“For half a century, ACA has been providing the world … with advocacy, analysis, and awareness on some of the most critical topics of international peace and security, including on how to achieve our common, shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
Arms Control Today

G-7 Leaders Confront Human Cost of Nuclear War

June 2023
By Daryl G. Kimball

The leaders of the Group of Seven (G-7) industrialized nations opened their three-day summit May 19-21 with a joint visit to the museum in Hiroshima documenting the devastation caused by the surprise U.S. atomic attack on Aug. 6, 1945, and paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands of victims of the bombing.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, speaking against the backdrop of the Cenotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims and the Atomic Bomb Dome in the Peace Memorial Park on May 21, hosted the Group of Seven leaders’ summit at Hiroshima with the intent of elevating attention to the dangers of nuclear war. (Photo by Kimimasa Mayama/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Later that day, they issued the first-ever G-7 joint statement on nuclear disarmament matters, which “underscored the importance of the 77-year record of non-use of nuclear weapons” and reaffirmed their “commitment to achieving a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who represents a Hiroshima constituency, chose the city as the location of the meeting to elevate nuclear disarmament on the global agenda at a time when global leaders and experts are warning of growing nuclear dangers.

“Conveying the reality of the nuclear attack is important as a starting point for all nuclear disarmament efforts.” Kishida told reporters on May 15, ahead of the summit.

But concerns have been building. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at the 2022 review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), “Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” Last November, after Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to use all means at his disposal to defend Russia and the territory it seized in Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden declared that the world faced the most dangerous nuclear moment since the Cuban missile crisis.

Kishida and his wife, Yuko, greeted the other G-7 leaders as they arrived at the city's Peace Memorial Park and ushered them into the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. According to the Japanese government, Kishida and Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui explained the exhibits, and the leaders heard the firsthand account of 85-year-old atomic bomb survivor Keiko Ogura.

Following a 40-minute tour, the G-7 leaders and Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen of the European Union filed out silently. They laid wreaths in honor of the atomic bomb victims at the cenotaph memorial, which contains the names of all 333,907 people whose deaths have been attributed to the Aug. 6 atomic bombing. Matsui read the memorial inscription, which says, “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.”

According to the White House, Biden wrote in the museum guestbook, “May the stories of this Museum remind us all of our obligations to build a future of peace. Together—let us continue to make progress toward the day when we can finally and forever rid the world of nuclear weapons. Keep the faith!”

Although the summit discussions focused on countering Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the group’s concerns about China’s growing economic and military influence, host country Japan succeeded in elevating the issue of nuclear disarmament on the G-7 agenda.

The most tangible result was the “G-7 Leaders’ Hiroshima Vision on Nuclear Disarmament” statement, which reaffirms their commitment to key NPT principles and criticizes China and Russia for undermining those principles.

Despite the powerful reminders of the horror of nuclear war, the statement fell short of the occasion and did not advance major new proposals or commitments designed to reverse dangerous trends, let alone achieve disarmament.

In contrast to a statement adopted at the Group of 20 leaders’ summit in November, which bluntly said that “nuclear weapons use and threats of use are inadmissible” and which at the time was endorsed by the G-7 states, the G-7 leaders in Hiroshima targeted their words more narrowly, choosing to condemn nuclear use and threats of use only by Russia in relation to its war on Ukraine.

The statement faulted “Russia’s irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, undermining of arms control regimes, and stated intent to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus [as] dangerous and unacceptable.”

Japan had aimed for more. In January, Kishida told French President Emmanuel Macron that the leaders must “demonstrate a firm commitment to absolutely reject the threat or use of nuclear weapons.” Instead, they declared that “threats by Russia of nuclear weapons use, let alone any use of nuclear weapons by Russia, in the context of its aggression against Ukraine are inadmissible.”

The caveat was a result of the fact that the G-7, which includes three nuclear-armed states and four other states in defense alliances with the nuclear-armed states, exercise military strategies that involve the potential use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances or in retaliation for a nuclear attack. “Our security policies,” the statement says, “are based on the understanding that nuclear weapons, for as long as they exist, should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression and prevent war and coercion.”

The statement also urged that “[t]he overall decline in global nuclear arsenals achieved since the end of the Cold War must continue and not be reversed” and encouraged others to adopt nuclear stockpile transparency measures. It called on “China and Russia to engage substantively in relevant multilateral and bilateral forums, in line with their obligations under the NPT, including Article VI.” That article commits states-parties to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

The leaders reiterated support for “the immediate commencement of long overdue negotiations of a treaty banning the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices,” but failed to spell out a new strategy to break the diplomatic logjam at the Conference on Disarmament that has blocked these talks for years.

The leaders repeated the quarter-century-old refrain that bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force “is another urgent matter.” The United States is one of eight countries that still must ratify the 1996 agreement.

In a reference to North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile programs and Iran’s growing capability to enrich uranium absent a return to compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the leaders declared that “[a] world without nuclear weapons cannot be achieved without nuclear non-proliferation.”

Daniel Hogsta, interim executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, who was in Hiroshima with other civil society disarmament campaigners, welcomed Kishida's effort to focus attention on the risks of nuclear weapons, but criticized the statement for its lack of new proposals.

“Simply pointing fingers at Russia and China is insufficient,” Hogsta said on May 21. “We need the G-7 countries, which all either possess, host, or endorse the use of nuclear weapons, to step up and engage the other nuclear powers in disarmament talks if we are to reach [the] goal of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Representatives of the hibakusha were even less satisfied. “Nuclear weapons are an absolute evil that cannot coexist with humans,” said Jiro Hamasumi, an assistant secretary-general of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, at a May 21 press conference. “As a survivor of an atomic bombing, I am outraged,” he said, referring to the fact that the statement did not mention the survivors and backed the concept of nuclear deterrence.

Hiroshi Harada, a hibakusha and a former director of the sufferers’ organization, told National Public Radio that museum exhibits cannot possibly tell the whole story. “If we were to reproduce the situation of that time, no one, including myself, would be able to enter the museum,” he said.

Harada said he read the messages left by the leaders after their visit “but they were superficial. What we expect is not only their messages, but also their actions, after they return to their own countries.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (C, Rear) joins Group of Seven (G-7) world leaders on the final day of the G-7 Summit on May 21 in Hiroshima, Japan. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau-WPA Pool/Getty Images)In a joint appeal coordinated by the European Leadership Network and the Asia Pacific Leadership Network, more than 250 civil society leaders from more than 50 countries, including 26 former foreign and defense ministers and six former heads of state, called on Russia and the United States “to compartmentalize nuclear arms control.”

