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Red Cross Calling for Improved Measures to Protect Biotechnology - 2002-09-25

The International Committee of the Red Cross is calling for better controls on potentially dangerous biotechnology. The appeal is being made as concern mounts over Iraq's possible possession of weapons of mass destruction. The call came at a conference examining rapid advances in biotechnology.

Experts agree the world is on the verge of a revolution in biotechnology. They also agree these expected advances have enormous potential to benefit humanity, as well as great potential for abuse.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says history shows virtually every major scientific advance has been turned to hostile use.

Bearing this in mind, the ICRC is appealing to all political and military authorities, to scientists, and to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, to work together for the effective control of potentially dangerous biotechnology.

Head of the ICRC's Mines and Arms Unit, Peter Herby, says governments must ensure that current prohibitions against the production and use of biological weapons are enforced.

"Unless urgent action is taken, the new age of biotechnology will give rise to a new age of warfare, which was already described in the ICRC's appeal against poisoned weapons in 1918, as one which will exceed the greatest barbarity the world has known. Over time, germs may replace bullets as the weapon of choice for many combatants. The implications for civilian populations and for human evolution are incalculable," Mr. Herby said.

Mr. Herby says these alarming possibilities are occurring at a time when efforts to strengthen implementation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention are at an impasse.

The Convention has been ratified by 144 nations, including the United States. It bans the development, stockpiling and production of germ warfare agents, but it has no enforcement mechanism.

After seven years of negotiations, the United States last year, rejected a plan aimed at strengthening the treaty.

U.S. officials said countries seeking to violate the treaty could circumvent the proposed changes, while inspections in countries that cooperate could compromise industrial trade secrets.

In November, the United Nations will host a review conference on new verification measures. The Bush Administration says it will not participate.

Mr. Herby says the United States also wants to delay further discussions on a protocol until 2006. "It is clearly going to be hampered if the U.S. is not participating in any future meetings. The world simply cannot afford to wait five years until this is addressed in a diplomatic and political arena. If you look at the last five years, you have had the mapping of the human genome and huge advances in science. We can only guess at what will happen in the next five years," Mr. Herbert said.

Absent a political and legal agreement, the International Committee of the Red Cross is urging the scientific community and biotech industry to adopt, what it calls, professional and industrial codes of conduct aimed at preventing the abuse of biological agents.