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Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)

The Global Nuclear Security Grand Challenge

Technology for Global Security is announcing the Global Nuclear Security Grand Challenge to answer the question: “What is the best system design for countries, companies, and other organizations to confidentially and securely verify in real time that 100 percent of their nuclear weapons and weapons-usable fissile material remains in their control and to aid in the recovery of any loss if it occurs?” A great deal of progress has been made since the launch of the Nuclear Security Summits initiated by President Obama in 2010 . The equivalent of 130 nuclear weapons' worth of highly enriched...

European Missile Defense No Answer to Russia

USS Monterey armed with SM-3 Block IA interceptors and the Aegis missile defense system. The SM-3 cannot intercept Russian long-range missiles. The just-passed House Armed Services Committee plan to accelerate U.S. missile defense deployments in Poland to counter Russian action in Ukraine is all bark and no bite. By Tom Z. Collina The United States has a strategic interest in establishing economic and political stability in Ukraine, reassuring nervous NATO allies, and warning Russia that further interference in Ukraine or elsewhere would be a serious mistake. Congress, however, should be...

The Nuclear Triad, for Less

The U.S. could save $16 billion by downsizing the strategic submarine fleet from 12 to 8 and still deploy a New START-size force. By Tom Z. Collina Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned this week that "tough, tough choices are coming" if the Pentagon is forced to make deep spending cuts, as required by law. Options on the table include slashing 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers and retiring an aircraft carrier. But, so far, the Pentagon says it is not considering options for reducing the high cost of nuclear modernization programs. It should. The United States can stay at warhead levels set by the...

Week Ahead March 3-9: IAEA mtg; Pentagon Budget; Nuclear Security; Ukraine & the NPT

As the crisis in Ukraine continues to dominate global attention and the news headlines, several other arms control developments of significance in the coming week. For more news and analysis on these and other weapons-related security issues, consider subscribing to ACA's monthly journal Arms Control Today, which is available in print/digital and digital-only editions. The March issue of ACT will be available online later this week to all subscribers. - the Editors at Arms Control Today Week of March 3: IAEA Board of Governors Convenes The 35-member International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)...

Nuclear Security: More Action, Less Encouragement

By Kelsey Davenport Delegates gather at the IAEA on July 1 for the opening of the International Conference on Nuclear Security. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held its first ministerial-level meeting on nuclear security, the International Conference on Nuclear Security: Enhancing Global Efforts . The purpose of the high-level conference was to strengthen and bring greater global attention to nuclear security and inform the agency's nuclear security plan for 2014-2017. However, after producing a ministerial declaration with lowest common denominator language, "...

The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) At a Glance

October 2016

Contact: Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, (202) 463-8270 x102

Updated: October 2016

President George W. Bush announced May 31, 2003 that the United States would lead a new effort, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), to interdict shipments of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related goods to terrorists and countries of proliferation concern. The initiative's aim would be "to keep the world's most destructive weapons away from our shores and out of the hands of our common enemies," Bush declared.

Participants: Ten countries originally joined with the United States to shape and promote the initiative. These countries are Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In total, 105 countries have publicly committed to the initiative. Membership in PSI only requires a state to endorse the PSI Statement of Interdiction Principles, a non-binding document that lays out the framework for PSI activities. PSI participants have downplayed the concept of membership in the initiative, explaining in a press statement that PSI is "an activity not an organization." U.S. officials have courted China to join the regime, but so far it has kept its distance, citing concerns about the legality of interdictions.

Mission: The initiative aims to stop shipments of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, as well as missiles and goods that could be used to deliver or produce such weapons, to terrorists and countries suspected of trying to acquire WMD. Initiative participants intend to carry out cargo interdictions at sea, in the air, or on land. For some countries this is not a new practice but an enshrinement and expansion of current operations. The United States and other countries have long records of intercepting illegal trade and smuggling activities, including illicit weapons transactions.

Still, the initiative is designed to make it more costly and risky for proliferators to acquire the weapons or materials they seek. By doing so, members hope that other countries will be dissuaded from pursuing weapons in the first place or experience significant delays in their acquisition efforts.

PSI is limited to stopping shipments of WMD and dual-use goods-items that have both civilian, peaceful purposes and that can be used to make weapons-to those countries and nonstate actors viewed as threats by PSI participants. Then-Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton indicated in November 2003 that participants will not be targeting the trade of countries perceived as U.S. allies or friends, such as India, Israel, and Pakistan-all three of which possess WMD arsenals, including nuclear weapons.

Principles: The 11 original PSI participants released a set of principles September 4, 2003.[2] The principles call on PSI participants, as well as other countries, to not engage in WMD-related trade with countries of proliferation concern and to permit their own vessels and aircraft to be searched if suspected of transporting such goods. The principles further urge that information on suspicious activities be shared quickly to enable possible interdictions and that all vessels "reasonably suspected" of carrying dangerous cargo be inspected when passing through national airports, ports, and other transshipment points.

Legal Authority: The initiative does not create new law, but rather relies on existing international law to conduct interdictions in international waters or airspace. For example, a ship can be stopped in international waters if it is not flying a national flag or properly registered. It cannot be stopped simply because it is suspected of transporting WMD or related goods. PSI is primarily intended to encourage participating countries to take greater advantage of their own existing national laws to intercept threatening trade passing through their territories, where they have jurisdiction to act. In situations where the legal authority to act may be ambiguous, Bolton said participants might go to the UN Security Council for authorization.