The group urged Moscow and Washington to pledge “that they will not exceed the [New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] New START limits on deployed nuclear forces,” which thus far have not been violated, and pursue “good faith negotiations on a successor framework for New START before its expiration in 2026.”

At Kishida’s initiative, other key global leaders, including from Australia, Brazil, nuclear-armed India, Indonesia, and South Korea, joined the summit and visited the atomic bomb museum. Guterres also participated.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo told The Asahi Shimbun on May 18, “The Indonesian position is clear and firm. Nuclear weapons must be destroyed because they are a threat in the world.” Indonesia and Brazil are supporters of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was not referenced in any official G-7 statement.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, another invitee, used the visit to seek further Western military aid to thwart Russia's assault on his country. He thanked Biden and other G-7 leaders for their support, including plans for the transfer of U.S.-made F-16 jets. Biden recently pledged to help train Ukrainian pilots to fly the aircraft.

Zelenskyy said Russia must abandon its “nuclear blackmail of the world.”

“It wouldn’t be fair to compare, but I would tell you sincerely that the pictures of Hiroshima in ruins reminded me of Bakhmut and other similar towns and settlements in Ukraine. They are also totally destroyed. There’s nothing there,” Zelenskyy said at a news conference after the meeting ended.

“The international community stands at a turning point in history, witnessing Russia's desire to unilaterally change the status quo by force,” Kishida said in summit closing remarks on May 21.

“The threat, much less the use, of nuclear weapons to change the status quo by force is not acceptable,” he added.

Despite the powerful symbol of meeting at Hiroshima, the Group of Seven leaders failed to advance major new proposals designed to reverse rising nuclear weapons dangers.

Russia Formally Withdraws From CFE Treaty

June 2023
By Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández

Russia dealt another symbolic blow to European security by formally withdrawing from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on May 10 terminating his country’s participation in the treaty, and the state Duma followed up five days later by approving a law denouncing the landmark agreement.

More than 72,000 pieces of military equipment, such as this German Marder tank, were destroyed under the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty from which Russia formally has withdrawn. (Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)The move marks the end of an era for the conventional arms control architecture in Europe that was painstakingly built over decades. Russia attempted to explain its decision by accusing the United States and NATO of pursuing a military confrontation with Russia with disastrous consequences.

The Western allies rejected this assertion. “Russia’s actions contrast with allies’ efforts to sustain the CFE Treaty, and Russian arguments that attempt to justify withdrawal with reference to circumstances in Ukraine or Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO are not credible,” a senior U.S. State Department official told Arms Control Today.

“Russia’s actions change nothing on the ground. Since 2007, Russia has ‘suspended’ its implementation of the CFE Treaty without a valid legal basis and it was failing to fully live up to its obligations under the treaty even before that ‘suspension,’” the official said.

Signed in 1990 during the era of perestroika as the Cold War was ending, the treaty, together with the Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty, constitute a web of interlocking and mutually reinforcing arms control obligations and commitments.

The CFE Treaty eliminated the Soviet Union's overwhelming quantitative advantage in conventional weapons in Europe by setting equal limits on the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters that NATO and the Warsaw Pact could deploy between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains.

The treaty was designed to prevent either alliance from amassing forces for a blitzkrieg-type offensive in case deterrence failed and to establish a military balance in Europe at a lower level of armaments. Through unprecedented verification measures, the treaty resulted in the elimination of more than 72,000 pieces of military equipment.

Russia’s wars in Chechnya complicated NATO-Russia treaty cooperation because since 1994 Russia has deployed more heavy military equipment in the Caucasus than permitted by the landmark pact and the 1996 CFE Flank Document. (See ACT, May 1997). “The old treaty...has long ceased to correspond to reality,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Parlamentskaya Gazeta on May 15.

During the 1999 CFE Treaty summit in Istanbul, treaty members signed an agreement known as the Adapted Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty to update the CFE treaty’s structure to reflect the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and the expansion of NATO because the original treaty had no provision for additional countries to accede to it.

At the summit, Russia pledged to withdraw its forces from Moldova and Georgia and to show restraint in its deployment near the Baltics. (See ACT, November 1999.) But only Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine ratified the agreement, and Ukraine has yet to deposit its ratification instrument.

The United States and its allies did not ratify the adapted treaty, citing the deployment of Russian forces in Moldova and Georgia. Russia insisted that ratification should not be conditioned on its pledges to withdraw its military from Moldova and Georgia and voiced frustrations that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia were not subject to CFE Treaty limits because they were not parties to the original agreement. Russia also wanted constraints eliminated on how many forces it could deploy in its southern and northern flanks. (See ACT, January/February 2008).

Given that the adapted treaty’s entry into force was contingent on ratification by all CFE Treaty parties, the original treaty remained in effect. Because of the dispute, Russia suspended its implementation of the treaty in 2007, but left open the option of returning to compliance and continued to participate in the CFE Treaty Joint Consultative Group until 2015. (See ACT, April 2015; December 2007.)

But after the Duma acted on May 16, Ryabkov told Tass that “[t]hose who still hoped to get Russia back into the treaty need to abandon their illusions, as the CFE Treaty runs counter to our security interests amid the current developments. And the West will have to recognize this obvious fact.”

In a tweet on May 10, Alexander Graef of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg noted how Russia’s steadfast ally, Belarus, was still party to the treaty. “Russia has not participated in the CFE Treaty for 15+ years but for a supposedly dead treaty, the 29 other members still spend a lot of energy on its implementation, including Belarus. The [treaty’s] remaining value is not in the numbers but in the information exchange and on-site inspections.”

In 2011, Washington said that it “would cease carrying out certain obligations” under the treaty with regard to Russia, but continued to implement its obligations toward other parties. (See ACT, December 2011.)

Poland announced on March 21 that it would cease to implement certain articles of the agreement with regard to Belarus because the “aggression against Ukraine in 2022 was committed not only by Russia but also by Belarus.” Asked by Arms Control Today if Washington might take similar action, the senior State Department official said that, “We will be consulting on any next steps in response to Russia’s action.”

In December 2021, two months before Russia’s illegal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the United States and its allies exchanged arms control proposals with Russia. (See ACT, March 2022.) Russia demanded that NATO no longer deploy forces on the territories of members who joined the alliance after 1997 and that NATO refrain from further enlargement. In reply, the United States and its allies urged Russia to return to observing the CFE Treaty.

The Russian move marks the end of an era for the conventional arms control architecture in Europe that was painstakingly built over decades.

Russia Orders Evacuations Around Zaporizhzhia

June 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

Russia evacuated areas surrounding the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in May in anticipation of intensified fighting in the vicinity. The evacuations prompted new warnings from Ukrainian officials and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about how deteriorating working conditions at the facility pose a nuclear security and safety risk.

A view of a spent nuclear fuel storage area at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine. Russia evacuated areas surrounding the complex in May in anticipation of intensified fighting in the vicinity.   (Photo by Andrey Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images)The Russian-backed governor of Zaporizhzhia province, which includes the power plant, ordered the evacuations in response to intensified Ukrainian shelling in the area that appears to be part of a larger counteroffensive designed to retake the province. Although Russia is illegally occupying the nuclear facility and pressured some workers at Zaporizhzhia to sign contracts with the Russian state energy company Rosatom, the power plant is still run by the Ukrainian energy company Energoatom.

Petro Kotin, head of Energoatom, said on May 9 that the evacuations risk creating a “catastrophic lack” of personnel and raised concerns about continued operations at the plant. The six reactors are shut down, but the facility still requires electricity and water to cool the units. Kotin warned that certain operations require constant oversight and that “it will be dangerous for the plant” if there are not enough personnel to manage those operations.

Rosatom officials at Zaporizhzhia said that the evacuations will not include essential staff for operating the plant. But many workers live in the nearby town of Enerhodar, which was included in the evacuation orders, so their families may be affected.

In a May 12 press release, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi raised concerns about the welfare of staff and their families and the impact that the evacuations may have on safety and security at the plant. The IAEA team on-site at Zaporizhzhia confirmed that it still has enough staff for essential operations, Grossi said, but he warned that the current situation is “not sustainable.”

Grossi said that nuclear safety “requires adequate maintenance of plant equipment” and expressed concern that these maintenance programs have not been followed “for many months.” As a result, the risk of a nuclear accident is increasing in the “medium and longer term,” he said.

For example, the IAEA noted that the only remaining emergency backup power line to the plant was severed in March and has not been restored. External power is necessary for ensuring the cooling of the facility.

“This is not a way to operate a major nuclear power plant safely, securely, and sustainably,” Grossi warned.

Grossi also said that he is still engaged in “intense negotiations” with Russia and Ukraine to reach an agreement on protecting the Zaporizhzhia plant. Grossi initially was focused on establishing a protection zone around it, but in April announced that he shifted focus to negotiating an agreement to protect certain areas of the complex. (See ACT, May 2023.)

In a May 13 interview with CBC News, Grossi said that he is trying to establish some basic rules for fighting around the plant without giving either side a military advantage. He said there is a “very narrow path” to reaching a mutually acceptable agreement.

The rules Grossi is pursuing could include an agreement not to use heavy weapons at the plant, not to fire directly at the facility, and not to target Zaporizhzhia personnel. It is unclear how such an agreement would be enforced. Ukrainian and Russian forces deny shelling in the vicinity of the plant, and Russian officials have argued in the past that its armed personnel at the facility are not military forces.

Russian officials have expressed support for Grossi’s plan, but it is unclear if Ukraine will agree to measures that could make it more difficult to retake the Zaporizhzhia complex and the surrounding area.

Kotin accused Russian forces of turning the plant into a military base and stationing soldiers at the facility because Moscow believes Ukrainian forces will be reluctant to target the nuclear complex.


The evacuations came in anticipation of intensified fighting and prompted new warnings from Ukrainian officials and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency about nuclear security and safety risks.

ChatGPT Sparks U.S. Debate Over Military Use of AI

June 2023
By Michael Klare and Chris Rostampour

The release of ChatGPT and other “generative” artificial intelligence (AI) systems has triggered intense debate in the U.S. Congress and among the public over the benefits and risks of commercializing these powerful but error-prone technologies.

Sam Altman of OpenAI testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in May about the promise and dangers of ChatGPT, a “generative” artificial intelligence system. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)Proponents argue that by rapidly utilizing such systems, the United States will acquire a significant economic and military advantage over China and other competing powers. But many experts warn that the premature release of such potent but untested technologies could lead to catastrophic consequences and so the systems should be constrained by rules and regulations.

Generative AI systems employ sophisticated algorithms to convert vast amounts of raw data into texts, images, and other content that seem to be produced by humans. It is thought to have widespread application in industrial, business, and military operations.

The potentially disruptive consequences of exploiting generative AI technologies for commercial and geopolitical advantage and the accompanying need for new laws in the area provoked heated discussion at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law on May 16.

The lead witness, Sam Altman of OpenAI, the San Francisco startup responsible for ChatGPT, highlighted the technology’s great promise, but also warned of its inherent defects, such as a tendency to produce false or misleading results. “If this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong,” he told the subcommittee. “[W]e want to work with the government to prevent that from happening.”

Many analysts are particularly worried about the hasty application of advanced AI in the military realm, where the consequences of things going wrong could prove especially catastrophic.

Lawmakers and senior Pentagon officials who seek to apply these technologies as rapidly as possible argue that this approach will provide the United States with a distinct advantage over China and other rivals. But concerns have emerged in these circles over the premature application of AI to military use. Although officials believe that AI utilization by the military will enhance U.S. combat capabilities, many worry about the potential for accidents, enemy interference, and other dangerous unintended outcomes and so favor the cautious, regulated utilization of AI.

“To stay ahead of our potential adversaries…we need to identify key technologies and integrate them into our systems and processes faster than they can,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), chair of the Senate Armed Services cybersecurity subcommittee, said during an April 19 hearing on AI use by the Defense Department. But, he added, “the applications deployed must be more secure and trusted, meaning we [must adopt] more rigorous policy enforcement mechanisms to prevent misuse or unintended use.”

Witnesses at the April 19 hearing, including officials of leading defense contractors making use of AI, emphasized the need to adopt AI swiftly to avoid being overtaken by China and Russia in this critically important area. But under questioning, they acknowledged that the hasty application of AI to military systems entailed significant risk.

Josh Lospinoso of Shift5, for example, warned that the data used in training the algorithms employed in generative AI systems “can be altered by nefarious actors” and also are vulnerable to “spoofing” by potential adversaries. “We need to think clearly about shoring up those security vulnerabilities in our AI algorithms before we deploy these broadly,” he said.

Manchin indicated that, for these and other reasons, Congress must acquire a better understanding of the risks posed by the Pentagon’s utilization of AI and develop appropriate guardrails. He asked for the witnesses’ help in “looking at how we would write legislation not to repeat the mistakes of the past,” alluding to congressional failure to impose such controls on social media and the internet.

Judging by his comments and those of his colleagues, any legislation that emerges from Manchin’s subcommittee is likely to incorporate measures intended to ensure the reliability of the data used in training complex algorithms and to prevent unauthorized access to these systems by hostile actors.

