Monday, November 12, 2001

It seems like some distant past (in fact it was July of this year) when the United States tied the U.N. conference on curbing small arms into knots by insisting it was a threat to the Second Amendment. That same month, the United States turned its back on 10 years of negotiations on a protocol on compliance with the ban on biological weapons, saying the agreement would put national security and confidential business information at risk. In February, during a U.N. debate on a proposed international conference to combat terrorism, the U.S. delegate said such a conference would have no practical benefits.

Conservatives welcomed these and similar moves, including rejections of agreements on the nuclear test ban, global warming and the International Criminal Court, arguing that “parchment barriers” cannot provide real safety or advantage.

The Bush administration has now discovered multilateralism when it comes to combating terrorism, working with the U.N. Security Council to create instant global law requiring states to suppress financing of terrorist operations and deny haven to terrorists. At two upcoming conferences, it would be a historic mistake and disservice to the victims of terrorism to ignore vital issues of arms control and disarmament.

“It is hard to imagine how the tragedy of September 11 could have been worse,” U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said during the recent debate on terrorism. “Yet the truth is that a single attack involving a nuclear or biological weapon could have killed millions. While the world was unable to prevent the September 11 attacks, there is much we can do to help prevent future terrorist acts carried out with weapons of mass destruction.”

One good place to start is at the Nov. 19-26 conference in Geneva, which will review implementation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The treaty bans development and possession of the weapons but lacks any verification mechanisms. Most countries, including the United States, are parties. No doubt prompted in part by the anthrax incidents, the Bush administration is now proposing that governments adopt national legislation criminalizing biological weapons development with provisions for prosecution or extradition. It is also urging the United Nations to establish procedures for investigating suspicious outbreaks or allegations of biological weapons use and other treaty compliance concerns.

These are important elements of the compliance protocol the United States repudiated in July. But the Bush administration must accept the necessity of embedding these requirements in a formal international agreement rather than in easily disregarded ad hoc arrangements, and of reviving other essential elements of the protocol, including regular inspections of pharmaceutical, “biodefense” and other facilities that could be put to weapons purposes.

Another important forum is the Nov. 11-13 U.N. conference on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. While there about a dozen countries whose ratification of the treaty is needed for it to become legally binding, U.S. approval is far and away the most important. Other approvals will come sooner or later once the United States commits, including from India and Pakistan. Following a spectacularly abbreviated and uninformed “debate” in the fall of 1999, the Senate rejected ratification. Now credible concerns are heard concerning destabilization of nuclear-armed Pakistan and efforts of the al Qaeda network to obtain nuclear explosive materials. In this context, the insanity of the United States standing in the way of a global test-ban regime equipped with seismological and other means capable of detecting militarily significant nuclear explosions anywhere in the world becomes all too evident.

While on record opposing ratification and not even scheduled to attend next week’s conference, the administration says it will continue the U.S. moratorium on tests, and after September 11 rebuffed suggestions from the Energy Department that readiness for resumption of testing be boosted. However, the Bush administration has not even attempted to reconcile its opposition to the test-ban treaty with the U.S. promises in 1995 and 2000 to the parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to ratify the treaty and eliminate nuclear arsenals.

At the heart of issues relating to biological and nuclear weapons is the simple belief that while it is acceptable, even desirable, that a few “responsible” countries possess weapons of mass destruction, everyone else must be shackled. This is logically, morally and legally unsustainable. The United States must lead the way in stripping the veil of legitimacy from these weapons for their global control and elimination to be successful.

Jim Wurst is program director for the New York-based Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy.

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