ACA’s journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent.

– Hans Blix,
former IAEA Director-General

Nuclear Nonproliferation

Timbie Forum Brings Together Several Generations of the Arms Control Community

The 2016 James Timbie Forum on Arms Control and Nonproliferation was the seventh annual meeting of a State Department program created in 2010 with the goal of engaging young professionals and students working in the fields of nonproliferation and arms control. From 2010-2015, the annual conference was called “Generation Prague.” This year, the State Department moved to rename the forum in honor of nuclear physicist, diplomat, and 40-year veteran of the State Department James Timbie . Timbie, recently retired, was instrumental in brokering several arms control deals and negotiated with both...

Progress on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Inadequate to Meet Threats, New Study Finds



A new study suggests that President Obama, failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas during his second term.


For Immediate Release: July 15, 2016

Contacts: Tony Fleming, communications director (202) 463-8270 x110; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director (202) 463-8270 x107.

Washington, D.C.—President Barack Obama failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas over the course of his second term, but did achieve important steps to improve nuclear materials security and strengthen nonproliferation norms, namely the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, according to a new study released by the Arms Control Association, which evaluates the recent records of all the world’s nuclear-armed states.

The report, "Assessing Progress on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 2013-2016", is the third in a series that measures the performance of 11 key states in 10 universally-recognized nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear security categories over the past three years. The study evaluated the records of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea—each of which possess nuclear weapons—as well as Iran and Syria, which are states of proliferation concern.

“The United States is investing enormous resources to maintain and upgrade nuclear weapons delivery systems and warheads and is keeping its deployed nuclear weapons on ‘launch-under- attack’ readiness posture. The lack of U.S. leadership in these areas contributes to the moribund pace of disarmament.” said Elizabeth Philipp, the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Arms Control Association, and a co-author of the report.

“Obama should use his remaining months in office to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategies and mitigate the risks of inadvertent use. Obama could consider declaring that Washington will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association and co-author of the report.

“U.S. leadership could spur China and Russia to take positive actions and improve the prospects for further disarmament. Russia’s decision to develop a new missile in violation of its treaty commitments and Moscow’s rebuff of attempts by the United States to negotiate further nuclear reductions is very troublesome, as is the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal and Beijing’s steps toward increasing the alert levels of its forces.” Philipp added.

“Several states did take significant steps over the past three years to strengthen nuclear security, including action by the United States and Pakistan to ratify key nuclear security treaties,” said Davenport.

“The July 2015 nuclear deal struck between six global powers and Iran was also a significant nonproliferation breakthrough that has significantly reduced Tehran’s nuclear capacity and subjected its activities to more intrusive international monitoring and verification. While the international community must remain vigilant in ensuring that the deal is fully implemented, blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons negates a serious nonproliferation concern and demonstrates the consequences of flouting the international norms and obligations” Davenport said.

“For the third time, the United Kingdom received the highest grade of all the states assessed, while North Korea remained at the bottom of the list with the lowest overall grades. North Korea’s recent nuclear test and its ballistic missile development require the next U.S. administration to pursue more robust engagement with Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear activities,” Phillip said.

“Our review of the record indicates that further action must be taken by all 11 states if they are to live up to their international disarmament and nonproliferation responsibilities. By tracking the progress, or lack thereof, of these states over time, we hope this report will serve as a tool to encourage policymakers to increase efforts to reduce the risk posed by nuclear weapons,” Davenport said.

A country-by-country summary can be viewed here.
The full report card can be downloaded here


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Posted: July 15, 2016

2016 Report Card on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Efforts

The P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert, July 12

The Iran Deal Turns One It has been one year since Iran and six countries known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) reached the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Although there have been slight hiccups along the way, the implementation of the agreement is proceeding relatively smoothly and the parties have been able to resolve most concerns and ambiguities that have arisen thus far. The secretary-general of the United Nations is expected to submit a report this month to the Security Council on the...

World Court Delivers Opinion On Legality of Nuclear Weapons Use

In a landmark case addressing the legality of nuclear weapons, the Inter­national Court of Justice on July 8 unanimously agreed that any use or threat to use nuclear weapons...

July 1996

By Burrus M. Carnahan

In a landmark case addressing the legality of nuclear weapons, the Inter­national Court of Justice (ICJ) on July 8 unanimously agreed that any use or threat to use nuclear weapons would have to comply with those provisions of the UN Charter which prohibit the use of force ex­cept in cases of self-defense, and with the rules of international law applicable to armed conflict. However, a majority of the 14 participating judges (11-3) agreed that in current international law there is no "com­prehensive and universal prohibition of the threat or use of nuclear weapons." 

The ICJ, known also as the World Court, was responding to a request from the UN General Assembly for a non-bind­ing advisory opinion on whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons was "consistent with international law." In October and November 1995, the court heard arguments from 22 UN member-states (See ACT, Feb­ruary 1996). The United States, Russia, France and the United Kingdom unsuc­cessfully urged the court not to answer the General Assembly's question at all.

The ICJ did, however, refuse to answer a similar question from the World Health Organization, on the grounds that the issue of the legality of nuclear weapons was out­side the scope of that body's legitimate activities. 

The court split evenly (7-7) on one part of its opinion that combined two questions. When such a split occurs, the president of the court is allowed to cast a second vote to break the tie. The current president, Mo­hammed Bedjaoui of Algeria, voted to make the decision part of the court's opin­ion. One part of the decision found that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would "generally be contrary" to the rules of in­ternational law, while the second part found that, "in view of the current state of international law," the court could not con­clude "definitively" that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be "lawful or w1-lawful in an extreme circumstance of self ­defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake." 

As a result of the two questions being combined into one decision, an unusual  alliance of judges voted against the meas­ure: three judges from Guyana, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone, who believed any use of nuclear weapons to be illegal, were joined by judges from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Japan, who believed the court had gone too far by saying that use of nuclear weapons would "generally" violate international law. 

The judges also unanimously decided that "There exists an obligation [in interna­tional law] to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament...." In effect, the court declared that Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), from which this language was drawn, was now so widely accepted that it had become part of customary international law, binding even on non-NPT states like India, Israel and Pakistan. By offering new arguments in favor of nuclear disarmament, and ex­tending the reach of NPT Article VI, this may be the most influential part of the court's opinion in the long run. 

International Reaction 

All sides in the nuclear weapons de­bate will be able to find comfort somewhere in the opinion. State and Defense depart­ment officials have expressed confidence that the ICJ opinion would not require any changes in U.S. nuclear deterrence policy. They noted that the court did not rule against the use of nuclear weapons in repri­sal for another state's use of chemical or biological weapons, and they said the court's reference to "extreme circum­stances" of self-defense would include situ­ations in which a nuclear-weapon state defended the existence of a non-nuclear ally. 

On the other hand, peace and disarma­ment activists point to the conclusion by seven judges that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would "generally" violate international law, and that three more judges believe such use to be always illegal. John Burroughs, legal coordinator for the World Court Project (a consortium of non-governmental organizations that had urged the court to declare nuclear weapons use illegal) and Cora Weiss of Peace Action, both regard the decision as a "great victory" for their positions. 

Burrus M. Carnahan, who was a member of the U.S. delegation to the 1985 NPT review conference, is a senior defense analyst at Science Applications Inter­national Corporation (SAIC) in McLean, VA. 

Posted: July 6, 2016

Looking Back: The 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice

The 20-year-old advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons threat or use continues to be a guide to the norms requiring nonuse of the weapons and negotiation of their elimination. 

July/August 2016

By John Burroughs

The 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was the culmination of a decades-long debate on the legality of nuclear weapons. In recent years, it has shaped how international law is invoked by the initiative focused on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use and served as a foundation for the nuclear disarmament cases brought by the Marshall Islands in the court.

The legality of use of nuclear weapons had been considered by the UN General Assembly since 1961, when the body adopted Resolution 1653 by a divided vote.1 The resolution declared that such use “is contrary to the rules of international law and to the laws of humanity.” But the General Assembly’s 1994 resolution2 requesting the ICJ “urgently to render” an advisory opinion on the matter set in motion an entirely different, extraordinary process. The General Assembly asked the court to opine on the following question: “Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?” This put the issue before the judicial branch of the United Nations, the highest court in the world on questions of international law.

Several nuclear-weapon states chose to defend the lawfulness of using nuclear weapons in extended arguments to the court. Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States argued that although nuclear arms, like other weapons, are subject to the law of armed conflict, whether their use would be lawful or unlawful would depend on the circumstances. France contended that absent a specific prohibition, the weapons may be employed in the exercise of the right of self-defense. States not reliant on nuclear weapons, plus Australia, a country closely aligned with a nuclear-armed state, argued that the effects of nuclear explosions are inherently uncontrollable and indiscriminate and that the use of such weapons is therefore unlawful in all circumstances.3

Over two weeks of dramatic hearings in November 1995, 22 states made oral arguments, most after also submitting written arguments, and another 23 made written submissions only. Altogether, 45 states participated, the largest number to do so in ICJ proceedings to that date. Civil society also played a role. More than 700 groups worldwide had joined together in the World Court Project to support the General Assembly’s request for an opinion and to publicize the initiative.

Release of the Opinion

The court deliberated for an unusually long period of time before delivering its opinion on July 8, 1996.4 For advocates of the illegality of threat or use of nuclear arms sitting in the Peace Palace courtroom in The Hague and listening to the court’s president, Mohammed Bedjaoui, read the opinion, the experience was something of a roller coaster ride.

A positive early signal was the observation that the “destructive power of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in either space or time” and the acknowledgement of “the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons, and in particular their destructive capacity, their capacity to cause untold human suffering, and their ability to cause damage to generations to come.” Toward the end of the opinion, Bedjaoui read the following key finding: 

[Under] the principles and rules of law applicable in armed conflict—at the heart of which is the overriding consideration of humanity…methods and means of warfare, which would preclude any distinction between civilian and military targets, or which would result in unnecessary suffering to combatants, are prohibited. In view of the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons…the use of such weapons in fact seems scarcely reconcilable with respect for such requirements.

Then he continued, reading a finding that was baffling at the time and has not become any less so in the two decades since then:

[T]he Court cannot lose sight of the fundamental right of every State to survival, and thus its right to resort to self-defence, in accordance with Article 51 of the [UN] Charter, when its survival is at stake. Nor can it ignore the…“policy of deterrence.”

Accordingly, in view of the present state of international law viewed as a whole…and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court is led to observe that it cannot reach a definitive conclusion as to the legality or illegality of the use of nuclear weapons by a State in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which its very survival would be at stake.

One of the several formal conclusions, each adopted by a vote of the judges, in reply to the General Assembly’s question joined the “general” illegality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons under the law of armed conflict with the court’s uncertainty regarding the extreme circumstance of self-defense.5 Because a judge had died shortly before the hearings, the court had 14 members instead of the normal 15. The judges’ votes on the conclusion were evenly split, 7-7; it was considered adopted due to the positive vote of Bedjaoui. Yet, the tie vote is misleading. In powerful dissents, three of the seven judges who voted against the conclusion maintained that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is unlawful in all circumstances.6 Thus, 10 of the 14 judges took the position that such threat or use is at least generally unlawful.

At the close of the reading of the opinion, Bedjaoui unexpectedly turned to a matter not raised by the General Assembly’s request. Given the “eminently difficult” legal issues posed by nuclear weapons, the court underlined the importance of Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT),7 explained its meaning, and observed that fulfillment of the nuclear disarmament obligation “remains without any doubt an objective of vital importance to the whole of the international community today.” All judges voted for the resulting formal conclusion: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

Governmental Responses

The participating nuclear-armed states responded to the issuance of the opinion essentially by stating that nothing in it requires them to change their policies. The United States correctly noted that the court “declined to pass on the policy of nuclear deterrence” and incorrectly claimed, as did France in stronger terms, that the “opinion indicates that the use of nuclear weapons in some circumstances would be legal.” In fact, the court only stated its inability to decide the matter in certain possible circumstances and stressed that states must always comply with rules protecting civilians from the effects of warfare. The UK commented, “Like the Court, we believe that the use of nuclear weapons would be considered only in self-defence in extreme circumstances.” Russia observed that the opinion “reflected a complex, mostly political role of nuclear weapons in the modern world.”8

States of the Non-Aligned Movement, in particular Indonesia and Malaysia, had led the campaign to obtain a General Assembly majority in favor of asking the court for its opinion. Their emphasis was on the court’s unanimous conclusion regarding the disarmament obligation. In a resolution put forward by Malaysia in the fall of 1996 and adopted annually since then,9 the General Assembly underlines the conclusion and calls on all states to fulfill the obligation by immediately commencing multilateral negotiations leading to the early conclusion of a convention prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons. The resolution receives a substantial number of opposing votes and abstentions, due in part to the position of states such as Japan that negotiation of a convention is premature. However, in years when the paragraph welcoming the court’s statement of the disarmament obligation has been voted on separately, it has been approved by an overwhelming majority, not including France, Israel, Russia, the UK, and the United States.10

Nuclear Weapons Threat or Use

In reaching its conclusions, the court considered a range of legal issues relating to threat or use of nuclear weapons, not all of which can be reviewed here. One significant finding was that a customary norm of nonuse of nuclear weapons has not arisen out of the practice of nonuse since World War II due to states’ continued assertion of doctrines of deterrence that contemplate resorting to nuclear arms. Another was that impacts on the environment must be taken into account in assessing whether an attack complies with the law of armed conflict. Also important was the court’s examination of the legal status of threats. It found that “if the use of force itself in a given case is illegal—for whatever reason—the threat to use such force will likewise be illegal.” But the heart of the court’s analysis and of the arguments made by states concerns the application of the law of armed conflict to the use of nuclear weapons.

