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Accepting prize, Annan proposes global forum to address biotechnology’s benefits, risks

Accepting prize, Annan proposes global forum to address biotechnology’s benefits, risks

The United Nations is well placed to coordinate a global forum on biotechnology so that its benefits can be expanded for all and its potentially catastrophic risks can be managed and mitigated, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today.

In a speech at St. Gallen University in Switzerland, where he accepted the Max Schmidheiny Freedom Prize, Mr. Annan said extraordinary progress in all the life sciences, but especially biotechnology, “has opened up some of the most promising avenues in history towards improving the human condition,” from developing new vaccines to finding fresh ways to protect the environment.

But he said the “galloping advance” made by biotechnology is outpacing efforts to regulate or at least regularize the system for conducting research and using technology.

As such, a global forum for debate, comprising representatives of industry, science, public health, governments and the general public, is necessary “to work out a common programme, built from the bottom up,” the Secretary-General said.

The United Nations, with its universal membership, range of partnerships, and capacity for outreach, “has the ability to bring the wide range of relevant participants to the table, and to keep them there.”

Mr. Annan said existing and future technologies should be made more widely available to reduce global inequities and promote economic growth as well as human health and food security.

The risks inherent in biotechnology, either from negligence or deliberate misuse, could also be dealt with by way of a range of measures, from voluntary codes of conduct to legally binding systems and regulatory bodies to oversee sensitive research.

Mr. Annan said the answer to the dilemmas posed by biotechnology “will require innovative solutions specific to the nature of the science; it may have more in common with measures against cybercrime than with the work to control nuclear proliferation. And it will need to ensure that humanity is not deprived of the enormous positive benefits which biotechnology offers.”

Previous winners of the Max Schmidheiny Freedom Prize, which was first awarded in 1979, include the International Committee of the Red Cross; Muhammad Yunus, the microfinance pioneer and winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize; the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson; and the author Maria Vargas Llosa. The award honours persons and institutions which have contributed to the maintenance and further development of a free social and economic order.