Contact: Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, (202) 463-8270 x102
Updated: August 2017
On April 28, 2004 the UN Security Council unanimously voted to adopt Resolution 1540, a measure aimed at preventing non-state actors from acquiring nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, their means of delivery, and related materials. The resolution filled a gap in international law by addressing the risk that terrorists might obtain, proliferate, or use weapons of mass destruction.
Adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, UNSCR 1540 formally establishes the proliferation and possession of WMD by non-state actors as “a threat to international peace and security.” The resolution mirrors the approach taken under UNSCR 1373 in 2001, which required all countries to adopt national counter-terrorism laws, and imposes legally binding obligations on all states to adopt "appropriate effective" measures to prevent the proliferation of WMD to non-state actors.
The resolution includes three primary obligations:
- All States are prohibited from providing any form of support to non-state actors seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction, related materials, or their means of delivery.
- All States must adopt and enforce laws criminalizing the possession and acquisition of such items by non-state actors, as well as efforts to assist or finance their acquisition.
- All States must adopt and enforce domestic controls over nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, their means of delivery, and related materials, in order to prevent their proliferation.
UNSCR 1540 also emphasizes the importance of maintaining and promoting existing non-proliferation multilateral agreements, and acknowledges that the resolution does not interfere with state obligations under such treaties.
It further recognizes that some countries may require assistance to meet the national implementation obligations of the resolution. As such, the resolution calls on states to make assistance available to countries in need if they are in a position to do so.
The council established a committee to oversee the implementation of the resolution, initially for a period of two years. Comprised of the council’s 15 members and assisted by a panel of experts, the 1540 Committee is tasked with providing awareness of the resolution and its requirements, matching assistance requests with offers, and assessing the status of implementation. States were required to report to the Committee on the actions they have taken or plan to take in order to implement the resolution within 6 months of UNSCR 1540’s adoption, and the council has encouraged subsequent reports to provide additional information.
Despite its aim of preventing nuclear, chemical, and biological terrorism, resolution 1540 initially met with some resistance within the UN Security Council, with critics stressing that the resolution focused solely on nonproliferation without adequate emphasis on disarmament. There was additional concern that the UN might use UNSCR 1540 to justify sanctions and other forms of coercion for countries that did not adequately comply with the resolution.
These worries were generally alleviated, as evidenced by the UN Security Council unanimous vote to extend UNSCR 1540’s mandate, first for two years in 2006 under resolution 1673, then for another three years in 2008 under resolution 1810. In April 2011, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1977, extending the mandate a third time, for a period of ten years. UNSCR 1977 reaffirmed the Security Council’s commitment to resolution 1540, and further emphasized cooperation with international, regional, and sub-regional organizations. It also addressed existing concerns among Council members regarding equal regional representation within the 1540 Committee. In December 2016, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2325 encouraging states to strengthen their implementation of Resolution 1540.
In addition to annual reviews, the 1540 committee conducts comprehensive reviews every five years on the implementation of Resolution 1540. So far, two comprehensive reviews have been completed, one in 2009 and another in 2016. The 2016 comprehensive final review found that while the number of implementation measures states have taken since 2011 has increased, for many states, gaps in the securing of relevant materials remain. The report also noted that the risk of proliferation to non-state actors is increasing due to rapid advances in science, technology and international commerce.
Research assistance by Kathleen E. Masterson