"...the Arms Control Association [does] so much to keep the focus on the issues so important to everyone here, to hold our leaders accountable to inspire creative thinking and to press for change. So we are grateful for your leadership and for the unyielding dedication to global nuclear security."

– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
October 20, 2014
November 2020

Arms Control Today November 2020

Edition Date: 
Sunday, November 1, 2020
Cover Image: 

The Nuclear Ban Treaty: A Much-Needed Wake-Up Call

November 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which will enter into force Jan. 22, marks a new, hopeful phase in the long-running struggle to prevent nuclear war and eliminate nuclear weapons. It comes at a time when the risk of nuclear war is rising, the world’s major nuclear-armed states are failing to meet their nuclear disarmament obligations, and public attention is focused on other global threats. The TPNW has the potential to stimulate further action on disarmament and take us closer to a world without nuclear weapons.

A Pakistani girl displays a placard as she stands in front of a replica of the Chagai mountain, where Pakistan detonated its first nuclear weapon test explosion on May 28, 1998, during a demonstration organized by the Citizen Peace Committee, a non government organization, in Islamabad, May 28, 2005. (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)For the first time since the invention of the atomic bomb, nuclear weapons development, production, possession, use and threat of use, and the stationing of another country’s nuclear weapons on a state-party's national territory are all expressly prohibited in a global treaty. The TPNW also requires, for the first time, that states-parties provide victim assistance and environmental remediation to those affected by nuclear weapons use and testing.

The TPNW complements other nonproliferation and disarmament instruments. The new treaty contributes to meeting the obligation of all states-parties to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” The TPNW also strengthens the nonproliferation norm enshrined in the NPT by legally obliging states-parties to keep in place their safeguards obligations with the International Atomic Energy Agency at the time of entry into force.

The TPNW also reinforces the ban against nuclear testing established by the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion.” The CTBT has been signed by 184 states.

By strengthening the international legal structure and political norm against nuclear weapons possession and use, the TPNW further delegitimizes nuclear weapons as instruments of power. As the preamble of the treaty notes, “[A]ny use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, in particular the principles and rules of international humanitarian law.”

The new treaty, which was negotiated in 2017 at the United Nations by a group of more than 120 non-nuclear-weapon states, reflects the fact that, for the majority of the world’s states, nuclear weapons and the policies that threaten their use for any reason are immoral, dangerous, and unsustainable. The TPNW is a powerful challenge to nuclear deterrence orthodoxy, which incorrectly and dangerously assumes that military postures that threaten use of nuclear weapons can be perfectly managed, even in a crisis, and will never fail to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.

Sadly but not surprisingly, leaders of the five largest and oldest nuclear-armed states, which cannot agree on how to meet their own disarmament obligations, are trying to undermine the growing global support for the TPNW even as they modernize their arsenals and arrogantly insist that their national defense requires threatening the mass annihilation of innocent people with nuclear attack and imperiling countless others not party to any conflict. Such tactics are counterproductive and divisive.

Even though the current governments of these countries and of the four other nuclear-armed states (India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan) may not yet be ready join the TPNW, they would be better served to publicly recognize its arrival as a good faith effort by the majority of states to eliminate the nuclear danger and build up the legal framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The United States carries the greatest responsibility in this regard. It ushered in the nuclear age and is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war. As a democracy, it also should respect public will. According to a U.S. poll conducted in July by the Chicago Council Survey, 66 percent believe that “no country should be allowed to have nuclear weapons,” which is exactly the vision outlined by the TPNW.

Now that the treaty exists, all states, be they prohibition treaty opponents, supporters, skeptics, or undecided, must learn to live with it responsibly and find creative ways to move forward together on advancing new, effective disarmament measures. For example, Washington should bring home its tactical nuclear weapons from bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey as a step toward enabling these countries to join the TPNW and eliminating all battlefield nuclear weapons.

Other measures to consider include freezing the size of nuclear arsenals and fissile material stockpiles; concluding a multilateral agreement on no first use of nuclear weapons; securing the ratifications needed to bring the CTBT into force; reviving the U.S.-Russian disarmament process, beginning with a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty; banning the introduction of new nuclear weapons; and concluding legally binding commitments not to target or threaten non-nuclear-weapon states. They can begin next year at the 10th NPT Review Conference, now delayed until 2021.

No treaty is perfect, and no treaty can solve all our problems of global and national security, but the TPNW can be made a necessary part of preventing our worst nuclear nightmares from becoming a reality.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which will enter into force Jan. 22, marks a new, hopeful phase in the long-running struggle to prevent nuclear war and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty to Enter Into Force: What's Next?

November 2020
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will soon enter into force and become binding international law for its states-parties. The milestone will be meaningful for those nations, but it will also affect countries that have yet to ratify or accede to the pact.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres (left) and Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera, president of Costa Rica, preside over the signing ceremony of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations on July 7, 2017. (Photo: Kim Haughton/UN)Earlier weapons prohibitions have successfully curbed proliferation and advanced norms against weapons of mass destruction. Within one year of the treaty’s entry into force, its states-parties will convene to discuss these issues and the next steps to strengthen the agreement.

The treaty’s final text was approved by 122 nations at the United Nations in July 2017, but nuclear-armed states boycotted treaty negotiations and have since rejected the treaty as simultaneously irrelevant and dangerous.1 Nevertheless, the majority of the world’s countries have continued to support the TPNW, including by signing and ratifying or acceding.2 States-parties hail from all regions of the world, with many from Africa and Latin America, and the fewest from Europe. According to the treaty, 50 ratifications or accessions must be submitted to the United Nations before the pact can take full legal effect.

Legal Implications for States-Parties

The 50th state, Honduras, ratified the TPNW on October 24, and the treaty will enter into force and take full legal effect for all countries that had ratified or acceded by then on January 22, 2021. For any state that ratifies or accedes to the TPNW after its entry into force, the treaty will take full legal effect 90 days after that state’s ratification or accession.

Before the treaty takes effect, signatories and states-parties are only obligated to refrain from violating the treaty’s object and purpose.3 States-parties must implement positive obligations and adhere to prohibitions, while states that have only signed it are simply required not to violate the object and purpose of the treaty.

Some positive obligations are simple, such as submitting a declaration within 30 days of the treaty’s entry into force about the country’s nuclear-weapon status. Others may take more time, such as adopting additional safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), implementing national laws, providing assistance to people and places harmed by nuclear weapons use and testing, and urging other states to join the pact.

The treaty requires states-parties to adhere to their current IAEA safeguards agreements and, if they lack one, bring into force a comprehensive safeguards agreement within 18 months of entry into force. Concretely, that means TPNW states-parties that already have an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement are now legally obligated to maintain that protocol. This is an obligation that exceeds the requirements of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which does not legally require states to adopt or maintain an additional protocol. All states-parties except for Palestine have already brought into force a comprehensive safeguards agreement. Palestine negotiated and signed its agreement in June 2019, but will still need to bring it into force.

States-parties will adopt national measures to implement the treaty’s requirements, both its prohibitions and its positive obligations, and prevent treaty violations on all territory under their jurisdiction or control. Ireland has already adopted such legislation, and the International Committee of the Red Cross provides a model template for other states to do so.4 National measures provide an opportunity for states-parties to spell out how and where they will enforce the treaty. It is up to each state to decide if the law applies to its citizens violating its terms in another country and what penalties will be imposed for violations. Some countries have adopted national implementation measures consistent with their obligations as states-parties to nuclear-weapon-free zones, although these measures only apply within the zone.5

For nations where nuclear test explosions were conducted, the treaty requires them to provide assistance for the people affected by those activities and to take measures to remediate areas under its jurisdiction contaminated by nuclear weapons use and testing.6 Specifically, states must “adequately provide age- and gender-sensitive assistance, without discrimination, including medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support” for affected individuals, “as well as provide for their social and economic inclusion.”7 Several nations with people affected by nuclear weapons use and testing will be states-parties at the time of the treaty’s entry into force, including the Cook Islands, Fiji, and Kazakhstan. Some of these countries already have programs designed to help victims and remediate environments, although programs vary widely.

Major Provisions of the TPNW

Prohibitions (Article 1)
States-parties are prohibited to use, threaten to use, develop, produce, manufacture, acquire, possess, stockpile, transfer, station, or install nuclear weapons or assist with any prohibited activities.

Declarations (Article 2)
A state-party must declare, when joining the treaty, whether it has eliminated a previous nuclear weapons program, currently has nuclear weapons, or holds another country's nuclear weapons on its territory. If a state has another country’s nuclear weapons on its territory when it signs the treaty, it must remove them. If it has its own nuclear weapons, it must eliminate them.

Safeguards (Article 3)
Non-nuclear-weapon states are required to have, at a minimum, a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “without prejudice” to any future additional agreements, and they are required to maintain their current agreements.

Nuclear-weapon states accession (Article 4)
There are two ways for a nuclear-weapon state to accede to the treaty and eliminate its nuclear weapons: It can join the treaty and then destroy its nuclear weapons or destroy its nuclear weapons and then join the treaty. States that “destroy and join” must cooperate with a “competent international authority” designated by the treaty to verify dismantlement. States that “join and destroy” must immediately remove nuclear weapons from operational status and submit a time-bound plan for destroying the weapons within 60 days of joining the treaty.

The treaty does not specify which “competent international authority” would be suited to verify irreversible disarmament of a nuclear-armed state that decides to join the treaty, but the treaty allows for an appropriate authority to be designated at a later date. The treaty requires any current or former nuclear-weapon state that seeks to join the prohibition treaty to conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA to verify that nuclear materials are not diverted from peaceful to weapons purposes.

Positive obligations (Articles 6 and 7)
The treaty obligates states-parties to provide victim assistance and environmental remediation to those affected by nuclear weapon use and testing.

The obligation to provide this assistance applies to all states-parties in a position to help.8 The treaty’s Article 7 mandates states-parties’ cooperation to implement the treaty, specifically requiring states-parties in a position to do so to provide “technical, material and financial assistance” to affected states-parties and to victims. States-parties may also support others’ development of national implementation measures or reporting on and destruction of nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Finally, as mandated by Article 12, all states-parties must urge other nations to join. This obligation can be implemented publicly by hosting workshops and calling on all states to join the treaty in statements to relevant diplomatic forums such as the UN General Assembly, IAEA meetings, UN Security Council meetings, and NPT-related sessions.

