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Swiss hail progress on biological weapons deal

Governments fear they could be facing more biological weapons alerts in the coming years Keystone

The Swiss foreign ministry has welcomed advances made at an international conference to review the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention.

The three-week meeting in Geneva agreed on a plan of action to break the deadlock in negotiations over measures to enforce a global ban on biological weapons.

“Switzerland is very happy with the outcome of the conference, considering the last review meeting five years ago ended in failure,” Francesco Quattrini of the Centre for International Security Policy at the Swiss foreign ministry told swissinfo.

The chairman of the conference, Masood Khan of Pakistan, said on Friday that efforts to strengthen the convention were “back on track”.

The conference agreed a plan to promote global adherence to the convention, including regular meetings between review conferences, and the creation of a support unit to boost technical cooperation between signatory states.

In a final document, the 155 member states pledged to step up checks at a national level and to increase the exchange of information between countries. The aim is to prevent pathogen agents from falling into the hands of militant groups.

Not binding

However, the plan of action is not legally binding – unlike the international inspection regime governing nuclear and chemical weapons.

The Geneva meeting did not discuss controversial international verification mechanisms for biological toxins.

The treaty bans the development and stockpiling of germ-based weapons, but has never had serious enforcement measures notably because of opposition from the United States.

But despite the lack of progress on this issue, Quattrini said all delegations present in Geneva had been very cooperative and constructive.

He pointed out that US representatives had come to the conference “in a positive mood” and that countries of the Non-Aligned Movement had not insisted on a protocol of verification.

The movement includes more than 100 states mainly in Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia that consider themselves not formally aligned with or against any power bloc.

The first expert meeting, which can take decisions by consensus, will take place in Geneva next August. The review meeting is scheduled for 2011.

swissinfo with agencies

The 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention has no provision for verifying whether its 155 member states are abiding by the treaty.

Public health experts say the most dangerous threats include lethal diseases such as smallpox, botulism, tularemia and anthrax, which killed five people when it was sent through the mail in the United States in 2001, and viruses such as Ebola.

The last review conference in 2001 collapsed amid disagreement over how to enforce the ban on biological weapons.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR