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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
GAO Says Multilateral Export Control Regimes Too Weak

November 2002

By Wade Boese

Concluding a 13-month study of four international regimes designed to stem global weapons proliferation, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported October 25 that the Australia Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement are not working as effectively as they should and need to be made more robust.

While noting that governmental and nongovernmental nonproliferation experts believe the four regimes have successfully helped institute standards limiting worldwide exports of dangerous goods and kept such items out of the hands of troublesome governments, GAO asserted that measuring the actual impact of the regimes is difficult, and it identified several shortcomings that undercut their utility.

Established over a span of 21 years, beginning with the 1975 creation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and ending with the 1996 founding of the Wassenaar Arrangement, the four regimes each deal with a specific area of proliferation concern, although they are largely comprised of the same members. More than 30 countries, including the United States, have committed to adhere voluntarily to the regimes, which were established separately to regulate the global trade of dangerous materials by harmonizing national export controls. The Nuclear Suppliers Group limits nuclear materials and technologies; the Australia Group addresses chemical and biological weapons-related goods and technologies; the MTCR restricts missiles and related technologies; and the Wassenaar Arrangement covers conventional arms and goods with both military and civilian uses.

GAO, which conducts investigations and studies for Congress, said two chief problems hamper the regimes: members do not share adequate information with each other in a timely manner about their approval and denial of exports, and they fail to implement regime decisions quickly and consistently enough so that members’ export controls are uniform. Making agreed-upon changes to national export controls has taken some countries, including the United States, more than a year.

The report warned that countries or groups seeking outlawed or deadly capabilities might exploit an exporter’s outdated controls or incomplete knowledge of what exports other suppliers are denying.
The regimes’ voluntary nature also hinders them from working effectively, according to GAO. None of the regimes have monitoring or enforcement mechanisms, and all the regimes operate by consensus, meaning that a single country can block proposals or initiatives to strengthen a regime. Although the consensus rule can frustrate efforts to reform regimes, U.S. officials told GAO that it can also work to the U.S. advantage by permitting Washington to block proposals it does not like.

The regimes are also limited by the difficulty export controls have keeping pace with rapid technological changes; the growing number of countries outside regimes, such as China and North Korea, that are capable of manufacturing and selling weapons and related technologies; and the lack of criteria by which to judge regime performance.

The GAO report painted Russia, which belongs to three of the four regimes (the Australia Group is the exception), as pursuing policies at odds with the regimes’ purposes. GAO stated U.S. officials claimed that “Russia does not yet have an effective export control system in place,” and they cited Moscow’s January 2001 shipment of nuclear fuel to India, despite the objections of 32 other capitals, as the clearest violation of a regime commitment. The Nuclear Suppliers Group forbids members from nuclear cooperation with countries that do not have internationally approved safeguards on all their nuclear facilities, which India does not.

Yet, Russia is not the sole country violating its nonproliferation pledges. GAO reported that the State Department provided it with roughly 100 diplomatic demarches that Washington issued between 1998 and 2002 to a dozen foreign governments, including Russia, raising questions about their exports. The problem may be even broader, however, because the State Department did not supply GAO with copies of all the demarches sent in recent years, and U.S. officials estimated that in 2001 100 demarches were issued regarding MTCR matters alone.

In general, GAO contended that its limited access to data prevented it from completely assessing “how regime members comply with their commitments or how well efforts to encourage compliance work.”

U.S. and foreign government officials told GAO that judging how well the regimes work is complicated by the fact that it is not possible to know how widely dangerous technologies might have spread had the regimes not existed. One U.S. official interviewed October 29 about the GAO report commented that past experience shows that the regimes “are better than nothing.”

To enable countries to make more informed decisions about their arms exports and to improve adherence to export control regimes, GAO urged the secretary of state to press for increased information-sharing among regime members, to work for more consistent implementation of export controls, and to identify possible ways to make regimes operate better, such as changing decision-making procedures. GAO further encouraged more frequent U.S. reporting on its export denials, thereby enabling other countries to take similar actions, and the development of criteria to evaluate regime successes and failures.

In an October 16 reply to a draft copy of the GAO report, the State Department said it would consider GAO’s recommendations as part of a recently initiated review of the regimes ordered by the president.

When asked, however, several State Department and White House officials were unaware of the reportedly ongoing review. Only one State Department official knew of the review and she would only say, “The president has directed a review of the nonproliferation regimes.” She explained she could not provide any other details, such as when the president ordered the review, who is conducting it, when it is supposed to be completed, or what it entails.