The court laid particular emphasis on two elements of what is commonly referred to as international humanitarian law: the prohibition of causing unnecessary suffering to combatants and the principle of distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Under the principle of distinction, the court stated categorically, “States must never make civilians the object of attack and must consequently never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets.” The court did not refer to another aspect of the principle of distinction, the prohibition of attacks on military targets expected to cause excessive incidental harm to civilians and civilian objects when weighed against the expected military advantage. Perhaps the court considered it to be inapplicable in the nuclear realm, where collateral casualties can number in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

The court said that the rules of international humanitarian law it highlighted reflect “elementary considerations of humanity” and are “fundamental.” Moreover, they are “intransgressible,” an innovative term that must mean that the rules are not to be violated whatever the circumstance. The court further said that for a use of force in response to an armed attack to be proportionate, a requirement for the lawful exercise of the right of self-defense, it must also comply with international humanitarian law. Although the court declined to address whether the legal doctrine permitting reprisals aimed at dissuading further unlawful acts by an enemy could justify a use of nuclear weapons in response to a prior use, it stated that any reprisal must meet the requirement of proportionality. The court found that it was unable to assess the legality of use in marginal scenarios such as use of low-yield nuclear weapons in remote areas, but stated that the nuclear-weapon states had failed to make the case for legality in such circumstances.

The thrust of the analysis is captured by the court’s finding that, in view of their “unique characteristics,” the use of nuclear weapons is “scarcely reconcilable” with the requirements of international humanitarian law. That finding has been taken up as a subsidiary theme by the initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (see box).

Given its analysis of the application of international humanitarian law to the use of nuclear weapons, what sense can be made of the court’s inability to determine the lawfulness or unlawfulness of a threat or use of nuclear weapons in an extreme circumstance of self-defense in which the very survival of a state is at issue? This provision has been the subject of harsh criticism, and most members of the court signaled their discomfort or disagreement with it in their separate statements accompanying the opinion. It seems incongruous that a court would declare itself unable to apply the law to an important issue in the matter before it. The provision left an opening for states relying on nuclear arms to claim that their policies of deterrence are lawful and that use could be lawful—an opening that they in fact seized. No similar clause exists in international law governing the use of force, the conduct of warfare, and the use of particular weapons. Further, the court’s finding arguably implies that international humanitarian law possibly could bend in extreme circumstances of self-defense, whereas the essence of that law is that it applies to all states, whether aggressor or defender, in all circumstances. Indeed, as already noted, the opinion elsewhere is abundantly clear that whatever the circumstance, use of nuclear weapons must comply with international humanitarian law. States must “never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets.”

The court’s reference to the policy of deterrence in justifying the finding suggests that the finding is as much or more about threat than it is about use. It appears to reflect the stark realities of threat and counterthreat at least implicitly faced by states when other potentially adverse states possess nuclear weapons. All of this points toward the comprehensive prohibition and elimination of nuclear arms as the only real solution to the dilemmas posed by their existence, a subject addressed by the court in the final section of the opinion.

Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons

The initiative first made its mark with the provision in the final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference referring to the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.” It has continued through conferences in Oslo; Nayarit, Mexico; and Vienna in 2013 and 2014 and is a moving force in the 2016 UN open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament. While emphasizing the unacceptable consequences of nuclear weapons explosions and the inability to provide adequate relief to survivors, influential actors in the initiative have also referred to the basic incompatibility between nuclear weapons and international humanitarian law. Thus, a 2011 resolution of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement “finds it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law.”11

In her presentation to the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, Helen Durham, director of international law and policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross, outlined concerns motivating the resolution.12 She stated that “the sheer scale of civilian casualties and destruction that would result from the use of a nuclear weapon in or near a populated area and its long-term effects on human health and the environment raise serious questions about the compatibility of this weapon with the rules” of international humanitarian law. She also noted that the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon “far from civilian settlements” would raise such questions due to the impact of radiation on combatants, the eventual spread of radiation, and radiological contamination of the environment.

A 2015 General Assembly resolution, “Ethical imperatives for a nuclear-weapon-free world,” puts the matter more strongly: “given the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, it is inconceivable that any use of nuclear weapons, irrespective of the cause, would be compatible with the requirements of international humanitarian law or international law, or the laws of morality, or the dictates of public conscience.”13

The Disarmament Obligation 

In declaring the obligation to pursue in good faith and conclude negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control, the court made a significant contribution to the elucidation of international law. Its construction of NPT Article VI, read together with other parts of the opinion, clarifies that negotiation of an instrument or instruments eliminating nuclear arms would advance the objective of general and complete disarmament in the same way that the conventions on biological and chemical weapons advance that objective.14 The court also explained that the obligation is one of result—nuclear disarmament in all its aspects—as well as conduct—the pursuit of good faith negotiations. In both respects, essentially the same approach to interpretation of Article VI was taken by the 2000 NPT Review Conference when it adopted the “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals” separately from the reaffirmation of the ultimate objective of “general and complete disarmament under effective international control.”

The court’s formulation of the obligation and its underlying analysis compel the reading that the obligation applies universally, including to states not party to the NPT, as a matter of customary international law. In its analysis, the court notes that “the vast majority of the international community” is bound by the NPT, implicitly invoking the doctrine that customary international law can arise out of multilateral treaties with widespread participation. Moreover, the court cites General Assembly resolutions on nuclear disarmament, beginning with the very first, unanimously adopted resolution, which set up a commission to make proposals for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”15 When very widely supported, General Assembly resolutions can provide evidence of customary international law.

The Marshall Islands' Cases

The proposition that the disarmament obligation applies universally is now being tested in three nuclear disarmament cases brought in April 2014 by the Marshall Islands in the ICJ. These are contentious cases that will lead to binding judgments between the litigating states, not advisory opinion proceedings. Two of the cases, against India and Pakistan, are based on a customary international obligation to pursue and conclude negotiations on nuclear disarmament as declared by the court. The third, against the UK, rests on NPT Article VI and the customary obligation.

In the case against the UK, a central issue is whether the UK is breaching the obligation to pursue negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament by opposing and refusing to participate in multilateral deliberations and negotiations on that subject. The issue is posed acutely by the UK’s absence from the 2016 UN open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament. The working group is charged with addressing legal measures to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons. Its deliberations are premised on the view of most states that the time to negotiate legal instruments relating to nuclear disarmament is now, not some distant future. That is also the implication, the Marshall Islands contends, of the disarmament obligation articulated by the court.

Unlike the UK, India and Pakistan support General Assembly resolutions calling for commencement of multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament, although they are not participating in the working group. In their cases, a principal issue is whether they are breaching the obligation and the requirement of good faith in implementing it by engaging in improvement, diversification, and quantitative buildup of their arsenals and failing to seek negotiated limits on such activities. 

Hearings on preliminary issues in the cases against India, Pakistan, and the UK were held in The Hague in March. The issues concern whether the cases come under the terms of the three states’ declarations accepting the court’s jurisdiction and whether the cases are otherwise suitable for determination on the merits. The court’s judgments on preliminary issues are expected soon. In April 2014, the Marshall Islands also filed applications against the six other nuclear-armed states (China, France, Israel, North Korea, Russia, and the United States), but none of them have current declarations on file accepting the court’s jurisdiction. They have ignored or, in the case of China, declined the Marshall Islands’ requests that they come before the court in the matter.


