HL Deb 15 March 2004 vol 659 cc1-3

The Lord Bishop of Oxford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in accordance with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, they will report to the Security Council of the United Nations the reported sale of biological weapons to Iraq by the United States.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, no. The materials were exported by the United States in accordance with export controls in place at the time. The United States did not believe that they would be used for anything other than legitimate research purposes and therefore did not knowingly export the materials to assist a biological weapons programme. There are therefore no grounds for reporting a breach of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Those who know about these matters point out the significance of the phrase that those biological materials, were not attenuated or weakened and were capable of reproduction". That seems to suggest that they might have been used for other than purely therapeutic purposes. Will the Minister comment on that?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have asked those questions myself. While I do not claim to have any particular expertise, I understand that the export of pathogens is the best way of producing vaccines. The Riegle report, which the right reverend Prelate has no doubt seen, details the quantities of various biological materials that were exported between 1985 and 1989. He will have noticed that those quantities were quite small. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention makes it clear that governments and states parties have the right to exchange equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information for peaceful purposes. The United States believed that to be the case at the time of those exports.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, the Iraq Survey Group report came up with three suspicious findings. Two were the clandestine weapons laboratories that do not seem to be there—the Minister will respond to that through the ombudsman. The third was a phial of botulism. Will the Minister confirm that since the Americans supplied the botulism—and we know that they did—it is possible that the phial came from those pathogens supplied by the Americans?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Lord with any certainty about the origins of any particular substances that were found. I am not sure if there is a copy of the Riegle report in the Library of the House, but if there is not, I shall arrange for one to be placed there. As I have said to your Lordships, that report gives details of a whole range of different biological substances that were exported to Iraq at that time. Those substances were exported in very small amounts. It would have been legitimate to have exported pathogens because, as I understand it, it is easier to make vaccines from pathogens. Although it is possible to make them from non-pathogenic material, it is much easier to make them from pathogenic material. However, I doubt whether anybody will be able to say with any certainty what the origins of any particular phial have been.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a serious weakness in the efforts to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons is the lack of an international inspection system to underpin the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention? Will she say what steps Her Majesty's Government are taking to persuade the US Administration to allow negotiations for such a system to be restarted?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord. We would like to see a proper verification process put in place under the convention. In terms of persuading the United States to take the same view as we do, we take the opportunities that are available to us to do exactly that. I myself have had meetings with the appropriate under-secretary in the United States State Department and have attempted to persuade him to that very point of view. Sadly, I have not so far been successful.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the 1994 Riegle report, which, as she has indicated, is very detailed and extensive. Does she agree that whether or not it proves that bacterial cultures were exported by the United States to Iraq at the time—I think that the United States authorities have denied or minimised such claims—it also shows that the Iraqi regime, even then, before and after the first Gulf War, was building up, or aiming to build up, a biological and chemical weapons capability, as well as a nuclear capability, on a considerable scale? If the weapons cannot be found today, there are clear indications that this could happen again. Will the Minister agree that it is vital to strengthen biological weapons conventions of the kind that can be enforced? It is vital, and justifiable, to be sure that Iraq never returns to being a threat to us all.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, I of course agree strongly with that view, which is why the United Kingdom Government are making efforts to strengthen the convention and to emphasise the importance of inspection within the convention. When the Riegle report was first published, it was pointed out that by the time of the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq had developed biological weapons. Its advanced and aggressive biological warfare programme was the most advanced in the Arab world. It was therefore clear that there was such a programme. The way to avoid that in the future is proper enforcement.

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