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July/August 2010
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Future Prospects for the NPT

Deepti Choubey

For the fourth time in 40 years, the parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) accomplished the difficult task of reaching consensus on steps to strengthen the treaty at the end of their review conference in May. At the review conference—the eighth since the NPT came into force in 1970—the 172 states in attendance universally adopted a 64-point action plan and steps toward creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.

There have been a number of complaints, many of them legitimate, about what it does and does not contain. Nevertheless, it did succeed in capturing the commitment of all states to the principles and objectives of the treaty. Considering the damage the nonproliferation regime has endured in the last decade, that commitment was not a foregone conclusion.

In the run-up to the conference, there were many disagreements among participating countries. States still found a way to negotiate constructively and employed pragmatic approaches to issues such as North Korea’s withdrawal and nuclear testing, Iran’s noncompl iance, steps toward the WMD-free zone in the Middle East, and further progress on disarmament, any one of which could have scuttled the proceedings.

Despite the continued tension between nuclear-weapon-state demands for additional nonproliferation commitments and non-nuclear-weapon-state demands for more disarmament progress, states were willing and able to compromise on a complex agenda of issues and come to unanimous agreement. In an era where multilateralism has been called into question, states overcame seemingly endemic and expected dysfunction, particularly on issues as polarizing as nonproliferation and disarmament. The adopted final document—which also includes a 122-paragraph review of the operation of the NPT submitted under the auspices of the president of the review conference, Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines—should be considered an incremental success.

Adopting a final document, which requires consensus, has been the traditional measure for judging the success of a review conference. This practice, which requires every state to agree, can create the conditions for extremely weak results. The 2010 final document could certainly be stronger, but it could be much weaker. It is not a lowest-common-denominator document. It includes a recommitment to the basic bargain of the NPT, in which nuclear-weapon states agree to work in good faith toward nuclear disarmament, to transfer neither nuclear weapons nor the wherewithal to make them to non-nuclear-weapon states, and to recognize the “inalienable right” of non-nuclear-weapon states to have access to nuclear energy for peaceful uses. In return, non-nuclear-weapon states promise not to acquire nuclear weapons. The section that reflects the conclusions and recommendations for follow-on action includes the 64-point plan on these three pillars of the NPT—nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—and proposed steps for implementing the resolution from the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference calling for a WMD-free Middle East. All of these elements advance the agenda further than the previous two conferences did and lay the groundwork for future progress.

The action plan is a significant achievement. For the first time, states are asked to take specific actions in support of the three pillars. The wording of these points reflects the intent that they serve as a scorecard for measuring progress and an assurance that there will be accountability at future meetings. Transforming the lofty goals of the NPT debates into concrete benchmarks is a necessary step toward future progress.

For those who fear the nonproliferation regime is fraying, the results of the 2010 NPT Review Conference serve as a temporary reprieve. It is incumbent on all states to determine how best to build on the incremental success of the final document. Looking toward 2015, one can see major obstacles that weigh heavily on the future prospects of the NPT and that states and civil society will have to be overcome. These challenges relate to harmonizing other nonproliferation regime mechanisms with the demands of the final document, creating more equitable accountability among and between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states, and reforming reflexive positions to better reflect the 21st-century security environment.

Harmonizing With the Regime

An NPT review conference is akin to a pit stop in a race. It is a chance to take stock, fix any weaknesses, and plot a path forward. As such, a review conference is a once-every-five-years opportunity to stabilize and strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The conference is charged with evaluating how well the terms of the NPT have been implemented and tackling unfinished business. Evaluating what happens at the pit stop sheds light on the challenges ahead and indicates the commitment to finishing the race.

In the run-up to NPT review conferences, there is a tendency to cast them as make-or-break moments for the nonproliferation regime. Although this tendency is understandable, as it is meant to create a sense of urgency for states to act, it is a mistake. The review conference is not a panacea to cure all that ails the nonproliferation regime. Rather, the NPT provides the international legal framework in which real work is done to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and facilitate peaceful uses of atomic energy, while the review conference assesses how well that legal framework is functioning. Practical outcomes, however, are determined in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the UN Security Council, and countless episodes of bilateral diplomacy and commercial transactions. With the adoption of a final document, states must determine how best to leverage the areas of agreement to advance specific policy initiatives within the broader nonproliferation regime.

There were efforts, particularly from Western states and other developed countries, to include stronger language to enforce compliance, strengthen verification standards, and prevent withdrawal. There is some helpful language addressing these issues in the final document, but the review conference is not the last chance for states to tackle these concerns. For instance, as compliance issues have plagued the regime in the past decade, Action 26 of the final document is noteworthy because it underscores the importance of compliance to “the Treaty’s integrity and the authority of the safeguards system.” Action 27 calls on states to cooperate with the IAEA and to resolve cases of noncompliance “in full conformity with the IAEA statute” and individual legal obligations. No matter what other text the final document could have included, the IAEA Board of Governors and UN Security Council will continue to be largely responsible for, respectively, identifying and punishing noncompliance.

Additional protocols, which gave the IAEA increased inspection authority in countries that have brought them into force, are addressed in Action 28. The final document encourages all states that have not brought into force additional protocols to do so “as soon as possible” and to implement them provisionally until then. Notably, Action 32 recommends the evaluation of safeguards and supports decisions by IAEA policy bodies aimed at strengthening the effectiveness and improving the efficiency of safeguards. It will be up to states on the IAEA board and those who participate in the relevant policy bodies to transform these sentiments into concrete results that tighten the verification system, but the final document provides an additional springboard from which to do so.

States must also determine how much political weight to give Cabactulan’s statement. It does not count as negotiated or binding text, but it does reflect issues where there was wide agreement or where agreement remained elusive. It may be possible to use Cabactulan’s statement, as a reflection of the status of debates, to push for solutions to outstanding issues in other forums. An issue that could benefit from this approach is the NPT’s Article X, which describes the procedure for withdrawing from the treaty. States were unable to come to agreement on how to address concerns about abuse of the withdrawal provision. Instead, Cabactulan’s statement captures some aspects of the debate, including that “many states underscore that under international law a withdrawing party is still responsible for violations of the NPT committed prior to its withdrawal.” It also notes that “numerous states” reaffirmed the responsibility of the UN Security Council to act in response to a country’s withdrawal. To the extent that these statements can be seen as a reflection of political will from many, if not all, states, efforts to address withdrawal concerns can be bolstered. Despite the failure to include binding language on this issue in the final document, there is nothing to stop nuclear supplier states from taking up the suggestion of “incorporating dismantling and/or return clauses in the event of withdrawal.”

Another example of how to ensure the final document has real-world impact relates to nuclear security issues. For the first time in the treaty’s 40-year history, parties recognized nuclear security as an important aspect of the nonproliferation regime and agreed on steps to prevent the theft of nuclear material and to address the threat of nuclear terrorism. This acknowledgment can be largely credited to the work of President Barack Obama in convening 46 leaders for a nuclear security summit this past April. The objective of the summit was for diverse states to come to a common understanding of the threat and to commit to responding to it. The commitments countries made at the summit are voluntary, but the NPT action plan’s inclusion of points specific to nuclear security issues gives the countries that attend the 2012 nuclear security summit in South Korea an opportunity to transform voluntary commitments into more binding ones.

Beyond the actions required in the final document, the political weight of Cabactulan’s statement can contribute positively to efforts to strengthen specific rules to prevent nuclear terrorism, enhance verification, and enforce compliance.

Shared Accountability

Despite the review conference’s adherence to rules that require consensus and therefore enable any one country to have a strong influence on the results, there continues to be a disproportionate emphasis by non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society on the role of the United States in comparison with other nuclear-weapon states. The volte-face of the United States, as heralded by Obama’s April 2009 Prague speech, has garnered understandable attention when viewed in the context of the setbacks confronting the nonproliferation regime over the last decade. Obama’s call for “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” created the expectation among non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society that the United States would commit to and push others for swift progress on disarmament. Many diplomats at the review conference repeatedly invoked the desire to deliver a tangible outcome and referenced the positive negotiating atmosphere created by Obama. Building on the consensus reached in May, however, will require states to create momentum of their own rather than relying solely on the United States. Disproportionate focus on the United States is detrimental to the longer-term goals of the NPT.

For instance, further progress on disarmament will require other nuclear-weapon states, as well as the nuclear-armed states outside of the treaty, to engage each other in a confidence-building process that can lead to multilateral arms control. The United States can create conditions that influence the calculations of these states, but it cannot compel action by itself. A singular focus on U.S. policies also lets the other nuclear-weapon states off the hook and allows them to cling to what may be purely rhetorical positions on disarmament. For instance, the United States had fewer redlines than most of the other nuclear-weapon states at the review conference. Asked about deadlines for the nuclear test ban entering into force or conclusion of a treaty banning fissile material production for weapons, Susan Burk, the Obama administration’s lead official for the NPT review conference, said on June 17, “I think we could have agreed to those deadlines because we’re supportive of the initiative, but for whatever reason, they were not advanced.”[1]

At the review conference, China and Russia reportedly raised objections to certain disarmament steps—China on a moratorium on fissile material production and Russia on efforts to mention tactical nuclear weapons. Non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society have a strong role to play in ensuring more equitable accountability among nuclear-weapon states, particularly regarding disarmament commitments. Action 5 of the final document is a good first step as it requires the acknowledged NPT nuclear-weapon states to “promptly engage” each other with a view toward accelerating concrete progress on the steps leading to nuclear disarmament. These states have also committed to report on their progress at the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting and to adopt standard reporting forms. This is another step forward in demanding accountability from nuclear-weapon states on their part of the NPT bargain.

The need for equitable accountability applies not only to nuclear-weapon states and disarmament commitments, but also to the dynamic between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states when it comes to disarmament progress versus the adoption of additional nonproliferation obligations. Some commentators have claimed that U.S. progress on disarmament made in the year since Obama’s Prague speech was pocketed by non-nuclear-weapon states with nothing given in return.[2] This assessment is discouraging for advocates of disarmament and nonproliferation in nuclear-weapon states as it creates the perception that “nothing is ever enough” and dampens the incentive for swift action. Non-nuclear-weapon states that are interested in further progress on disarmament should realize the challenges such advocates within governments face when making arguments in favor of disarmament action.