The advisory opinion came at a high point of multilateral disarmament diplomacy. The Chemical Weapons Convention had been negotiated, the NPT had been indefinitely extended, and negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was nearly complete. The initiative to obtain the opinion and the opinion itself reflect that moment.

In the subsequent two decades, efforts toward consolidating a multilateral nuclear disarmament regime have been stymied. Nuclear-armed states have done little to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security postures, let alone acknowledge that their use is incompatible with the law of armed conflict. Their planning for maintenance and modernization of their arsenals for decades to come and the associated projected vast spending—$1 trillion by the United States over the next three decades—manifests a lack of good faith in meeting the obligation of negotiating the elimination of nuclear arms. On the positive side, nuclear weapons have not been detonated in war, the demand for disarmament is still being vigorously pressed by non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society actors, and the contradiction between reliance on nuclear arms and what the court called “elementary considerations of humanity” is being exposed with renewed energy. In this complex environment, the advisory opinion remains an indispensable guide to the norms compelling nonuse of nuclear weapons and their universal elimination. 


1.   UN General Assembly, “Declaration on the prohibition of the use of nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons,” A/RES/1653 (XVI), November 24, 1961. The General Assembly adopted this resolution in a 55-20 vote, with 26 abstentions.

2.   UN General Assembly, “Request for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” A/RES/49/75K, December 15, 1994. The General Assembly adopted this resolution in a 78-43 vote, with 38 abstentions.

3.   For more about the hearings, see John Burroughs and Jacqueline Cabasso, “Nukes on Trial,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 1996, pp. 41-45.

4.   Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, I.C.J. Reports, July 8, 1996, p. 226, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7495.pdf

5.   Ibid., para. 105(2)E.

It follows from the above-mentioned requirements that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law; However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.

6.   Ibid., pp. 375-428, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7519.pdf (Shahabuddeen dissent); Ibid., pp. 429-555, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7521.pdf (Weeramantry dissent); Ibid., pp. 556-582, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7523.pdf (Koroma dissent).

7.   NPT Article VI states that “[e]ach of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

8.   For the statements of France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in response to the issuance of the advisory opinion, see John Burroughs, The Legality of Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Münster: LIT Verlag, 1997), pp. 153-155.

9.   UN General Assembly, “Follow-up to the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” A/RES/70/56, December 7, 2015. The General Assembly adopted this most recent resolution on the ICJ opinion in a 137 to 24 vote, with 25 abstentions.

10.   In votes on General Assembly Resolution 61/83 on December 6, 2006, the paragraph was approved by a 168-3 vote (Israel, Russia, and the United States voting no) with five abstentions (Belarus, France, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and the UK). The resolution was adopted as a whole by a 118-27 vote, with 26 abstentions.

11.   Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, “Resolution 1, Working Towards the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons,” November 26, 2011, http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/resolution/council-delegates-resolution-1-2011.htm

12.   Helen Durham, “The Use of Nuclear Weapons and International Humanitarian Law,” Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, December 9, 2014, https://www.bmeia.gv.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Zentrale/Aussenpolitik/Abruestung/HINW14/Presentations/

13.   UN General Assembly A/RES/70/50, December 7, 2015. The General Assembly adopted this resolution by a vote of 132 to 36, with 16 abstentions.

14.   The court construed NPT Article VI as follows: “The legal import of that obligation goes beyond that of a mere obligation of conduct; the obligation involved here is an obligation to achieve a precise result—nuclear disarmament in all its aspects—by adopting a particular course of conduct, namely, the pursuit of negotiations on the matter in good faith.” Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, I.C.J. Reports, July 8, 1996, para. 99. The court elsewhere discusses the conventions on biological and chemical  weapons, observing that “[t]he pattern until now has been for weapons of mass destruction to be declared illegal by specific instruments.” Ibid., paras. 57-58.

15.   UN General Assembly, “Establishment of a Commission to Deal With the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy,” A/RES/1 (I), January 24, 1946.

John Burroughs is executive director of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, which is the UN office of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms. He is a member of the Marshall Islands’ international legal team.

Posted: July 5, 2016

UAE Still Committed to Nuclear Pact

The United Arab Emirates remains committed to its obligation under a 2009 agreement with Washington not to enrich or reprocess nuclear material.

July/August 2016

By Kingston Reif

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) remains committed to its obligation under a 2009 agreement with Washington not to enrich or reprocess nuclear material, the country’s ambassador to the United States said on May 31. 

Despite reports to the contrary, “we are not planning to change our position,” said Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba at an event at the Brookings Institution in Washington. 

The UAE’s support for refraining from enrichment and reprocessing was called into question last September, when Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a congressional hearing that Al Otaiba told him the UAE “no longer felt bound by the agreement” in the aftermath of the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. 

Royce said the ambassador “indicated to us…your worst enemy [Iran] has achieved this right to enrich...that now your friends are going to want.” 

The 2015 accord permits Tehran to enrich uranium, although under significant constraints.

In the UAE pact, known as a 123 agreement after the section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act that makes such pacts a prerequisite for U.S. nuclear trade with other countries, Abu Dhabi’s pursuit of enrichment and reprocessing would be grounds for the United States to halt nuclear cooperation with the country, an unprecedented provision in U.S. cooperation agreements.

A Department of State spokesman in 2010 referred to the pact as the “gold standard” of 123 agreements. 

“We like being associated with the gold standard,” Al Otaiba said at Brookings. “In fact,” he continued, “we adopted this gold standard particularly to be used as a model going forward.” 

Meanwhile, on May 26, Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to tighten regulations on U.S. nuclear exports to China and hold Beijing accountable for any violation of the 2015 U.S.-China 123 agreement. 

Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) introduced a companion version of the bill, titled the China Nuclear Cooperation and Nonproliferation Act of 2016, in the House of Representatives. 

The draft bills would require U.S. authorization before China re-exports “U.S.-origin” nuclear technology to other countries and the energy secretary to issue a definition of items that fall into this category. 

In addition, the legislation would require the president to monitor China’s compliance with the 2015 agreement and determine if China fails to prevent the transfer of proliferation-sensitive items to countries of concern. If such violations are deemed to have occurred, the president must suspend cooperation with Beijing until a plan of action to address these behaviors is developed and implemented. 

The bills would also prohibit the provision of U.S. consent for Chinese reprocessing of U.S. spent nuclear fuel unless the president certifies that fissile material is adequately safeguarded and protected.

The 30-year agreement with China entered into force last October and replaces an agreement signed in 1985. Unlike the 1985 deal, the current pact would grant each party “advance consent,” as specialists call it, to reprocess nuclear material transferred under the agreement and used in or produced through the use of transferred material or equipment. (See ACT, May 2015.)

In the past, U.S. officials have raised concerns about China’s nonproliferation record. For example, China is building reactors in Pakistan at that country’s Chashma site, which U.S. officials have said contravenes commitments that China made when it joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2004. (See ACT, June 2010.