Article 1 outlines the treaty’s prohibitions: banning states-parties from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using, or threatening to use nuclear weapons or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. It also prohibits them from assisting, encouraging, or inducing anyone to engage in any of these activities.

As no nuclear-armed states, states hosting nuclear weapons on their territory, or states that rely on the threat to use nuclear weapons in their military doctrines have joined the TPNW at this stage, the most relevant prohibition will likely be the prohibition on assisting, encouraging, or inducing any of these prohibited activities. The treaty still allows states-parties to be in military and political alliances with states not party, including those violating the treaty’s obligations, but there cannot be a significant nuclear dimension to alliance activities. States-parties should discuss how this prohibition on assistance will be understood at meetings of states-parties, basing their interpretations on past precedents in other prohibition treaties. Legal scholars and practitioners have offered potential explanations.9

Political and Normative Implications

The impact of the entry into force of the TPNW on states not party is not as straightforward as the new legal obligations for states-parties. Yet, precedent from the 1999 Mine Ban Treaty and the 2010 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) demonstrates that the treaty can also influence their behavior. States-parties and nonstate actors’ actions after the TPNW’s entry into force can shape the norm against nuclear weapons.

Those earlier agreements, together with the TPNW, form a trio of “humanitarian disarmament” treaties, which focus on the consequences of the prohibited weapon and intend to delegitimize the prohibited weapon. Examining the changes in behavior in states not party to those treaties after their entry into force can be informative.

Significantly, the mine ban and cluster munitions ban discouraged production and investment in companies that produce prohibited weapons in states not party. For example, Textron and Orbital ATK, two companies producing cluster munitions in the United States, stopped production after the CCM’s entry into force, even though Washington is not a party to the pact.10 Egypt, also not a party, announced a policy against producing landmines after the Mine Ban Treaty’s entry into force.11 Following the entry into force of the CCM, the U.S.-based mutual fund Eventide Asset Management excluded companies that produce cluster munitions from its investments.12

The Mine Ban Treaty and CCM also affected policies on the weapons’ use and transfer worldwide. Very few states not party have used landmines or cluster munitions since the prohibition treaties entered into force, and states not party have changed their policies on use and transfer. In 2014, for example, the United States announced that it would no longer use landmines outside of the Korean peninsula or assist, encourage, or induce other nations to use, stockpile, produce, or transfer anti-personnel mines outside of Korea. The Trump administration reversed that policy, but more than 100 members of Congress protested the move in a joint letter.13 Since the CCM’s entry into force, the United States has only used cluster munitions once, in an isolated 2009 strike in Yemen; in 2016, it decided to halt transfers of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia.

States not party may also contribute to implementing the treaty’s positive obligations in addition to adhering to some of the prohibitions. The United States is one of the largest donors to provide support for landmine clearance and victim assistance, despite not being a state-party.14

That companies, financial institutions, and governments have modified their behavior, despite no requirement to do so, illustrates the normative impact of the prohibition treaties. The entry into force of the TPNW has the potential to advance the norm against nuclear weapons.

As of Oct. 24, 84 nations had signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and 50 additional nations have gone further by ratifying or acceding to the pact. The treaty will enter into force on January 22, 2021. Source: UN Office for Disarmament Affairs.

More than 1,300 elected officials in countries that have not yet joined the TPNW have pledged to work to get their governments on board, and cities and towns around the world have adopted resolutions to demand their governments join the treaty, including capitals in nuclear-armed states, such as Paris and Washington.15 When the treaty enters into force, legislators should urge debates on this new instrument of international law and how their government can comply and participate. Just as cities, universities, and businesses have adopted measures to comply with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, so too can these entities adopt measures to adhere to prohibitions and obligations in the TPNW.

Already, financial institutions have started divesting from nuclear weapons production companies. One of the largest pension funds in the world, the Dutch pension fund ABP, announced in January 2018 that it would divest from nuclear weapons production companies, citing the adoption of the TPNW as a key factor in its decision.16 Given that financial institutions often choose not to invest in companies that produce “controversial weapons,” which are typically weapons prohibited by international law, the entry into force of the TPNW can spur additional divestment.17

The public and private efforts of states-parties to urge other nations, including allies, to join the treaty will help to embed it within political and legal structures, because the treaty is mentioned in statements in international forums in which states not party participate. As public awareness of the treaty grows, so will a general understanding that nuclear weapons are illegal weapons in the eyes of most of the world’s nations. States-parties’ possible creation of infrastructure to implement treaty obligations, including on victim assistance, environmental remediation, verification, and universalization, not only serve to further establish the treaty within international laws and norms, but could also foreseeably involve states not party. Nuclear-armed states could decide to contribute to programs established through the treaty to provide assistance for victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and remediate contaminated environments.

Reviewing Impact and Implementation

Within one year of entry into force, states-parties will convene to discuss and take decisions on the treaty’s implementation at the first meeting of states-parties. Austria has formally offered to host the meeting in Vienna. The first meetings of the mine ban and cluster munition pacts provide some insight into the format and topics likely to come up at the TPNW’s first meeting.

Logistically, states-parties will adopt rules of procedure, which will determine the role for observers at meetings of states-parties, as well as discuss costs for the meetings. The TPNW states that it allows observers to participate in treaty meetings, including states not party and nongovernmental representatives, but the extent of their participation will likely be clarified in the rules of procedure. For example, the rules of procedure adopted at the first meeting of states-parties of the Mine Ban Treaty clarified that observers would not be allowed to participate in decision-making or to make any procedural motion or request. As another example, at the CCM’s first meeting of states-parties, observer states were granted time to update participants on their domestic processes to join the treaty or current status vis-à-vis the treaty, as well as comment on articles in the treaty.18 Other observers, including international organizations and civil society, were invited to deliver statements. Sweden and Switzerland have already indicated that they will observe the TPNW’s meeting of states-parties, and it is likely that many signatory states will also attend.

Structurally, the TPNW’s first meeting of states-parties should follow precedent and leave time for general debate, as well as allow for debate and informal consultations on the treaty’s positive obligations, including victim assistance, environmental remediation, international cooperation and assistance, national implementation, and universalization. States-parties will also have to set the deadline for the elimination of nuclear weapons for nuclear-armed states that join the treaty, as required by Article 4.19

States-parties may start to discuss TPNW provisions on verifying the elimination of nuclear weapons, specifically about designating a “competent international authority,” although given that there are no nuclear-armed states that have joined the treaty, this is not urgent to decide at the first meeting.20 If the treaty enters into force for a nuclear-armed state before states-parties have designated that authority, the UN secretary-general can convene an extraordinary meeting of states-parties to do so. If there is a dispute among states-parties about treaty implementation, they can resolve the dispute themselves, or the meeting of states-parties can contribute to settling the dispute.

Protestors demand the abolition of nuclear weapons during a 2018 demonstration in New York. Public opinion is strongly in favor of a nuclear weapons ban, even in the the United States, where 65 percent of Americans support the nation joining the TPNW.  (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)Perhaps most importantly, the first meeting of states-parties is a starting point for further action to bring the treaty to life. It will likely conclude with a final report, a declaration committing to the treaty’s urgent implementation, and a plan for follow-up actions to take forward the treaty’s obligations. In Maputo, for example, Mine Ban Treaty states-parties established an intersessional work program, involving regular expert meetings “to advance the achievement of the humanitarian objectives of the convention.” States-parties to the CCM adopted the Vientiane action plan: 66 concrete actions for states-parties to implement treaty provisions, including universalization, victim assistance and environmental remediation, international cooperation and assistance, and national implementation. At the TPNW’s first meeting, states-parties should agree on action steps to advance these obligations, such as establishing working groups, setting specific goals, and, where relevant, setting deadlines to achieve them.21 The detailed Vientiane action plan was first drafted for a preparatory meeting three months prior to the first meeting of states-parties, an option that TPNW states-parties may consider.


The TPNW’s entry into force will trigger the implementation of the treaty’s obligations and prohibitions and can shape the behavior of states not party and advance the norm against nuclear weapons. Some of these changes will happen immediately, but others may take years or decades; no one is under the impression that worldwide nuclear disarmament will happen overnight. Yet as the TPNW continues to take shape, starting with its entry into force and continuing as states-parties meet biennially and once every six years for review conferences, and establishes the infrastructure to implement treaty obligations, the treaty will continue to chip away at the legitimacy of nuclear weapons in the minority of the world’s countries that continue to support them.

After the treaty’s entry into force, the number of states-parties will continue to grow, given the number of states that have signed but not yet ratified and the ongoing processes within many states to complete their ratifications. Even within states that have not signed or started to ratify, public support is behind the ban. Public opinion polls show that large majorities of Australians, Belgians, Finns, French, Germans, Italians, Japanese, Norwegians, and Swedes support their nations joining the treaty. Even 65 percent of Americans, fewer than all those other nations, believe Washington should join.22 Opposition political parties in states not party have pledged to join if their party gains the majority. The TPNW will soon enter into full force, taking its rightful place alongside the treaties that have banned and pushed the elimination of other weapons of mass destruction: the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Unlike nuclear weapons, the treaty banning them is here to stay.


1. IAEA General Conference, Statement by France on behalf of the P5, September 23, 2020, http://streaming.iaea.org/21487. See NATO Committee on Proliferation, “United States Non-paper: ‘Defense Impacts of Potential United Nations General Assembly Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty,’” AC/333-N(2016)0029 (INV), October 17, 2017.

2. UN General Assembly, A/C.1/74/L.19, October 21, 2019.

3. Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1155 U.N.T.S. 332, May 23, 1969.

4. See Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Act 2019 (Act. No. 40/2019) (Ir.), http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2019/act/40/enacted/en/pdf; International Committee of the Red Cross, “Model Law for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” March 2019, https://www.icrc.org/en/download/file/93818/190618_en_tpnw_model_law_final_en.pdf.

