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– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
October 20, 2014
Compliance Report Cites Myanmar Gains

Daniel Horner

The United States “remains encouraged” by Myanmar’s movement toward several key nuclear nonproliferation commitments, but still is on the lookout for signs of a nuclear weapons program in that country, the State Department said in a recent report on global compliance with arms control and nonproliferation agreements.

The Southeast Asian country, also known as Burma, has been suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In 2010 an opposition group released a documentary making that claim. (See ACT, July/August 2010.)

The State Department report cited an announcement last November by Myanmar that it intended to sign an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That would give the IAEA expanded rights of access to information and sites, including undeclared sites, in the country.

In the announcement, Myanmar also said it would “give effect to the modified standardized text of the Small Quantities Protocol.” That protocol holds in abeyance much of the IAEA’s inspection authority as long as a state’s nuclear material holdings do not exceed certain thresholds. In September 2005, the IAEA Board of Governors approved modifications to the protocol to correct what the board said was “a weakness of the safeguards system.” The modifications provide for safeguards inspections and require early reporting on decisions to construct nuclear facilities.

Myanmar’s announcement means that it has pledged to recognize the modified version of the small quantities protocol.

The IAEA declined on Aug. 27 to comment on the status of the discussions on the two protocols.

In the compliance report, which was released in July and covers events during 2012, the State Department said that “U.S. concerns cannot be fully alleviated” until Myanmar has taken action on the two protocols and “has cooperated with the IAEA in accordance with these agreements to resolve any outstanding IAEA questions.”

According to the report, Washington “remains alert to any indications of Burmese nuclear weapon-related activities or intentions to develop a nuclear weapons capability, although available information does not suggest the current Burmese government has any such ambitions.” The second part of the sentence is slightly different from the language in last year’s report, which said that “available information did not support a conclusion that Burma had engaged in activities prohibited by its NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] obligations or IAEA safeguards.” (See ACT, October 2012.)

As recently as last year, reports suggested that North Korea provided illicit nuclear goods to Myanmar. (See ACT, December 2012.) The State Department report noted that Myanmar has said it would comply with UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, whose provisions include a variety of restrictions on trade with North Korea, including a ban on trade in nuclear goods.

North Korea, along with Iran and Syria, continued to be in violation of its IAEA safeguards agreement and the NPT, the report said. Repeating language from last year, the report said North Korea “did not take any concrete steps toward fulfilling its international obligations and commitments.”

As the report noted, North Korea agreed in February 2012 to a moratorium on a number of nuclear and missile activities, but did not abide by that agreement.

Repeating another finding of a year ago, the report said that “Chinese companies continued to supply missile programs in countries of concern.” The report did not specify the recipient countries, but North Korea appears to be one of them. During congressional testimony in April 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was asked about potential Chinese assistance to North Korea’s missile program and replied, “I’m sure there’s been some help coming from China.” He said he did not know the exact extent of the aid. (See ACT, May 2012.) A UN panel is investigating the role of a Chinese company in supplying North Korea with vehicles Pyongyang converted into transporter erector launchers for its missiles.

The report’s language on biological weapons was very similar to last year’s. The report said the United States “is concerned” that Syria “may be engaged in activities that would violate its obligations” under the Biological Weapons Convention if it were a party. Syria has signed but not ratified the treaty.

A companion report covers chemical weapons, but does not address Syria’s program in that area because Damascus has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.