In a press release announcing introduction of the legislation, Markey said the “agreement with China will only serve America’s interests if it is accompanied by appropriate restrictions and strong monitoring for violations.” 

“Without these safeguards, transferring nuclear technology to China will jeopardize both United States national security and the global nonproliferation regime,” he added.

Posted: July 5, 2016

Resuming Negotiations with North Korea


The window of opportunity to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear-armed ballistic missile systems is closing and Washington should explore every serious diplomatic overture from Pyongyang.


By Elizabeth Philipp, 2016 Scoville Fellow 

The window of opportunity to prevent North Korea from fielding nuclear-armed ballistic missiles is closing. Diplomatic engagement with North Korea has been scant in recent years. In response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, the United States and other countries, through actions of the United Nations Security Council and independent policies, have adopted an approach of increasing political and economic isolation. Yet, during this time, Pyongyang has improved its nuclear weapons capability quantitatively and qualitatively.

The next presidential administration must prioritize reviewing and renewing Washington’s diplomatic approach to North Korea. With each successive nuclear and missile test, North Korea advances its knowledge and consolidates its capability. History has shown that it is far easier to convince North Korea to negotiate away a military capability it does not yet possess. Washington’s stated primary concern is a North Korean nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Pyongyang will achieve this capability if it is not reined in through a diplomatic agreement or understanding. Once Pyongyang achieves this status, the security balance in Asia will be disrupted and U.S. diplomats will be hard-pressed to convince North Korea to abandon the capability.

To read the full brief, click here.


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

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Posted: June 24, 2016

New Report Calls for Russia and the West to Move Back from the Brink



The West and Russia need to build on existing arms control measures to avoid exacerbation of the increasingly tense relationship between them, according to a group of international security experts.


For Immediate Release: June 21, 2016

Media Contacts: Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 x104; Ulrich Kuehn, Researcher, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, University of Hamburg, +49 (1) 76 811219 75

(Mosow, Berlin, Washington)—A new report from a high-level group of international security experts from Russia, the United States, and Germany recommends that the West and Russia build on a number of existing arms control and confidence-building measures in order to avoid further exacerbation of the increasingly tense and dangerous relationship between Russia and the West, particularly along the border between Russia and NATO member states.

The third report of the Deep Cuts Commission describes 15 key recommendations to help address the most acute security concerns in Europe—particularly in the Baltic area—and increase U.S.-Russian nuclear transparency and predictability.

“The prime objective for the next few years should be limiting the potential for dangerous military incidents that can escalate out of control,” the authors argue. “Russia and the West must come back from the brink. They need to better manage their conflictual relationship. Restraint and dialogue are now needed more than ever,” they write.

The Commission’s recommendations include:

    • In order to reduce current security concerns in the Baltic area, NATO and Russia should initiate a dialogue on possible mutual restraint measures. All states should adhere to the NATO-Russia Founding Act. A NATO-Russia dialogue should aim at increasing the security of all states in the Baltic area by encompassing reciprocal and verifiable commitments. A sub-regional arms control regime could consist of interlocking elements such as restraint commitments, limitations, CSBMs, and a sub-regional Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism.
    • In light of the increasing dangers of military incidents between Russia, the United States and other NATO member states, the United States and Russia should revive a dialogue on nuclear risk reduction measures, capable of addressing risks posed by different sorts of emergencies in near real-time. The United States and Russia could consider creating a Joint Military Incident Prevention and Communications Cell with a direct telephone link between the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Russian General Staff, and NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Such a cell could be linked to or established in parallel with a new European Risk Reduction Center.
    • States-parties to the Treaty on Open Skies should pay more attention to the continued operation of Open Skies. They should strengthen its operation by devoting equal resources to upgrading observation equipment.
    • Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) participating States should consider measures to give effect to the principle of non-intervention into internal affairs. For this purpose, the OSCE could set up a commission which would carefully look into the issue from a legal point of view and explore possibilities for a new OSCE states-based mechanism. Beyond, OSCE participating States should prepare for a long-term endeavor leading to a Helsinki-like conference with the aim of reinvigorating and strengthening Europe’s guiding security principles.
    • The United States and Russia should commit to attempting to resolve each other’s compliance concerns with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by supplementing ongoing diplomatic dialogue with technical expertise, either by convening the Special Verification Commission or a separate bilateral experts group mandated to appropriately address all relevant treaty-related compliance concerns. Further on, the United States and Russia should address the issue of supplementing the treaty by taking account of technological and political developments that have occurred since the treaty’s entry into force.
    • The United States and Russia should address the destabilizing effects of nuclear-armed cruise missile proliferation by agreeing on specific confidence-building measures. Together with other nations, they should address the challenges of horizontal cruise missile proliferation by reinforcing the relevant Missile Technology Control Regime’s restrictions and by endorsing the inclusion of land-attack cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles/unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UAVs/UCAVs) in the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.
    • Moscow and Washington should exercise restraint in Russian and U.S. nuclear force modernization programs, remaining within the New START limits and acting consistent with the intent of the treaty. The United States should forego development of the LRSO and Russia should reciprocate by phasing-out of new nuclear-armed ALCMs. The United States should show restraint in ballistic missile deployments consistent with its policy of defending against limited threats. NATO should follow through on its commitment to adapt its ballistic missile deployments in accordance with reductions in the ballistic missile proliferation threats.

    • Russia and the United States should work toward early discussions on a possible follow-on strategic arms reduction treaty. They should be able to envision reductions to a level of 500 deployed strategic delivery vehicles and 1,000 deployed strategic warheads during the next decade. These discussions should explore options for exchanging measures of reciprocal restraint and seek to address other issues of mutual concern under a combined umbrella discussion of strategic stability.

Beyond these recommendations, the experts identify a number of additional measures which could foster confidence in and maintain focus on the goal of further nuclear disarmament.

The complete report is available online.


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

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Posted: June 21, 2016

A New Era for Nuclear Security

The six-year nuclear security summit process produced significant advances in preventing nuclear theft and sabotage. Countries must ensure that progress does not stall now that the summits have ended.

June 2016

By Martin B. Malin and Nickolas Roth

The 2016 nuclear security summit was a pivotal moment for the decades-long effort to secure nuclear material around the globe. More than 50 national leaders gathered in Washington for the last of four biennial meetings that have led to significant progress in strengthening measures to reduce the risk of nuclear theft.

These summits have played a critical role in nurturing that progress by elevating the political salience of nuclear security and providing a forum for world leaders to announce new commitments, share information, and hold one another accountable for following through on promised actions. 

The international community is now entering the post-summit era, in which nuclear security will probably receive less-regular high-level political attention than it has in recent years. Yet, there is still critical work to be done to reduce the danger that nuclear weapons or the materials needed to make them could end up in the hands of a terrorist organization such as the Islamic State. Governments still do not agree on what nuclear security priorities are most pressing or how best to sustain the momentum generated by the summits. As the era of summitry recedes, will states continue improving measures to prevent nuclear theft and sabotage, or will the summits turn out to have been a high-water mark for nuclear security efforts?

