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Disagreements could jeopardise biological weapons accord

Delegates are having trouble hammering out an agreement on biological weapons control Keystone

The biological weapons treaty that delegates to a conference in Geneva are trying to toughen may not be amended if the United States does not negotiate more flexibly, the chairman says.

Following a number of recent anthrax attacks, the US wants to increase criminal penalties for the use of toxic weapons, and has proposed that nations’ laws be changed accordingly.

However, the US favours voluntary measures, including making violation of the treaty a crime. Other nations want to take an even tougher stance, with some recommending mandatory adherence to the treaty.

The 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC) has no provision for verifying whether its 144 member states are abiding by the treaty.

UN role

Washington wants the United Nations Secretary-General to have the capacity to order inspections of sites, in cases where countries suspected that the weapons ban agreement may have been broken.

“We need imagination and some flexibility,” ambassador Tibor Toth of Hungary said at a news briefing on Thursday, the fourth day of talks.

Most of the US proposals have previously been approved in review conferences that upheld the members’ ban on making, stockpiling and using germ warfare weapons.

“Countries are not rejecting their proposals,” he said of the US position. “There is a difference in approach in that many countries, alongside the US proposals, would like to continue multilateral negotiating efforts.”

The negotiations would yield legally-binding arrangements, he said. The problem is to find “a common denominator” to come up with a proposal acceptable to most of the members, he said.

“There is strong expectation in the world outside for concrete action,” particularly in light of the anthrax attacks.

This week, a 94-year-old Connecticut woman died of anthrax. She was the fifth to die of anthrax in the US since September 11, when terrorists hijacked and crashed four commercial airliners, leaving up to 5,000 people dead.

Investigators have not determined whether the hijackings and the anthrax attacks are linked.

Before the five anthrax deaths in the US, “Nobody took seriously,” the possibility of a biological weapons attack, said Toth. Now, they do.

swissinfo with agencies

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