A complicating factor is the strategy of a few non-nuclear-weapon states to refuse to adopt additional nonproliferation obligations, as a way to create pressure on the nuclear-weapon states for disarmament. This approach is flawed for several reasons. Withholding adoption of an additional protocol, for instance, actually inhibits the prospects for disarmament. Nuclear-weapon states will not fully disarm unless they can be assured that verification standards can ensure there is no cheating within non-nuclear-weapon states. Moreover, when officials from non-nuclear-weapon states cannot articulate what nuclear-weapon states would need to do to prompt those non-nuclear-weapon states to take further action on nonproliferation, they inadvertently aid disarmament opponents by seeming to validate the type of criticism cited above. In short, treating nonproliferation progress and disarmament as a trade-off rather than as mutually reinforcing goals undermines the regime overall and raises questions about the motivations driving this dynamic.

Reforming Reflexive Positions

If this dynamic persists, it stands to reason that prospects for strengthening the nonproliferation regime will depend on disarmament progress. If this is true, efforts must be redoubled to reformulate conceptions of disarmament and how it relates to other security interests. For instance, a troubling aspect of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review Report is the concept of extended nuclear deterrence as a nonproliferation strategy. The report’s authors seem to assume that, without the “nuclear umbrella,” allies may develop nuclear weapons.[3] This argument seems too facile. Without extended nuclear deterrence commitments, would allies so easily turn their backs on their treaty commitment not to develop nuclear weapons? Are conventional deterrence commitments made by the United States insufficient for addressing the threats of today’s security environment? Non-nuclear-weapon states that are covered by extended nuclear deterrence commitments must forcefully address these issues. Casting extended nuclear deterrence as a nonproliferation strategy locks in a status quo. The United States will have to contend with pressure not to take further steps toward disarmament for fear of undermining assurances to allies. Without steps beyond the modest ones already taken, however, the prospect of deeper reductions and meaningful disarmament diminishes. If allies are unable to contradict the conventional wisdom that underlies the concept of extended nuclear deterrence as a nonproliferation strategy, these non-nuclear-weapon states will be responsible for a status quo that will stall disarmament and undermine other nonproliferation efforts. The currently ongoing revision of NATO’s Strategic Concept is one opportunity to update thinking on how best to defend against 21st-century threats. The next round of U.S.-Russian negotiations after the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will also bear on this debate.

Another issue that will require new and better strategic thinking is how best to proceed with efforts to make the Middle East a WMD-free zone. The steps proposed to that end were one of the most controversial aspects of the 2010 NPT Review Conference. The final document calls on all states in the region to participate in a conference in 2012 based on the terms of the 1995 resolution. The United States announced after the conference that it, Russia, and the United Kingdom, along with the UN secretary-general, will co-sponsor the meeting, determine a country to host it, and identify a person to organize it.

Much of the media coverage after the conclusion of the review conference focused on how the final document, in particular, the conclusions and recommendations for follow-on action section, references Israel, but not Iran. Israel is referenced in the section proposing steps to implement the Middle East WMD-free zone, whereas Iran escaped mention as noncompliant with its NPT obligations. The reactions to this aspect of the document have been overblown. The actual reference to Israel is just that, a reference. It is not new language. The text states, “The Conference recalls the reaffirmation by the 2000 Review Conference of the importance of Israel’s accession to the Treaty and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.” The review conference is not the place to resolve specific cases of noncompliance, such as Iran. Instead, it is an opportunity to create or further strengthen rules more generally. The action plan does include steps on noncompliance more generally. As concerns emerge about compliance in other states—Myanmar (Burma) and Syria are current examples—come 2015, the lack of a state-specific reference to noncompliance will be an advantage for holding other states of concern accountable.

If negotiators had known that the review portion of the document would be submitted by Cabactulan as a last-minute compromise, it might have been possible, and certainly appropriate, to name Iran in that section. In reality, if named, Iran would have likely derailed the final document and thereby the real, although small, progress made at the conference. Israel, which is not a party to the NPT and did not attend the conference, could not block its being mentioned, and other states were not prepared to derail the whole review and undermine the treaty over the mentioning of Israel by name. The United States expressed its “deep regret,” and Israel expressed similar sentiments about the inclusion of the language. Washington was alone in fighting to keep Israel from being specifically named. As a result, the United States found itself in the position where it alone would have blocked final consensus on the document over this issue. In the end, by allowing the reference to Israel, the United States effectively put Iran in the position of being the only potential spoiler.

These dynamics further underscore how much has changed geopolitically in the Middle East. The conditions under which Israel first developed nuclear weapons, such as conventional force inferiority in comparison to its neighbors, no longer exist. Egypt and other states may want to use a conference in part to criticize Israel’s nuclear weapons program. At the same time, however, the language of the document calls on all states in the Middle East to participate. This would include a number of states that do not recognize Israel and in the past have not been willing to sit with Israeli officials in formal settings, including Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Hence, although such a conference would pose challenges to Israel, it would require Iran and major Arab states to recognize Israel de facto. Many hurdles will have to be overcome in the next two years to begin such a conference, but if the conference is viewed strategically and handled carefully, it could advance the cause of peace and security in the region.

If Israel and its neighbors truly want peace, they will have to put aside old scorecards and create new benchmarks. For instance, to the extent Arab states and Israel share concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the process of establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East can become a new tool for addressing them. The steps leading to the enactment of such a zone could require intrusive inspection regimes, confidence-building measures, and other steps that would strengthen the nonproliferation regime. If Israel and Arab states can adjust their strategic mind-set, the proposed steps could be an opportunity to alleviate the current stalemate and cooperate to address shared threats.

Finally, it is up to all states to ensure that the hard-fought consensus of the review conference does not become meaningless through a lack of implementation. There is a long race ahead, and starting immediately, all states have obligations. Their actions to fulfill these obligations will be measured, and they will be held accountable. They should start now to resolve the challenges identified and not wait until 2015 when another reprieve may be less likely.

Deepti Choubey is deputy director of the Nuclear Policy Program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


1. Susan Burk, comments at “The 2010 NPT Review Conference: What Happened and What Next?” Washington, D.C., June 17, 2010.

2. See, for example, Christopher Ford, “Assessing the NPT Debates So Far,” New Paradigms Forum, May 24, 2010; Christopher Ford, “The 2010 NPT Review Conference Final Document,” New Paradigms Forum, June 1, 2010.

3. The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review Report articulates how strengthened bilateral and regional security relationships “can serve our nonproliferation goals…by reassuring non-nuclear U.S. allies and partners that their security interests can be protected without their own nuclear deterrent capability.” U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, p. xii.


For the fourth time in 40 years, the parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) accomplished the difficult task of reaching consensus on steps to strengthen the treaty at the end of their review conference in May. At the review conference—the eighth since the NPT came into force in 1970—the 172 states in attendance universally adopted a 64-point action plan and steps toward creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.

There have been a number of complaints, many of them legitimate, about what it does and does not contain. Nevertheless, it did succeed in capturing the commitment of all states to the principles and objectives of the treaty. Considering the damage the nonproliferation regime has endured in the last decade, that commitment was not a foregone conclusion.


NPT: Back on Track

Alison Kelly

The 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference opened in New York on May 3 in a positive if subdued political atmosphere. High expectations generated by President Barack Obama’s commitment in Prague a year earlier to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons and to strengthen the NPT had been muted by uncertainty about Iran and other potential spoiler issues at the conference, not least the ability to agree on a path forward on implementation of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East.

Proliferation challenges in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the nuclear ambitions and programs of Iran and North Korea, the latter’s announced withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, the failure of the 2005 review conference, and a decade of stagnation on nuclear disarmament had placed the treaty under great strain. With fears that it was no longer fit for purpose, 2010 was widely seen as a make-or-break year for the future relevance and sustainability of the NPT.

The 2010 final document, adopted on schedule on May 28, has laid those concerns to rest. For the first time in the history of the NPT, forward-looking action plans have been agreed across all three pillars—disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—and on implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution and the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The political will of states and civil society and the overwhelming desire to re-establish the NPT as the cornerstone of the global disarmament and nonproliferation regime had found reflection. This is no mean achievement.

The improved climate in the lead-up to the conference provided much-needed momentum for a treaty suffering frustrating inertia. Publication of the first Shultz-Perry-Kissinger-Nunn article in The Wall Street Journal in 2007 as well as initiatives such as the work of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament on eliminating nuclear threats brought hopes of progress. For the first time in the 21st century, creative discussion took place at the highest levels. Encouraging policy declarations by world leaders, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom, signaled renewed political will to make significant strides toward multilateral disarmament. New and innovative plans, such as the five-point proposal of the UN secretary-general in October 2008 and Obama’s Prague speech in April 2009 setting out an exciting vision of a world without nuclear weapons, showed that the objective of complete nuclear disarmament was no longer the lofty ambition of idealists. The re-engagement of key players with the issues, the signing of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the completion of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, and the active role of civil society were crucial factors.

Ireland’s long association with the NPT gave a particular sense of urgency as it worked toward the review conference. The need for a legal mechanism to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons during a period of intense mistrust and instability prompted Ireland in 1958 to table the first in a series of resolutions at the UN General Assembly. These “Irish resolutions,” as they became known, paved the way for negotiation of the NPT. Forty years later, the New Agenda Coalition (NAC)—Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden—was launched in Dublin in 1998. The NAC was centrally involved in the negotiation of the 13 “practical steps” for nuclear disarmament in the 2000 final document and remained determined to achieve real progress in 2010.

The European Union, of which Ireland is a member, played a prominent role throughout the review process, contributing many policy positions and statements. Ireland also worked closely within the “Vienna Group of Ten”—Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden—which was committed to providing constructive input to the NPT review process on the so-called Vienna issues of nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In addition, I was asked by the president of the conference, Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines, to chair subsidiary body 2 on regional issues, including the Middle East, particularly implementation of the 1995 resolution. Ireland willingly accepted this opportunity to strengthen the NPT, albeit with some trepidation given previously intractable positions on the Middle East issue.

