BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 18.11.01

Film: PAUL WILENIUS analyses the reasons why the United States are continuing to block the progress of the biological weapons convention in Geneva despite the events of September 11 and the renewed threat from weapons of mass destruction.

PAUL WILENIUS: It's enough to give most people nightmares. This is what the world's intelligence services fear the most. Some of the nastiest material ever produced by man, handed over to ruthless terrorists. It could be chemical, biological, even nuclear. But the eventual aim is mass destruction. Stopping this deadly trade happening now or in the future, is what the war on terror is all about. KENNETH ADLEMAN: I worry most about the black market in the worst countries of the world - they have most incentive to get the worst weapons. ENRIQUE ROMAN-MOREY: If weapons of mass destruction would have been used in this September the eleventh tragic events, the results would have been completely disastrous for the humanity. WILENIUS: A key United Nations Biological Weapons Convention will get under way here, in this room in Geneva tomorrow. The aim is to strengthen controls over biological weapons and to stop them falling into the hands of terrorists. But despite September the eleventh there are still fears the Bush Administration has ideological objections to full co-operation with this sort of international treaty. UN staff are expecting the arrival of up to five hundred delegates from more than a hundred countries. The world's media will also be watching, to see if the bio-convention can be strengthened. But there's still bitterness after the Americans vetoed plans for a tough new inspection and enforcement regime earlier this year. NICH0LAS SIMS: The danger at Geneva is that the United States will be painted into a corner, that there will be an endless flow of recriminations against the United States for what it did in July and August, which is no, which will do no good to anyone and will make them even more resistant to coming back on board. WILENIUS: But it'll take a lot of work here in Geneva to get some nations to forgive the Americans. And the Bush Administration will need to move a long way from the tough stand taken by its officials in the summer. UNNAMED MAN: In our assessment the draft protocol would put national security and confidential business information at risk. WILENIUS: America was against a legally binding protocol allowing inspectors into its bio-defence weapons establishments and private laboratories. It followed a pattern of rejecting many international treaties not in its own interests. MALCOLM SAVIDGE MP: Since Bush came in they have talked of blocking the international criminal court, the small arms convention, land mines, the anti-ballistic missile treaty, the comprehensive test-ban treaty. Obviously they are blocking Kyoto, there is a concern that all the other things that they are doing are actually undermining the agreements which were made on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. ADLEMAN: I think the protocol of biological weapons may be great on paper but it's very different going to execution and by that I mean we've had agreement on paper to do wonderful inspections, very thorough inspections in Iraq for the last ten years. There's no problem with getting the agreement, and it was gotten after the Gulf War, the problem is doing them and Saddam Hussein has kept us out of doing any inspections, I think it's for the last three years, and that makes a mockery out of those kind of conventions. WILENIUS: There were hopes that in the sombre aftermath of the September's terrorist attacks, President Bush would change policy and look for more international solutions to global problems. Indeed he came up with new proposals on November the first to tackle the threat, including mandatory investigations into disease outbreaks, and making the sale of bio-weapons a criminal offence. But there are concerns this may not be enough. SIMS: The proposals which President Bush announced on the first of November for strengthening the convention are not likely to be well received. I would expect them to be received coolly because the United States is seen as having disqualified itself from contributing to the strengthening of the convention by it's rejectionist attitude to the protocol. SAVIDGE: I deeply hoped that the United States would recognise from the eleventh of September that there is an urgent need for us to work together, co-operatively and multi-laterally in international agreements. I have to say I am at present deeply concerned that the, the section of the United States administration that is strongly opposed to international treaties seems to be winning the argument in the United States despite the eleventh of September. That's deeply worrying. WILENIUS: Britain was once a world leader in biological weapons research, mainly carried out at this once top-secret laboratory at Porton Down in Wiltshire. It moved in more recent years from offensive weapons to defensive biological research. But some of those who worked here know only too well the dangers they pose for an unprotected world. DR GRAHAM PEARSON: I believe that the use of disease deliberately to harm humans, animals or plants, poses the greatest danger of all weapons of mass destruction because it had the weakest prohibition regime in contrast to the nuclear and chemical weapon regimes. It's also relatively easy to get the materials, the quantities we need are smaller, and they could cause comparable effects to nuclear weapons. WILENIUS: Even Pandora would have found it hard to believe the sort of dangers now posed by biological weapons. The worry is that rogue States may be involved in research into bio-weapons although it's been banned by the convention for twenty-five years. That's what happened in the Soviet Union according to the man who ran a key element of Russia's biological weapons programme for the best part of two decades. And he should know. DR SERGUEI POPOV: The programme I worked on has been called Programme Factor, it's been initiated in early, in mid-seventies and has been stopped in early nineties. The programme aimed to develop a new generation of biological weapons, the final purpose of the programme was to create more dangerous biological agents, more dangerous than the existing ones so that if, if the programme introduced anthrax or plague for example, those agents were engineered to be antibiotic resistant and even to overcome the resistance to existing vaccine. SIMS: The real dangers from anthrax, from smallpox, from plague, from botuline