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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

UN official calls for stepped-up measures to deal with biological and chemical threats

20 September 2010 – While United Nations Member States have a well-developed system established for preventing or responding to potential nuclear or radiological emergencies, similar measures are not in place for chemical and biological attacks and disasters, a senior UN anti-terrorism official has warned.

Geoffrey Shaw, the chair of the UN Working Group on Preventing and Responding to Weapons of Mass Destruction Attacks, said it was time for countries to examine ways to ensure that the international community can respond quickly and effectively in the event of a major incident involving chemical or biological weapons or materials.

He told the UN News Centre that a review by the world body’s Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) released last week indicated that a strong system existed to deal with radiation or nuclear emergencies.

That system is implemented through the IAEA. Countries have given the IAEA a central coordinating role for any response and inter-agency mechanisms are in place to alert all the necessary segments of the UN which can assist with any response.

But many Member States and civil society organizations lack awareness about the system, the report found, and it made several recommendations to enhance understanding, including strengthening the IAEA’s role as the global focal point in public information coordination in the wake of an emergency.

Dr. Shaw said many of the measures to deal with nuclear or radiological attacks had been created following the accident at the Chernobyl reactor in April 1986.

A database monitors the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials and lines of communication exist between agencies and between countries to allow rapid responses.

“Chernobyl had everyone’s minds focused,” Dr. Shaw said. “Effective communication was seen as far more important.”

The official said one of the reasons for the slower development of measures to protect against chemical or biological attacks was that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – which verifies that countries are adhering to the Chemical Weapons Convention – only came into effect in 1997.

No similar mechanism exists yet for dealing with biological weapons and materials.

“If there was a biological attack by terrorists, what would be expected of the UN system? These are the kinds of questions we need to answer to ensure we can respond if needed.”

Dr. Shaw said the “phenomenal expansion” of the biotechnology industry in recent years posed difficult questions for policy-makers.

“There’s a hell of a lot of material out there – how do you protect that? You could try to establish verification protocols… but it could be impossible to verify. There are lots of questions that have to be looked at.”



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