Practical Achievements

Now that the dust has settled on the lengthy and complex negotiations and hard-won compromises, many participants and observers are examining the outcome document as a whole and reflecting on what the conference actually achieved in practical terms. Real judgment will ultimately be made at the 2015 review conference, when the parties assess implementation of what was agreed in May 2010.

Ireland’s point of departure has been that the NPT, to date, has not succeeded in moving nuclear-weapon states quickly enough toward abandoning their nuclear arsenals, as envisaged in Article VI of the treaty and in the 13 practical steps agreed in 2000. Although the NPT contains the sole legally binding commitment by the nuclear-weapon states to disarm, an estimated 23,000 nuclear weapons remain in their hands some 40 years after its entry into force. Furthermore, disarmament took a back seat to nonproliferation in the decade prior to the 2010 conference, with a focus on establishing new nonproliferation arrangements and mechanisms such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the measures adopted under UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires countries to establish effective national controls to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. This emphasis on nonproliferation has led the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) to express concerns that its right to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy was being constrained. It is through this prism that Ireland worked to develop clear policy positions in all areas and now judges the extent to which its objectives have been achieved.

Disarmament issues were negotiated in Main Committee I and its subsidiary body in a constructive atmosphere, despite the divergent positions of many states and regional groups. With support from others, the NAM called, inter alia, for accelerated nuclear disarmament within a fixed time frame, for work toward a nuclear weapons convention to ban all types of nuclear weapons, and for multilaterally negotiated, legally binding security assurances. Nuclear-weapon states opposed all of these proposals. Other contentious issues included nonstrategic nuclear weapons and the basing of nuclear weapons on the territory of non-nuclear-weapon states. The NAC and other like-minded partners worked hard to retain robust language on disarmament while attempting to bridge differences between the nuclear-weapon states and the NAM. The outcome is a forward-looking, 22-point action plan on nuclear disarmament. Although the language is not as strong as Ireland and others would have wished, its important recommitments to previous undertakings on nuclear disarmament and on concrete steps are welcome, as is the language on security assurances, nuclear testing, fissile materials, and other measures such as transparency. Notably, the nuclear-weapon states are called on to report by 2014 on progress made under a number of headings. In the short time since the review conference, it has generally been accepted that the action plan represents a significant step forward for the NPT regime.

Full implementation of the action plan resulting from the negotiations in Main Committee II on nonproliferation would represent a considerable reinforcement of the nonproliferation regime. The action plan has attracted some criticism that it is less action-oriented than the nuclear disarmament plan. If the language on nonproliferation is in truth weaker than that on disarmament, this may reflect the belief of the great majority of NPT states that nonproliferation would be tackled more effectively through an accelerated program of nuclear disarmament. As Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said in his opening statement to the conference, “As long as some States appear to covet their nuclear weapons and to be reluctant to relinquish them, others will covet them too, and will strive to acquire them.” The nonproliferation regime also has been buttressed by a number of complementary mechanisms developed outside the NPT framework.

A major disappointment to the United States and a number of other delegations was the failure to specify Iran in the sections of the document dealing with noncompliance. The choice was ultimately very simple: to name Iran or to have an outcome, given the consensus nature of NPT decisions. There is little doubt, however, that the final document strengthens the nonproliferation provisions of the treaty. Support for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is strong, with the agency’s authority reaffirmed. The document underscores the importance of resolving all cases of noncompliance with safeguards obligations, in full conformity with the IAEA statute and states’ legal obligations. It highlights the centrality of additional protocols, which give the IAEA increased inspection authority in states that adopt them, and calls on all states to bring them into force as soon as possible and to implement them provisionally pending their entry into force. On export controls, all states are urged to ensure that their nuclear-related exports do not directly or indirectly assist the development of nuclear weapons or other explosive devices. There is no question that the final document emphasizes the responsibility of states to play their part in ensuring that the nuclear threat does not become even more menacing.

The outcome of the Main Committee III negotiations is a strong reaffirmation of the right of states to develop and participate in international cooperation on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, within the context of the treaty. It confirms that the choices and decisions of states in this regard should be fully respected. The final document also urges that “preferential treatment” should be given to non-nuclear-weapon states that are parties to the treaty, “taking particular account of the needs of developing countries.” In addition, the outcome underscores the importance of appropriate and effective levels of nuclear safety and security at the national level, as well as international cooperation in these and other aspects of peaceful uses, notably through the work of the IAEA.

Agreement on the Middle East

The greatest challenge of the review conference was the question of implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution, which calls for the establishment of “an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems.” The resolution, co-sponsored by Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the depositaries of the treaty, was negotiated by Egypt and its Arab partners at the 1995 review and extension conference as part of a package of agreements that included the indefinite extension of the NPT. The difficulties involved in making progress toward a Middle East WMD-free zone have tested governments and civil society over the past 15 years while political will has generally been weak, influenced by developments in the Middle East peace process. Dissatisfaction within the region at failure to achieve progress since 1995 provoked linkage to agreement on an overall outcome to the 2010 conference and raised the stakes. As chair of subsidiary body 2 on regional issues, it was my responsibility to broker agreement on this matter.

Throughout the preparatory cycle for the review conference, a number of working papers on the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East were presented by members of the Arab League and by Iran. At the 2009 preparatory committee meeting, Russia became the first co-sponsor of the resolution to submit substantive proposals for its implementation. The United States had reached out to Egypt and the Arab Group in the months before the review conference, and intense consultations continued in various informal formats during the early weeks of the conference. Subsidiary body 2 held four formal meetings, which enabled states to set out their views and present proposals on all aspects of the Middle East issue. This provided a clear view of where common ground and redlines existed and of the essential elements required to achieve agreement on a text.

Although the matter was viewed by many delegates as involving Egypt and members of the Arab Group on the one hand and the nuclear-weapon states, primarily the United States and Russia, on the other, the reality was more nuanced. In many respects, the differences among the countries of the region on how the resolution should be implemented were more difficult.

By the time I drafted a text at the end of the third week of the conference, the informal consultations between key delegations had run their course but regrettably had not bridged the major differences on the way ahead. The 10-paragraph text I presented on May 21 to the chair of Main Committee II for inclusion in his report to the president of the conference drew heavily in its review section on previously agreed language from 1995 and 2000, including a provision recalling the reaffirmation by the 2000 review conference of the importance of Israel’s accession to the treaty and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards. The more forward-looking provisions of the text emphasized the importance of a process leading to full implementation of the 1995 resolution and endorsed a number of practical steps, including a conference in 2012 on the establishment of a zone and a special coordinator to facilitate implementation of the resolution.

This text formed the basis of negotiations in the final week, during which delegations from all sides brought amendments, some more problematic than others. The key difficulties were the mention of Israel in paragraph 5 and various aspects of the process-oriented paragraph 7, particularly the organization and mandate of the 2012 conference. On May 27, the penultimate day of the review conference, I presented a final compromise text to the conference president; the document ultimately remained very close to the May 21 text. This was subsequently accepted without amendment by all delegations as part of the final document. All sides moved considerably during the negotiations, and significant compromises were involved.

For the first time, the NPT parties have accepted the importance of a process leading to full implementation of the resolution. This is reinforced by concrete and substantive practical steps, including the convening of a conference in 2012 by the UN secretary-general and the co-sponsors of the resolution, in consultation with the states of the region, on implementation of the 1995 resolution. A facilitator with a mandate to support implementation and assist in the convening of the 2012 conference will be appointed, and a host government will be designated. The facilitator will report to the 2015 review conference and its preparatory committee meetings.

The mention of Israel was most difficult for the United States to accept. Although it did not break consensus, Obama and other senior officials said they regretted the naming of Israel. The United States has reiterated its commitment to the outcome and has signaled that it will approach the tasks of designating a host government, appointing an individual to facilitate preparations, and convening the conference with a view to achieving the participation of all states of the region.

The path ahead undoubtedly will be difficult, but for the first time, the NPT parties have an agreed plan of action on how to achieve implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution and to engage all states in the Middle East on this thorny issue.

In conclusion, the final document of the 2010 review conference will inevitably receive both high and faint praise. For some, it goes too far; for others, it will be too weak. Its lasting impact will depend on the willingness of states to implement its provisions. The 2010 conference certainly will be seen as a milestone in the history of the NPT. States demonstrated the political will and capacity to work through seemingly intractable differences in the interests of strengthening international peace and security. The immediate outcome is the reinvigoration of the treaty and a process back on track, an achievement bringing the international community one step closer to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons and a safer world for all of its citizens.


Alison Kelly is director for disarmament and non-proliferation in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. She was Ireland’s head of delegation at the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.


The 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference opened in New York on May 3 in a positive if subdued political atmosphere. High expectations generated by President Barack Obama’s commitment in Prague a year earlier to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons and to strengthen the NPT had been muted by uncertainty about Iran and other potential spoiler issues at the conference, not least the ability to agree on a path forward on implementation of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East.

Proliferation challenges in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the nuclear ambitions and programs of Iran and North Korea, the latter’s announced withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, the failure of the 2005 review conference, and a decade of stagnation on nuclear disarmament had placed the treaty under great strain. With fears that it was no longer fit for purpose, 2010 was widely seen as a make-or-break year for the future relevance and sustainability of the NPT.

The Arms Trade Treaty PrepCom: Prepared and Committed?

Daniel Mack

From July 12 to 23, UN member states will gather in New York for the first Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting for the arms trade treaty (ATT) negotiating conference, beginning a process slated to deliver a legally binding instrument to regulate international arms transfers in 2012.

This article suggests the main issues on which governments are likely to focus, describes the different viewpoints on these issues, and offers recommendations on the issues on which they should focus, noting that a failure to be thoroughly prepared, ambitious, and committed to a principled treaty could have serious deleterious effects on the ATT process. A strong ATT—the only acceptable ATT from a civil society perspective—demands a strong start to the initial PrepCom.