5. See New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1987/0086/latest/096be8ed8157721b.pdf.

6. A recent framework on victim assistance and environmental remediation from toxic remnants of war builds on precedents from international disarmament law and international humanitarian law, as well as best practices, to develop principles that will be a useful reference point for Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) states-parties to implement this provision. See Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic and Conflict and Environmental Observatory, “Confronting Conflict Pollution: Principles for Assisting Victims of Toxic Remnants of War,” September 2020, http://hrp.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Confronting-Conflict-Pollution.pdf.

7. TPNW, art. 6.

8. For further explanation on the victim assistance and environmental remediation clauses, see Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, “Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Myths and Realities,” April 2019, http://hrp.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/TPNW_Myths_Realities_April2019.pdf.

9. Stuart Casely-Maslen, “The Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty: Interpreting the Ban on Assisting and Encouraging,” Arms Control Today, October 2018, pp. 11–15.

10. Maaike Beenes and Michel Uiterwaal, “Worldwide Investment in Cluster Munitions: A Shared Responsibility,” PAX, December 2018, https://www.paxforpeace.nl/media/files/pax-worldwide-investment-in-cluster-munitions-2018pdf.pdf.

11. “Egypt: Mine Ban Policy,” Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, October 9, 2018, http://www.the-monitor.org/en-gb/reports/2018/egypt/mine-ban-policy.aspx; “United States: Mine Ban Policy,” Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, December 18, 2019, http://www.the-monitor.org/en-gb/reports/2019/united-states/mine-ban-policy.aspx.

12. Beenes and Uiterwaal, “Worldwide Investment in Cluster Munitions.”

13. Letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, May 6, 2020, https://www.leahy.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/kf%20ac%20Questions%20for%20SecDefense%20Final.pdf.

14. International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition, “Landmine Monitor 2019,” November 2019, http://www.the-monitor.org/media/3074086/Landmine-Monitor-2019-Report-Final.pdf.

15. International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), “Parliamentarians,” n.d., https://pledge.icanw.org/ (accessed October 17, 2020); ICAN “#ICANSave My City,” n.d., https://cities.icanw.org/ (accessed October 17, 2020).

16. “ABP (The Netherlands),” PAX, July 1, 2020, https://www.dontbankonthebomb.com/abp/.

17. ICAN, “Divestment and Nuclear Weapons,” April 2020, https://www.icanw.org/divestment_and_nuclear_weapons.

18. Convention on Cluster Munitions, “Annotated Provisional Program of Work for the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions,” CCM/MSP/2010/2/Add.1, November 8, 2010.

19. For an analysis on this decision, see Moritz Kütt and Zia Mian, “Setting the Deadline for Nuclear Weapon Destruction Under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2019): 410–430.

20. For additional analysis about building on the TPNW’s verification measures, including designating a “competent international authority,” see Tamara Patton, Sébastien Philippe, and Zia Mian, “Fit for Purpose: An Evolutionary Strategy for the Implementation and Verification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2019): 387–409; Thomas E. Shea, “On Creating the TPNW Verification System,” Toda Peace Institute Policy Brief, No. 92 (September 2020), https://toda.org/assets/files/resources/policy-briefs/t-pb-92_thomas-shea_tpnw.pdf.

21. For a more detailed overview on addressing victim assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation at the first TPNW meeting of states-parties, see Bonnie Docherty, “From Obligation to Action: Advancing Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation at the First Meeting of States-Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament (forthcoming).

22. Rebecca Davis Gibbons and Stephen Herzog, "75 years after Hiroshima, here are 4 things to know about nuclear disarmament efforts," The Washington Post, August 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/06/75-years-after-hiroshima-bombing-here-are-4-things-know-about-nuclear-disarmament-efforts/.

Alicia Sanders-Zakre is the policy and research coordinator of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

On the verge of taking effect, the TPNW is ready to set the norms needed for nuclear disarmament.

Revitalizing Nonproliferation Cooperation With Russia and China

November 2020
By Robert Einhorn

The record of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime has been impressive, defying dire predictions of a world with many nuclear-armed states. Since North Korea acquired nuclear weapons nearly 30 years ago, no additional country has done so. Many factors explain that positive record, but one of those factors has been the ability of the United States to work constructively with Russia and China from time to time in support of shared nonproliferation goals.

A Ukrainian strategic bomber is dismantled in 2002 with assistance from the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Such collaborative efforts have waned as U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated. (Photo: DTRA)However, with no end in sight to the current precipitous decline in Washington’s bilateral relations with Moscow and Beijing, constructive engagement on today’s nonproliferation challenges has become increasingly problematic. Unless the United States and its two great-power competitors can find a way to carve out areas of cooperation in otherwise highly adversarial relationships, few, if any, of those challenges can be effectively addressed, and the remarkably positive record of international efforts to prevent additional countries from acquiring nuclear weapons will be difficult to sustain.

Previous Cooperation on Nonproliferation

Despite periods of intense bilateral rivalry, the United States often managed to find common ground with the Soviet Union, and later with Russia and China, on preventing nuclear proliferation. At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the USSR recognized that the instabilities and dangers associated with the emergence of additional nuclear-weapon states could jeopardize their national interests, not least because it could create new power centers and undercut their own dominant positions in world affairs and, for Moscow, raise the specter of a nuclear-armed Germany.

In the Soviet era, this shared interest led to close collaboration in addressing proliferation threats, including in drafting the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and establishing the London Group of nuclear exporters, which became the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Later, Washington worked with Moscow to encourage Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to give up their Soviet-era nuclear weapons and join the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states. They helped ensure through Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programs that inadequately secured Russian nuclear materials and facilities in the wake of the USSR’s collapse would not leak out and support nuclear developments worldwide.1 Most recently, the United States and Russia worked with other powers to persuade Iran to accept strict limits on its nuclear programs in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

China was a latecomer to nonproliferation. In the nation’s early years, it publicly advocated the spread of nuclear weapons to “break the hegemony of the superpowers.” By the early 1990s, however, it had come to see considerable value in curbing proliferation. It believed that by adhering to nonproliferation norms, it could promote a more stable international environment, needed for its development; maintain the non-nuclear-weapon status of Japan and other Asian neighbors; bolster its credentials as a responsible permanent member of the UN Security Council; and build better relations with the United States. Accordingly, it joined the NPT and other instruments of the global nonproliferation regime.

Liu Jieyi, China's permanent representative to the UN, addresses the Security Council on July 20, 2015, when the council adopted a resolution to implement the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action on Iran's nuclear program. The world-power collaboration that enabled that agreement is disappearing, undermining other efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. (Photo: United Nations)Throughout the 1990s, frequent U.S.-Chinese engagement on nonproliferation was instrumental in encouraging Beijing to put in place its national export control system and cease proliferation-sensitive technology transfers, including any nuclear cooperation with Iran, which China agreed to forgo in exchange for a Clinton administration decision to authorize the U.S. sale of nuclear reactors to China. As host and chair of the six-party talks in the 2000s, China played an active role in pressing North Korea to halt and eliminate its destabilizing strategic capabilities. In subsequent years, China made frequent, often futile efforts at the highest levels to dissuade Pyongyang from proceeding with nuclear and missile tests and to encourage North Korea to accept negotiated limitations.

From Sometimes Partners to Frequent Foes

In recent years and especially with the sharp downturn in bilateral relations, Moscow and Beijing have increasingly acted less as Washington’s nonproliferation partners and more as opponents.

This shift has been especially pronounced with regard to Iran, with cooperation as JCPOA negotiating colleagues giving way to strong differences. To a significant extent, opposition by Russia and China to U.S. policies on Iran since 2018 has been shared by Washington’s European allies, but Chinese and Russian opposition has gone well beyond that of the Europeans. Russia and China have aligned themselves closely with Iran and become its principal defenders on most issues of contention.

With Beijing in the lead on North Korea, just as Moscow has the lead on Iran, China and Russia have increasingly distanced themselves from U.S. policy on North Korea and moved closer to Pyongyang. They believe the Trump administration’s harsh sanctions campaign has resulted in North Korea digging in its heels. Worse, they fear that U.S. policy could destabilize the North Korean regime, an outcome that China regards as threatening to its interests and one that many Chinese regard as the actual, unstated goal of U.S. policy on North Korea. Although mostly complying with UN sanctions in 2016–2017, Russia and China now seem determined to weaken sanctions and have become complicit in sanctions evasion. They also take issue with what they regard as an unrealistic U.S. approach to negotiations on denuclearization.

Elsewhere, Russia and China have actively opposed efforts by the United States and much of the international community to pursue Syria regarding its noncompliance with its nuclear and chemical weapons nonproliferation obligations. In the wake of Israel’s 2007 destruction of a plutonium-production reactor that North Korea was clandestinely helping Syria build, they have sought to shield Damascus from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) scrutiny of Syria’s nuclear program. In the face of compelling evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its opponents on many occasions, Russia, supported by China, has gone to great lengths to oppose efforts by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to attribute chemical weapons use to the Syrian government.

Russia has been the leading critic of the “state-level concept,” an IAEA approach to making its safeguards system more effective by taking into account not only information obtained through its own traditional verification activities but also information obtained from other sources, including intelligence supplied by IAEA member states. Moscow has claimed that reliance on third-party information has enabled Western countries, especially the United States, to manipulate the IAEA to serve their political goals, although Russia seems mainly concerned about information that could incriminate its allies, particularly Iran and Syria.

Reducing the risks of terrorists acquiring potentially vulnerable weapons-usable nuclear materials has been a highly successful area of nonproliferation cooperation, especially between the United States and Russia. Such nuclear security cooperation between Moscow and Washington no longer exists, in part because Russia has come to resent the image of dependence on U.S. assistance in securing materials and facilities in Russia. A critical additional factor was the sharp downturn in U.S.-Russian relations after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, with Washington imposing sanctions in 2014 in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Moscow retaliated by pulling the plug on key nuclear security programs, and Congress prohibited U.S. funding for nuclear projects in Russia. Emblematic of the near-total breakdown of bilateral cooperation on nuclear security was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision not to attend the 2016 nuclear security summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The reduction in U.S.-Chinese nuclear security cooperation in recent years has been much less dramatic, largely because such cooperation has never been as extensive as U.S.-Russian cooperation. With the downward spiral of U.S.-Chinese relations from 2016 to 2020, however, bilateral cooperation has significantly declined. Some technical, working-level contacts have persisted, but senior-level mechanisms to oversee and steer cooperative engagement no longer meet.

