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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 23, February 1998

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC):
Remarks by ACDA Director

Press Conference with John D. Holum, Director, US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), Bonn, Germany, 11 February 1998

Extracts from Remarks

"I am here to work at addressing a gap in our capabilities to deal with weapons of mass destruction. In the recent past, we have made enormous strides in the international community to address the growing threat in the post-Cold War era of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear and chemical and biological weapons and delivery systems.

We have negotiated a Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, we have extended the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and made it permanent. We have negotiated and now have in force the Chemical Weapons Convention. There is one glaring gap in that coverage, and that is an effective enforcement regime for the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972.

Biological weapons are very frequently grouped with chemical weapons. In my judgment, given their destructive potential, they should more appropriately be considered akin to nuclear weapons. Chemical weapons, for all of their toxicity and danger, when they are dispersed, become less toxic. Biological weapons in the right environment can actually multiply, self-perpetuate and even mutate to defeat protective measures. The biological agent, botulinum, has been estimated to be three million times as toxic as the chemical nerve agent sarin. A particle of anthrax the size of a particle of dust could be fatal. The current events in Iraq and Saddam Hussein's long-standing interest, going back to the 1970s, to develop a biological weapons capability just underscores the importance of the international community dealing effectively with biological weapons.

The President, in his State of the Union address, underscored the fact that the danger posed by biological weapons in the hands of rogue States and potentially in the hands of terrorists, is increasing. He said in that address, to prevent the use of disease as weapons of war and terror, the international community has to act now. The Biological Weapons Convention, he said, has been in effect for twenty-three years. The rules are good, but the enforcement is weak. We must strengthen it with a new international inspection system to detect and deter cheating.

... The United States is committed to developing a legally binding protocol that will help prevent the proliferation of these weapons and help catch countries that attempt to cheat on their obligations under the treaty. I am here in Germany to follow up on the President's State of the Union address in which he, in associated documents, laid out some new initiatives to try to energize the negotiations that have been under way since 1995 in Geneva in the hopes that we can complete the framework to the protocol to the convention, an enforcement protocol, by the end of this year."

Extracts from Questions-and Answers

"Question: 'Please elaborate a little on the initiatives you are talking about here in Bonn with the representatives of the government. Can you do that please?'

Holum: 'Sure. One of the issues in the Biological Weapons Convention is the extent of inspection activity. We believe that the regime must include not just, as we have now, voluntary disclosure, but mandatory declarations of relevant facilities. We think there should be a series of different kinds of on-site activity ranging from voluntary visits by inspectors, to relevant activities, through clarification visits of some kind that would answer questions pertaining to a country's declaration. And, of course, on-site challenge inspections. This is a very complex area because there are literally thousands of sites that would likely be declared around the world that arguably have the capacity to produce biological weapons, but are in operation for legitimate medical or commercial or other purposes. What we have to do is find the right balance that strengthens enforcement and gives international inspectors a fair chance of detecting cheating and clarifying ambiguities but, at the same time, avoid steps that would endanger legitimate national security information or proprietary business information. ...'

Question: 'Why all of a sudden right now? Why not do it, what is the reason for this now? Is Germany the first stop?'

Holum: 'Germany is the first stop on this trip. I'll also be going to the UK and France now, in part, because the President has directed a renewed impetus. We have been engaged in this negotiation since 1995 so it is not new, but what we have found during the course of those discussions is it is fairly easy to get bogged down in technical details. There are a number of country groups that have differing perspectives, and I think the President's speech gave us new impetus, both in terms of his personal interest and his direction that we develop new ideas to bridge some of the gaps among different countries. This gives us a good chance to stimulate the negotiations and move forward.

We have also, in the context of the discussions in Geneva among the member countries, intensified the work steadily. Last year, we had nine weeks of work. I think this year it will be eleven, including another session in March, additional more intense work schedule plus a lot of consultation in between.

I mentioned that I think the situation in Iraq concentrates the mind as well. This is one of the areas where Iraq has been most determined to pursue weapons of mass destruction and has been least forthcoming in its declarations.'

Question: 'German enterprises have been engaged in helping Saddam Hussein to build up factories for chemical weapons. Do you know anything about, maybe German enterprises that are helping him in constructing biological weapons?'

Holum: 'I haven't seen any reporting to that effect. I think one of the difficulties that we face in this area, and it reveals the gaps in coverage, is that the international community, and I wouldn't single out any country, has been slow to apply effective export control mechanisms. The Australia Group, of which Germany is a member as well as the United States, is twenty-nine countries total. It is actively engaged in cooperating to control both chemical and biological weapons technology and substances. It has grown progressively stronger. But the international community has been trying to catch up with the danger of the spread of, particularly, chemical and biological weapons. There are a lot of countries, I suspect, that have had in the past, export and business relationships with Iraq, Iran and others that they would have just as soon have foregone, looking at the direction that those programs have taken. That is true of the United States as well.' ...

Question: 'Do you know how many countries are producing and storing biological weapons or are making experiments with these weapons?'

Holum: 'It is hard to quantify and I can't go into a great deal of detail without getting into intelligence information. The sum of the chemical and biological weapons interested countries with varying degrees of activity is roughly 25. That's countries that have the capability and we believe have some kind of chemical and/or biological weapons capability.'"

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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