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US Policy Risks undermining Bioweapons Control Regime

by Daphne Biliouri and Tamara Makarenko
Jane Intelligence Review, 1 October 2001
Posted at globalresearch.ca 1 October 2001


The USA's failure to sign the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention and its role as a leading advocate and developer of biological fungi and viruses aimed at narcotics eradication is, according to opponents of Washington's policies, the beginning of the end of the worldwide ban on bioweapons. Daphne Biliouri and Tamara Makarenko report.

As state concerns about security cover an ever wider spectrum of issues, the use of biological weapons for defence purposes has attracted growing attention in recent years. With the 5th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC) taking place in November 2001, combined with the recent failure to finalise a protocol that would strengthen the BTWC, the international community finds itself faced with yet another challenge.

The BTWC was originally established in 1972 to ban the development of biological weapons. It aims to cover the use of genetically- modified biological weapons and the development of all biological agents and toxins used for hostile purposes. One of the aspects of the BTWC that has attracted international attention is the need to define the boundaries of how biological agents are used in drug control. Recently, biological agents have been used for narcotic crop eradication in South America and in Asia.

Efforts to strengthen the BTWC emerged after the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) established a project to develop a fungus that could be used to eradicate coca and opium poppy crops. Highlighting the controversy surrounding the initiation of this project is the adoption of the name 'agent green' by organisations and states holding the belief that anti-drug crop agents are comparable to the herbicide 'agent orange' used during the Vietnam war.

Among the groups dedicated to establishing and strengthening the BTWC has been the Sunshine Project - an international non- governmental organisation (NGO) created in 1999 dedicated to distributing information on biological weapons and to stop the use of microbial agents against narcotic crops. A leading concern for the organisation is that certain scientific (biological) advances may undermine peace, disarmament, health and the environment, thus leading the Sunshine Project to promote research and public awareness in order to establish an international consensus to stop the use of biological weapons.

Since 1972, more than 140 countries have signed the BTWC. The majority of these states have subsequently begun to introduce national legislation to enhance the aims of the convention. As with many UN conventions, however, there was no way to enforce the BTWC. This changed in 1995 when a protocol was introduced to ensure the convention could be enforced. This protocol, known as the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, was eventually adopted in January 2000 and was opened for signing in May 2000. Despite many states expressing their intention to sign the protocol, the US withdrawal from the first round of negotiations of the BTWC in July 2001 has crippled any efforts to establish global measures against biological weapons.

US policy interests

The USA's refusal to sign the BTWC has also complicated debates about the role of biotechnology for defence purposes and for drug control. During the July 2001 negotiations, the USA demonstrated its overarching interest was to ensure the secrecy of biodefence projects over international weapons control. It openly expressed its priority of preserving national control over the development of biological agents, and stated it had no interest in seeing the development of an international verification system. In his capacity as the chief US negotiator on biological weapons, US Ambassador Don Mahley declared: "The United States is the world leader in biotechnology. The cost of early research and development is enormous. Providing others with the means to avoid such costs or to obtain process information for unfair competition would endanger not only the industry, but the benefits that industry provides to the entire world."

Following the same approach it used in withdrawing from the climate change talks of the Kyoto protocol and its disavowal of the ABM treaty, for a third time running the USA appears to be placing global security in jeopardy. Despite advocating the importance of international co-operation in ensuring global security, US withdrawal from the BTWC reveals that Washington prefers national measures to an international watchdog established through the UN system. Ignoring the willingness of other countries in the international community to compromise and finalise a protocol text before the BTWC's fifth review conference, the USA remains silent. A gesture that confirms Washington's lack of interest to ensure the verification of the protocol.

Given no guarantee that the protocol will ensure the complete control of the illicit use of biotechnology, the US government argues that it should be ignored - despite the fact that the majority of experts and states agree that deterrence should be the goal. The Sunshine Project calls the US position the 'wing and a prayer doctrine'. Edward Hammond explains: "The wing and a prayer doctrine is a dangerous substitute for UN verification. The wings are those of cruise missiles streaking toward a suspected bioweapons facility. The prayers are for US intelligence to be right. The consequences are fatal... and a further destabilising breakdown of international co-operation to avert biological warfare. It is a flawed doctrine that proposes eliminating single threats while creating many more."