Other lawmakers have sought to write legislation aimed at preventing another danger arising from the hasty and misguided application of AI by the military: the possibility that AI-enabled autonomous weapons systems, or “robot generals,” will someday acquire the capacity to launch nuclear weapons.

The Defense Department currently is modernizing its nuclear command, control, and communications systems, including through the widespread integration of advanced AI systems. Some analysts fear that this process will dilute human control over nuclear launch decision-making. (See ACT, April 2020.)

To ensure that machines never replace humans in this momentous role, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced the Block Nuclear Launch by Autonomous Artificial Intelligence Act on April 26. If enacted, the law would prohibit the use of federal funds to “use an autonomous weapons system that is not subject to meaningful human control…to launch a nuclear weapon; or…to select or engage targets for the purposes of launching a nuclear weapon.”

In the House, the legislation was introduced by Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and co-sponsored by Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.). A companion bill was introduced in the Senate on May 1 by Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and co-sponsors Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Lieu said that passage of the bill “will ensure that no matter what happens in the future, a human being has control over the employment of a nuclear weapon, not a robot. AI can never be a substitute for human judgment when it comes to launching nuclear weapons.”

In the U.S. Congress and among the public, there are rising questions about the benefits and risks of commercializing these powerful but error-prone technologies, including in the military sphere.

North Korea Vows Response to U.S.-South Korean Plans

June 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea said it will take decisive action in response to the decision by the United States and South Korea to enhance their nuclear deterrence consultations and called it a product of hostile policy toward Pyongyang.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (R) shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during their meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on May 7, ahead of the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima. (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/Pool/Getty Images)U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol announced on April 26 the formulation of the Nuclear Consultative Group and a more regular deployment of U.S. strategic assets around the Korean peninsula to counter the threat posed by North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program. The group will give South Korea more opportunities to discuss and provide input on U.S. nuclear and strategic planning. (See ACT, May 2023.)

In an April 28 statement in the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, accused the United States and South Korea of creating an environment in which North Korea is “compelled to take more decisive action” to deal with new threats.

If the United States and South Korea are “dead set on staging nuclear war exercises” and deploying nuclear assets, “the stronger the exercise of [North Korea’s] right to self-defense will become,” she said. She said North Korea is “convinced once again” that the country’s “nuclear war deterrent” should be “brought to further perfection.”

Kim Yo Jong criticized Biden directly for threatening to end the North Korean regime if it were to use nuclear weapons against the United States, its allies, or its partners. Biden made the comment during the April 26 press conference with Yoon. Kim called the comment “threatening rhetoric” and accused Biden of overconfidence.

Yoon has sought greater South Korean involvement in the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent, but he faced criticism in South Korea for agreeing to the Washington Declaration that resulted from his summit with Biden. Factions within Yoon’s conservative party accused him of tying Seoul’s hands on developing its own nuclear weapons by reaffirming the country’s commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and expressing “full confidence” in U.S. extended deterrence in the declaration. Policymakers in the opposition party said the agreed measures raise tensions with North Korea without alleviating South Korea’s security concerns.

Yoon continues to defend the Washington Declaration as necessary to counter the North Korean threat. In a May 2 cabinet meeting, he said the consultative group “upgraded” the U.S.-South Korean alliance and will make U.S. extended deterrence more effective.

Unsurprisingly, China and Russia also criticized the Washington Declaration and accused the United States of being the source of regional tension.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in an April 28 statement that the decision to form the consultative group “is clearly destabilizing in nature” and will have “negative consequences for regional security.” She accused the United States of provoking an arms race.

At an April 27 press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said that the U.S.-South Korean decision stokes confrontation and “undermines the nuclear nonproliferation system.” She said Washington’s actions are “the very opposite of the goal to denuclearize” the Korean peninsula.

But Yoon faulted Beijing for not doing enough to respond to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. He said on May 2 that if China wishes to “raise objections,” it must do more to reduce the nuclear threat posed by North Korea “or at the very least abide by UN Security Council resolutions” and sanctions.

Mao said in a May 4 press briefing that China supports “fully and accurately” implementing all provisions of UN Security Council resolutions, including support for dialogue and humanitarian assistance. She said the United States “has yet to respond to [North Korea’s] legitimate security concerns” and that a “balanced approach” is necessary to mitigate tensions.

A May 19 statement by the Group of Seven (G-7) industrialized nations also called for sanctions on North Korea to be “fully and scrupulously” implemented and “remain in place for as long as” the country’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs exist. The statement demanded that North Korea “refrain from any other destabilizing or provocative actions, including any further nuclear tests or launches that use ballistic missile technology.”

Prior to the G-7 meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met Yoon in South Korea on May 7. They agreed to further enhance security cooperation and to link South Korean and Japanese missile tracking through the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Connecting the radars tracking North Korean missile launches will help fill gaps in missile detection and share data in real time.

Yoon was criticized at home for meeting Kishida due to the lingering animosity between the two countries stemming from Japan’s wartime occupation of South Korea. But Yoon defended his decision, asserting that “Japan and South Korea are facing a grave security situation” that requires cooperation before “past issues are fully resolved.”

Kishida said the two leaders agreed on the “importance of enhancing deterrence and response capabilities,” including through security cooperation between “Japan and South Korea and among Japan, South Korea, [and] the [United States] in the face of ongoing provocations by North Korea and attempts to unilaterally change the status quo through force in this region.”

North Korea said it will take decisive action in response to the decision by the United States and South Korea to enhance their nuclear deterrence consultations.

Russian Use of Nuclear Weapons Still Unlikely, U.S. Says

June 2023
By Shannon Bugos

Ahead of a widely expected counteroffensive by Ukraine in its war with Russia, the U.S. intelligence community continues to assert that the likelihood of Russian President Vladimir Putin using nuclear weapons in the war remains low.

Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI) greets Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines before she testifies at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on worldwide threats on May 4 in Washington. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)“It is very unlikely” that Russia would employ nuclear weapons, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress during a May 4 hearing.

Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who also testified at the hearing, agreed with Haines, but added that, “in the nature of conflict, there is always that possibility” of nuclear weapons use.

The assessment followed Russia’s suspension in February of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last Russian-U.S. nuclear arms control agreement still standing. (See ACT, March 2023.) Moscow has conditioned a resumption of the treaty and its associated activities, such as on-site inspections and detailed data exchanges, on Washington withdrawing support from Kyiv.

“Russia’s decision to suspend the [New] START may be reversible,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in an April 20 statement. “However, for this, the United States must show political will and abandon its aggressive policy of undermining the security of our country, taking practical steps towards a real de-escalation.”

