UN Adopts Nuclear Terrorism Convention; Treaty Seven Years in the Making

Claire Applegarth

The UN General Assembly April 13 adopted an international convention addressing the threat of nuclear terrorism, bringing an end to more than seven years of negotiations on the document. The treaty criminalizes the possession, use, or threat of use of radioactive devices by nonstate actors, their accomplices, and organizers “with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury” or environmental or property damage.

Originally proposed by Russia in 1998 and entrusted to the oversight of an ad hoc committee established to tackle the issue of international terrorism, the convention, titled the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, is now the 13th such UN legal instrument on terrorism and the first concluded since Sept. 11, 2001. It was adopted by consensus and will open for signature Sept. 14 during the 60th Anniversary Summit of the United Nations. It will enter into force after 22 governments have ratified it.

Beyond criminalizing acts of nuclear terrorism, the convention also will require governments either to prosecute terrorist suspects in domestic courts or extradite them to their home countries. It further encourages increased exchanges of information and greater cooperation between countries in the pursuit of terrorist suspects.

In a brief mention of preventative nuclear security measures, the treaty urges states to ensure the protection of radioactive materials, “taking into account” recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The convention also classifies as a punishable offense any attacks on nuclear facilities that could risk the release of radioactive material.

Although widely welcomed as an important contribution to the international legal framework governing terrorism and nuclear security, the agreed treaty text does not represent as ambitious a document as some nations had hoped. In an April 1 news conference, Albert Hoffman, the South African coordinator of the negotiations, said that a number of proposals were ultimately excluded from the treaty’s scope so as to facilitate its universal adoption.

According to Hoffman, some delegations had expressed concern that the convention exempts military activities and personnel from prosecution for similar offenses as those articulated in the treaty. Other delegations would have liked to see the treaty protect against acts of terrorism committed by state actors involving nuclear weapons or materials. The final convention does not address state use of nuclear weapons.

States were also unable to reach consensus on a definition of terrorism, one of the key points of contention prolonging the negotiations, which was ultimately left out of the final convention. A recent report by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, released late March 2005, proposed to define terrorism as “any action…intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”

Annan’s report, entitled “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security, and Human Rights for All,” also called for UN General Assembly approval of the nuclear terrorism convention and for “consolidating, securing and, when possible, eliminating hazardous materials and implementing effective export controls” as key elements of a strategy to deny terrorists access to nuclear materials.

Congratulating the General Assembly on its approval of a convention that represents “a vital step forward on multilateral efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism,” Annan also urged states to finalize a draft comprehensive legal instrument addressing international terrorism. This broader convention, however, will have to revisit the problem of reconciling differing states’ views on a definition of terrorism.