Seven years ago, only three governments publicly supported the idea of a global, legally binding instrument to regulate international transfers of conventional arms.[1] This month, the overwhelming majority of governments will congregate at the United Nations to begin prenegotiations of such an instrument, which civil society and governments have been discussing for years.

In 2006, seven committed states—Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya, and the United Kingdom—tabled Resolution 61/89, “Towards an Arms Trade Treaty,” at the UN First Committee. In December of that year, 153 member states voted in favor of the resolution, establishing a 2007 UN secretary-general consultation with all member states followed in 2008 by a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) examining the “feasibility, scope and parameters” of a legally binding ATT. In 2009 the process was broadened to an Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) including all UN members, which at the end of that year was molded into the current PrepComs. Notwithstanding this considerable history, the journey is just beginning if an ATT is not to betray its purpose and promise: to diminish the human cost of the poorly regulated arms trade by rendering irresponsible arms transfers illegal.

The two weeks of meetings in New York this month are technically the first and second sessions of the PrepComs, the only formal UN meetings on the ATT until February 2011.[2] This breakdown may result in a thematic or structural division in which the first week would set the groundwork for the second week’s efforts. Some observers fear the first week could be hijacked by skeptical countries filibustering over procedural matters, such as definitions of “consensus” or civil society participation. Nonetheless, as the ATT process has a robust paper trail to draw from (UN First Committee resolutions and reports from a GGE and an OEWG), the road ahead seems somewhat clear.[3] Doubts about the pace of the effort remain.

On the Docket

Much of the debate around an ATT to date has been divided into three categories: feasibility, scope, and parameters.[4] The discussions regarding feasibility have formally been put to rest; whether there will be an ATT is no longer emphasized, but when and how. Nevertheless, a small minority of countries will undoubtedly use the microphone to attempt to resuscitate them. The 2009 OEWG formally reached the important conclusion, albeit obvious to most, that the unregulated trade in conventional arms is a problem that must be addressed by the international community. Still, countries such as China, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Russia, and Venezuela remain unconvinced that an ATT serves their national interests. These countries can reasonably be expected to continue arguing that the world does not need an ATT or that a few more years should be spent discussing it until all assumptions and premises of the treaty are shared by the UN’s 192 members.

Once this potential detour is addressed, and provided procedural debates do not bog down the proceedings, the PrepCom is likely to delve into matters of “substance,” including scope and parameters. Eventually, this debate could be summarized as the kind of arms and types of international transfers that should be regulated and the criteria that national authorities should use to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether a transfer should be authorized. It remains unclear, however, how these discussions will be structured, that is, how the main leaders of the process will attempt to design the blueprint for the ensuing deliberations and text drafting.[5] These leaders include the seven co-sponsor governments of the ATT resolutions; the new (but mighty) kid on the block, the United States, which changed its long-standing position with the announcement in October 2009 by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that it would be formally joining the process; and the able chairman of the process, Roberto García Moritán of Argentina.

At least two competing views seem to have developed among supporter governments: “don’t rock the boat” and “let’s get down to business.” The first group argues that it is best to start with “easy” issues and discussions in order not to alienate any of the most important countries at the outset. The members of this group argue that using the first PrepCom to ensure all countries are “comfortable” is essential to the future of the process. According to this argument, it would be a mistake to push too hard and risk withdrawal from the process by major arms exporters such as Russia and China. Therefore, this line of reasoning goes, the best approach would be to keep deliberations in 2010 to “headlines” or a “skeleton” of the future treaty, rather than delving into specific substantive areas or text. In this view, the initial PrepCom would hopefully conclude with a framework for a future ATT, and noncontroversial items such as standard treaty components,[6] as well as perennial favorites such as the right to self-defense (UN Charter Article 51) and protection of sovereignty, would be the only details discussed.

The second group would note that there is no value in having a weak ATT just to ensure that all countries can sign it or merely for the sake of concluding a diplomatic exercise. Rather, this group argues, the ATT should aim to raise national standards globally so that even the countries unable to subscribe at first to a strong legally binding instrument would eventually sign, ratify, and implement a treaty that actually saves lives. In this view, maintaining a “positive mood in the room” is important, but pales in comparison with the pressing need to make real progress in assembling substantive text on key elements of an ATT, even if this “fast lane” approach inevitably involves some disagreements between states.

Whether wishing to simply assemble an easy-to-agree list of elements for later elaboration or immediately tackling difficult issues, supportive governments can also be divided on the basis their level of preparation and commitment to the ATT process. A minority of governments has invested a noteworthy amount of political capital and time into the process, but a significant contingent of countries, although supportive, is waiting for the first moves of others before establishing its stance.

The disarmament officials of no country have been spared the marathon efforts to prepare for the recently concluded review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—often used as justification for lagging ATT preparation—but some governments have been successful in not allowing the nuclear discussions to derail their commitment to the conventional-weapons process. A small minority of governments has been able to conduct cross-departmental intergovernmental meetings, plan detailed national positions (in some welcome cases including NGOs in the process), or prepare concrete suggestions for a treaty framework or even text. Likewise, some subregional or regional groupings, such as Mercosur in South America, have engaged in collective preparatory discussions, although it remains to be seen whether discrepant views will prevent the development of clearly and strongly defined regional priorities.

Governments’ commitment also covers a broad spectrum. Although an overwhelming majority has supported “an ATT,” mostly through supporting resolutions or voting “yes” at the UN First Committee, a likewise overwhelming majority of that group has acted mostly as silent or lazy supporters of a generic, hypothetical instrument rather than coalescing into a vocal and proactive majority pushing for the highest possible standards to regulate the arms trade. As concrete proposals—whether headlines or text—start to be developed, countries that have held their cards close to the vest may have to unveil their true priorities and positions, showing the world whether their support is genuine or merely rhetorical.

If specific areas of substance emerge in spite of the aforementioned obstacles, it is likely that the themes to be addressed in 2010 will be those many governments deem more “tangible”—scope rather than parameters. At the first PrepCom, the debates on which types of arms and international transfers an ATT would cover are therefore more likely to occur than those regarding the criteria that will be used to define whether a transfer can be authorized. Post-treaty implementation—monitoring, compliance, and verification, which are areas of particular interest to the U.S. government—may be also among the first items to be developed once the ATT’s framework is established.

The Way to an ATT

As states gather for the PrepCom and begin to flesh out their wide spectrum of positions and stances on an ATT, the “world will be watching,” as noted in recent campaign materials from the Control Arms coalition, which spearheads the global civil society movement for a robust ATT.[7] Of course, in addition to closely monitoring the developments, civil society stakeholders are eager to suggest some “driving directions” to governments in order to ensure that the perspectives of those who often witness the human cost of irresponsible arms transfers are incorporated into an ATT. A few of these suggestions, which although personal would likely be supported by civil society engaged on the issue, are offered below.

Every government participating in the July PrepCom must ask, “Why are we here?” and have a clear answer to the question, that is, an understanding of the central purpose of an ATT. That answer must reflect the fact that thousands of people are killed or injured, raped, and forced to flee from their homes every year as a result of irresponsible arms transfers. The poorly regulated global trade in conventional arms and ammunition fuels conflict, poverty, armed crime, terrorism, gender-based violence, and human rights abuses. Therefore, an overwhelming humanitarian imperative must be realized by ATT negotiators. Although essential from a national security perspective, focus must remain on human security; an ATT must protect people, not only states. Governments are urged to recall Article 1 of the UN Charter in addition to Article 51.[8]

Detractors often argue that an ATT is not a disarmament treaty and not a panacea for armed violence. The truth of that statement should not mask the need for a treaty that will make a difference on the ground, with real impact. Thus, an ATT must clearly indicate that its central purpose or objective is to create common international standards for the international transfer of conventional arms in order to reduce and prevent the human cost of irresponsible transfers. An ATT must prevent transfers that contribute to armed conflict, displacement, organized crime, terrorist acts, poverty, and violations of UN arms embargoes and international human rights and humanitarian law. It also must prevent diversion to unauthorized uses or users.

120 Hours to Do What?

The ATT PrepComs have an extremely tight timetable: 120 hours, or four working weeks of six-hour sessions daily, to develop a highly complex international instrument. The first PrepCom sessions this month constitute one-half of the total time available to develop the text before the final treaty negotiation. In order to develop a robust ATT, this time must be used to the fullest effect, which entails significant preparation. Also, a smart schedule and use of intersessional meetings would be helpful in gaining traction on more difficult points before negotiations, by discussing sticking points without the formal procedural constraints of the UN and allowing agreement to emerge, as well as providing more hours for deliberations, even if informal. Governments should follow the “let’s get down to business” approach, tackling difficult points early precisely because they are difficult and need sufficient time to be addressed. In addition to the unforgiving timetable, “fast lane” efforts are essential to respect the sense of urgency demanded by those whose lives have been affected by armed violence. Millions of potential victims cannot afford to wait for a protracted diplomatic process or one that yields a toothless instrument.


In previous meetings, some governments have been fond of arguing that an ATT should be constructed on a simple and easy or pragmatic basis, an “ATT light,” not trying to be too complex or ambitious. To other governments and civil society, an ATT provides a historic opportunity to be visionary and strive to deliver something of importance. An ATT must deliver increased human security on the ground and respect the massive efforts and resources already put into the process. Although the following recommendations are “bare minimum” necessities, they may nonetheless prove ambitious for some states. Such states would thus be called on to show the necessary level of ambition.