Despite the uncompromising position of the US, there are positive aspects to the US reaction. For example: "While eventual US ratification is highly desirable, the USA's self-imposed exile opens possibilities of strengthening the protocol in deficient areas, where the US was obstructive, such as declarations, visits, and export controls," states Jan van Aken, a biologist working for the Sunshine Project.

Based on these needs, other groups of states - such as the European Union and the African Union - are willing to set more stringent measures. A current example of relatively stringent control of biotechnology for defence purposes are the legal penalties introduced in Africa. In August 2001, following the failure of the negotiations of the BTWC, the African Union introduced a new model law to control future biotechnology research and development on the basis of the UN's biosafety protocol. This is an exemplary action showing that African states have taken the lead in addressing the dangers posed by the abuse of biotechnology on 'human health, biological diversity, the environment, or property'.

In addition to African efforts, an alliance of more than 100 international organisations called on 'all governments to undertake every effort to reach consensus on a strong protocol' - a view that was also shared by the European Parliament in the form of a resolution passed in February 2001. The resolution indicated that the European Union "must take the necessary steps to secure an end to the large-scale use of chemical herbicides and prevent the introduction of biological agents such as fusarium oxysporum, given the dangers of their use to human health and the environment alike". Commissioner Paul Nielson, speaking on behalf of the European Commission, declared that he was "completely in agreement" with sponsor Joaquim Miranda of Portugal, who specifically attacked the eradication of narcotic crops with biological agents as dangerous for biodiversity. This decision was viewed as a blow to the use of biological agents in drug eradication, and as an important step towards a global ban on the use of biological weapons against illicit crops. According to van Aken, Europe has a critical role to play: "It is now time for Europe to make it unmistakably clear to the Bush administration that it will not tolerate a third treaty to be trashed by short-sighted American policy."

The war on drugs

The USA has played a leading role in developing biological fungi and viruses that primarily target the opium poppy, marijuana and coca plants. These agents are designed to kill plants at a high rate once they are sprayed in drug-producing areas - such as those found in the Americas and Asia. However, there are major concerns that some of these agents can spread uncontrollably with devastating effects on the environment and the health of people and animals in the targeted areas.

Despite unanswered questions about the security of biological agents in the use against drugs crops, the USA and, to a lesser extent, the UNDCP, remains adamant that they are potentially the most efficient way to stop the agricultural production of illicit narcotics. Arguably cheaper than targeting demand, and/or focusing more resources to securing borders to stop the transportation of narcotics, biological agents are seen as a panacea. Regardless of their effectiveness in destroying drugs crops, the use of biological agents may prove to produce more threats than they eliminate, such as wreaking havoc on the legal agricultural sectors of target areas. Furthermore, Washington's refusal to consider the negative aspects of biological agents has given the impression that it is merely using the war on drugs to justify its own bioweapons research - confirmed by the fact that the USA wants to maintain national control over its own bioweapon projects.

The most publicised eradication project has been in Colombia where, for the past decade, the coca-killing fungus fusarium oxysporum has been developed and used by the UNDCP with the help of US funding. To ensure that Colombia would comply with the project, the US government linked the application of 'agent green' to a US$1.3 billion aid package (Plan Colombia). Although in his last year in office former US President Bill Clinton did attempt to lift the pressure placed on the Colombian government by promising the financial aid package without conditions for the use of biological agents for drug control, the Bush administration appears ready to pressure Colombia and other Andean states again.