Despite the Russian suspension, the United States has continued to provide broad unclassified data on its strategic nuclear arsenal. In this year’s first biannual data exchange, Washington reported that it deploys 1,419 warheads on 662 delivery vehicles, roughly the same data as in September. (See ACT, November 2022.)

“The United States continues to view transparency among nuclear weapon states as extremely valuable for reducing the likelihood of misperception, miscalculation, and costly arms competitions,” the State Department said in a statement accompanying the publication of the data on May 12.

Russia and the United States have emphasized that they will continue to adhere to an ongoing 1988 Soviet-U.S. agreement that requires the two nations to exchange notifications of launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Russia also expressed its intention to continue adhering to a 1989 Soviet-U.S. agreement that requires advance notification of major strategic exercises.

In mid-April, Russia announced a successful test of what the Russian Defense Ministry described as an “advanced” ground-based ICBM from the Kapustin Yar test site, with the training warhead hitting a mock target at the Sary-Shagan test site in Kazakhstan. (See ACT, May 2023.) The ministry said that the test was intended to “confirm the correctness of the circuit design and technical solutions” for the missile.

The ministry did not specify the type of ICBM, but experts suggest the test featured a nuclear-capable Sarmat ICBM.

On April 19, the United States tested a Minuteman III ICBM equipped with a reentry vehicle at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The Air Force said it traveled about 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. “This test launch reinforces what our allies and partners already know: We’re always ready to defend the United States with combat ready nuclear forces anytime, anywhere, on order, to conduct global strike,” stated Gen. Thomas Bussiere, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.

Ahead of a widely expected counteroffensive by Ukraine in its war with Russia, the U.S. intelligence community continues to assert that the likelihood of Russian President Vladimir Putin using nuclear weapons in the war remains low. 

TPNW Working Groups Advance Treaty Implementation

June 2023
By Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández

A newly established scientific advisory group for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) met for the first time in March and elected Zia Mian and Patricia Lewis as co-chairs. Mian is a physicist and director of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. Lewis leads the International Security Program at Chatham House.

The group of 15 nuclear weapons experts was nominated by TPNW states-parties and appointed by Juan Ramon de la Fuente Ramirez of Mexico, the president-designate of the second meeting of states-parties, which is scheduled for Nov. 27-Dec. 1. The group was established during the first meeting of state-parties in 2022 with the purpose of reporting on the latest cutting-edge research on nuclear weapons, including the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use and nuclear disarmament verification. (See ACT, July/August 2022.)

Meanwhile, experts and states-parties from the TPNW informal working group on the elimination of nuclear weapons, led by Mexico and New Zealand, met in February and March to discuss pathways toward verifying the elimination of such weapons.

According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the verification issue and other questions also will be studied by the scientific advisory group. The second meeting of TPNW states-parties, in New York this fall, will assess the progress made in accordance with the nuclear ban treaty’s implementation. Some 68 countries have ratified the TPNW.

A newly established scientific advisory group for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) met for the first time in March and elected Zia Mian and Patricia Lewis as co-chairs.

An Early Test for the TPNW

May 2023
By Daryl G. Kimball

The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has changed the global debate on the advisability, legality, and morality of the continued possession and modernization of nuclear weapons for the better. Since the treaty entered into force in 2021, states-parties have reinforced the taboos against nuclear use and threats of use, particularly in connection with Russian threats of nuclear weapons use in its war on Ukraine.

Video-capture of the April 11 test-launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile from the Kapustin Yar training ground in Russia that landed at the Sary-Shagan proving ground in Kazakhstan. (Image credit: Russian Defence Ministry)Nevertheless, nearly all of the world's nine nuclear-armed states continue to improve their nuclear arsenals, including by regularly conducting flight tests of missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons to maintain existing nuclear weapons capabilities, develop new nuclear weapons systems, or simply demonstrate their capacity to annihilate their adversaries.

In the past month alone, the United States tested an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that landed in the U.S.-controlled test range near Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, and France fired off an M51 sea-launched ballistic missile from its Le Terrible strategic submarine in the Atlantic Ocean.

Days earlier, the Russian Defense Ministry announced a test of a new nuclear-capable ICBM that was launched from Russia and landed in the Sary-Shagan test range in Kazakhstan on land leased to Russia through a long-term bilateral agreement.

The latest Russian ICBM test appears to be the first time Russia has used the Sary-Shagan site for a nuclear weapons-related missile flight test since the TPNW entered into force. According to the ministry, the missile’s training warhead hit a mock target to advance “development of new strategic missile systems.”

The test raises fundamental questions about how Kazakhstan, a leading TPNW proponent, interprets the treaty provisions and how other TPNW states interpret the treaty’s prohibition regarding “assistance” to other states’ nuclear weapons programs.

According to TPNW Article 1, each state-party undertakes “never under any circumstances to....[a]ssist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in an activity prohibited” by the treaty, which bars development, testing, production, manufacturing, otherwise acquiring, possessing or stockpiling of “nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

But in response to Russia’s test, the Kazakh government has claimed that “the treaty bans only testing of nuclear weapons (nuclear explosive devices), but not missiles.” Kazakh officials say that the TPNW would need to contain an explicit prohibition on delivery systems for this to be a breach. They note that no nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices are being placed, tested, or utilized in any way on the territory of Kazakhstan and therefore “Kazakhstan remains in full compliance with its obligations under the TPNW.”

Although the treaty does not explicitly prohibit assistance with the development and testing of missiles designed to deliver weapons, it prohibits assistance with the development of “nuclear weapons,” and missiles designed to deliver nuclear warheads are part of a nuclear weapons system. A plain reading of the treaty and its negotiating history strongly suggests that facilitating tests of missiles designed to deliver nuclear bombs is inconsistent with the object and purpose, if not also the letter, of the treaty.

Kazakhstan is, without question, a strong proponent of a world free of nuclear weapons. After the Soviet Union collapsed, it inherited and later relinquished more than 1,000 nuclear weapons and forced a halt to Russian nuclear testing. Kazakhstan later helped establish the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty. Even so, Kazakhstan must find a way to co-exist with its nuclear-armed neighbor Russia, which dominates Belarus and invaded Ukraine.

As a disarmament leader and chair-designate for the 2024 meeting of TPNW states-parties, Kazakhstan has a responsibility and an opportunity to seek adjustments to the 2015 bilateral lease agreement that governs Russia's use of the Sary-Shagan missile test range to ensure that it is not assisting Russia’s nuclear modernization program and its policy of nuclear intimidation in any way.

