The Sunshine Project
16 July 2001
Trade Trumps Peace in Bioweapons Negotiations
US Scuttles Others' Security in the Interest of Biotech Hegemony
(Hamburg and Austin, 16 July 2001) - The Verification Protocol to the
Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was dealt yet another blow last
week. Key US diplomats indicated that trade secrets take priority over
weapons control, and that the US is unwilling to develop a fair and
transparent export control system to prevent biological weapons
technology from passing into the wrong hands.
Trading peace. Negotiations have been ongoing to develop a
Verification Protocol to the BTWC for more than six years. In US
Congressional testimony last week, Ambassador Don Mahley, chief US
negotiator on biological weapons, piously declared that "The United
States does not view the negotiations about a Protocol to the Biological
Weapons Convention to be a discussion of trade access."
But only seconds later, Mahley's halo of arms control purpose was
dirtied when he added that the US sees the draft protocol as a threat to
its biotech hegemony: "The United States is the world leader in
biotechnology. The cost of early research and development is enormous.
Providing others with the means to avoid such sunk costs or to obtain
process information for unfair competition would endanger not only the
industry, but the benefits that industry provides to the entire world."
As Mahley testified, across the world in Bangkok the US and its OECD
partners were trying to force open reluctant Asian markets to US
bioengineered products. Farmers outside the OECD meeting in Bangkok
clearly rejected the "benefits" of the US biotech industry.
But, in other words, what Mahley said is that the US cannot accept
inspections because UN teams will be infiltrated by commercial spies.
"That's a red herring," counters the Sunshine Project's Jan van Aken, "A
UN inspection system that protects trade secrets can be done. Mock
inspections in several European countries demonstrated that industry
would have little to fear from commercial espionage. Even the
hyper-secretive multinational pharmaceutical industry has tentatively
signaled acceptance of visits by UN inspectors."
What's really at stake is the US desire to be completely unencumbered in
imposing unilateral trade sanctions. Currently, a biotech elite of the
US and developed country allies use a secretive club called the
Australia Group to prohibit shipments of equipment and know-how to
countries suspected of developing biological weapons. The basis of
export denials is unpublished, so countries denied equipment never even
find out why. Developing countries say that the system is arbitrary and
"While there is agreement that situations arise in which some countries
should be prohibited access to certain biotechnology like advanced
fermenters," says Susana Pimiento, a Colombian lawyer with Sunshine
Project, "developing countries argue that the Australia Group's export
controls are a selective, unfair trade and political tool, hindering
technological development in their countries." The Non Aligned Movement
says that if it submits to mandatory inspections of biotechnology
facilities under the Verification Protocol, then export control systems
should give all countries equal rights.
A fair and transparent system for imposing export controls isn't even
under consideration. Says the Sunshine Project's Edward Hammond, "This
US policy is a biotech trade wolf disguised as a peaceful sheep, and it
has the unmistakable odor of the Department of Commerce. The same free
trade evangelists that force biotech products on the world want to use
arms control as a back door to impose barriers to technology transfer
and inhibit competition. Even though everybody agrees that export
controls are necessary, the US has decided that its commercial interests
dictate that it won't work with the UN to make export controls
transparent and fair."
Work to be Done: Since the outset of negotiations, all sides have
acknowledged that monitoring compliance with the BTWC is difficult.
Parties agree in principle that situations may arise in which access to
particular technologies should be restricted. One multilateral solution
is a broad export notification system for items that have both peaceful
and hostile uses. Compilation of an international database on dual use
exports could be instrumental in identifying secret bioweapons programs.
Negotiators in Geneva should push to agree on a notification system that
will build true multilateral and North-South cooperation on restricting
some countries' access to potentially abused technology.
A strong multilateral monitoring agreement, even if imperfect, would
have the credibility, expertise, and access that individual countries
don't. "If the US insists on a trade-arms control link and unilaterally
enforcing its interpretations rather than working on export control in a
UN framework, it precludes cooperation and damages the BTWC." says
Pimiento, "Who nominated the US to be the global cop of monitoring
anyway? The erroneous US bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan
shows the danger. The world would be better off with a UN system of
export controls and not leaving it to the Department of Commerce and
trigger happy US military and intelligence agencies."
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