toxin, all these dangers have been recognised for many generations. What I think is new is the revolution in genetics which, it has been suggested, could enable vaccines to be bypassed, could enable the offence to get a permanent advantage over the defence if it were to fall into the wrong hands. WILENIUS: But giving more power over bio-weapons to bodies like the UN here in Geneva is not the solution the Bush Administration readily favours. Many see them as mere talking-shops. There also worries it would not work anyway, and may expose US biological weapons defence work to interference. And America fears it could harm the interests of its drug companies. SAVIDGE: There has undoubtedly been pressure on the United States government from the pharmaceutical industry. I would have to say that one would have hoped they would have learnt the lesson of the eleventh of September, there were lots of warnings that there was insufficient security on domestic flights in the United States. And those were ignored primarily because the domestic airlines said, oh look it will cost us too much money, surely it's time that the Bush administration realised that public safety has got to come above corporate profits. WILENIUS: The final preparations are made for the conference, which looks certain to be well attended. But it's the sheer scale of such events which feed the suspicions about organisations like the UN, which lie deep inside the Bush Administration. Some Republican hawks are unhappy about some of the countries America might have to sit down with, and so want the US to ignore these bodies and solve its own problems. ADLEMAN: I think here what we have a president for and pay a president for is frankly to decide what the United Nations is good for, discussions of some kinds, diplomatic moves and what it's not very good for, which is eliminating terrorist networks and getting rid of weapons of mass destruction in the worst hands in the world. And to rely on the United Nations to do something it's not good at doing is just unfair to the United Nations plus it's a great disservice to civilised society. SAVIDGE: I think there is a feeling that the national sovereignty of the United States should not be interfered with in any way. It is slightly like the feeling of the more extreme Europhobes in this country, opponents to Europe in this country, who can take very strong views on national sovereignty but I actually think listening to some Americans it comes over much more strongly. And I fear at times it sounds more as if it is actually a thought that one has to preserve absolute national supremacy which mustn't be interfered with by treaties, it mustn't be interfered with by the United Nations or anybody else. WILENIUS: But biological weapons are not the only means of mass destruction terrorists might use. There's already convincing evidence that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network have been trying to get their hands on nuclear weapons. Although experts feel it's very difficult for terrorists to produce a credible nuclear warhead, they could buy enough highly radioactive material, to explode a so-called radioactive dirty bomb. SAVIDGE: There is a fear that, that even a fairly primitive terrorist group could get, use conventional explosives to spread radioactive material, particularly if it was something as deadly as plutonium, that could cause considerable fatalities. WILENIUS: But the use of big multi-lateral treaties to try to tackle the threat of nuclear proliferation, is not the sort of solution some of the hawks advising the Bush Administration have any time for. They believe it will do little to stop the nuclear arms race in the Third World and among terrorists groups. They would rather go for the sort of direct action which goes right to the heart of the threat. ADLEMAN: Let's remember in June of nineteen-eighty-one, when the Israelis sent in aircraft to go after the Osiraq nuclear plant of Iraq. At that time they were widely condemned around the world including by the Reagan administration I'm ashamed to say, for this unilateral move, but it stopped Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons, which he would've developed in the mid-nineteen-eighties had it not been for the Israeli attack. Now you can imagine or you have trouble imagining how horrendous the world would be with Saddam Hussein having nuclear weapons, probably giving those nuclear weapons to his colleagues in the al-Qaeda network or Osama bin Laden himself, and other states like his, terrorist headquarters, having a hold of nuclear weapons, that would be horrendous threat to civilised society and thank God the Israelis took it out. WILENIUS: The coming weeks will be a crucial test for the Bush Administration. It's already coming under pressure to let the UN and other international bodies underpin the next stage of the war on terrorism. But following American successes in Afghanistan, it may decide that its go-it-alone policy has been vindicated. ADLEMAN: I think that countries with a bad record want to go through the UN to fight the war against biological weapons and chemical weapons and nuclear weapons. I think they want to do that because they know that the United Nations is not an effective instrument to fight that war, and so they want to squash any attempt that we might make to prevent them from getting weapons of mass destruction that could really ruin part of our civilisation. WILENIUS: There are still hopes that the long hard talks over the next three weeks here in Geneva will produce a deal to give the Biological Weapons Convention some teeth. But it's by no means certain that the Bush Administration will fully re-engage with the international treaties and bodies which many feel are vital for the future. ROMAN-MOREY: I think that the world needs this kind of international bodies and international legal instruments in order to live in a safer world. We need them. Any kind of them. You either talk of small or light weapons, if you talk about nuclear weapons, biologicals, chemicals, we need on any kind of weapons, any kind of new weapon that can be created. WILENIUS: The possibility of a secretive trade in deadly weapons worries people, despite the successes in Afghanistan in cutting down the global threat from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But the big question is still whether America feels it can best act alone, in fighting the long war on terrorism. Or will it need the rest of the world? For as we now all know, just when you least expect it, that's the time of greatest danger.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.