Progress at the 2016 Summit

Over the course of the summit process, the participating states committed themselves to dozens of cooperative initiatives seeking to strengthen aspects of nuclear security, reduced vulnerabilities in their security systems, and pledged to continue joint efforts through multilateral groups and international institutions. The 2016 summit, held March 31-April 1 in Washington, marked progress on all of these fronts.

Like the 2010 summit in Washington, the 2012 summit in Seoul, and the 2014 summit in The Hague, this year’s meeting produced a consensus-based communiqué. At the three most recent summits, smaller groups of participants also produced a series of joint statements and group commitments, or “gift baskets.”1 At this year’s summit, all but three states participated in at least one of 18 gift baskets or nine joint statements, which covered a range of areas, including insider threats, transport security, minimization of the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU), and cybersecurity.2 Among the most important outcomes of the recent summit was the establishment of a contact group, which will meet annually to discuss nuclear security. 

Some of the major accomplishments of the summit are listed below. 

Strengthening the commitment to nuclear security. China and India joined 36 states that had signed on to an important 2014 summit initiative on strengthening nuclear security implementation.3 Members of this group committed to “meet the intent” of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear security principles and recommendations, conduct self-assessments, host periodic peer reviews of their nuclear security, and ensure that “management and personnel with accountability for nuclear security are demonstrably competent,” along with several other actions. This was an important commitment for China and India, demonstrating a measure of transparency and reassurance on nuclear security. Prior to the 2016 summit, neither country had been open to participating in such initiatives although both nuclear-armed states face terrorist threats.4 

The summit process also helped to build support for a foundational and legally binding international nuclear security instrument. After more than a decade, the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) reached the required number of ratifications to enter into force in May. The amendment outlines nuclear security principles and requires states to establish rules and regulations for physical protection. It also requires a review conference five years after entry into force and, if members choose to have them, additional review conferences at intervals of at least five years.5 The amended CPPNM, now officially known as the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities, could be a helpful tool for states to hold one another accountable for maintaining physical protection and strengthening norms. 

Reducing nuclear security vulnerabilities. In addition to announcing new commitments, the summits were occasions for states to report on steps they had taken to remove or eliminate HEU or plutonium, convert reactors, improve physical protection, strengthen regulation, and contribute support to the IAEA or other international nuclear security work.

At the recent summit, Japan and the United States announced the completion of a commitment they made in 2014 to remove more than 500 kilograms of nuclear weapons-usable material from Japan.6 Argentina announced it had eliminated the last of its HEU, making it the 18th state to clean out all of its nuclear weapons-usable material since the beginning of the summit process. Indonesia declared it had eliminated all of its fresh HEU and planned to get rid of all its HEU in 2016. 

China announced the opening of its nuclear security center of excellence. Since 2010, China has worked with the United States to build the center as a hub for training, bilateral and multilateral best practice exchanges, and technology demonstration.7 The center will help China test and strengthen its own nuclear security measures and will provide a venue for cooperation with others in the region and beyond. 

The White House reported that 20 states hosted or invited peer review missions through the IAEA or from other states. Many other states announced that they had strengthened nuclear security laws or regulations, upgraded physical security, or updated the list of threats against which their nuclear facilities must be protected.

Continuing the dialogue. An important new gift basket created a nuclear security contact group that will convene annually on the margins of the IAEA General Conference. The contact group will carry forward the consultative element of the summit process, providing a forum for senior government officials to meet and discuss current efforts, evaluate progress on previously made commitments, and identify future priorities. If states buy into the idea of the contact group and take action to strengthen it, the group, whose membership is open to states that did not participate in the summits, could be an important vehicle for sustaining international nuclear security cooperation.

The summit also produced statements on bilateral nuclear security discussions between key countries. For example, China and the United States agreed to increase cooperation on nuclear terrorism prevention and conduct an annual dialogue on nuclear security. 

In addition, summit participants agreed to action plans for the IAEA, the United Nations, Interpol, the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Destruction, and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT). The plans outline the roles these organizations will play in supporting ongoing nuclear security discussions now that the summits have ended. 

Gaps and Missed Opportunities 

In their communiqué, the participants in the 2016 summit pledged to “continuously strengthen nuclear security at national, regional, and global levels.”8 Striving for continuous improvement is the right way to frame the challenge of providing effective and sustainable nuclear security. Unfortunately, summit participants missed important opportunities to give added momentum to the effort. The following issues continue to require attention. 

Still no global standard for nuclear security. Although the amended CPPNM establishes general security principles, it lacks specific standards or guidelines and applies only to materials in civilian use. UN Security Council Resolution 1540 requires states to provide “appropriate effective” protection for all materials, among other relevant measures, but does not specify what constitutes appropriate effective protection.9 IAEA recommendations, to which dozens of states have now publicly subscribed, provide somewhat more specificity, but their implementation is voluntary. Although the summit process certainly helped produce a shared understanding of the importance of nuclear security, it fell short of producing a consensus on a meaningful minimum global standard. 

If a global standard was beyond reach during the summits, a public commitment to stringent nuclear security measures among the states possessing the biggest stocks of HEU and plutonium would have been a consequential step. Although China’s and India’s endorsements of the initiative on strengthening nuclear security implementation was an important development, Russia’s absence from the summit and Russia’s and Pakistan’s refusal to sign that statement is a significant gap in the patchwork of nuclear security commitments. 

Furthermore, the summit outcomes were not comprehensive. Although the summit communiqués explicitly covered “all” nuclear material, most of the concrete progress from the meetings focused on civilian materials, largely ignoring the roughly four-fifths of the world’s remaining HEU and plutonium that is controlled by military organizations.10 

A mixed picture on implementation. Nuclear facilities in many countries still are not protected against the full range of threats. States with large stocks of nuclear weapons-usable material still contend with corruption and extremism.11 On the ground, security upgrades remain urgently needed in many spots around the world. One indication of the extent of the inconsistent application of physical protection measures is that, after all of the high-level attention since the 2010 summit, at least six countries—Argentina, Brazil, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden—still do not have armed guards at their nuclear facilities.12 

The collapse of U.S.-Russian bilateral cooperation is particularly alarming. Without Russian and U.S. commitments to rebuilding their bilateral nuclear security relationship, it will be impossible for the two states that possess roughly 80 percent of the world’s weapons-usable nuclear material to reassure one another that their nuclear security is sound.

Slippage of consolidation and minimization goals. The Obama administration put laudable effort into cleaning out HEU and plutonium from many countries and minimizing the use of HEU elsewhere. Yet, political obstacles will likely make substantial additional progress more difficult than in the past, in particular for the hundreds of kilograms of HEU in Belarus and South Africa. Conversion of additional HEU-fueled research reactors to use low-enriched uranium fuel, particularly but not only in Russia, is hampered by technical challenges and political inattention. Moreover, summit participants failed to reach agreement, even in principle, on stopping or reversing the buildup of separated plutonium.13 

Continuing culture of complacency in some countries. The summits put the notion of nuclear security culture on the agenda for many countries where it previously had been neglected. Nevertheless, workers, managers, policy officials, and even national leaders in many places still dismiss the threat of terrorist theft or sabotage as remote or implausible.14 Many organizations handling nuclear weapons, HEU, or separated plutonium do not have specific programs focused on strengthening security culture. The IAEA has still not published its nuclear security culture self-assessment guide.15 The summit process helped spark interest in strengthening security culture, but much more work is needed.