Obstacles to Future Nonproliferation Cooperation

The decline in U.S. nonproliferation cooperation with Russia and China will be difficult to reverse. Clearly, the greatest obstacle is the overall deterioration of U.S. relations with its two great-power competitors. Such cooperation requires a modicum of mutual trust, but today such trust no longer exists. It requires channels of dialogue and communication, but virtually all bilateral channels have been shut down. It also requires a measure of domestic support for bilateral engagement, but public and elite opinion in Russia and China has grown extremely skeptical of the benefits of engagement with the United States, and vice versa.

The continued downturn in bilateral relations could undercut one of China’s historically strong motivations for constructive engagement on nonproliferation: a desire for better relations with the United States. Beijing has tended to take positive nonproliferation steps when relations with Washington were good or improving and to be more uncooperative when relations were declining, especially when it was angered by U.S. actions, such as the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, which some Chinese believed was intentional, or major U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

South Koreans watch a television broadcast reporting on the meeting of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Mar. 28, 2018.  (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)Another related obstacle is that Russia and China, in balancing their interest in nonproliferation against what they see as their interest in strengthening strategic relationships with friendly countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria, now apparently assign a higher priority to the latter relative to the former. Sensing an opportunity presented by the prospect of reduced U.S. engagement in the Middle East, Putin has sought to make Russia a major actor and broker in the region, including by intervening militarily to support Assad in the Syrian civil war and working closely with Iran to ensure Assad’s victory and undermine U.S. interests in the region. Similarly, Chinese President Xi Jinping, fearing that U.S.-North Korean and South Korean-North Korean diplomacy could leave China on the sidelines in shaping the future of the Korean peninsula, decided in 2018 to restore close ties with Pyongyang after a period of estrangement. The growing inclination of Moscow and Beijing to solidify what they regard as strategically useful partnerships helps explain why they now often back Iran, North Korea, and Syria in key nonproliferation disputes and shield them against further harsh sanctions.

An additional obstacle to cooperation, at least in recent years, has been Russian and Chinese opposition to specific nonproliferation policies of the Trump administration. That obstacle could be somewhat reduced under a Biden administration, at least on some issues, such as Iran. On other issues, however, including Syria, the roles and methods of the IAEA and OPCW, and the utility of sanctions as a nonproliferation tool, strong differences predated the Trump administration and would likely remain.

Cooperation Remains Essential

At a time when U.S. nonproliferation cooperation with Russia and China has all but disappeared, challenges to the global nonproliferation regime appear to be growing.

With the JCPOA largely hollowed out and Iran rebuilding its enrichment program, fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon or at least a latent nuclear weapons capability has returned and, with it, the prospect that Saudi Arabia and perhaps others in the Middle East will pursue a matching capability.

U.S. diplomacy with North Korea has reached a dead end. Pyongyang continues to advance its nuclear and missile programs, and U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, worried by the expanding threat from the North and increasingly uncertain about the reliability of U.S. security guarantees, may rethink the option of acquiring their own nuclear deterrents.

Assertive postures by Russia and China in their respective regions have elevated the security concerns of their non-nuclear neighbors, including Japan in the case of China.

Sophisticated illicit networks trafficking in proliferation-sensitive technologies have made detection of embryonic covert nuclear programs more difficult.

In their aggressive efforts to sell nuclear reactors, some nuclear supplier governments may relax the nonproliferation controls they require their customers to accept.

Continued polarization among parties to the NPT, fueled by dissatisfaction that progress toward nuclear disarmament has stalled and concern that U.S.-Russian arms control agreements are unraveling, has impeded efforts to strengthen nonproliferation controls and could weaken the authority of the treaty as a barrier to the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Preventing the deterioration of the global nonproliferation regime will require the restoration of cooperation among the world’s three most influential nuclear powers.

Possible Areas of Cooperation

Despite the highly acrimonious state of U.S. relations with Moscow and Beijing, efforts should be made to explore prospects for nonproliferation cooperation in some key areas.

Resuming channels of engagement. A first critical step is procedural rather than substantive: establishing channels for nonproliferation consultations. Such channels existed with Russia and China during previous U.S. administrations, sometimes under the umbrella of formal, high-level bilateral mechanisms covering a wide range of issues, such as the Clinton administration’s Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission and the George W. Bush administration’s U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue.

Such top-level umbrella mechanisms are probably not feasible today, at least in the immediate future. Yet, less formal, lower-profile bilateral dialogues on nonproliferation can and should be established. These dialogues should be carried out at a high but subcabinet level, such as by undersecretaries or assistant secretaries. They should be dedicated to nonproliferation and not also seek to address nuclear arms control, which should be the focus of separate consultations to allow each subject to be handled in depth in the limited time available and with the required expertise at the table. Consultations should be held on a regular basis and should operate with a minimum of publicity to increase the likelihood of more candid interactions.

If establishing dedicated bilateral mechanisms proves difficult, the countries should look for opportunities to engage on the margins of existing multilateral meetings where relevant officials are present, such as the IAEA General Conference and meetings of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states.

Pursuing new negotiations with Iran. Iran’s nuclear capabilities will remain high on the international nonproliferation agenda in 2021 and beyond. Whatever the fate of the JCPOA, Washington can be expected to seek engagement with Iran to pursue long-term restrictions on its nuclear capacity and address its destabilizing regional activities. In light of strong Iranian mistrust and resentment toward the United States over the Trump administration’s JCPOA withdrawal and “maximum pressure” campaign, it is uncertain whether and on what terms Iranian leaders will be prepared to engage, especially given political dynamics in Tehran in the run-up to the June presidential election.

To persuade Iran to come back to the negotiating table and engage constructively by not insisting on compensation for economic losses from U.S. sanctions or other unrealistic positions, the United States will need the help of its former P5+1 partners. That means rebuilding bridges destroyed by the Trump administration’s self-isolating policies, especially its futile effort to snap back previous UN Security Council sanctions. Regaining the support of its European allies and working closely with its Middle Eastern partners will be critical first steps, but collaboration with Russia and China will also be essential.

Although Russia and China presumably continue to agree with the United States on the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, getting them to cooperate with Washington on a new agreement will be more difficult than it was to gain their support in the JCPOA negotiations. They are more inclined now to support Iran as a strategic partner, oppose sanctions as a means of incentivizing Tehran, give Iran the benefit of the doubt on its nuclear intentions, and see the United States rather than Iran as the source of the problem.

A key factor in gaining Chinese and Russian cooperation will be the U.S. negotiating position. If Washington hopes to get them and the Europeans on board, it will need to alter its current demands and adopt an approach that Beijing and Moscow believe is a reasonable starting point for negotiations. That means confining a new agreement to the nuclear issue and not linking progress in the nuclear negotiations to important but separate efforts to address Iran’s regional activities; seeking to limit but not eliminate Iran’s uranium-enrichment program; offering sufficient and credible sanctions relief; and dropping regime change as an explicit or implicit goal of U.S. policy.

Curbing the North Korean threat. Addressing the North Korean nuclear and missile threat will also be a top U.S. goal in 2021. As in the case of Iran, however, cooperation by Russia and China is less likely now than it was just a few years ago. A consistent, long-term goal of both countries, especially China, has been to reduce the U.S. military presence and weaken U.S. alliances in East Asia. With bilateral U.S.-Chinese relations cratering and Beijing’s suspicions of a U.S. Indo-Pacific containment strategy growing, that goal has assumed greater importance and the scope for cooperation has substantially narrowed. China increasingly sees U.S. and Chinese interests on the Korean peninsula as a zero-sum game, illustrated by Beijing’s accusation that U.S. deployment of a sophisticated missile defense system in South Korea and other U.S. military responses to the North Korean nuclear threat are aimed largely at China.

Nonetheless, while strengthening their ties with Pyongyang and parting ways with the United States on enforcement of sanctions, Russia and China continue to share Washington’s interest in a peaceful, nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula, an outcome that would have the benefit, from their perspective, of reducing Washington’s need to respond to North Korean capabilities in a way they would regard as threatening, such as a major buildup of U.S. missile defenses.

Finding common ground on a negotiated solution will require the three countries, especially the United States and China, to modify their current positions. For Washington, that means accepting that denuclearization is a long-term, step-by-step process; that Pyongyang will have to be provided meaningful incentives at each step of the way; and that the first step will be a partial measure with no reliable guarantee that the goal of complete denuclearization will eventually be realized. For Beijing, it means recognizing that it will have to lean heavily on North Korea to get it to accept strict and verifiable measures and that, even if an agreement can be reached that reduces the North Korean threat, the United States and its allies will continue to reinforce their capabilities to deter the North. Russia will need to add its weight to Chinese efforts to encourage more flexible North Korean negotiating behavior. It will also need to work bilaterally with Washington, given their unique arms control experience, to demonstrate to Pyongyang that effective verification measures can be implemented without compromising national security interests.

Revitalizing nuclear security and nuclear energy cooperation. Nuclear security is the most promising area for resuming U.S. cooperation with Russia and China largely because the three countries have a genuine common interest in preventing terrorists from getting their hands on the materials needed to make nuclear weapons or dirty bombs.

Moreover, U.S.-Russian reengagement would be facilitated by the long history of cooperation in this area, by the close personal and institutional ties that developed during that long history, and by the apparent desire of technical experts on both sides to resume cooperation. The United States and China do not have the extensive record of nuclear security cooperation shared by Washington and Moscow, but neither do they have the accumulated resentments and internal opposition toward such cooperation that came to bedevil U.S.-Russian nuclear security programs.