The second project in which biological agents have been developed and used against narcotics crops has been taking place in Central Asia since 1995. The US Department of Agriculture co-operated with research institutes in Kazakhstan and Russia to identify fungi that attack cannabis and opium. Field trials have been held in Krasnodar, Russia and near Almaty in Kazakhstan. In addition, another project has been taking place at the Institute of Genetics in Tashkent, Uzbekistan - allegedly a large bioweapons facility during the Soviet period. The institute has developed a fungus called pleospora papaveracea to kill opium poppy. Since February 1998, the institute has signed a contract with the UNDCP to develop this fungus for drug eradication programmes in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. Funded by the USA and UK, field trials have already been conducted in all four states. It is worth noting, however, that both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have recently refused to hold further field trials with this fungus.

Criticism directed against both projects has been rapidly increasing as evidence on the risks that these biological agents have on the environment and the health of the population are uncovered. For example, scientific studies have revealed that both fungi are not host specific and, therefore, can irreversibly damage other species of plants that are cultivated for industrial production. Four close relative species of the coca plant have already been listed as endangered, while certain strains of the fungi can cause sustained damage to the soil for years. This is an important consideration given that most states in the Andean region and Central Asia depend on their agricultural industries. Should future drug-eradication programmes include the use of biological agents, efforts to control the drugs trade may inadvertently lead to further economic crises. In regions already suffering from the perils of poor socio-economic conditions, this may create an additional pressure on domestic and regional security.

Most disturbing, however, is the toxic nature of the fungi that can affect animals and people. Although UNDCP researchers have reportedly complained of respiratory difficulties due to exposure to pleospora papaveracea, it has not deterred the continuation of the project, nor did it raise any concerns about the implications to the health of the local population. Instead, the UN supervisor of the project in Uzbekistan, Sandro Tucci, dismissed these fears: "The idea that this is some kind of plot from Dr No - that a monster is being created in a laboratory - is nonsense. The United Nations does not engage in these kinds of things." UNDCP experts went on to state that control of the use of these fungi will diminish the success of drug eradication and that the UNDCP will continue to support their use because they consider them 'adequately specific'. Susan Pimiento from the Sunshine Project has stated that: "UNDCP's record of environmental judgment is appalling. It long ago abdicated credibility in assessing environmental impacts of chemical and biological crop eradication. With its record plain to see, any UNDCP assertion that the fungus is safe will not be trusted by responsible governments or civil society."

Considering the position of the USA and the UNDCP, an international network of NGOs have joined the Sunshine Project in its fight to control the use of biological weapons. Following Colombia's decision to abandon the eradication of narcotic crops via the use of biological agents earlier this year, several other South American states have also taken measures to control the use of such agents. Potentially because of this, the UNDCP decided to withdraw from all regional efforts to use biological eradication against drug crops. However, fearing that the US will withdraw financial aid guaranteed via Plan Colombia, the Colombian environment minister Juan Mayr has agreed to adopt a domestic programme for the development of biological agents for drug control - thus essentially succumbing to US pressure.

According to Hammond: "If the US used these agents alone, it would be an outright illegal act of war... Thanks to opposition by civil society, a slumbering UN is waking up to the abuse; but smug US officials still step beyond their bounds, talking about UNDCP policy as if Kofi Annan headed an inconsequential section of the State Department." NGOs warn that the UNDCP's withdrawal only applies in the Andean region and that important steps remain to be taken to ensure biological agents are not used anywhere else in the world to eradicate drugs crops. According to Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute: "UNDCP may have backed out on clear terms from the fusarium project in Colombia; but it has done so without even questioning its role in the Uzbekistan project. UNDCP defends its mandate to collaborate in developing 'safer eradication agents' using a misleading discourse on environmental protection and blinded by the illusion that total eradication of poppy and coca from the planet is possible in a decade."

It is possible, therefore, that 2001 will turn out to be the year that a verification agreement falls apart instead of setting a stronger BTWC and further demonstrates the failure among major powers to reach an agreement in another sensitive international issue, this time the use of biological weapons. "This could well be the beginning of the end of the global ban on bioweapons," says Jan van Aken of the Sunshine Project. "Failure might re-ignite some countries' interest in weapons of mass destruction."

Tamara Makarenko is an independent political and security consultant specialising in the Russian Federation and Central Asia. Daphne Biliouri is an environmental policy consultant specialising in environmental and developmental issues in Eurasia.


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