UN Panel Sounds Nonproliferation Alarm

Wade Boese

The decades-old effort to keep a tight lid on the spread of nuclear weapons is in jeopardy, warned a Dec. 2 report by a group of high-ranking experts. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan convened the group to assess threats to international peace and security.

“We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the nonproliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation,” declared the 16 panel members. Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, U.S. national security adviser in the George H. W. Bush administration, and former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov were two of the most prominent panel members.

Bolstering the nonproliferation regime will require reducing the demand for nuclear weapons and the worldwide supply of nuclear capabilities, materials, and technologies, as well as chemical and biological arms, the experts concluded.

A key step toward diminishing the lure of nuclear arms and reinforcing the nuclear nonproliferation regime is for those states already possessing them to improve their “lackluster disarmament” record, the experts recommended. Among actions that should be taken, the experts suggested that nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—reaffirm past pledges not to use nuclear weapons against states without them. To discourage such use further, the UN Security Council should commit to taking “collective action” against any nuclear power that threatens or carries out an attack in defiance of its non-use commitments.

Other measures advocated by the experts include ratcheting down the readiness levels of weapons so that they are less available for quick use, forswearing future nuclear testing through ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and negotiating a “verifiable” fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT).

Although past notions of an FMCT envisioned just ending the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons purposes, the experts contended that the agreement should eventually ban all HEU production. Their advocacy of a “verifiable” FMCT also differs from the United States’ recent proposal of completing an FMCT without a verification regime. The Bush administration believes that hashing out verification measures would be enormously time-consuming and might well be fruitless given the many ways cheaters could flout treaty terms. No other country has publicly embraced the U.S. position.

A top challenge facing the nuclear nonproliferation regime is how to square a country’s right to peaceful nuclear technologies with the possibility that it might abuse its privileges by using these technologies as building blocks for an eventual nuclear weapons program, a course which North Korea and Iran are accused of following.

To guard against such violations, the experts proposed two general approaches. One proposal calls on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to adopt the 1997 Model Additional Protocol as its safeguards standard. Safeguards are measures, such as inspections and remote monitoring, used by the IAEA to verify that civilian nuclear materials are not secretly diverted to weapons. Currently, each state has the option of concluding its own version of the Model Additional Protocol with the IAEA to grant the international body greater investigative powers.

The other recommendation would entrust the IAEA with guaranteeing nuclear fuel to countries so they have no need to build their own enrichment and reprocessing facilities, which can be used to produce reactor fuel and nuclear bomb material. President George W. Bush and IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei have argued that no economic rationale exists for constructing any new facilities of these kinds.

The experts further urged acceleration of the pace to destroy chemical weapons and secure nuclear materials around the globe. In particular, a U.S. program to recover spent fuel from abroad and convert reactors so that they no longer use HEU as fuel should be completed in five years instead of ten.

In another admonishment of Bush administration policy, the experts advised that states-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) negotiate “without delay” a “credible” verification regime for the accord. Shortly after taking office, the Bush administration blocked agreement on a six-year effort with that objective.

Limiting the desire and capability of countries to obtain lethal weaponry is essential, but the experts also said the Security Council must be better informed about and equipped to respond to suspected treaty violations by deploying inspectors to probe noncompliance allegations. If such charges are found to be true, the Security Council should be prepared to act, including authorizing sanctions and military force.

The emphasis on empowering the Security Council is a central theme of the report, “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility,” which also covers the dangers posed by disease, environmental degradation, organized crime, poverty, and terrorism. “The task is not to find alternatives to the Security Council as a source of authority but to make the Council work better than it has,” the experts declared.