On all issues of substance, whether they are issues of scope, parameters, or implementation, decision-making should be guided by the principled answer to the initial question of “why are we here?”: to diminish the human cost of the poorly regulated arms trade. The correct decision on any given issue will be the one that best reflects and protects this central purpose. Therefore, an ATT must:

• Be comprehensive in scope, covering all types of conventional arms, their ammunition, and parts and components (a list comparable to items already controlled by the majority of states), and all types of international transfers and transactions;

• Prevent international transfers of conventional arms on a case-by-case basis if there is substantial risk that these would be used to commit serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law or undermine socioeconomic development and poverty reduction efforts, among other criteria;[9]

• Be drafted with clear and strong language, as even a comprehensive scope and strong criteria can be rendered irrelevant by wording such as “taking into account” or “wherever possible”—diplomatic code for “feel free to ignore.” Rather, provisions should be, for example, “governments shall not authorize transfers if there is substantial risk of serious violations” or similar language; and

• Be a preventive rather than a punitive instrument, requiring states to suspend particular transfers when an objective case-by-case analysis by national authorities indicates there is a strong possibility the arms will be used for serious violations rather than preventing states from receiving any conventional arms and ammunition because of previous isolated incidents.[10]

The substantive discussions most likely to occur at the first PrepCom may hit their first pothole if a small minority of countries, reportedly including the United States, follows up on plans to attempt to exclude ammunition, particularly for small arms, from the equipment to be covered by an ATT. Such an exclusion would be completely unacceptable and constitute a maneuver the majority of governments should strongly resist. To put it simply, people do not die of gun wounds, they die of bullet wounds. An ATT without ammunition in its scope would be like a gun without bullets: it would not serve the purpose for which it was designed. Likewise, all types of transfers and transactions should be covered, even if some states may seek to exclude the activities of arms brokers and other intermediaries.

Another potential obstacle during upcoming debates on scope is the seemingly obsessive need to use unhelpful shorthand to discuss the types of equipment an ATT should cover. In previous discussions, governments have used the “7+1” formula of the UN Register of Conventional Arms as a basis for discussion. The “7” refers to the register’s categories of major conventional arms: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers. The “+1” refers to small arms and light weapons, a category for which the register invites submissions but does not maintain as an official category; a second “+1,” denoting ammunition, produces the designation “7+1+1.”

More importantly, this coverage, whatever it is called, is far from comprehensive enough to be effective in providing human security. An ATT must include all types of conventional military equipment, components, small arms and light weapons, explosives, and ammunition that are currently used for serious violations and abuses. Many of these are not included in the UN Register, rendering it virtually worthless as a benchmark.[11]

Proactive, Inclusive, Transparent

Finally, governments should be proactive, inclusive, and transparent at the PrepCom. As noted above, a silent or lazy majority, even if overwhelming in numbers, will not achieve a worthwhile ATT. Governments must muster the political will and invest political capital; make an ATT a national priority; and be vocal, organize, and become cohesive with other committed governments. In order to achieve a meaningful ATT, states will need to devote significant time, effort, and resources.

Committed governments must respond when somebody who wishes to see the ATT process derailed speaks loudly, defends his government’s position, or strategizes with the small minority that agrees with him. He does not actually represent his grouping, his continent, and perhaps not even his people, but to observers and for the record, it seems those positions are common in the international community. They are not. Supportive states must make themselves heard and should congregate and coordinate to ensure the world knows that their positions are the common ones, supported by the majority of countries and the vast, overwhelming majority of their citizens. An international instrument of this magnitude demands a strong set of concrete proposals from supportive states that are prepared to push a structure and text that will deliver a robust treaty, one that reflects the humanitarian imperative for which an ATT should be striving, one that protects their citizens and those of all other countries.

Finally, an effective ATT will not be achieved behind closed doors. One of the initial debates of the PrepCom will likely be on civil society participation. As noted in the 2009 resolution, governments must decide “on the modalities of attendance of non-governmental organizations,” that is, how civil society will participate in the PrepCom. As in other treaty processes established by the UN General Assembly, such as the conference that created the International Criminal Court, civil society should be granted meaningful participation at the PrepComs and negotiating conference in 2012. Nongovernmental organizations should have access to all formal sessions and documents produced and circulated, as well as the right to circulate documents and speak in plenary sessions. Such a request stems not from a sense of entitlement, although it would be quite ironic, given civil society’s “partial paternity” of the process, to be at the conception but not the birth of an ATT, but from an understanding that civil society involvement is essential for the legitimacy and effectiveness of the PrepCom.

Excluding civil society would threaten the PrepCom’s accountability, transparency, and decision-making process, which would be bereft of valuable information that can enrich the policy debate. Such an exclusion would also threaten the ability to consider transnational viewpoints from stakeholders not representing national positions and the ability to reflect the experiences of those affected by the irresponsible arms trade—all vital to inform the detailed content of the treaty. Regardless of the precise participation “modalities” established, civil society is committed to a principled and robust ATT and will work as constructive critics and partners of states. The ATT will be negotiated by states and is ultimately in the hands of states, but civil society can and wishes to play a supportive role to help ensure that the ATT will be strong enough to prevent irresponsible transfers. Crucially, global civil society will continue to shape the degree of worldwide legitimacy, interest, and support given to an ATT and its eventual implementation.


The PrepCom will see a wide range of views and priorities regarding an ATT even before considering the perspective of civil society, which has been a major force in the trip from “utopia” to UN negotiations. The issues to be discussed by governments at the initial PrepCom present a confluence of arms control, security, human rights, trade, armed violence, sovereignty, development, self-defense, technology, and other issues. In some of these areas, the range of views is dramatic.

The challenge for those shepherding the process is to balance these multiple and seemingly discrepant views into a final product that can actually address the realities on the ground. The worst-case scenario would be to move slowly and ultimately accommodate all views, no matter how out of touch with the overwhelming sense of the international community, into a lowest-common-denominator or toothless instrument that could be ratified by all governments but would make none of their citizens safer. Although certainly not insurmountable, this is tall task, not least because of the urgency and time constraints of the agreed calendar and the uneven levels of government preparation and commitment to the process.

At the initial PrepCom, it should become clear whether a committed mass of governments is actually willing to push for a treaty that will have ethical and robust provisions or whether the diplomatic support to date has been mostly rhetorical and tactical. The PrepCom also presents a crucial opportunity for global civil society to play a supportive role in helping to ensure that the eventual ATT will be strong enough to do its job by addressing poorly regulated and irresponsible international arms transfers, thus helping save lives, prevent abuses, and protect livelihoods.


Daniel Mack is policy and advocacy coordinator for arms control at Instituto Sou da Paz, a Brazilian violence prevention nongovernmental organization (NGO), for which he also serves as convener of the NGO Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee. He holds a master’s degree in foreign service from GeorgetownUniversity.



1. The earliest supporters on record were Cambodia, Costa Rica, and Mali.

2. The 2010 PrepComs are tentatively scheduled to be followed by sessions from February 28 to March 4, 2011, and from July 11 to 15, 2011. In 2012 there will be a short PrepCom for procedural matters, followed by a four-week UN negotiating diplomatic conference that should deliver the final text of an ATT.

3. The GGE comprises representatives from 28 countries: Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The GGE concluded its work in August 2008 with a consensus report issued after three meetings recommending that “further consideration” be given to an ATT. The exact format of the “consideration” was set by an October 2008 resolution at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee, supported by 147 states, that mandated establishment of an OEWG for all UN member states to consider the elements for a legally binding treaty.

4. The three areas were defined by the initial ATT resolution in 2006.

5. For an account of the United States joining the ATT process in October 2009, see Jeff Abramson, “U.S. Supports Arms Trade Treaty Process,” Arms Control Today, November 2009.

6. Among these standard treaty components could be issues such as signature, ratification, entry into force, depositary and languages, meeting of states-parties, review conference, and dispute mechanism.

7. The Control Arms campaign was launched in October 2003 by Amnesty International, Oxfam, and the International Action Network on Small Arms to use popular mobilization techniques in more than 120 countries to create awareness of and build political commitment toward an ATT. The author’s organization, Instituto Sou da Paz, coordinates the Control Arms campaign in Brazil.

8. Article 1 of the UN Charter states: “The purposes of the United Nations are: To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.”

9. For a more complete list of criteria, see Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee, “Compilation of Global Principles for Arms Transfers,” 2007. These would require a license or authorization to be refused or suspended where there is a substantial risk that a particular import, export, or international transfer under review will:

a. violate the UN Charter, including UN arms embargoes;

b. be used in serious violations of international human rights law;

c. be used in serious violations of international humanitarian law;

d. be used to commit acts of genocide or crimes against humanity;

e. be used to facilitate a terrorist attack;

f. perpetuate a pattern of violent crime or armed violence, including gender-based violence, or used for the commission of organized crime;

g. seriously impair poverty reduction and socioeconomic development;

h. adversely affect regional security and stability, or contribute to the excessive and destabilizing accumulation of arms;

i. contravene other international, regional or subregional commitments or decisions made or agreements on nonproliferation, small arms and light weapons, arms control and disarmament to which states involved in the import, export, or transfer are a party; or

j. be diverted from the specifically authorized legal end-use or legal end-user or will be retransferred contrary to the above provisions.

10. For decision-making and criteria application guides, see Amnesty International, “How to Apply Human Rights Standards to Arms Transfer Decisions,” May 2008; International Committee of the Red Cross, “Arms Transfer Decisions: Applying International Humanitarian Law Criteria,” May 2007.

11. See Saferworld, “The Arms Trade Treaty and Military Equipment: The Case for a Comprehensive Scope,” July 2009. For an examination of the absurdity of the situation, see Paul Holtom and Mark Bromley, “The International Arms Trade: Difficult to Define, Measure, and Control,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2010.

By Daniel Mack - The countries gathering to craft an arms trade treaty should not settle for a weak pact just to ensure that it will be acceptable to all. They should be willing to tackle difficult issues and press to make the treaty comprehensive.

The International Arms Trade: Difficult to Define, Measure, and Control

Paul Holtom and Mark Bromley

The international arms trade apparently has weathered the financial crisis quite well. Available data indicate that the impact to date on the volume of orders and deliveries has been limited.

As has been shown in the past, financial resources—from domestic budgets or foreign military assistance—are not the only factor that influences arms acquisitions. Perceived internal or external threats to national security, the need to replace or upgrade military inventories, demonstrations of international status, development of domestic arms industries via licensed production and offsets, the desire to strengthen ties with suppliers, and the influence of the military play important roles in the arms acquisition process. Before permitting exports of arms and military equipment, suppliers will assess the potential economic gains and the potential impact of the transfer on their strategic interests and foreign policy. Will the transfer harm or help friendly states or the supplier’s international commitments, reputation, or standing?