Noting that Russia has a missile test range in its own northern territory, Kazakhstan could propose, under article XXV of the lease agreement, that Sary-Shagan shall not be used as a test range to flight-test missile systems designed to carry nuclear weapons. The agreement, which lasts until 2025, allows for changes with the consent of both parties. It also specifies that the agreement will be suspended if the parties do not reach a mutual decision on lease terms.

Russia’s ICBM test at Sary-Shagan will be a topic at the meeting of TPNW states-parties in November. With little time to meet and a full agenda, TPNW states should create a working group to evaluate what types of “assistance” for nuclear weapons-related activities are prohibited and, perhaps most importantly, what actions would best support the goals of the TPNW.

Although the situation is challenging, it is vital that TPNW member states make it clear that they do not support activities that enable nuclear weapons modernization and arms racing, especially in this period of growing nuclear risk.

The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has changed the global debate on the advisability, legality, and morality of the continued possession and modernization of nuclear weapons for the better.

Biden’s New Policy: Can Human Rights Reshape U.S. Conventional Arms Transfers?

May 2023
By Rachel Stohl, Loren Voss, and Elias Yousif

The United States accounts for 40 percent of the global arms trade, a greater market share than the next four closest competitors combined, including Russia and China.1

In 2019, as part of a controversial arms deal with the Trump administration, the United Arab Emirates was approved to purchase General Electric engines for a version of the F-16 fighter jets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Lotz)Although many of the tens of thousands of weapons that Washington exports abroad each year flow to like-minded partners with commendable human rights records, many end up in the hands of governments engaged in conflict, accused of civil and human rights abuses, or found to be undermining U.S. interests. Such transfers have long cast a shadow on the U.S. commitment to international human rights and raised questions as to the wisdom and morality of enabling the predatory or destabilizing behaviors of questionable partners.

Two critical elements in the Biden administration’s new conventional arms transfer policy have the potential to chip away at this dilemma and reshape the U.S. approach to arms transfers, with an explicit emphasis on restraint and a higher human rights standard for arms transfer assessments.2 These are laudable ambitions, but achieving them will not be easy. Engendering an ethos of restraint in U.S. arm transfers will require confronting long-held misconceptions about the strategic risks of restricting transfers to questionable partners, while implementing a higher human rights standard requires a far more robust information ecosystem and analytical process for decision-makers.

Shaping Arms Transfers

An arms transfer policy is established by a presidential directive intended to outline the key aims and considerations that shape the whole-of-government approach to arms transfers. In addition to defining the priorities and criteria for security cooperation decision-making, the policy is a tone-setting document, sending a signal across the government and beyond regarding the spirit of the U.S. approach to arms sales and the role of arms sales in foreign policy and national security objectives.

Although the policy has been rewritten three times in the last nine years, prior to 2014 no update had been made since the Clinton administration in 1995. The Obama administration’s policy, which was the first rewrite in nearly two decades, was seen as an effort to align the U.S. approach to arms transfers with new geopolitical and geostrategic considerations in the post-Cold War world and to meet the imperatives of the global war on terrorism better.

The Trump administration’s 2018 policy emphasized counterterrorism and nonproliferation priorities that reflected a continued focus on efforts to defeat al Qaeda and associated groups, but it also made a dramatic shift toward a more economically oriented “Buy American” and “America First” approach. It placed economic security considerations front and center, even more than its predecessors, and sought to enable the U.S. government to sell more weapons more quickly with less restraint and less conditionality. The policy made an important contribution by addressing civilian harm for the first time by establishing that the executive branch had a policy of facilitating ally and partner efforts to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm. Nevertheless, the prioritization of economic considerations helped justify a number of arms sales that defied human rights and civilian protection concerns, as well as public and congressional opposition, including highly controversial sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in 2019.3

With the aim of distinguishing its human rights commitments from those of its predecessor, the Biden administration made clear that a revised policy that rightsized human rights considerations was one of its early priorities, something that was keenly anticipated by the arms control and human rights communities. Although there are many welcome updates in the new policy, the commitment to restraint and the announcement of a higher human rights standard that will apply to arms transfers are among its most notable developments.4

Relatedly, the administration promised that a change to the current U.S. position rejecting the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which establishes common standards for the international trade of conventional weapons and seeks to reduce the illicit arms trade, would result from a new conventional arms transfer policy. Unfortunately, the new policy has not clarified the U.S. position or resulted in renewed engagement with the ATT.

Definitions of Civilian Harm and Protection of Civilians

Civilian Harm includes conflict-related death, physical and psychological injury, loss of property and livelihood, and interruption of access to essential services.*

Civilian Casualties is a more narrowly focused term referring to deaths and injuries of civilians by armed conflict.

Protection of Civilians is a broader term that includes all efforts to reduce civilian risks from physical violence, secure their rights to access essential services and resources, and contribute to a secure, stable, and just environment for civilians over the long term.**

*Sahr Muhammedally, “A Primer on Civilian Harm Mitigation in Urban Operations,” Center for Civilians in Conflict, June 2022.

**U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, “Protection of Civilians Military Reference Guide, Second Edition,” January 2018.

The ‘If We Don’t Sell, Someone Else Will’ Paradigm

The Biden administration’s commitment to restraint in the U.S. approach to security cooperation is likely to be met with a familiar rebuttal: “If we don’t sell them arms, someone else will.” This well-worn refrain reflects a long-standing assumption in U.S. security cooperation policy that countries cut off from the U.S. arms trade will turn quickly to other suppliers, including U.S. adversaries, for their defense needs, thereby eroding a key source of U.S. global influence. Recent analysis suggests, however, that this argument, which frequently has been used to justify arms transfers to countries engaged in human rights abuses or behaviors contrary to U.S. interests, fails to account for the complex set of circumstances that shape decision-making by arms importers.5 If the Biden administration is serious about its commitment to restraint, it must dispel misconceptions embodied by the “if we don’t sell” myth that distort policy choices and encourage an ever more permissive approach to arms transfers.

The global arms trade is far from an abundant buyer’s market, and an importer's historic preference for a given patron creates a degree of dependency that adds risks and costs to seeking alternative suppliers or diversifying its sources for materiel. Although countries have elected to incur those risks and costs in some cases, the factors shaping those decisions are far more complex than implied by “if we don’t sell.”

Simply sourcing a comparable capability can be challenging, especially for highly sophisticated systems such as advanced aircraft or air defense systems. Domestic production may be technically or financially beyond reach or logistically impractical, importers may face a coordinated policy of denial among allied exporters, and producers may be few in number or belong to incompatible geopolitical or ideological blocs. Similarly, integrating new systems into existing defense architectures introduces new burdens on importers, requiring costly capital investments in parallel or alternative logistics, training, sustainment, and doctrine.