Although the initiative does not create new law, PSI participants are encouraged to develop their national laws and help promote international treaties that criminalize WMD related trafficking.  PSI member states also seek to expand their legal authority to interdict shipments by signing bilateral boarding agreements with select countries to secure expedited processes or pre-approval for stopping and searching their ships at sea. The United States has concluded such agreements with Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Croatia, Cyprus, Liberia, Malta, the Marshall Islands, Mongolia, Panama and St. Vicent and the Grenadines. Liberia and Panama possess the largest fleets of registered ocean-going vessels in the world.

Structure: PSI is an informal arrangement among countries. To date, there is no list of criteria by which interdictions are to be made (except that the cargo is destined for a recipient that might use it to harm the United States or other countries). There is also no secretariat or formal organization that serves as a coordinating body. Instead, participants aim to readily share information among one another as appropriate and to act when necessary to help seize or thwart dangerous trade. One forum for coordination among PSI members is Operational Experts Group (OEG). The OEG consists of delegations from the most active PSI members, which meet periodically to plan exercises, discuss recent interdictions, and share relevant information. There are currently 21 states that participate in the OEG.

Activities and Interdictions: PSI participants have conducted nearly 50 interdiction exercises since the initiative's inception. The exercises, including mock ship boardings, are intended to increase the participants' capabilities to cooperate with one another. They are also intended to put a public face on the initiative and act as a deterrent to potential proliferators.

U.S. officials claim that there have been successful interdictions since the initiative's launch. In a June 2006 speech, then-Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph claimed that between April 2005 and April 2006 the United States had cooperated with other PSI participants on “roughly two dozen” occasions to prevent transfers of concern. Ulrik Federspiel, Denmark’s ambassador to the United States, asserted at a May 2005 event that “the shipment of missiles has fallen significantly in the lifetime of PSI.”

A recent example of a PSI success was the June 2011 interdiction of the M/V Light, a Belizean flagged freighter suspected of carrying ballistic missile technology from North Korea to Myanmar. U.S. naval forces intercepted the vessel, and forced it to return to North Korea. Although the M/V Light was turned back before it was inspected, the United States would have had the legal authority to do so through its ship-boarding agreement with Belize, a PSI member state.

Status: On May 28, 2013, representatives from seventy-two PSI member states held a High Level Political Meeting in Warsaw on the 10th anniversary of the PSI’s formation. Attending states affirmed four joint statements pledging to conduct “more regular and robust” PSI exercises; promote international treaties criminalizing WMD-related trafficking; share expertise and resources to enhance interdiction capabilities; and to expand “the influence of the PSI globally through outreach to new states and the public.” The United States pledged at the 2013 Warsaw meeting to accede to the 2005 Protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation. The United States deposited its ratification in August 2015. 

A mid-level meeting took place in Washington, DC in January 2016 that included representatives from 71 countries. Thomas Countryman, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said that participants discussed topics such as trends in proliferation, tactics that networks use to ship sensitive materials and technologies, and options to control proliferation financing. Countryman also said that countries shared expertise and resources that should contribute to building countries’ ability to carry out interdictions.

Updated by Ian Williams

Nuclear/Ballistic Missile Nonproliferation

Posted: June 10, 2013

Former Secretary of State Shultz Reiterates Support for CTBT

George Shultz walking with President Reagan outside the White House in December 1986. By Daryl G. Kimball At a March 8 public forum, former Secretary of State George Shultz underscored once again his support for U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Shultz's remarks came in response to a question following his talk at an event organized by the Partnership for a Secure America on Capitol Hill. Shultz was asked for his "personal view on whether the U.S. should ratify the test ban treaty as a way to enhance U.S. security?" Shultz, who served as President Ronald...

Marking the International Day Against Nuclear Tests

By Daryl G. Kimball, with research support from Daria Medvedev and Wanda Archy Today is the official International Day Against Nuclear Tests , established in 2009 on the anniversary of the closure of the main former Soviet test site of Semipalatinsk, where more than 456 nuclear explosions contaminated the land and its inhabitants. Largely as a result of the courageous efforts of the Kazakh people to close down the Semipalatinsk site, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev declared a nuclear test moratorium on October 5, 1991. This, in turn, prompted a bipartisan coalition of U.S. legislators,...

About Time: Bill to Enhance Nuclear Security Moves through House

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX). By Benjamin Kagel Legislation necessary to ratify two international treaties that improve nuclear security and strengthen measures to prevent nuclear terrorism finally passed the House of Representatives on June 28 after multiple failed attempts to bring U.S. federal code in line with these important treaties. The Nuclear Terrorism Conventions Implementation and Safety of Maritime Navigation Act of 2012 brings the United States into compliance with the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM...

Summit Successes Over Seoul-ed?

President Barack Obama (2nd R) speaks during the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit on March 27, 2012 in Seoul, South Korea. World leaders from 53 nations gathered to address the issues of nuclear security and preventing nuclear terrorism. (Image Source: Yonhap News) By Benjamin Kagel and Kelsey Davenport A panel of four foreign policy experts weighed in on missed opportunities from the recent nuclear security summit , held March 26-27 in Seoul, South Korea. Speaking at the National Press Club last Friday, the panel discussed global nuclear security and ways to prevent nuclear terrorism...


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