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Bioweapons Treaty: Still a Good Idea

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Six years of negotiations to add enforcement provisions to the 1972 treaty outlawing biological weapons have halted. The reason: The Bush administration vetoed going ahead with a protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention that would have given states the right to obtain information about and inspect sites where biological weapons were suspected of being developed, produced, or used.

To escape blame, Secretary of State Colin Powell argued that the decision was not new: The Clinton administration "probably would have come to the same conclusion." But this and other statements seriously misrepresent the Clinton administration position and the value of the agreement itself.

The Bush team argues that because the equipment and materials used to make bioweapons are also used for legitimate civilian purposes, the convention's ban can't be verified. Therefore, no additional measures could detect violations with high confidence.

The Clinton administration agreed that verification in this narrow sense was not possible. We also believed, however, that we had an obligation to try to strengthen the prohibition against developing and producing biological weapons, given that most of the dozen or so countries pursuing bioweapons capabilities - including states like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq - are parties to the convention. Rather than verification, our goal was deterrence: to make it more costly and risky for cheaters to keep cheating.

Elisa D. Harris is a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland.

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