Need for more-robust channels for dialogue. The political momentum created by the summits will not likely be re-created through other organizations, although the contact group, IAEA ministerial meetings, a review conference for the amended CPPNM, and other forums certainly will provide important opportunities for discussion, reporting on progress, and further cooperation.

The recent summit’s action plans did not significantly expand or strengthen the global nuclear security architecture. The IAEA has assumed greater responsibility for convening high-level discussions on nuclear security and has intensified its nuclear security efforts since the first summit. Yet, the agency still deals only with civilian material and has no authority to require states to take any action on nuclear security.16 The nuclear security capacities of the UN and Interpol are even less robust, and the multilateral groupings, the GICNT and Global Partnership, remain unchanged by the action plans the summit participants produced.

Finally, Russia’s absence from the recent summit may bode ill for the successful implementation of the summit action plans. Moscow’s leadership and cooperation in all of the organizations referenced in the action plans will be necessary for many key nuclear security steps. 

Progress in the Post-Summit Era

In the interest of promoting cooperation, the summits frequently focused on plucking low-hanging fruit, while failing to advance more-difficult discussions of threats and persistent challenges. Governments must focus not only on what is most feasible but also on what is most urgently needed in light of the evolving threats they face.17 

Nuclear security efforts should have a clear goal: ensuring that all nuclear weapons and the materials that could be used to make them, wherever they are in the world, are effectively and sustainably secured against the full range of threats that terrorists and thieves might plausibly pose.18 Building an international consensus around such a goal will be a major challenge for the next U.S. president and for like-minded leaders.

The 2016 summit communiqué alludes to the goal of continuous improvement. Achieving that goal will require work on several fronts. Here are some of the most important areas of focus.19

Building up the commitment to stringent nuclear security standards. A legally binding set of international standards for nuclear security is unfortunately out of reach for the present. Yet, a group of states like-minded emanating from within the contact group or a special working group of the GICNT could develop a set of principles and guidelines that they pledge to apply to all stocks of nuclear weapons, HEU, and plutonium and invite other states to join them. Such a commitment should include the provision of well-trained, well-equipped on-site guard forces; comprehensive measures to protect against insider threats; control and accounting systems that can detect and localize any theft of weapons-usable nuclear material; protections against cyberthreats that are integrated with other nuclear security measures; effective nuclear security rules and regulations and independent regulators capable of enforcing them; regular and realistic testing of nuclear security systems, including force-on-force exercises; a robust program for enhancing security culture; and regular assessments of the evolving threat of theft or sabotage. Following the example of the initial group of adherents, the accumulation of international support for more-comprehensive standards could grow over time. 

In the meantime, leading states that are bound by the amended CPPNM should push to universalize the treaty, and the states that have joined the initiative on strengthening nuclear security implementation initiative should encourage others to commit to implement IAEA recommendations and accept peer review. 

Implementing effective and sustainable security measures on the ground. Commitments to stringent standards are meaningful only if they translate into real improvements. Bilateral cooperation can help spur the actions that are needed. The United States should expand nuclear security cooperation with China, India, and Pakistan, sharing additional information on security arrangements without revealing sensitive information that would increase vulnerability to terrorist attack. The United States also will need to make a priority of discussions with a wide range of countries on enhancing their own nuclear security, providing resources when needed.

Despite tensions over Ukraine and other issues, Russia and the United States should agree to a package of cooperation that includes nuclear energy initiatives, which are of particular interest to Russia, and nuclear security initiatives, which are of particular interest to the United States. Although it is unlikely in the current political environment, one mechanism for achieving this goal would be to restart the U.S.-Russian Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Security Working Group, which facilitated dialogue from 2009 until it was suspended in 2014 because of tensions between the two countries. Cooperation should no longer be based on a donor-recipient relationship but on an equal partnership with ideas and resources coming from both sides.20

Increasing efforts to reduce the number of sites where nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials are stored. Today there are fewer locations where HEU and plutonium can be stolen because of removals motivated by the summit process. The consolidation process must continue. Stringent security requirements can help to incentivize the process of consolidation, as can well-funded programs for conversion of HEU-fueled reactors and removal of material. Russia and the United States, as the countries whose nuclear stockpiles are dispersed in the largest number of buildings and bunkers, should each develop a national-level plan for accomplishing their military and civilian nuclear objectives with the smallest practicable number of locations. The United States and other interested countries should ensure that plutonium and HEU bulk processing facilities do not spread to other countries or expand in number or scale of operations and that no more plutonium is separated than is used, bringing global plutonium stocks down over time.

Establishing a nuclear security culture that does not tolerate complacency about threats and vulnerabilities. Every country with relevant materials and facilities should have a program in place to assess and strengthen security culture, and all nuclear managers and security-relevant staff should receive regular information, appropriate to their role, on evolving threats to nuclear security. At the same time, interested countries should launch initiatives to combat complacency, including a shared database of security incidents and lessons learned; detailed reports and briefings on the nuclear terrorism threat; discussions among intelligence agencies, on which most governments rely for information about the threats to their country; and an expanded program of nuclear theft and terrorism exercises.

Building up channels for dialogue. Countries must continue to share information and devise plans to meet current nuclear security challenges. The IAEA ministerial-level meetings on nuclear security will provide an important forum. If parties to the amended CPPNM elect to meet every five years to review progress, this process could create important opportunities to place high-level pressure on states to step up nuclear security commitments and implementation. 

A more comprehensive scope of cooperation, including on military materials, could take place in multilateral forums. The GICNT, co-chaired by Russia and the United States and still valued by both, consists of more than 80 states committed to the group’s statement of principles, which includes improving measures that reduce the risk of nuclear theft such as accounting, control, and protection of nuclear and radiological materials. The group has not focused on these preventive approaches so far, but it should in the future.21 This summer represents the GICNT’s 10th anniversary, which would be an excellent time to announce the creation of a GICNT working group focused specifically on strengthening security for nuclear materials and facilities. The GICNT could also be a useful forum for Russia and the United States to expand nuclear security cooperation.

The contact group created at the nuclear security summit this year holds promise for facilitating dialogue, sharing information, and germinating joint activities. Its openness to all IAEA members has the advantage of potentially attracting states beyond the ring of past summit participants. Its size and heterogeneity, however, may limit the depth and effectiveness of the discussions. The contact group should select an executive committee of member state representatives—perhaps former summit hosts plus Russia, if it chooses to join—to establish and coordinate its agenda for discussion.

Finally, summit-level nuclear security meetings could be continued on the side of Group of 20 meetings, perhaps once every four years. This would sustain the kind of executive-level political attention to nuclear security that summits provided. 