If U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation is to be resurrected, it will have to abandon the past donor-recipient relationship and become a more equal partnership, with both sides sharing best practices rather than Russia simply adopting U.S. practices and with each side able to derive the benefits it seeks. That means not only pursuing the nuclear security agenda favored by the United States, but also cooperating in the fields of nuclear science and nuclear energy that the Russian nuclear establishment seeks. Furthermore, it would be useful to recognize if not welcome that Russia’s interest in cooperative projects will often depend on its calculation of commercial gain. A study by prominent U.S.- and Russian-based think tanks has recommended an extensive menu of possible future cooperation that includes developing the next generation of safe and reliable nuclear reactors, creating proliferation-resistant nuclear fuels, improving the safety of nuclear power plants, improving nuclear security and accounting technologies, and enhancing nuclear security in other countries embarking on nuclear energy programs.2

Despite the termination of most U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation, the two countries have managed to continue as co-chairs of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), a multilateral partnership dedicated to strengthening the capacity of its members to prevent, detect, and respond to acts of nuclear terrorism. In the months and years to come, they should look for opportunities to expand cooperation, perhaps initially under the umbrella of multilateral forums such as GICNT and IAEA-sponsored conferences, but eventually by setting up dedicated bilateral mechanisms and reestablishing a legal framework for cooperation.3

Resuming and expanding U.S.-Chinese nuclear security cooperation may face fewer hurdles than U.S.-Russian cooperation. Unlike in the case of Russia, there is a legal framework still in place, the 1997 Agreement on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technology, and an ongoing mechanism that could provide a venue for expert discussions on a range of nuclear security issues. That venue is China’s Center of Excellence, created with U.S. assistance in 2016 for nuclear security exchanges and training. Future cooperation could build on such past efforts as the establishment of a radiation detection training center, a “Megaports Initiative” to enhance detection capability at Shanghai’s container port, and technical exchanges on implementing nuclear export controls. In addition, it could build on previous collaborative work in converting Chinese-built Miniature Neutron Sources Reactors, first in China and then in Ghana and Nigeria, to operate with low-enriched uranium.4

Strengthening the NPT regime. The United States and Russia, and China after it joined the NPT in 1992, have been strong supporters of the treaty, and they continue to have a common interest in ensuring that it will remain an effective barrier to nuclear proliferation. Their support has been most evident at NPT review conferences, held every five years, at which the United States, China, and Russia, joined by France and the United Kingdom (the other two NPT nuclear-weapon states) have traditionally banded together to promote successful conference outcomes and to defend their records against criticism from non-nuclear-weapon states-parties that they are not doing enough to fulfill their treaty obligations to pursue nuclear disarmament.

The worsening of bilateral relations among the five, however, has led to a cracking of that solidarity. In preparations for the 2020 review conference, loud recriminations among the five, especially between the United States and Russia, have contributed to a pessimistic outlook for the conference.

Reducing nuclear dangers. To promote a successful 2020 review conference, which was postponed until 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington, Moscow, and Beijing should set aside their differences and seek common ground, including on issues related to nuclear disarmament. Agreement by the United States and Russia to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty would do much to improve conference prospects. So would the beginning of U.S.-Chinese strategy stability talks, which could help avoid a destabilizing arms competition and reduce the likelihood of inadvertent armed conflict between the two world powers, even if Beijing continues its unwillingness to negotiate formal limits on its nuclear forces.

Cooperating in the P5 process. The P5 process, a consultative mechanism initiated in 2009 to facilitate cooperation among the NPT’s five nuclear-weapon states, has so far produced useful but modest results, such as a glossary of key nuclear terms. To demonstrate to non-nuclear-armed states that they are serious about fulfilling their NPT obligation to reduce nuclear dangers, the five have begun turning to more strategically important efforts, including an in-depth dialogue on nuclear doctrines and policies and an examination of nuclear risk reduction measures. Given the current absence of bilateral channels for strategic engagement, the United States should make the most of the process. Despite the multilateral nature of the process, it can provide a venue for informal bilateral contacts.

Fixing the NPT withdrawal problem. The United States, Russia, and China should take the lead in reinforcing the effectiveness of the NPT. A major contribution would be to correct one of the treaty’s main shortcomings: if a party exercises its right to withdraw, IAEA safeguards on its nuclear facilities and materials automatically lapse, leaving it legally entitled to use the facilities and materials it acquired under the treaty in a nuclear weapons program. Several past proposals for addressing this problem have had broad support, including among the nuclear-weapon countries, but were never adopted. With some NPT parties now hinting at withdrawal and possibly considering a run for nuclear weapons, the three countries should work together to fix it.

Strengthening IAEA safeguards. Russia and the United States could also give a significant boost to the IAEA safeguards system by resolving their differences on the agency’s state-level concept. As recommended by a distinguished group of U.S. and Russian experts,5 the IAEA should make clear that although intelligence and other information supplied by member states can play an important role in helping to direct and focus the agency’s resources and activities, IAEA conclusions on safeguards and compliance questions will be based on objective criteria and will rely on IAEA safeguards methods and investigations, independent of any third-party information. Moreover, to ensure confidence in the impartiality of IAEA safeguards findings and judgments, the agency should be as transparent as possible in communicating to member states how it has reached its conclusions.

Coordinating nuclear export policies. The United States should seek to engage Russia, China, and other key suppliers of nuclear reactors, materials, and technology on their nuclear export policies. As a matter of law or policy, the United States goes well beyond the agreed NSG standards. It requires, as conditions of supply, that its non-nuclear-weapon state customers adhere to the additional protocol to their IAEA safeguards agreements and accept constraints on enrichment and reprocessing, including in a few cases the renunciation of future enrichment or reprocessing. Motivated in large part by a commercial desire to boost nuclear exports, most other nuclear supplier governments, including Russia and China, are much less demanding of their customers. The proliferation risk is that countries seeking nuclear weapons or at least the nuclear infrastructure that could give them a future nuclear weapons option will choose to deal with suppliers with less stringent controls. Compounding this problem is the generous, government-supported financing arrangements that several supplier countries are prepared to offer to secure nuclear sales.

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) speaks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the 2019 G20 summit in Japan. Declining U.S. influence has made it more difficult to impose stringent nonproliferation standards as the United States seeks to export civil nuclear technology to nations such as Saudi Arabia.  (Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Getty Images)Given the strong determination of U.S. nuclear competitors to export, it would be unrealistic to expect Washington to persuade other supplier governments to adopt rigorous U.S. nuclear export policies on a worldwide basis. There may be cases, however, in which informal coordination of nuclear supply conditions could be pursued.

Saudi Arabia could be one such opportunity. Vendors from China, France, Russia, South Korea, and the United States are vying to sell reactors to the country even as its leader says the nation will acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does. Washington would have a difficult time getting the others to match its demand that Saudi Arabia forswear enrichment or reprocessing for an extended period of time, but perhaps they could all agree to require Saudi adherence to an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement as a condition of supply, something Riyadh has so far resisted.

Cooperation Now More Than Ever

Since the NPT negotiations of the 1960s and until fairly recently, the United States has been the leading and most often the dominant player in international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, but U.S. dominance is declining. It is now only one of several increasingly capable and aggressive competitors for worldwide nuclear sales, and it no longer has the clout in the international civil nuclear market to exert major influence over the terms of global nuclear trade. It remains by far the world’s strongest military power, but it is being challenged for local military superiority in the western Pacific and eastern Europe, and questions are being raised about the sustainability of its overseas military presence and the reliability of its security guarantees, which have historically reduced incentives for U.S. allies to acquire nuclear weapons. U.S. sanctions are still a formidable coercive tool to fight proliferation, but the targets of coercion have become well practiced in sanctions evasion, and resentment toward what is widely regarded as U.S. overuse of sanctions has given rise to consideration of how to work around or reduce the international economic role of the dollar.6

These developments do not mean the United States will be unable to continue playing its traditional leading role in preventing proliferation. Indeed, U.S. leadership will remain indispensable. No other country or group of countries has the resources, experience, or will to take its place, but it does mean the United States will need partners more than ever. Although Washington will naturally look to its allies and friends around the world to cooperate in the fight against proliferation, it will also need to gain the cooperation of Moscow and Beijing.

Russia and China, however, have pushed nonproliferation interests lower on their hierarchy of national priorities as they pursue their geopolitical interest in supporting partners that pose proliferation risks and their commercial interest in selling nuclear reactors or securing reliable energy supplies. With U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese relations reaching new lows and unlikely to improve for the foreseeable future, prospects for nonproliferation cooperation are uncertain at best.

Still, as difficult as it may be to find common ground and carve out areas of cooperation in otherwise highly adversarial relationships, the U.S. administration in office after January 2021 must make every effort to do so. Cooperation with the two U.S. great-power competitors will not guarantee success in overcoming the growing nonproliferation challenges the international community will face in the years ahead, but the absence of such cooperation will surely increase the risks of failure.


1. For a discussion of nonproliferation cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union, see William C. Potter and Sarah Bidgood, eds., Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Non-proliferation (New York: Routledge, 2018).

2. Nuclear Threat Initiative and Center for Energy and Security Studies, “Pathways to Cooperation: A Menu of Potential U.S.-Russian Cooperative Projects in the Nuclear Sphere,” February 2017, https://media.nti.org/documents/Pathways_to_Cooperation_FINAL.pdf.

3. The 2013 U.S.-Russia Agreement on Cooperation in Nuclear- and Energy-Related Scientific Research and Development, which covered activities including civil nuclear energy, nuclear security and safety, nuclear science, and nuclear nonproliferation but was suspended in 2016, could be reactivated. For an extensive discussion of opportunities for resuming nuclear security cooperation between the United States and Russia, see Matthew Bunn, “Steps for Rebuilding U.S.-Russian Nuclear Security Cooperation,” Proceedings of the 58th Annual Meeting of the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management, July 16–20, 2017, https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/matthew_ bunn/files/bunn_steps_for_rebuilding_us-russian_nuclear_security_cooperation.pdf.

4. Hui Zhang, “China’s Nuclear Security: Progress, Challenges, and Next Steps,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, March 2016, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/Chinas%20Nuclear%20Security-Web.pdf.

5. Nuclear Threat Initiative and Center for Energy and Security Studies, “The Future of IAEA Safeguards: Rebuilding the Vienna Spirit through Russian-U.S. Expert Dialogue,” forthcoming.

6. For a discussion of trends that could increase future nonproliferation challenges, including a decline in the traditional dominant position of the United States on nonproliferation issues, see Eric Brewer et al., “Toward a More Proliferated World? The Geopolitical Forces That Will Shape the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” Center for a New American Security and Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 2020, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/200902_Toward_a_More_Proliferated_World.pdf.

Robert Einhorn is a senior fellow in the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Initiative and the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at The Brookings Institution. An expanded version of this article was published as an Occasional Paper of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, based at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and is available at www.nonproliferation.org.