For several reasons, there is no straightforward answer to the question, “How big is the international arms trade?” First, there is no globally agreed definition of “arms.” States and international organizations that seek to measure or control the arms trade use lists of items that vary in their complexity and coverage, most notably with regard to their inclusion of “dual-use goods,” items with both military and civilian applications.[1] Second, there is no common agreement on what types of activities constitute the arms trade. Examples of areas where differences exist include arms leased to other states; gifts and donations; the transfer of technology to produce arms and military equipment; and upgrades, parts, and services related to the transfer of arms and military equipment. Third, the lack of openness and transparency by many arms suppliers and recipients regarding the value and volume of their arms exports and imports makes it difficult to collect accurate data. As a result, a variety of different definitions of the international arms trade and estimates of its scale exists. This has implications for efforts to establish controls on arms transfers via a future international arms trade treaty (ATT). This article will outline some of the challenges in defining, measuring, and controlling the international arms trade.

Definitions and Estimates

The national lists of arms and military equipment to be subject to export controls (control lists) maintained by most states and all major arms exporters provide a useful starting point for defining “arms” and the international arms trade. The Munitions List and Lists of Dual-Use Goods and Technologies of the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies provide the basis for the control lists of the 40 states that are members of the group. The Munitions List covers a wide range of arms and military equipment, from small arms to ships, as well as ammunition, information and communication technologies, training equipment, and equipment for producing arms. Several significant arms-exporting nonmembers, including China, have fully or partially aligned their national control lists with the Munitions List. As a result, all of the top 10 arms suppliers during 2005-2009 have control lists derived from the Wassenaar Arrangement.

National control lists serve as the basis for national reports on arms exports. As of January 2010, 32 states had published at least one national report on arms exports since 1990, and a further nine states provided information on the value of their export licenses and exports to the 2009 European Union (EU) Annual Report on Arms Exports.[2] These reports vary in detail but, at a minimum, tend to provide data on the financial value of arms export licenses or arms exports. Several major exporters (e.g., Russia) do not produce such reports, but do release official data on the financial value of their arms exports. Using national reports and official statements, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has attempted to provide estimates of the financial value of the international arms trade (see below).

The now-defunct U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) created the following comprehensive definition of the arms trade, which has been widely used by researchers:

weapons of war, parts thereof, ammunition, support equipment, and other commodities designed for military use.… Dual-use equipment…when its primary mission is identified as military. The building of defense production facilities and licensing fees paid as royalties for the production of military equipment.… Military services such as training, supply operations, equipment repair, technical assistance and construction are included where data are available.[3]

A similar definition of the arms trade is used to compile the U.S. Congressional Research Service’s (CRS) annual report, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations.” In spite of the name, the report contains estimates for the value of the global arms trade, not just trade with developing countries. The CRS estimated the financial value of deliveries of arms to be $34.5 billion for 2007.[4] Despite using a narrower definition of arms transfers than the CRS, SIPRI’s accounting of official financial data contained in national reports and official statements for 2007 generated a figure of $51.1 billion for arms exports, representing 0.3 percent of world trade.[5] This figure is likely to be lower than the true figure because a number of significant exporters, including China, do not release data on the financial value of their arms exports. The difference between the SIPRI and CRS estimates is a further demonstration of the difficulty of estimating the financial value of the international arms trade.

The SIPRI arms transfers database provides information on international arms transfers from 1950 to the most recent calendar year.[6] Its coverage is narrower than that of the ACDA, CRS, and national control lists; for example, it does not include transfers of most small arms and light weapons (SALW). However, it provides information on the number of units transferred and employs a unique pricing system to measure the volume of arms transfers. The SIPRI trend indicator value allows researchers to track developments in transfers to and from different suppliers, recipients, and regions. SIPRI data form the basis for the discussion below.

Arms Trade Trends

The volume of international arms transfers in the post-World War II period peaked in 1982. Following the end of the Cold War, there was a steady decline in global arms transfers. They reached their lowest point in 2002, when transfers amounted to only 38 percent of their Cold War high. This decline has reversed, and the volume of international transfers of major conventional weapons during 2005-2009 was 22 percent higher than during 2000-2004.

One of the most marked aspects of the international arms trade has been its dominance by five suppliers. During 1980-1984, when global arms transfers were at the highest level, the Soviet Union (37 percent), the United States (29 percent), France (8 percent), the United Kingdom (5 percent), and the Federal Republic of Germany (5 percent) accounted for 84 percent of all exports. The five largest suppliers of major conventional weapons during 2005-2009 were the United States (30 percent), Russia (23 percent), Germany (11 percent), France (8 percent), and the United Kingdom (4 percent), collectively accounting for 76 percent of exports.

The governments of these major suppliers are actively engaged in assisting the export efforts of their domestic arms industries in the competitive international arms market. Some governments also provide military equipment to allies at beneficial rates as a key plank of their foreign and defense policies, something that often has clear benefits for commercial arms manufacturers based in these states.

Since 2001, the United States has increased foreign military aid for allies in regions of tension or conflict. President Barack Obama has maintained the Bush administration’s pledge to increase foreign military financing aid for Israel, which is set to reach $3 billion in 2012.[7] Egypt and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have been the recipients of increased assistance as well.

Russia has announced its willingness to develop and produce arms jointly with other countries to help strengthen ties, accept payments through barter, participate in joint economic projects, and offer credit and exchanges of debt for arms. In 2009, Russia extended a $2 billion line of credit to Venezuela for arms purchases. In addition, it agreed to cancel Vietnam’s debt to Russia and help modernize its shipbuilding industry in exchange for Vietnam’s commitment to purchase 20 Su-30MK combat aircraft and six Type-636 Kilo-class submarines and further expand the involvement of Russian companies in the exploration and extraction of Vietnamese oil.

In 2007 the French government simplified and modernized France’s arms export licensing system and began taking a more active role in promoting exports abroad. It has demonstrated a willingness to engage in far-reaching technology transfer agreements in order to win contracts. In September 2009 French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Brazil to conclude an almost $10 billion deal to supply four conventionally powered submarines and technology to assist in the development of Brazil’s first nuclear-powered submarine.

Attempts by countries beyond the traditional major producers to develop their own arms industries and increase their share of global arms exports have typically had limited success, largely because of high technological barriers or an inadequate civilian industrial base. Yet, many countries still seek to increase their levels of autonomous capability in arms production, with some developing state-of-the-art products for particular niche items. For example, Israel is widely recognized as a leading producer and supplier of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), supplying systems and licenses for production for more than 100 UAVs to 18 states, including all of the top five suppliers, during 2005-2009.

In addition, licensed production agreements have led to an increase in the number of states that are capable of manufacturing less-advanced weapons systems, particularly small arms and light weapons.[8] Although licensed production agreements often include controls on who can receive the weapons produced, this is not always the case, or the agreements are not enforced. Soviet Avtomat Kalashnikov (AK) and German Heckler and Koch G3 assault rifles serve as classic examples of cases in which licensed production has led to exports being made without the express permission of those issuing the original license. Russia perceives the production of Kalashnikov rifles in a number of former Warsaw Pact countries to be unlicensed and illegal, claiming that arrangements concluded during the Soviet era have expired. The decision to give designs and information on product technology to Warsaw Pact states and clients during the Soviet era therefore remains a source of concern. Nonetheless, Russia continues to issue licensed production agreements for Kalashnikov rifles, revealing recently that 10 states had applied to build factories.[9] The possibility remains that today’s license holders could produce or export Kalashnikovs without the express permission of Russia in the future.

In contrast to the largest suppliers, the largest recipients of major conventional weapons have varied considerably over the years. During 1980-1984, the five largest recipients of military equipment—Iraq (7 percent), India (6 percent), Libya (5 percent), Syria (5 percent), and Egypt (4 percent)—accounted for 27 percent of total imports. The five largest recipients of major conventional weapons during 2005-2009 were China (9 percent), India (7 percent), South Korea (6 percent), the United Arab Emirates (6 percent), and Greece (4 percent), accounting for 32 percent of total imports. After the end of the Cold War, China imported a large volume of aircraft, ships, submarines, air defense systems, and missiles from Russia, but Chinese arms imports from Russia have declined dramatically in recent years. One explanation for this drop is that China appears to have overcome many of the problems that have dogged its arms industry and is now able to manufacture advanced weapons systems domestically. There are persistent allegations that many of China’s “indigenous” weapons systems are actually copies of other countries’ designs.[10] It continues to rely on imports of components and subsystems for a number of its weapons systems, but is regarded as an example of a country in which arrangements for licensed production and technology transfers as part of arms import deals have helped with the development of an indigenous arms industry. India has sought to develop its own arms industry and decrease its reliance on arms imports but with limited success to date. It is expected to replace China as the largest arms importer in the coming years.

Recent acquisitions by states in Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia indicate the possible emergence of reactive arms acquisition patterns that could develop into regional arms races. The volume of deliveries to Southeast Asia nearly doubled during 2005-2009 compared to 2000-2004. Deliveries were 722 percent higher to Malaysia, 146 percent higher to Singapore, and 84 percent higher to Indonesia. In 2009, Malaysia received six Su-30MKM combat aircraft with advanced missiles from Russia, two Scorpène submarines from France and Spain, two MEKO-100 frigates from Germany, and 21 PT-91 tanks from Poland. Singapore received eight F-15E combat aircraft with advanced air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles from the United States, two La Fayette frigates from France, and 40 Leopard-2A4 tanks from Germany.

