understood that bolstering the biological security regime has become a matter of tremendous importance for global health, and international peace and security."

The 68-year-old Annan will end his second five-year term as UN Secretary-General at the end of the year and will be replaced by the South Korean, Ban Ki Moon.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Max Schmidheiny

Born in 1908, Max Schmidheiny was a captain of industry who made his name in the cement business.
He was a longstanding member of the Society for the Promotion of the Swiss Economy.
He also had a number of appointments in the public sector and was a member of the cantonal parliament of St Gallen.
Schmidheiny, who died in 1991, founded the Max Schmidheiny Foundation in 1978.

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In brief

With the Freedom Prize, the Max Schmidheiny Foundation has since 1979 honoured persons and institutions that have contributed to the maintenance and further development of a free social and economic order.

Previous winners include Swatch chairman Nicolas Hayek, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Ruud Lubbers when he was United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Romano Prodi when he was president of the European Commission and Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

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Kofi Annan

As the seventh UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan began his first term in office in 1997 and was appointed by acclamation for a second term in 2001. He retires at the end of the year.

Switzerland joined the UN in 2002 after a nationwide vote.

Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger recently commented that "many Swiss voted for the UN because the organisation had the face of Kofi Annan."

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