Waning U.S., Chinese, and Russian cooperation has harmed nuclear nonproliferation efforts. It is time to revitalize that critical work.

Ban Treaty Set to Enter Into Force

November 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will enter into force Jan. 22, a date set by the Oct. 24 ratification of the pact by Honduras. The treaty terms call for it to take effect 90 days after the 50th nation deposits its ratification or accession with the United Nations.

Honduran Foreign Minister Maria Dolores Aguero Lara signs the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations on Sept. 20, 2017. Honduras deposited its instrument of ratification on Oct. 24, triggering the treaty's entry into force in 90 days. (Photo: Darren Ornitz/ICAN)For the first time since the invention of the atomic bomb, nuclear weapons development, production, possession, use, and threat of use and the stationing of another country’s nuclear weapons on a state-party's national territory are all expressly prohibited in a global treaty. Negotiations on the TPNW were concluded in July 2017 after a negotiating conference involving more than 120 states. The initiative emerged after a series of three international conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons held in 2013–14.

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said in an Oct. 24 statement that the entry into force of the TPNW is “the culmination of a worldwide movement to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. It represents a meaningful commitment towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons, which remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations.”

The 50th ratification came on the 75th anniversary of the ratification of the UN Charter, which is celebrated annually as UN Day.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, said in a statement that “the 50 countries that ratify this treaty are showing true leadership in setting a new international norm that nuclear weapons are not just immoral but illegal.”

U.S. officials, meanwhile, are actively lobbying states to withdraw their support for the treaty. A letter that accompanied a nonpaper listing U.S. concerns about the TPNW sent in October, stated that “[a]lthough we recognize your sovereign right to ratify or accede to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), we believe that you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession.”

The U.S. letter, which was delivered to a large number of states and was first reported by the Associated Press, claims that the five original nuclear powers and all of member of NATO “stand unified” in their opposition to the “potential repercussions” of the treaty. The U.S. nonpaper claims that the TPNW is “dangerously counterproductive” to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

One of those five powers, China, issued a more conciliatory view in a Twitter statement on Oct. 24: “China has always been advocating complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons, which is fundamentally in line with purposes of [the treaty]. China will continuously make relentless efforts towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.”

TPNW negotiators have repeatedly underscored that the new treaty seeks full complementarity between the NPT and the new agreement. They also note that the pact advances the existing NPT safeguards regime by legally obliging its states-parties to keep in place any additional safeguards arrangements they have voluntarily agreed to implement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

According to Thomas Hajnoczi, director for disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation for the Austrian Foreign Ministry, “[T]he TPNW did not create a parallel universe to the traditional one founded on the NPT.” In an article published in The Nonproliferation Review earlier this year, Hajnoczi argues that, “on the contrary, it makes the existing universe of legal instruments around the NPT stronger.”

The first global treaty to ban nuclear weapons will take effect in January 2021.

New START in Limbo Ahead of U.S. Election

November 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States and Russia each dismissed last-minute proposals involving a short-term extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), leaving the fate of the sole remaining U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreement undetermined on the eve of the U.S. presidential election.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets reporters at the State Department on Oct. 19. Two days later he reaffirmed the U.S. position that New START "is not a good deal for the United States." (Photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images)The down-to-the-wire diplomacy appeared to narrow the large gap between the two sides on prolonging the treaty, but no resolution was found, and the failure to close a deal raised questions about whether Russia ever intended to strike a deal with the Trump administration so close to the election or whether the Trump administration ever intended to extend New START. Administration officials have repeatedly criticized the treaty and waited more than three years to begin serious arms control talks with Russia.

It remains to be seen if the Trump administration and Russia will seek to continue negotiations later this year regardless of the election result. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said that if he is elected president in November, he will pursue the treaty’s extension without conditions.

New START, which is slated to expire on Feb. 5, 2021, permits an extension of up to five years so long as the U.S. and Russian presidents agree.

After several months of talks, Washington and Moscow in mid-October exchanged dueling offers pairing a one-year extension of New START with an undefined one-year freeze on the numbers of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in an Oct. 20 statement that Russia offers to extend New START for one year and “undertake a political commitment to ‘freeze’ for the above-mentioned period the number of nuclear warheads that each side possesses.”

But the statement said that the offer “may be implemented only and exclusively on the premise that ‘freezing’ of warheads will not be accompanied by any additional demands on the part of the United States.”

The foreign ministry added that the “time gained” by the New START extension “could be used to conduct comprehensive bilateral negotiations on the future nuclear and missile arms control that must address all factors affecting strategic stability.”

Russia had previously called for extending New START by five years without conditions and balked at a warhead-level freeze.

The foreign ministry statement followed direction from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 16 to seek to extend New START “unconditionally for at least a year.” Putin made no specific mention of a freeze on all warhead levels.

U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien responded to Putin’s proposal on Twitter later that day, describing it as a “non-starter.” He claimed that Russia had appeared willing to accept a U.S. offer to extend New START and freeze all warhead levels in tandem after he met with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in Geneva on Oct. 2.

It is not clear whether Russia had agreed in principle to such a two-part deal or whether Russia further amended its position between Putin’s Oct. 16 comments and the Oct. 20 foreign ministry statement.

Regardless, the Trump administration praised Russia’s willingness to agree to a short-term extension of New START and a freeze and said that although a deal was close, more work needed to be done to seal it.

“President [Donald] Trump has made clear that the New START Treaty by itself is not a good deal for the United States or our friends or allies,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Oct. 21. He criticized the treaty for failing to capture Russia’s large and, according to the Defense Department, growing arsenal of up to 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear warheads.

“What we’ve proposed to extend that agreement would be historic,” Pompeo said. “But we need to make sure that U.S. and Russian negotiators get together just as soon as possible to continue to make progress to finalize a verifiable agreement.”

O'Brien expressed optimism at an Oct. 28 Hudson Institute event that “if we can get through the verification issues, I think we're going to be able to get to a deal.” “We'll see how that plays out over the next couple of days and weeks,” he said.

If a deal is secured, the administration said it plans to use the ensuing year to translate it into a formal treaty that would also include China.

But Russia rejected the U.S. demand for verification of a freeze and said that such details should be deferred for future negotiations.

“We have the feeling that they [the United States] need verification for the verification's sake,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Russian news outlet Interfax on Oct. 22.

“It may be considered that we’ve made two concessions,” Ryabkov said, referring to Russia’s willingness to agree to a one-year extension of New START and a one-year warhead-level freeze. “Let them make concessions to meet us halfway: let them drop their monitoring demand.”

In a separate interview with Kommersant, Ryabkov said “that the degree of our differences is rather significant” and that he did not see “reasons for strong optimism” that New START would be extended.

He warned that “[r]ejecting this condition will immediately destroy the possibility of reaching the agreement” and that Russia would be willing to allow New START to expire if the United States continued to make unrealistic demands.

The warning appeared to be a response to repeated suggestions by Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, that Russia is desperate to extend New START and that Washington would raise the price to extend the treaty if Russia failed to meet U.S. demands.

Ryabkov told reporters on Oct. 27 that Washington and Moscow still “are exchanging documents behind closed doors” and that “Russia is open to continuing the dialogue."

The Trump administration’s October offer of a short-term extension of New START and a freeze marked another shift in the U.S. negotiating position in arms control talks with Russia.

In August, the administration conditioned U.S. consideration of a short-term extension of New START on Russia agreeing to a politically binding framework deal that would verifiably cover all nuclear warheads, make changes to the New START verification regime, and be structured to include China in the future. (See ACT, September 2020.) The administration had earlier insisted that China immediately participate in trilateral arms control talks with the United States and Russia, which Beijing rejected. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

Key details about the U.S. freeze proposal have yet to be clarified by the Trump administration.

According to an Oct. 20 report in The Wall Street Journal, a senior administration official said the United States wants both sides to declare the total number of warheads deployed on delivery systems of all ranges and kept in storage.

To verify that neither side was exceeding the declared number of warheads, the official said Washington wanted monitors to be stationed outside U.S. and Russian warhead production facilities. The official added that such a portal monitoring system, which has featured in past arms control agreements, did not need to be in place immediately but that Russia needed to agree to technical talks on how to eventually implement such an approach.

But Russian officials have called the adoption of such a system a nonstarter, at least in the near term.

In the past, the United States and Russia agreed to politically binding arms control and risk reduction measures without stringent verification protocols.

If Trump is not reelected and does not make a deal with Russia before Inauguration Day, a President Joe Biden would have 16 days before the treaty expires in which to pursue an extension. It is not clear whether he would continue to push for a freeze on all U.S. and Russian warheads.

Billingslea said in an Oct. 20 interview that a potential Biden administration would have to “rethink” its support for an unconditional extension of New START.

According to Billingslea, Trump, “by signaling his intention to pursue this historic approach and with the Russians now agreeing in principle, that now sets the floor for future arms control discussions.”

New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.


Despite pre-U.S. election maneuvering, prospects for extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty remain slim.

U.S. Threatens to Sanction Iran Arms Sales

November 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

The Trump administration reiterated its threat to sanction any individual or entity that engages in arms trade with Iran after UN Security Council limits on transfers of conventional weaponry to and from Iran expired Oct. 18.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif attends a meeting at Russia's Foreign Ministry on Sept. 24. He soon after praised the lifting of a UN arms embargo as a "momentous day for the international community." (Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry/Flickr)The lifting of the arms embargo was a “momentous day for the international community,” which was achieved in “defiance of the U.S. regime’s efforts,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in an Oct. 18 statement.

But he said that Iran will not go on “a buying spree of conventional arms” because that has “no place in Iran’s defense doctrine.” He noted that Tehran will continue to rely on “indigenous capacities and capabilities” to maintain its “strong defensive power.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not acknowledge the expiration in an Oct. 18 State Department press release, but said that arms trade with Iran is still illegal under UN Security Council measures.

Pompeo said the United States is “prepared to use its domestic authorities to sanction” anyone that contributes to the sale or transfer of arms to and from Iran and those that provide training and financing for sales.

The United States has claimed that it reimposed all UN sanctions lifted or modified by Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses and helps implement the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). (See ACT, October 2020.)