There is limited empirical evidence to suggest a direct causal link between an increase in the volume of arms imported and the outbreak of conflict or an increase in the intensity of conflict. It has been suggested, however, that states that acquire significant quantities of military equipment may be more prone to use armed force to resolve disputes. For example, the recent conflicts in Sri Lanka and Georgia, both of which are relatively minor arms importers, were preceded by significant increases in transfers.[11] In both cases, governments sought to restore what they perceived to be their state’s territorial integrity against forces that were seeking independence and had established high levels of autonomy to some degree within clearly defined regions. As the graph on this page demonstrates, the volume of Georgian imports of major conventional weapons in the years preceding the August 2008 conflict in South Ossetia increased significantly, with the largest volume of arms imports for Georgia, excluding acquisitions by forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, taking place in 2007. Significant increases in arms imports and military spending were perceived by some as indicating that the Georgian government was preparing to use force to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Trade Control Efforts

At present, UN Security Council arms embargoes are the only global, legally binding prohibitions on arms transfers. Since 1990, the United Nations has imposed 28 arms embargoes against targets in 17 countries and one nonstate entity (Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda). The most recent new arms embargo was introduced against Eritrea on December 23, 2009.[12] Recent UN arms embargo resolutions recognize that nonstate actors play an important role in the contemporary arms trade and in the facilitation of arms transfers to “undesirable” end-users. States retain primary responsibility for enforcing arms embargoes and controlling the activities of arms brokers and dealers operating from their national territory or registered with their national authorities. Sanctions committees and panels of experts charged with monitoring arms embargoes have documented the role different states have played in violating arms embargoes, such as in the case of Eritrea’s involvement in transfers to Somalia. Also, states have been accused of giving shelter to individuals and entities accused of violating embargoes and of failing to investigate alleged violations but in such instances have not been sanctioned themselves. Stronger transfer control policies and increased political will are of central importance for preventing violations of UN arms embargoes.[13]

States have long been reluctant to give up any element of national control in the field of arms transfer controls. Yet, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the scandals involving Western states and companies in the arming of Iraq prompted the development of the guidelines for conventional arms transfers, under which the permanent members of the UN Security Council agreed to exercise restraint in exports of conventional arms transfers.[14] Suppliers were required to ensure that exports met only the “legitimate self-defense” needs of the recipient and did not contribute to conflict or regional instability or introduce “destabilizing military capabilities in a region.” There is no international agreement on what constitutes legitimate self-defense or “destabilizing military capabilities.”

Efforts to improve controls on international arms transfers have primarily been driven and directed by suppliers in North America and Europe. Motivations have included protecting national industries by preventing the spread of technologies and limiting potential adversaries’ access to key technologies. The prevention of conflict and human rights abuses also has long been at the heart of efforts to control the arms trade. States, export control regimes such as the Wassenaar Arrangement, and regional organizations (e.g., the Economic Community of West African States, the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Organization of American States) have developed various sets of best-practice guidelines and model legislation to help ensure that arms exports do not provoke or exacerbate conflict and are not used to commit violations of human rights and humanitarian law. In addition, efforts have been undertaken to prevent the diversion of arms to terrorists, criminals, and armed groups.

Experience with existing regional mechanisms and export control regimes demonstrates some of the problems that an ATT is likely to face when it comes to ensuring harmonized interpretations of the criteria it puts in place. Despite developing agreed export criteria and mechanisms of consultation and information exchange, members of the Wassenaar Arrangement have demonstrated contrasting attitudes toward exports of arms and military equipment to a range of destinations. Although the EU and the United States have arms embargoes against Iran, Myanmar (Burma), Sudan, and Zimbabwe, Russia continues to supply weapons systems to these states.[15] Meanwhile, Russia has repeatedly called for restraint on arms transfers to Georgia, but Wassenaar Arrangement members the CzechRepublic, Turkey, and Ukraine have continued to supply arms to Georgia. It appears that bilateral pressure on nonmembers Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, and Serbia led to some deals to Georgia being canceled.

Even within the EU, where states have agreed that their export license decision-making should be guided by eight criteria relating to issues such as conflict prevention, human rights, and economic development, there appear to have been differences of opinion among members regarding exports to Georgia. EU member states reported issuing licenses worth more than $180 million between 2004 and 2007 for exports of arms and military equipment to Georgia and making exports worth almost $96 million during that period. Also during this period, EU member states denied 41 export licenses for arms and military equipment for Georgia because of concerns about the potential impact of the transfer on the possibility of conflict within Georgia. In several cases, EU member states denied an export license for the export of a particular type of military equipment that other EU member states had exported.

Researchers have found evidence of a correlation between the introduction of the politically binding EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports in 1998 and a decline in arms exports from EU member states to countries in conflict or considered violators of international human rights and humanitarian law, but differences in decision-making on “responsible” recipients continue within the EU.[16] In this regard, the impact of the EU arms exports code and the legally binding Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP, defining common rules governing the control of exports of military technology and equipment, which replaced the EU arms exports code, continues to illustrate the challenges of reaching agreement on how to interpret and implement a set of agreed common standards among (supposedly) like-minded states. Disagreements in the Wassenaar Arrangement show the difficulties in achieving similar objectives when the group is composed of states that hold very different opinions on what constitutes a responsible end-user.


The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait drew attention to the impact of deliveries of significant volumes of arms on a recipient’s decision to use armed force to achieve political aims and the need for international agreement on exercising restraint in arms transfers. Following the Persian Gulf War and the end of the Cold War, there was a dramatic decline in the volume of major conventional arms transferred and an increase in international discussions aimed at increasing controls over the international arms trade. Nevertheless, conflicts raged in which small arms and light weapons were prevalent and where comparatively limited transfers of major conventional weapons had a decisive impact on the course of events (e.g., conflicts in Angola, Liberia, and Sierra Leone). Therefore, continued international attention to improving controls on arms transfers to address their potential negative impacts is welcome.

National governments remain ultimately responsible for permitting or denying the export of arms and military equipment and will remain so under a future ATT. Although the need to avoid supplying arms to zones of conflict or tension and contributing to destabilizing accumulations is considered in arms export decision-making processes, domestic economic and political implications, as well as foreign and security policy priorities, continue to play a significant role. This is an important consideration for those currently promoting the viability of an international treaty with legally binding guidelines. It remains to be seen if efforts within the UN to create an ATT can go beyond the League of Nations’ Convention for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms and Ammunition and Implements of War, which was adopted in 1925 but failed to come into force because of an insufficient number of ratifications and failed to promote confidence and restraint. Will the discussions that take place during 2010-2012 within the UN be more successful at defining and securing agreement on the future direction of international efforts to control and make more transparent international transfers of arms?

If an ATT can be concluded, the next challenge will be to ensure that states have the capacity to control arms transfers (exports, imports, transit, transshipment, brokering, and other activities covered by transfer controls). In recognition of this fact, discussions on an ATT are already highlighting the need for mechanisms for providing international assistance and cooperation for implementation. This should help provide much-needed improvements on technical issues relating to transfer controls and anti-trafficking efforts. However, perhaps the most important contribution an ATT can make would be the development of detailed reporting mechanisms to show states and civil society at large how states are interpreting the criteria used to determine whether to permit or deny an export. As the examples of the Wassenaar Arrangement and the EU demonstrate, even the most detailed criteria are open to differing interpretation, and this will likely remain the case under an ATT. Only through open and transparent reporting mechanisms can the interpretation of criteria be discussed and analyzed and, hopefully, lead to global agreement on the types of transfers to be prohibited under an ATT.

Paul Holtom is director of the arms transfers program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Mark Bromley is a researcher in the same program.


1. The UN Register of Conventional Arms has formed the basis for much of the debate on the potential types of weapons to be covered by a future ATT, but its scope is limited to particular items deemed of importance in interstate conflicts. It is not regarded as offering a definition of the international arms trade for the purposes of this article.

2. For a full list of states that have published national arms export reports and copies of their reports, see Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “National Reports on Arms Exports,” http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/transfers/transparency/national_reports, June 14, 2010. Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, and Poland have submitted data to the EU annual report, but have not published national reports on arms exports. The EU Common Military List, which is used as the basis for reporting to the EU annual report, is derived from the Wassenaar Munitions List.

3. The ACDA World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers (WMEAT) reports used this definition when providing financial values for the international arms trade, based on figures supplied by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. The latest WMEAT report to include data on the international arms trade covers 1989-1999. ACDA, “World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 1999-2000,” February 6, 2003, p. 197.

4. Richard F. Grimmett, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2001-2008,” CRS Report for Congress, R40796, September 4, 2009, p. 4.

5. Exports of goods and services in 2007 amounted to $17.1 trillion. International Monetary Fund, “International Financial Statistics Online,” www.imfstatistics.org/imf/. It has not been possible to generate an estimate of the financial value of the international arms trade in 2008 because of a lack of data. See Paul Holtom et al., “International Arms Transfers,” SIPRI Yearbook 2010: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 2010), p. 287.

6. SIPRI, “SIPRI Arms Transfers Database,” www.sipri.org/databases/armstransfers.

7. President Barack Obama requested $2.8 billion in foreign military financing aid for Israel for fiscal year 2010, in line with an agreement made by the Bush administration in 2007 to increase this aid annually to reach $3 billion in 2012. Jeremy M. Sharp, “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel,” CRS Report for Congress, RL33222, December 4, 2009. See also Petter Stålenheim, Catalina Perdomo, and Elisabet Sköns, “Military Expenditure,” SIPRI Yearbook 2008: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 202–205.

8. According to one estimate, at least 1,249 companies in more than 90 countries are involved in some aspect of SALW production. Small Arms Survey, “Continuity and Change: Products and Producers,” Small Arms Survey 2004: Rights at Risk (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 2004), p. 7.

9. “Ten Countries to Build Kalashnikov Assault Rifle Producing Plants,” RIA-Novosti, November 10, 2009.

10. Keith Crane et al., Modernizing China’s Military: Opportunities and Constraints (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 2005); “Russia Cancels Sale of Su-33 Fighters to China to Prevent Their Pirate Copies,” Pravda, March 10, 2009.

11. For information on arms transfers to Sri Lanka, see Siemon Wezeman, Mark Bromley, and Pieter Wezeman, “International Arms Transfers,” SIPRI Yearbook 2009: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 315-317.

12. UN Security Council, Resolution 1907, S/Res/1907, December 23, 2009.

13. SIPRI and the UppsalaUniversity Special Program on the Implementation of Targeted Sanctions, “United Nations Arms Embargoes: Their Impact on Arms Flows and Target Behaviour,” November 2007.

