May 3, 2006

Annan Urges Global Forum Against Bioweapons

By Evelyn Leopold

UNITED NATIONS -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on Tuesday for a global forum on biological terrorism, saying current treaties were too weak and governmental and commercial initiatives too scattered.

"The approach to fighting the abuse of biotechnology for terrorist purposes will have more in common with measures against cyber-crime than with the work to control nuclear weapons," Annan said in a 32-page report.

The report to the 191-member General Assembly was a quest to develop the world's first comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. The assembly can make a decision on the blueprint and begins consultations next week.

Many of the proposals relate to how nations can build up their political, legislative, financial and human rights bodies to fight terrorism, and points to existing U.N. agencies for technical help.

A September 2005 U.N. summit of world leaders asked Annan for a blueprint of how to combat global terrorism.

Annan said biological agents were the "most important, under-addressed threat relating to terrorism" and required the involvement of government public health, industrial, science and civil society.

A Biological Weapons Convention, opposed by the United States as being too weak, has no follow-up verification mechanism and no inspections as in chemical and nuclear treaties.

Among the U.S. proposals made several years ago was international inspections immediately after suspicious outbreaks of disease or related biological arms incidents if the U.N. secretary-general determines such an emergency. But the United States opposed regular inspections.

In addition, various bodies, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, have sought to bring attention to the problem. But Annan said that unless these efforts were brought together "their effects will be diffuse."

Biological science expertise, according to the U.S. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, is widely dispersed around the world, and not limited to Western nations. India, China, Singapore, Korea, South Africa and Brazil are all at various stages in biological science.

"This dispersion of science mandates a global approach to ensuring that science does not fuel next-generation bioweapons," wrote Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at the University of Toronto and a contributor to the U.S. report in Canada's National Post.

In the United States a still unidentified bioterrorist sent anthrax spores through the mail to people in the Senate in Washington and elsewhere more than five years ago. Five people died and 22 became ill.

However, one problem in the General Assembly is that Annan is devising a U.N. strategy for terrorism without a definition of terrorism. A legal committee has been struggling for years with Islamic nations, insisting that those resisting occupation be exempted.

Another point of contention is whether abuses by national armies be covered in the treaty.

But a senior U.N. official said the Security Council had adopted enough counterterrorism resolutions without resorting to a definition and the assembly could do likewise.

The Security Council has also compiled a list of those assisting, financing or otherwise linked to Al Qaeda and the Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers.

This too has been criticized because there is no independent group to review names by governments put on the list or to take them off the roster.