Robert James Parsons is an American journalist based in Geneva.  --  There he was able to observe first-hand what "international cooperation" means to John Bolton.  --  This piece was published in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle. ...


By Robert James Parsons

San Francisco Chronicle
March 13, 2005

GENEVA -- John Bolton, whom President Bush nominated last week as the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is remembered here as the man President Bush sent, in the first year of his first administration, to kill the biological weapons treaty -- a man who accomplished the task with a truculence that made a lasting, and very negative, impression.

It explains why so many observers of the international scene to respond to his appointment with a shudder.

In 1995, there was a review conference for all the signatory countries of the 1975 biological weapons convention, which the United States had ratified. Its purpose was to assess the state of the matters dealt with in the treaty and discuss amendments to it in view of advances in biological research and in the world's political situation.

The conclusion of the conference was that the treaty needed an enforcement mechanism, for advances in research were reaching a point at which it would soon be possible to circumvent many of the text's provisions.

A drafting committee was set up to produce an additional protocol to give the text teeth. It was to meet several times each year and to have a final text ready for the review conference in November 2001.

By April 2001, the text was almost ready. The drafting committee was to hold one more three-week session, in July, to finalize the text, after which it would be available to the signatory country governments to study until the review conference.

The U.S. delegation to the April session gave little indication that anything had changed with the new administration. Work proceeded satisfactorily.

In July, the new Bush administration sent a new delegation, headed by Bolton. He declared the United States was withdrawing support for the enforcement protocol.

The United States already had the biggest bio weapons program in history, all in the name of defensive research.

However, this is an area where there is only a fine line between defensive and offensive, and most observers and scientists were convinced that if the United States had not yet crossed that line, it was about to do so.

As long as the United States refused to guarantee its compliance with the treaty, no other country could be expected to guarantee compliance either.

At the opening of the review conference, Bolton proposed that the protocol be, simply, dumped. In its place, he proposed bilateral treaties between the United States and every other country in the world, treaties that the United States would have the power to enforce, including the right to extradite and try in U.S. courts those suspected of engaging in bioweapons research.

In short, nothing would disturb the United States when it crossed the line into research for offensive bio weapons, but the United States was seeking for itself a system answerable to nobody that would empower it to bring its full force (including military, of course) to bear on any country attempting to compete with it in bio arms research.

The academic experts and nongovernmental organizations monitoring the drafting process and bioweapons research throughout the world were horrified and predicted that this would give rise to a frenzied arms race in biological weapons, probably with China in the lead.

A year later, China discovered SARS and tried to hide it. Three months later, terrified of the possibilities of its spreading throughout China and the world, it notified the World Health Organization, which immediately organized an emergency response on a scale unprecedented for any new illness. The WHO, too, was obviously terrified.

SARS was brought under control, but within the WHO, suppressed by pressure from a certain superpower, was an analysis of the SARS virus showing it to be an artificial creation designed to kill fast and furiously.

The conclusion was that it had somehow escaped from a military lab, which explained why, for three months, the Chinese authorities had hoped to counter the threat, ultimately in vain.

In the end, the Chinese were only too happy to have the analysis suppressed, and the superpower in question averted a major worldwide debate on the need for a bioweapons treaty with an enforcement mechanism.

Now, the bioweapons treaty is essentially a dead letter, the bio arms race is on, and many are quietly asking what the real origin of the bird flu might be.

The world is the poorer for the loss of the bio arms treaty and much less secure, but John Bolton did his work well. Now he can focus on the United Nations.

--Robert James Parsons, a journalist based in Geneva, writes for the Geneva daily Le Courrier. E-mail us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..