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Swiss seek progress on biological weapons

Switzerland wants to focus more on the dismantling of biological weapons Keystone

Experts from dozens of countries, including Switzerland, are gathering in Geneva this week to discuss strengthening the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.

This content was published on December 6, 2004 - 08:04

The Swiss say they are hoping to avoid a repeat of the last review conference, which collapsed amid disagreement over how to enforce the ban on biological weapons.

Two years ago a proposal, which would have compelled countries to submit to inspections, was shelved under pressure from the United States.

The US said the system would have exposed American secrets. It proposed naming and shaming convention violators rather than sending in inspectors.

For the Swiss representatives, the lack of an agreement was hard to swallow.

“Switzerland was very much in favour of a legally binding instrument, like the ones that have been implemented for chemical and nuclear weapons,” said Francesco Quattrini of the Swiss foreign ministry.

“Nations aren’t disarming because officially they don’t have these weapons,” he added.

Quattrini maintains that it is difficult without inspections to prove whether or not a country has a biological-weapons programme. Most nations deny having one, or say they no longer have stockpiles.

However, he refused to single out the United States for the failure to agree a way forward in 2002.

“There were many poor states that were lobbying to have inspections dropped from the agenda and were quite happy to follow the US lead,” he told swissinfo.

Increased surveillance

The meeting being held this week in Geneva will discuss strengthening surveillance of infectious diseases and enhancing the response to suspected use of biological or toxic weapons.

But the Swiss say they would like to see more emphasis placed on dismantling biological weapons.

“The problem is that we are focusing on surveillance and on not on disarmament,” added Quattrini. “It’s not a programme that will improve the effectiveness of the convention.”

One of the biggest fears for signatories to the convention is the prospect of militant group such as al-Qaeda getting its hands on pathogen agents.

Governments are planning to establish a code of conduct for scientists, which is due to be discussed in 2005.

“Pathogens can be easily transferred,” Quattrini told swissinfo. “So scientists must be made aware of the ethical importance of their work.”

swissinfo, Scott Capper

Key facts

147 states are party to the BWC, including all the planet’s major powers.
16 others are signatories of the treaty.

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In brief

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons, was opened for signature on 10 April 1972.

The BWC entered into force on 26 March 1975.

The absence of any formal verification regime to monitor compliance has however limited the effectiveness of the Convention.

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