Thursday, July 16, 2009

UN's Stagnating Initiatives Against Bioterrorism

With UN's failure to implement the strategy laid out by the former Secretary-General, who will protect humanity from one the most dangerous threats, bioterrorism

With great foresight, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan brought the threat of bioterrorism to the UN agenda in 2006. In his recommendations for a global counter-terrorism strategy he writes: "The most important under-addressed threat relating to terrorism, and one which acutely requires new thinking on the part of the international community, is that of terrorists using a biological weapon. [...] They can [...] bring incalculable harm if put to destructive use by those who seek to develop designer diseases and pathogens. The answer to biotechnology’s dual-use dilemma will look very different [than that of nuclear weapons]. But the approach to developing it must be equally ambitious.[...] What we need now is a forum that will bring together the various stakeholders — Governments, industry, science, public health, security, the public writ large — into a common programme, built from the bottom up [...].The United Nations is well placed to coordinate and facilitate such a forum, and to bring to the table a wide range of relevant actors."

Later that same year, the United Nations adopted its Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (resolution 60/288). In regard to biological threats it calls for: "To invite the United Nations system to develop, together with Member States, a single comprehensive database on biological incidents, ensuring that it is complementary to the International Criminal Police Organization's contemplated Biocrimes Database. We also encourage the Secretary-General to update the roster of experts and laboratories, as well as the technical guidelines and procedures, available to him for the timely and efficient investigation of alleged use. In addition, we note the importance of the proposal of the Secretary-General to bring together, within the framework of the United Nations, the major biotechnology stakeholders, including industry, scientific community, civil society and governments, into a common programme aimed at ensuring that biotechnology's advances are not used for terrorist or other criminal purposes but for the public good, with due respect to the basic international norms on intellectual property rights."

With the new UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, who took office in 2007, the initiatives have unfortunately stagnated. A worrying UN fact sheet dated March 2009 outlines the implementation of the strategy so far.

Firstly, The UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) does not include any entity or initiative dedicated to combating bioterror.  Ban Ki-moon also admits that "there is no such thing as a bioterrorism unit within the UN system". Other important terrorist threats, such as the IAEA for nuclear matters and OPCW for chemical weapons, all have dedicated task forces, except for bioterrorism. Instead, the UN is handing over the task to existing bodies, such as the WHO and INTERPOL. The WHO's meager page on bioterrorism is not assuring in any way. INTERPOL's bioterror landing page is even more worrying, where an "upcoming" conference planned for March 2005(!) is highlighted. The world should tremble.

Secondly, the UN implementation haphazardly bundles biological threats with other types of terrorist threats. It is important to understand that biological threats pose a new set of problems that has not been previously encountered, and that strategies for fighting chemical and nuclear threats are not efficient when combating bioterrorism. Biological agents are relatively easy and inexpensive to obtain or produce; they can be easily disseminated; and they can cause widespread panic beyond any actual physical damage.

Thirdly, where is the promised UN-moderated forum/programme set out in the strategy document?

In contrast to the UN, the US government spends over $2B a year to prevent bio-attacks.

A unilateral approach is not enough to combat bioterrorism. We need a UN-led international forum today for going forward as a civilization and preventing biological terror attacks. It is critical that global policies and action plans are put in place to deal with "the most important under-addressed threat relating to terrorism". The global community cannot afford a late and disunited arrival - we might not get a second chance to learn from our mistakes.

Follow-up posts will address why bioterrorism is becoming rapidly more dangerous and what I believe that the global community should do to counter it.

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