14. For a discussion of conventional arms transfer controls, see Jozef Goldblat, Arms Control: The New Guide to Negotiations and Agreements (London: Sage Publications, 2002), pp. 241-246.

15. For information on EU arms embargoes, see European Commission, “Sanctions or Restrictive Measures,” December 12, 2009, http://ec.europa.eu/external_relations/cfsp/sanctions/index_en.htm. For information on current U.S. embargoes, see Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, U.S. Department of State, “Country Policies and Embargoes,” www.pmddtc.state.gov/embargoed_countries/index.html. For information on Russian arms exports to these destinations, see SIPRI Arms Transfers Database.

16. Mark Bromley and Michael Brzoska, “Towards a Common, Restrictive EU Arms Export Policy?” European Foreign Affairs Review, Vol. 13, No. 3 (2008).


By Paul Holtom and Mark Bromley - There is disagreement on which goods and activities are part of the arms trade, and reporting is uneven. Nevertheless, available data illustrate the need for stronger controls.

News Briefs

U.S. Cluster Munition Use Alleged in Yemen

Jeff Abramson

Pictures released last month raised questions about possible U.S. use of cluster munitions in Yemen. On June 7, Amnesty International released photographs that appeared to show a U.S.-manufactured cruise missile and cluster munitions that struck the southern Yemeni community of al-Ma’jalah in December 2009, killing 55 people, including 14 alleged al Qaeda members, according to the organization’s press release. If the incident is confirmed as involving U.S.-fired weapons, it would be the first U.S. use of cluster munitions since 2003 in Iraq. Thus far, Washington has not responded to questions about the weapons. Whether they could have been transferred to Yemen and used by Yemeni forces is also unclear, but unlikely. The version of the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile identified in the photos, the BGM-109D, is not known to have been transferred to Yemen or any other country and is designed to be launched from ships or submarines that Yemen does not have, Amnesty International arms control researcher Mike Lewis said in an interview. Neither the United States nor Yemen has signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which enters into force Aug. 1 and bars the use of the weapons in question.


IAEA Questions to Syria Remain Unanswered

Daniel Salisbury

Questions posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to Syria about past nuclear-related procurements and activities still have not been answered, according to an agency report released May 31.

The report called for Syria to “cooperate with the agency on these issues in a timely manner.” Syria has provided some information, which the agency is currently assessing, the report said. The outstanding questions include previously unreported uranium-conversion activities using undeclared quantities of uranyl nitrate and yellowcake, a uranium concentrate, that the agency uncovered at a facility housing Syria’s Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR). (See ACT, December 2009.) Uranyl nitrate is a substance that is covered by safeguards and must therefore be declared to IAEA inspectors. Yellowcake, an early precursor for civil and military nuclear efforts, does not require safeguards.

The IAEA report says that the agency is still awaiting results of analysis undertaken using samples recovered during a physical inventory verification at the MNSR in March.

Syria’s initial explanation for the material in June 2009 was not supported by IAEA sampling, the agency said in a report last November. (See ACT, December 2009.) In November, Syria said the particles originated from domestically produced yellowcake. Syria has said the undeclared conversion experiment took place in 2004 and that the resulting uranyl nitrate was to be used in irradiation experiments. Conversion involves changing yellowcake to uranium hexafluoride gas, required for enrichment.

Syria has still not resolved “outstanding issues” related to the presence of chemically processed uranium at the Dair al Zour site, the IAEA report says. Israel bombed that facility in 2007, and Syria subsequently bulldozed over the site. (See ACT, November 2007.)


IAEA Board Discusses Israeli Nuclear Program

Daniel Salisbury

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors last month discussed Israel’s nuclear program during its quarterly meeting, the first time since 1991 it had done so.

The June 10 discussion, described on the meeting’s agenda as “Israeli Nuclear Capabilities,” was initiated by the Arab Group and Iran. A statement by Sudan on behalf of the Arab Group said, “Israel continues to defy the the international community, through its continued refusal to accede” to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

In a statement to the board, David Danieli, deputy director-general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, said that Israel had “always maintained a responsible policy in the nuclear domain.” He added that the 18 states had sought to “bring up the name of Israel along with the names of Iran and Syria,” whose nuclear programs are under investigation by the IAEA.

Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said his country “regrets that this issue has been brought to this Board.” Davies said that Israel had “broken no agreements under the purview of the Agency” and that the agenda item “represents a distraction from other pressing issues before the IAEA.”

Israel is widely believed to have a nuclear weapons program, but has never openly declared it.


Open Skies Members Look to Future

Valerie Pacer

The parties to the Open Skies Treaty agreed last month to focus on adapting the treaty to the demands of the 21st century while keeping in mind the financial and technological constraints that many member states are facing.

In the conference’s final document, the parties agreed to consider working individually or with other countries to move away from film cameras and instead consider the technical and financial aspects of moving to digital sensors and cameras. “The requirement to plan financially for this transition now is imperative,” the document said.

Participants in the June 7-9 conference in Vienna also discussed the acquisition of newer, more modern aircraft for Open Skies flights. In addition, the final document considers expansion of treaty membership to more Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) countries as a way to “enhance the effectiveness and…provide the opportunity to broaden the security benefits” of the treaty. Currently, all treaty parties are OSCE members.

The treaty, which entered into force in 2002, allows its 34 parties to conduct overflights of the entirety of a member’s territory as a confidence-building mechanism. The treaty requires member countries to make data acquired during their flights available to all parties on request, thus giving all parties equal access to information. According to the final document, there have been more than 670 flights since Russia conducted the first one on Aug. 5, 2002.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia Celeste Wallander, co-chair of the conference, identified the “cooperation and transparency” that the treaty provides as “one of the pillars of conventional arms control and military transparency in Europe.” In its opening statement, the Russian delegation referred to the treaty as “a unique and unparalleled multinational instrument for strengthening confidence and security in a huge region.”

According to the final document, the treaty members “recognize that the Treaty might serve as a model for aerial monitoring regimes in other regions of the world.”


Is the NSG Up to the Task?

Daryl G. Kimball

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was established 35 years ago to reinforce the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) by establishing guidelines for nuclear supply. These voluntary guidelines were designed to prevent the transfer of the most sensitive nuclear technologies and block nuclear commerce with states that do not abide by basic nonproliferation standards.

Although the NSG has provided an important check on proliferation, in recent years it has failed to agree to tighter restrictions on the transfer of uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technology. To their great discredit, a few leading NSG states have reversed or ignored NSG guidelines for commercial profit and improved bilateral ties with nuclear trading partners.

In 2001, Russia sold uranium to India and agreed to build two additional reactors for India in violation of NSG guidelines barring nuclear trade with non-NPT countries. In 2008 the NSG agreed on an exemption for nuclear transfers to India over the protestations of the governments of Austria, Ireland, and New Zealand. The exemption, which was initiated by the George W. Bush administration and strongly backed by France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, reversed the long-standing NSG and NPT policies barring nuclear trade with states that have not accepted comprehensive international safeguards.

Now, China is reportedly planning to sell two nuclear power reactors to NPT holdout and serial proliferator Pakistan, which would violate current NSG rules.

The NSG must respond appropriately or risk irrelevance. Responsible NSG governments should actively oppose the Chinese-Pakistani deal as a violation of NSG guidelines, work to mitigate the damage caused by the India exemption, and agree to tougher rules against the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies, which can be used to produce fissile material for weapons.

When China joined the NSG in 2004, it had already built a power reactor at Pakistan’s Chashma site. It claimed at the time that it was entitled to build a second one on the grounds that the second reactor project was covered in its existing agreement with Pakistan. At the time, however, there was no declaration of any intention to build additional nuclear power plants at Chashma.

States at the recent NPT review conference, including China, reaffirmed that “new supply arrangements” for nuclear transfers should require that the recipient accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “full-scope safeguards and international legally-binding commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Nuclear trade with Pakistan or India would give those NPT nonmembers the rights and privileges reserved for NPT members that follow nonproliferation rules. Worse still, nuclear trade with either country would indirectly contribute to their weapons programs by freeing up domestic uranium reserves for the production of enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons purposes.

Recognizing this danger, NPT parties expressed concern about the negative effects of civil nuclear trade with the two countries. The NPT conference’s final document “urges all States parties to ensure that their nuclear-related exports do not directly or indirectly assist the development of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devises.”

In response to the NSG’s 2008 India exemption, Israel and Pakistan, which are still subject to the NSG ban on nuclear trade, have sought similar exemptions—so far unsuccessfully. Also, Pakistan has accelerated its efforts to increase its capacity to produce enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons and has blocked the start of negotiations on a global treaty to ban the production of nuclear material for weapons purposes.

The NSG must hold firm and oppose nuclear trade with Israel, Pakistan, or any country that does not meet commonsense nonproliferation and disarmament standards.

Notwithstanding the 2008 NSG exemption for India, states such as Australia and Japan should resist commercial and political pressures for engaging in nuclear trade with India, at least until New Delhi complies with UN Security Council Resolution 1172, passed in June 1998, which calls on India and Pakistan to stop producing fissile material for weapons, to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and undertake other nuclear risk reduction measures.

Those NSG governments that have decided to sell nuclear material and reactors to India should clarify that if India or any other state breaks its nonproliferation commitments and conducts a nuclear test explosion for any reason, they will immediately terminate nuclear trade with the offending state.

The NSG must address future proliferation risks as well. India and other states in regions of proliferation concern are seeking advanced enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technology. In response, the United States and other NSG countries must overcome opposition from South Africa and Turkey and adopt tougher guidelines that would bar the transfer of such technology to those states that have not signed the NPT and do not have in place IAEA comprehensive safeguards and enhanced inspections under an additional protocol.

If the NSG is to remain effective and credible, member states must respect and uphold their own rules, avoid actions that feed the nuclear arms race, and strengthen their guidelines to prevent weapons-related nuclear technology from proliferating in the years ahead.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was established 35 years ago to reinforce the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) by establishing guidelines for nuclear supply. These voluntary guidelines were designed to prevent the transfer of the most sensitive nuclear technologies and block nuclear commerce with states that do not abide by basic nonproliferation standards. (Continue)


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