Germ-warfare negotiators agree to discuss reducing threat

Friday, November 15, 2002

GENEVA -- A 146-nation conference unanimously accepted a proposal Thursday to look for new ways to combat biological weapons, the first meeting of the group since the United States rejected a plan to enforce a global ban as unverifiable.

"We are trying to set aside our differences," said Tibor Toth, the Hungarian diplomat who is conference chairman.

He noted that the United States remained adamant in its opposition to setting up an enforcement system under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention while many other nations would like to set up such a plan.

But Toth said the accord reached Thursday would enable countries to guard against the threat of germ warfare in several ways, including discussing how countries can help each other when one is attacked.

The group has never had serious enforcement measures because the threat of biological weapons was believed to be minimal when the convention was drafted during the height of the Cold War. That changed with rising concerns that Iraq would use biological weapons during the Gulf War.

Talks were suspended for year last December after the United States ended attempts to continue negotiating enforcement procedures, saying it wouldn't be able to detect violations and such a program would give away defense and commercial secrets.

Treaty criticized

Stephen G. Rademaker, U.S. assistant secretary of state, told reporters that the Bush administration remains convinced that the treaty is "inherently unverifiable" because it is so easy to create biological weapons.

But he said the accord remains valuable in declaring biological weapons "immoral and illegal" and serving as a basis for joint world action against germ warfare.

"The United States is very pleased by the outcome" of this week's conference, Rademaker said.

Britain and Germany welcomed the decision to set up annual conferences on ways to improve the world's defenses against germ warfare.

Other countries were less satisfied.

Peter Goosen, head of the South African delegation, read a statement by the Nonaligned Movement saying they were "deeply disappointed at the inability" by treaty countries to strengthen the accord.

Under the agreement by the conference, member nations plan to hold annual meetings on what they could do on their own or together short of changing the treaty.

The idea is to keep world attention focused on the threat of biological weapons. Topics are to include improving national control of microorganisms and toxins, enhancing international response to suspicious outbreaks of disease and adopting a code of conduct for scientists.

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