In many cases, the nature of the importer's immediate security environment can add to the risks and costs of seeking alternative suppliers. For countries facing acute security threats, the time and potential readiness gaps associated with adopting and integrating alternative platforms or pivoting away from a primary supplier could jeopardize defense planning imperatives or interoperability with a preferred partner.

Beyond the practical concerns, important political and diplomatic considerations must be weighed for importers considering a transition to alternative suppliers. For the United States in particular, arms transfers are understood as signaling more general political support for a partner. For countries whose pivot to an alternative supplier might disrupt the broader relationship with the United States, the signal of interest divergence between the importer and Washington and the perceived loss of U.S. support could have serious consequences that extend beyond the particular arms in question.

Additionally, the “if we don’t sell” concept raises questions about another foundational premise in the U.S. security cooperation enterprise, namely that arms transfers are an important source of U.S. influence and leverage among recipient countries. If a country can so easily switch from one arms provider to another, it would seem unnecessary for an importer to make any sacrifices, accept any conditions, or bend to the will of a patron for the sake of preserving an essentially fungible arms relationship. In short, concepts surrounding “if we don’t sell” and arms as a means of influence, both of which are foundational principles in U.S. security cooperation, are in some ways incompatible, but continue to drive arms transfer decisions. Perhaps more importantly, the “if we don’t sell” premise betrays a troubling shallowness in many U.S. security partnerships. If a partner so casually would elect to turn to one of Washington’s strategic competitors for its defense needs or to develop deeper defense ties, that suggests a problematic misalignment of interest and perspectives that raises questions about the strategic value of the relationship in the first place.

In this context, assumptions embodied by the “if we don’t sell” concept risk inflating the likelihood and associated risk of a partner’s transition to an alternative defense supplier. Similarly, the argument offers very little space for the consideration of the potential benefits of disassociating from security relationships with countries that are engaged in abusive behaviors and have only a tenuous alignment of interests with the United States. In so doing, the argument distorts the sense of available policy options and risks incentivizing an ever more liberal approach to arms transfers without sufficient regard for the strategic returns or the consequences for civilian protection, good governance, and international peace.

Human Rights and Civilian Protection

Although international humanitarian law, human rights, and civilian harm mitigation have been featured in past policies, the Biden administration’s directive introduces a new approach for assessing and, in some cases, prohibiting a specific arms transfer on the basis of a stricter human rights standard.

The relevant section states,

[N]o arms transfer will be authorized where the United States assesses that it is more likely than not that the arms to be transferred will be used by the recipient to commit, facilitate the recipients’ commission of, or to aggravate risks that the recipient will commit: genocide; crimes against humanity; grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, including attacks intentionally directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such; or other serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, including serious acts of genderbased violence or serious acts of violence against children. This assessment shall include consideration of the available information and relevant circumstances, including the proposed recipient’s current and past actions, credible reports that the recipient committed any of the above violations, and other information related to the overall capacity or intention of the recipient to respect international law.

Compared to the two previously issued policies, this new prohibition makes three important changes. First, the level of certainty required to deny an arms transfer is reduced from “actual knowledge” to a “more likely than not” determination that the arms will be used to commit, facilitate the commission of, or aggravate the risk of international law violations. Second, the scope of negative impacts is expanded from the recipient using the arms transferred to commit violations of international law to include situations in which the arms transferred would facilitate the commission of or aggravate the risk that the recipient will commit violations of international law. Finally, the policy explicitly requires the inclusion of specific types of information in the assessment process.

Women visit the graves of people reportedly killed during the war in Yemen at a cemetery in Sanaa during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in April. Saudi Arabia, a major U.S. arms client, has been fighting the Houthis in Yemen since 2015. The war has killed thousands of people and sparked the world's worst humanitarian crisis. (Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)In order to determine whether an international law violation is more likely than not to occur, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Commerce, or a combination of departments, depending on the authority under which the proposed transfer would occur, will need to develop a more robust and expansive risk assessment regime. To carry out an effective assessment, government officials will need guidance on how to incorporate the new broader considerations into their deliberations, including whether an arms transfer will facilitate or aggravate the risk that the recipient will commit violations. This will require a significantly expanded analysis of the recipient’s security forces. For example, one could easily argue that providing a military unit with arms that would allow it to better control territory could aggravate risks if a separate domestic security force was known to detain and torture individuals because that separate force would have access to more civilians over a larger territory. Therefore, the assessment conducted by the relevant U.S. agency will need to include information and analysis on any risks in the state requesting the arms, not just the specific unit or force that would receive the proposed arms.

For a potential arms recipient to be judged more likely than not to misuse the weapons, the new policy stipulates that the assessment examine “the proposed recipient’s current and past actions, credible reports that the recipient committed any of the specified violations, and other information related to the overall capacity or intention of the recipient to respect international law.” These categories could be applied in a three-element test covering current and past actions, capacity, and intention. If the recipient state meets any of the elements, one could assess that the threshold is met.

Evidence of relevant past and current actions would include credible reports or allegations that operations were conducted with malice or reckless disregard or gross negligence toward civilians or other protected individuals. Such actions must be systematic or more than one-time events. In addition, the recipient state would be judged on whether it had taken effective steps to bring the responsible offenders to justice. If it had not, then the threshold likely would be met.

Critics opposed the Biden administration's $997 million sale of  AH-1Z attack helicopters and others weapons to Nigeria in 2022 because of the government's human rights record, among other reasons. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Chad J. Pulliam)In terms of the capacity category, the relevant security force or unit of that force would be judged on whether it had the capacity or had a significantly inconsistent capability to employ the requested arms in a lawful and effective manner. If it did not have the capacity or had a significantly inconsistent capability, the threshold likely would be met. Alternatively, if the security force was judged as not having the command and control structure needed to meet its legal obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law, then the threshold also would likely be met.

The final category concerns intention, specifically judging whether it is the deliberate purpose of the recipient state to employ the arms to commit or facilitate the commission of an act that is a violation of international law as specified in the policy. The review should be that of general intent rather than a specific intent to commit or facilitate commission of a certain action at a specified time. Additionally, the recipient state does not need to have knowledge that a certain action would be a violation of international law as long as there is intention to commit or facilitate the forbidden action, such as targeting civilians or torturing prisoners.

Incomplete Data

In order to conduct this assessment adequately, the relevant U.S. department will need information that, under current practice, is not always collected or made available in a systemic way. For example, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor annually produces a volume titled “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” which can provide some insight into human rights violations, but frequently does not have the level of detail needed to determine which specific forces commit violations or the causes of such violations.6 As a result, although the report would be helpful to the arms transfer policy analysis, it would not be sufficient.

