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UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
U.S. Pushes Initiative to Block Shipments of WMD, Missiles
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Wade Boese

The United States is banding with select countries to clamp down on suspected shipments of weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles, and related technologies around the globe. The initiative is in its formative stages, but its focus is convincing other countries to be more aggressive in stopping vessels and confiscating cargo within existing law rather than creating new international laws.

President George W. Bush unveiled the evolving U.S. effort, deemed the Proliferation Security Initiative, in a May 31 speech in Poland. Bush said the United States and its allies would pursue new agreements under the initiative to “search planes and ships carrying suspect cargo and to seize illegal weapons or missile technologies.”

John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, testified at a June 4 congressional hearing that “legal, diplomatic, economic, military and other tools” would be used to pursue the interdiction mission.

The United States is initially limiting the countries it is recruiting for the initiative, but Bush said the United States would seek to “extend this partnership as broadly as possible.” U.S. officials began shaping the effort at a June 12 meeting in Madrid with their counterparts from 10 other participating countries—Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

The new initiative grew from the administration’s frustration over a December 2002 incident in which Spanish forces, acting in concert with the United States, stopped a North Korean shipment of short-range ballistic missiles but ended up letting the ship and its cargo go because they lacked a legal rationale for confiscating the missiles. (See ACT, January/February 2003.) In addition, the missile buyer, Yemen, which Washington sees as an important country in its war on terrorism, complained strenuously. “That was not the favorite moment” of the administration, a senior Bush administration official told reporters May 31.

Yet, it is unclear to what degree the new initiative will enable the United States to avoid a repeat of its December disappointment. The U.S. initiative, at this time, is not aimed at creating or changing international law. Instead, it is focused on determining what actions are possible within existing domestic law of participating countries.

Future interdictions will still be limited to locations where countries participating in the initiative have jurisdiction or are granted the authority to act. Stopping a ship and seizing its cargo in international waters will still require the consent of the country where the vessel is registered.

The senior Bush administration official explained, “And so one of the things we need to do with the countries that are interested is to decide what authorities we need for actions inside territorial waters, inside national airspace, at ports, in the air, to get things done.”

A U.S. Coast Guard official familiar with the initiative said June 17 that its primary purpose is to motivate participating countries to use existing law, authorities, and capabilities better and more actively to tackle weapons proliferation. The goal is to “identify gaps” in current practices and address them, the official said.

After their Madrid meeting, the countries participating in the initiative stated that they would “assess existing national authorities” to see what interdiction measures are possible. They are expected to share their findings at another meeting, perhaps as early as July.

A Democratic congressional aide said in a June 13 interview that the initiative will be a “useful tool but inadequate” if confined to enhancing the individual national authorities of a coalition of the willing. Such moves will do little to stop unwanted trade passing through international airspace or waters, the aide explained.

Proliferators could also seek to shield their exports and imports by restricting their trade as much as possible to the territory of countries not participating in the initiative. Many critical countries, such as North Korea’s neighbors China and Russia, are outside the initiative.

A European diplomat whose country is participating in the initiative said June 10 that there are known proliferation routes and chokepoints that can be targeted. Presumably, the United States will seek to enlist countries that are located along these routes or that serve as major international trade hubs or facilitators. For example, roughly 11 percent of registered cargo ships in 2002 flew the Panamanian flag, according to Lloyd’s Register, an independent organization that compiles shipping statistics used by the International Maritime Organization.

Countries must still work out the specifics of the initiative, although the European diplomat stated it did not involve “reinventing the wheel” but strengthening existing instruments. Another European diplomat said the same day that the initiative would be aimed at closing current proliferation loopholes. Both indicated that the general concept underlying the initiative has been under discussion for months and, in many ways, is already being carried out.

In his June 4 testimony, Bolton noted that, within the past two months, two separate shipments of goods believed to be destined for North Korea’s weapons programs had been seized. Bolton identified France and Germany as stopping one of the deals but did not specify which country or countries acted in the other.