But the Security Council rejected the U.S. attempt in September to reimpose the sanctions in order to prevent the arms embargo from expiring. Members of the Security Council, including U.S. allies and JCPOA parties France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, argued that the United States is no longer a party to the nuclear deal and therefore not entitled to use the mechanism in the resolution that allows for participants in the nuclear deal to reimpose UN sanctions in a way that cannot be vetoed.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in September that he will take no action to implement the Security Council sanctions the United States claims are reimposed, but it is unclear how many states will be willing to risk engaging in arms trade with Iran because U.S. sanctions on Iran were not lifted or modified by the JCPOA and EU restrictions on arms sales also remain in place.

Russia suggested in September that it would be willing to sell conventional arms to Iran after the embargo is lifted, but the two countries did not immediately announce any sales, and it is unlikely that many other countries will follow suit.

In an Oct. 18 tweet directed at Pompeo, Dmitry Polyansky, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, said, “[W]e are doing and will be doing business with Iran,” and it is not up to the United States “to tell us or others what they can or can’t do.” The tweet did not reference any arms sales.

A separate tweet by Polyansky urged the United States to stop provoking Tehran, refrain from selling arms to the region, and change its vocabulary to focus on dialogue and engagement, not sanctions and punishment.

Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami said on Oct. 18 that Iranian arms sales will far exceed purchases. He said that Iran has had discussions with a number of countries over the past year regarding arms sales and that Tehran will support efforts by states to defend themselves.

As part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, the Trump administration also announced sanctions against 18 additional Iranian banks on Oct. 8.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement that day that the sanctions will continue until “Iran stops its support of terrorist activities and ends its nuclear programs.” He said that humanitarian exemptions will not be affected by the designation.

The U.S. designations were reportedly opposed by Washington’s European allies over concerns that cutting off additional Iranian banks would make it more difficult for Tehran to pay for humanitarian goods and services.

European officials have raised concerns about the effectiveness of U.S. humanitarian exemptions in the past.


The Trump administration boosted its unilateral sanctions against Iran as a UN embargo on arms trade with Tehran expired.

North Korea Parades New Missile

November 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un boasted in October that Pyongyang’s strengthened nuclear deterrent is sufficient to address threats posed by hostile forces. His comments were bolstered by the display of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) during an Oct. 11 parade in Pyongyang.

North Korea displays its Hwasong-16 missile at an Oct. 11 military parade.  (Photo: KCNA)The missile, dubbed the Hwasong-16, is significantly larger than the ICBMs North Korea has displayed and tested in the past. Its inclusion in the parade does not come as a complete surprise, as Kim previewed the existence of a “new strategic weapon” in an address during the plenary meeting of the Workers Party of Korea in December 2019.

In his parade remarks, Kim said North Korea has built “a deterrent with which we can satisfactorily control and manage any military threats that we are facing or may face” and that he will “enlist all our most powerful offensive strength in advance to punish” any forces that infringe on the country’s security.

It is unclear if Kim was referring to the new ICBM or the missiles tested in 2017. Although Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 missiles are technically capable of targeting the United States, their reliability would be questionable given that Pyongyang has conducted so few tests and none on a standard trajectory. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)

Pyongyang has not announced plans to test the Hwasong-16. North Korea has displayed long-range missiles in the past that have not been tested, raising questions about whether the missile is intended for deployment or only for propaganda.

Similar to the Hwasong-15, the new system appears to be a two-stage, liquid-fueled ballistic missile that would be powerful enough to target the entire continental United States. Unlike the Hwasong-15, analysts suggest that the Hwasong-16 is large enough to carry several warheads.

Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an NK News briefing on Oct. 11 that it is “logical” for North Korea to invest in a missile capable of carrying multiple warheads because the approach is less expensive than fielding more missiles.

North Korea may be interested in a multiple-warhead capability to overwhelm U.S. homeland missile defenses, which have about a 50 percent success rate against a single incoming ICBM. North Korea has never successfully tested a reentry vehicle, but a missile with multiple warheads would increases the chances of warheads evading missile defenses.

Kim also said that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent “will never be abused or used as a means for preemptive strike.”

Despite North Korea’s weapons display, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued to assert on Oct. 14 that U.S. negotiations with North Korea in 2018 and 2019 “certainly led to reduced risk.”

He emphasized the importance of ensuring North Korea cannot test its missiles to make sure they are “actually functional.”

North Korea declared a voluntary long-range missile and nuclear testing moratorium in April 2018. Kim declared an end to the moratorium in December 2019, but the country has not tested a long-range missile. It has resumed testing of shorter-range systems, including several new systems that were included in the Oct. 11 parade.

Contradicting Pompeo, former National Security Advisor John Bolton told CNBC on Oct. 14 that U.S. President Donald Trump’s “failed diplomacy” with North Korea “wasted a lot of time,” allowing the country to perfect its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.

Bolton, who participated in meetings between Trump and Kim in February 2019 in Hanoi, said the situation is “more dangerous now” because of the progress North Korea has made over the past several years.

In the parade, North Korea also demonstrated advances in its ability to deploy its ICBMs. The Hwasong-16 was carried by an 11-axle transport erector launcher (TEL), making it the largest road-mobile ICBM in the world.

The size of the TEL is notable because North Korea’s other ICBMs require eight- or nine-axle vehicles to transport them.

North Korea is known to have purchased six eight-axle TELs from China in 2010 in violation of UN sanctions. North Korea’s ability to launch a nuclear attack using its ICBMs and the size of its ICBM arsenal is generally thought to be limited, in part because it possesses so few TELs large enough for the missiles.

Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network, noted in an Oct. 11 article for the BBC that the parade was the first time that North Korea has displayed more than six ICBM TELs. She said that the TELs were heavily modified and concluded that North Korea has built up its ability to manufacture and produce its own TELs and procure parts for the vehicles despite sanctions.

Hanham, a North Korea expert, described this development as an “immediate concern” because one of the “major constraints of North Korea's ability to engage in nuclear warfare is the number of launchers they have.”

Kim also drew attention to the modernization of North Korea’s military and said the country would continue to strengthen its “war deterrent” or to “contain and control” the threats posed by hostile forces, including the “aggravating nuclear threat.”

He said the country’s military capabilities are changing “in its quality and quantity…in accordance with our demands and our timetable.”

Kim may have been referring in part to the new short-range ballistic missiles that North Korea has introduced and tested since negotiations with the United States broke down in mid-2019. North Korea displayed those missiles in large quantities at the parade.

Former South Korean nuclear negotiator Chun Yung-woo told reporters that the solid-fueled, short-range missiles pose “the most serious threat our security.” He said North Korea is focused on developing capabilities to attack South Korea while Seoul is “absorbed in a peace campaign.”

Solid-fueled ballistic missiles pose a greater threat than liquid-fueled systems, which must be fueled on site prior to launch, which increases the likelihood of early detection.

North Korea also displayed a new variant of its solid-fueled medium-range Pukguksong missile during the parade. North Korea has tested land-based and sea-based variants of the Pukguksong in the past.

The new system, dubbed the Pukguksong-4, is likely intended for deployment on a submarine Pyongyang is building and may have a longer range than the 1,900-kilometer Pukguksong-3 that North Korea tested in 2019.


In displaying a new ICBM, North Korea appeared to show progress on threatening the entire United States with a nuclear attack.

Novichok Used in Russia, OPCW Finds

November 2020
By Julia Masterson

A nerve agent was used to poison Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed Oct. 6. The OPCW findings corroborated earlier independent conclusions by German, French, and Swedish laboratories. (See ACT, October 2020.)

Emergency personnel load the portable isolation unit used to transport Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny to a Berlin hospital on Aug. 22, 2020. The OPCW has confirmed other assessments that he was poisoned with a chemical agent. (Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images)According to the global chemical watchdog, the toxins detected in Navalny’s bloodstream shared unique similarities to Novichok agents, including those that were added to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) list of banned Schedule 1 agents in June 2020.

The CWC general-purpose criterion prohibits the use of any toxic agent as a chemical weapon, and the inclusion of a chemical agent on the CWC list of Schedule 1 substances goes a step further to obligate the declaration and destruction of those specific agents. For instance, the Novichok compound A-234, which was used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in 2018, is now required to be declared under the treaty. The Skripal incident triggered efforts by CWC states-parties to add Novichok agents to the list of Schedule 1 substances in November 2019. Four Novichok entries were ultimately added to the annex on chemical weapons after that amendment entered into force on June 7, 2020. (See ACT, December 2019.)

But the OPCW statement noted that although “the biomarkers of the cholinesterase inhibitor found in Mr. Navalny’s blood and urine samples have similar structural characteristics to toxic chemicals belonging to [Schedule 1],” the specific Novichok agent used to poison Navalny in August 2020 was not among those included in the amendment to the convention’s annex on chemicals.

Gregory Koblentz, who directs biodefense graduate programs at George Mason University, said in an Oct. 6 tweet that the OPCW language suggests a similar Novichok agent, called A-262, was used to poison Navalny. He explained that A-262 agents combine features of two of the chemicals already included in Schedule 1, which were cited by the OPCW as having similar structural characteristics to the agent used on Navalny.

Koblentz detailed in a Sept. 30, 2019, article in The Nonproliferation Review that the presence of an additional nitrogen atom in A-262 and in similar Novichok compounds precluded their inclusion in the updated annex on chemicals, meaning that they were technically not subject to declaration and destruction following the CWC amendment.

The OPCW statement on Oct. 6 clarified that despite the specific agent’s absence from the annex on chemicals, “the use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstance [is] reprehensible and wholly contrary to the legal norms established by the international community.” OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias called on states-parties to uphold the global norm against chemical weapons use.

Despite Russian denials, French and German officials have maintained their suspicions of Moscow’s involvement in Navalny’s poisoning, which occurred on a domestic flight in Russia on Aug. 20. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Oct. 7 that Russia is not developing chemical weapons and that it is in full compliance with its treaty obligations, but a French and German statement issued the same day countered that “no credible explanation [for the incident] has been provided by Russia so far.”

Their statement concluded that “there is no other plausible explanation for Mr. Navalny’s poisoning than a Russian involvement and responsibility.” They successfully argued for European countries to impose economic sanctions against Russian officials presumed responsible for the attack.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced on Oct. 12 that the vote to impose sanctions “was a complete acceptance by all member states,” but did not name the extent or the individual targets of the sanctions.