The nuclear security summits periodically pressed participants to commit themselves to new and stronger measures for preventing nuclear terrorism. They facilitated a process of stocktaking and reporting on the concrete actions participants had taken. Moreover, they were a vehicle for forging stronger international collaboration on bolstering nuclear security around the globe. States must continue to build on the progress they made through the summit process. If they do, the 2016 summit will mark the beginning, rather than the end, of a new era of continuous improvement in nuclear security.


1.   For a comprehensive assessment of progress in fulfilling commitments from the summits prior to 2016, see Michelle Cann, Kelsey Davenport, and Jenna Parker, “The Nuclear Security Summit: Progress Report on Joint Statements,” Arms Control Association and Partnership for Global Security, March 2015, https://www.armscontrol.org/reports/2015/The-Nuclear-Security-Summit-Progress-Report-on-Joint-Statements

2.   The three countries that did not join gift baskets were Gabon, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. For a list of gift baskets and joint statements from the 2016 summit, see “2016 Washington Summit,” Nuclear Security Matters, n.d., http://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/2016-washington-summit

3.   “Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation,” March 25, 2014, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/235508.pdf. Thirty-five countries signed the 2014 statement. Jordan joined in late 2015.

4.   See Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “India and the Nuclear Security Summit,” Nuclear Security Matters, April 26, 2016, http://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/blog/india-and-nuclear-security-summ; Hui Zhang, “China Makes Significant Nuclear Security Pledges at 2016 Summit,” Nuclear Security Matters, April 8, 2016, http://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/blog/china-makes-significant-nuclear-security-pledges-2016-summit

5.   For background on the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, see “Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), n.d., https://www.iaea.org/publications/documents/conventions/convention-physical-protection-nuclear-material. For an argument that the review conferences envisioned in the amendment could help drive nuclear security progress, see Jonathan Herbach and Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, “More Work to Do: A Pathway for Future Progress on Strengthening Nuclear Security,” Arms Control Today, October 2015. 

6.   “Joint Statement by the Leaders of Japan and the United States on Contributions to Global Minimization of Nuclear Material,” April 1, 2016, http://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/files/nuclearmatters/files/joint_

7.   Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “U.S.-China Joint Statement on Nuclear Security Cooperation,” March 31, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/03/31/us-china-joint-statement-nuclear-security-cooperation

8.   “Nuclear Security Summit 2016 Communiqué,” April 1, 2016, http://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/files/nuclearmatters/files/nuclear_security_summit_2016_communique.pdf?m=1460469255.

9.   See Matthew Bunn, “Appropriate Effective Nuclear Security and Accounting—What Is It?” (presentation, “Appropriate Effective” Material Accounting and Physical Protection—Joint Global Initiative/UNSCR 1540 Workshop,” Nashville, TN, July 18, 2008), http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/bunn-1540-appropriate-effective50.pdf.

10.   For a discussion of security for military materials, see Des Browne, Richard Lugar, and Sam Nunn, “Bridging the Military Nuclear Materials Gap,” Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), 2015, http://www.nti.org/media/pdfs/NTI_report_2015_e_version.pdf. The 2016 summit communiqué reaffirmed that states had a fundamental responsibility “to maintain at all times effective security of all nuclear and other radioactive material, including nuclear materials used in nuclear weapons.” See “Nuclear Security Summit 2016 Communiqué.” 

11.   For a more complete discussion of the threats some countries with nuclear material face, see Matthew Bunn et al., “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Continuous Improvement or Dangerous Decline?” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 2016, pp. 39-52, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/PreventingNuclearTerrorism-Web.pdf

12.   For country information on physical protection, see the 2016 NTI Nuclear Security Index for sabotage, http://ntiindex.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/2016-NTI-Index-Data-2016.03.25.zip. Belgium has only recently added armed guards to its nuclear facilities. The Swedish regulator has ordered that facilities post armed guards by February 2017. See Steven Mufson, “Brussels Attacks Stoke Fears About Security of Belgian Nuclear Facilities,” The Washington Post, March 25, 2016; “Swedish Regulator Orders Tighter Security at Nuclear Plants,” Reuters, February 5, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/sweden-nuclear-security-idUSL8N15K3SS

13.   The 2014 summit communiqué states, “We encourage States to minimise their stocks of [highly enriched uranium] and to keep their stockpile of separated plutonium to the minimum level, both as consistent with national requirements.” “The Hague Nuclear Security Summit Communiqué,” March 25, 2014, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/237002.pdf. In 2016, there was no mention of plutonium in the communiqué.

14.   Matthew Bunn and Eben Harrell surveyed nuclear experts in states with nuclear weapons-usable material and found that some respondents did not find certain threats credible, despite extensive evidence to the contrary. See Matthew Bunn and Eben Harrell, “Threat Perceptions and Drivers of Change in Nuclear Security Around the World: Results of a Survey,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 2014, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/surveypaperfulltext.pdf.

15.   IAEA, “Self-Assessment of Nuclear Security Culture in Facilities and Activities That Use Nuclear and/or Radioactive Material: Draft Technical Guidance,” July 2, 2014, http://www-ns.iaea.org/downloads/security/security-series-drafts/tech-guidance/nst026.pdf

16.   See Trevor Findlay, “Beyond Nuclear Summitry: The Role of the IAEA in Nuclear Security Diplomacy After 2016,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 2014, http://belfercenter.hks.harvard.edu/files/beyondnuclearsummitryfullpaper.pdf.

17.   For a discussion of how the threat of nuclear terrorism has evolved over time, see Bunn et al., “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism,” pp. 14-26, 133-143. 

18.   Ibid., p. 96.

19.   For the recommendations on which this section draws, see Bunn et al., “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism,” pp. 96-133. 

20.   For a more complete description of the end of nuclear security cooperation, see Nickolas Roth, “Russian Nuclear Security Cooperation: Rebuilding Equality, Mutual Benefit, and Respect,” Deep Cuts Commission, June 2015, http://deepcuts.org/files/pdf/Deep_Cuts_Issue_Brief4_US-Russian_Nuclear_Security_Cooperation1.pdf.

21.   Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), “Fact Sheet,” n.d., http://www.gicnt.org/content/downloads/sop/GICNT_Fact_Sheet_June2015.pdf. Although the GICNT terms of reference state that its activities do not involve “military nuclear programs of the nuclear weapon states party to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” the group’s statement of principles, which is the only document GICNT members are required to endorse, contains no such exclusion. See Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, U.S. Department of State, “Terms of Reference for Implementation and Assessment,” November 20, 2006, http://2001-2009.state.gov/t/isn/rls/other/76421.htm; GICNT, “Statement of Principles,” 2015, http://gicnt.org/content/downloads/sop/Statement_of_Principles.pdf.

Martin B. Malin is executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. From 2000 to 2007, he was director of the Program on Science and Global Security at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Nickolas Roth is a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom. Parts of this article draw from the authors’ article with Matthew Bunn and William H. Tobey in 2016 titled “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Continuous Improvement or Dangerous Decline?”

Posted: May 31, 2016


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