Beyond Iraq's Bioweapons

Iraq is getting most of the world's attention regarding weapons of mass destruction. But one such weapon – biological arms – is getting scrutiny that goes far beyond suspicions about one country's bombmaking program.

This week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched a campaign to strengthen global diplomatic defenses against bioweapons. The ICRC hopes to pick up where efforts to bolster he existing Biological Weapons Convention have, sadly, left off.

That 1972 convention, plus a 1925 protocol banning poisonous gas and bacteriological weapons, have been legal barriers against proliferation. But their enforcement has lacked teeth. Particularly, it's been difficult to get countries (including, notably, the United States) to agree to on-site inspection procedures. Concerns about industrial secrets, patent protection, and sovereignty always surface.

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The same problems could confront the ICRC's plans. But the group is moving ahead on the conviction that the rapid growth of biotechnology means the risks of such know-how being misused are multiplying.

Those risks include the reengineering of harmless microbes into dangerous ones, making existing biological agents like anthrax more difficult to counter, and designing agents to attack agricultural production.

Those threats may seem distant, but the ICRC emphasizes that they're all technologically feasible. That awareness in itself, the group argues, should be enough to motivate countries, military authorities, and industry to join forces and reduce the possibility of such capabilities ever being used as weapons.

Governments, for example, can do more to monitor and restrict the export of technology that can be converted to bioweapons use. They can also pass more laws to help enforce the anti- biological warfare treaties they've signed.

Businesses can adopt tougher professional standards to guard against misuse of biological agents.

The ICRC's push for such steps is a timely reminder that the battle against weapons of mass destruction has to go much further than cracking down on a single offending nation.

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