The United Kingdom also imposed sanctions against Russian officials allegedly responsible for the poisoning of Navalny, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced in an Oct. 15 tweet.

According to the OPCW, the Russian Foreign Ministry sent a letter Oct. 1 requesting assistance from the watchdog’s Technical Secretariat. Arias responded in an Oct. 2 letter seeking clarification from Moscow on the reasoning for the requested dispatch of the Technical Secretariat, noting that experts could be deployed to Russia on short notice. It remains unclear whether the OPCW has since launched its technical assistance to Russia.

The OPCW findings pursuant to the use of Novichok were reported ahead of the OPCW Executive Council meeting, which convened Oct. 6–9. The CWC conference of states-parties will meet Nov. 30–Dec. 4, where the incident will likely be subject to further discussion.


The world’s chemical watchdog confirmed earlier findings that Russian political dissident Alexander Navalny was poisoned.

Syria Fails to Meet OPCW Deadline

Novemer 2020
By Julia Masterson

Syria failed to meet the deadline to declare the remainder of its chemical weapons stockpile to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), according to an Oct. 14 report by the global chemical weapons watchdog.

OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias (left) addresses an Oct. 6 session of the agency's Executive Council. Syria has failed to comply with a council deadline to declare its full chemical weapons program. (Photo: OPCW)That deadline was mandated by a July 9 decision of the OPCW Executive Council obligating Syria to declare the totality of its chemical weapons program, including the facilities where precursors, munitions, and devices are stockpiled and assembled, within 90 days. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Chemical weapons have continued to be used in Syria despite the destruction of the nation’s declared stockpile accompanying its accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 2013. The council’s July decision followed an inaugural April 8 report by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) that attributed responsibility for a series of chemical weapons attacks using sarin and chlorine in March 2017 to the Syrian air force. (See ACT, May 2020.)

The council’s decision called on Syria to declare, specifically, sarin, sarin precursors, and chlorine not intended for civilian use. Sarin is a treaty-banned agent, and states are barred from producing, stockpiling, or using the nerve agent under any circumstances. Chlorine is not a chemical agent explicitly banned by the convention because it has civilian applications, but the treaty’s general-purpose criterion prohibits the use of any chemical as a weapon. Treaty members are not ordinarily required to declare or destroy any chlorine in their possession, but Syria is an exceptional case given that the IIT confirmed that the Syrian air force used chlorine in attacks.

According to the new OPCW report, Director-General Fernando Arias sent a letter to the Syrian deputy foreign minister outlining Syria’s obligations established by the council’s decision. Arias professed a readiness by the OPCW Technical Secretariat to support Syria in its fulfillment of the prescribed mandate, but the Syrian Foreign Ministry did not respond to the letter.

The OPCW report notes that although Syria failed to meet the 90-day deadline to declare the remainder of its chemical weapons stockpile and associated facilities, “the secretariat will continue to implement all of its mandates with regard to the Syrian chemical weapons program.”

Next steps may be taken in accordance with the council’s July decision to recommend action under Article XII of the CWC at the next conference of states-parties. That article outlines a series of steps to redress a situation that ultimately ends in referral to the United Nations. It states that in cases where a state-party fails to fulfill an Executive Council request with regard to its compliance with the treaty, “the conference may, inter alia, upon the recommendation of the Executive Council, restrict or suspend the state-party’s rights and privileges under this convention until it undertakes the necessary action to conform with its obligations under this convention.”

Those rights and privileges are not explicitly named by the convention, but could include a loss of voting privileges and a moratorium of technical assistance under the CWC, among other things.

The states-parties are scheduled to meet next from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, and British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab tweeted on Oct. 14 that the United Kingdom will initiate such action at the upcoming conference. “Chemical weapons use must end,” he said.

The Oct. 14 report also states that the secretariat will share its findings with the UN Security Council, which possesses the authority to impose more punitive consequences.

Damascus has denied all allegations of involvement in the ongoing use of chemical weapons in Syria. According to a Sept. 29 story by the Syrian Arab News Agency, “Syria has fulfilled its obligations since its accession to the [CWC,] and it has destroyed all of its stockpile since the year 2014.”

But an Oct. 6 analysis by Foreign Policy of an unpublished U.S. State Department report for Congress reveals a U.S. assumption that Syria intends to rebuild its chemical weapons stockpile and its production capabilities. The State Department reportedly conveyed its assessment that Syria is “seeking to reestablish strategic weapons production capabilities it lost in the course of the [civil war] conflict” and that “Syrian procurement activity in support of its chemical weapons and missile programs” is ongoing.

Despite mounting frustration among those in the international community seeking to hold Syrian officials accountable for the ongoing reprehensible use of chemical weapons in violation of international law and the CWC, there is evidence to suggest a growing movement to prosecute those responsible. In Germany, where there is universal jurisdiction permitting prosecution for crimes against humanity committed worldwide, a group of Syrian survivors filed criminal complaints against ranking officials of the Syrian government and armed forces for their involvement in the ongoing chemical weapons attacks.

According to an Oct. 6 Reuters article, the effort represents “a rare legal avenue for action against the government of [Syrian] President Bashar al-Assad.” This is because earlier attempts to establish an international tribunal to prosecute Assad for war crimes have been blocked in the UN Security Council by Russia and China.

The UN International, Impartial, Independent Mechanism (IIIM) tasked with the investigation of crimes committed in violation of international law in Syria has existed since 2011, but it lacks authority to actually prosecute those responsible. The IIIM mandate, however, calls for collecting evidence to assist in the criminal proceedings of those tried in national and international courts or tribunals, and the Executive Council’s July 9 decision welcomed a memorandum of understanding between the OPCW and the IIIM.

It remains to be seen whether the OPCW will play a role in the forthcoming legal action taken in accordance with the criminal complaints filed in Germany.

Short of criminal prosecution, the European Union voted on Oct. 12 to extend sanctions on a list of individuals and entities responsible for the use of chemical weapons for one year, until Oct. 16, 2021. Five individuals and one organization affiliated with the Syrian chemical weapons program are subject to those sanctions.

Damascus continues to stymie international efforts to curb its production and use of chemical weapons.

Process Changes Offered as Arms Sales Rise

November 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Democratic U.S. lawmakers are considering new measures to increase congressional oversight of U.S. arms exports, notifications of which are reaching record highs in 2020. So far this year, the State Department has formally sent to Congress more than $100 billion in potential arms sales via the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program to 30 countries plus Taiwan. This total is easily the highest of the Trump administration, and the second highest over more than the past two decades.

A U.S. F-35 aircraft takes off in Nevada in May. A sale of F-35s to the United Arab Emirates is the most controversial of record high levels of potential U.S. weapons exports.  (Photo: Bryan Guthrie/U.S. Air Force)Many additional billions in arms sales also appear to be close to formal notification, which starts a clock during which both chambers of Congress can pass resolutions of disapproval to bar sales agreements. Last year, the Trump administration bypassed the notification clock, leading to multiple efforts from lawmakers to reassert congressional authority into the process, which the president ultimately vetoed. The legislators were particularly concerned over planned weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (See ACT, September 2019.)

The most controversial of the as-yet-unofficial deals again involves Abu Dhabi, consisting of an F-35 sale worth billions of dollars. On Oct. 20, Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would require presidential certifications that Israel’s qualitative military edge would not be threatened before F-35s could be sold to other countries in the Middle East. Earlier in the month, Menendez and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent 16 questions to the administration asking about national security concerns regarding such sales.

Some analysts have speculated that the proposed sale is a benefit to the UAE for its signature of the Abraham Accords in September to normalize relations with Israel. Despite official denials of such a link, the senators wrote that “the administration’s attempt to move at breakneck speed so close to this announcement would give the appearance that it was.” Shortly after the accords were announced, rumors also circulated of many additional sales for countries in the Middle East, with media speculating on new deals for Israel and Qatar.

Fighter aircraft sales account for the greatest share of official export notifications this year, with the long-anticipated potential sale of more than 100 F-35s to Japan, valued at more than $23 billion, the single-highest proposed transfer. Sales of advanced aircraft to Finland and Switzerland added another roughly $40 billion to the 2020 FMS annual total. Those notifications, made as part of international competitive bids, included two separate packages for each country, only one of which will be accepted, if at all, by Helsinki and Bern.

In April, separate packages valued at $1.5 billion and $450 million were presented to Congress as part of a competition to provide attack helicopters to the Philippines. On June 10, 19 members of Congress, led by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing human rights concerns about arms sales to the Philippines and other countries, including Egypt, Hungary, India, and the UAE. (See ACT, June 2020.)

In February, Omar introduced what is one of a growing number of legislative proposals that would change how the United States factors human rights into arms trade decisions. Her bill titled “Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act” would establish human rights and international humanitarian law-based triggers, the violation of which lead to prohibitions on arms sales.

In September, Menendez with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced a bill titled “Safeguarding Human Rights in Arms Exports (SAFEGUARD) Act of 2020,” which would elevate human rights considerations in arms trade. It would require that certain weapons be sold under the FMS program, rather than the Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) program that generally has less public transparency and accounts for a growing share of U.S. arms sales. It would also remove minimum dollar-value thresholds on congressional notifications to certain countries.



Many of these proposed changes would address issues recently raised by the State Department Office of Inspector General. In an August report examining last year’s emergency arms sales, the office found many of the weapons were being sold via the DCS program and that more than $11.2 billion in approved transfers between January 2017 and late 2019 were below the threshold for congressional notification. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Also in September, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced a bill titled “Values in Arms Export Act of 2020,” which would make human rights and international humanitarian law requirements more explicit in arms agreements, create prohibitions based on violations and list Saudi Arabia and the UAE as countries of concerns, establish an independent oversight board, and make it easier for Congress to raise resolutions of disapproval.

Another approach, thus far primarily discussed publicly among the policy community, is to “flip the script” so that Congress must proactively approve select arms sales. The concept, based in part on legislation proposed in 1986 by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), would mark a major shift because Congress would no longer need to have a veto-proof majority to block a sale.


Record-high U.S. arms export plans are spurring Democrats to boost congressional oversight.


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