The Defense Department’s 2022 Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan recognized this deficiency in information and reporting processes. It required the department to develop procedures and a framework to “to assess, monitor, and evaluate the ability, willingness, norms, and practices of allies and partners to implement appropriate civilian harm mitigation and response practices” and to ensure the assessments are used to shape and implement security cooperation programs, many of which include arms transfers. It also called for the formulation of guidance on responding to reports of civilian harm by ally or partner forces from governmental and nongovernmental sources. Nongovernmental organizations and civil society regularly collect and report on information that would be valuable to the type of assessment required by the new arms transfer policy.

All of this information, even if adequately collected by these disparate sources, needs to be readily accessible to the relevant individuals who review and approve arms transfers at each U.S. department that has arms transfer authority. It must be available for review on a regular basis, but not necessarily in every case.

Despite receiving billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi continues to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who has been waging war on domestic opponents since 2011. Thousands of people have been killed and millions have been displaced, including this girl at the Sahlat al-Banat camp in northern Syria. (Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)U.S. officials have said they were already frequently if not always applying a higher standard to arms transfer decisions than the previous “actual knowledge” standard. Even if true to some extent, this higher standard is not yet applied through a methodical, standardized process. The National Security Council should provide clear guidance on how to collect the relevant information and apply this standard, even if such guidance varies depending on the mechanism for transfer and the types of arms transferred. Additionally, the results of such analysis should be memorialized in a standard written document and made available for future reference in similar situations, such as tactical training for the same state or transfers to other states with similar risks.

Developing a standardized process for analysis by building out the three-element test and documenting the results in an easy-to-reference written document will set the stage for effective implementation of the new human rights standard. In order to successfully conduct the assessment, proactive steps must be taken to gather information from relevant U.S. agencies, the press, international organizations, and civil society and then ensure the resulting document is readily available to all U.S. officials who have a role in approving or denying arms transfers. Without such an approach, the much-touted human rights focus of the new policy likely will be only messaging with no noticeable difference in actual arms transfers.

The Importance of Implementation

Although the new policy is a step in the right direction of ensuring U.S. foreign policy reflects the country’s values and goals, the actual positive effect or lack thereof should be measured by its implementation. A policy on its own does not guarantee change. A Government Accountability Office report in 2019 compared conventional arms transfer policies from the Trump administration and the Obama administration and found that the two directives did not result in any notable changes to processes for reviewing proposed arms sales.7 If the Biden administration wants its policy to be more than strategic messaging, additional guidance and new processes are needed. Realizing the high-minded aspirations of this new directive will require critical reflections on ill-conceived strategic concepts, as well as more concrete guidance on applying the new human rights standard.

Time will tell if the changes in rhetoric will take root in practice and shape the practicalities of the U.S. arms trade. In particular, it will be important to watch for concrete changes in terms of arms trade decisions, human rights due diligence, and decisions to suspend, curtail, or condition certain arms transfers.



1. Pieter D. Wezeman, Justine Gadon, and Siemon T. Wezeman, “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2022,” SIPRI Fact Sheet, March 2023, p. 2, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2023-03/2303_at_fact_sheet_2022_v2.pdf.

2. Executive Office of the President, “Memorandum on United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, National Security Memorandum/NSM-18,” February 23, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2023/02/23/memorandum-on-united-states-conventional-arms-transfer-policy/; John Chappell and Ari Tolany, “Unpacking Biden’s Conventional Arms Transfer Policy,” Lawfare, March 2, 2023, https://www.lawfareblog.com/unpacking-bidens-conventional-arms-transfer-policy.

3. Jesus Rodriguez and Matthew Choi, “Trump: Saudi Arabia Would Turn to Russia, China If U.S. Ends Arms Sales Over Missing Journalist,” Politico, October 11, 2018; Zachary Cohen and Betsy Klein, “Trump Vetoes 3 Bills Prohibiting Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia,” CNN, July 24, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/24/politics/saudi-arms-sale-resolutions-trump-veto/index.html.

4. Restraint was also a theme and explicit criterion in the Carter administration’s 1977 conventional arms transfer policy.

5. Elias Yousif, “If We Don’t Sell It, Someone Else Will: Dependence & Influence in US Arms Transfers,” Stimson Center, March 30, 2023, https://www.stimson.org/2023/if-we-dont-sell-it-someone-else-will-dependence-influence-in-us-arms-transfers/.

6. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” n.d., https://www.state.gov/reports-bureau-of-democracy-human-rights-and-labor/country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/ (accessed April 19, 2023).

7. U.S. Government Accountability Office to Senator Robert Menendez, “Conventional Arms Transfer Policy: Agency Processes for Reviewing Direct Commercial Sales and Foreign Military Sales Align With Policy Criteria,” GAO-19-673R, September 9, 2019, pp. 7–8, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-19-673r.pdf.


Rachel Stohl is vice president of research programs at the Stimson Center and director of the Conventional Defense Program. Loren Voss is a nonresident fellow in the program. Elias Yousif is a research analyst in the program.

The new policy is a step in the right direction but implementation is the real test.

The ATT at 10: The View From Mexico

India, one of the world's five largest arms importers, is among the countries that have not joined the Arms Trade Treaty. This Rafale fighter jet, which participated in a U.S.-India military exercise in West Bengal in April, is among the weapons acquired from France. (Photo by Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP via Getty Images)
May 2023
By Alejandro Alba Fernández

Ten years ago, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was adopted by the UN General Assembly with the promise to establish common standards for the international trade in conventional arms in order to reduce the terrible human consequences caused by the illegal, irresponsible transfers of these weapons.

Tragically, in the years since the treaty came into force, the illicit arms market has not been contained. On the contrary, diverse research indicates that the trade has grown as unauthorized actors across the globe continue to profit from weapons at great human cost. The diversion and illicit trafficking of arms remains a serious problem that affects international peace and security, destabilizes countries and regions, cripples development, and causes excessive violence and unacceptable human suffering.

On this anniversary, it is worth asking whether the ATT has fulfilled its objectives. Although significant progress has been achieved in the institutional consolidation of the treaty, there is still a long way to go to assess its overall success. As recent years have demonstrated, there is a worrying inertia in terms of new states acceding to the treaty and states-parties meeting their reporting and transparency commitments. To fulfill the treaty’s promise and meet the pressing challenges of a world awash in conventional arms, states-parties and other supporters must place greater emphasis on improving practices and transparency in the arms trade, including strengthening schemes for preventing diversion, improving export risk assessments, and ensuring mechanisms for the verification of authorized uses and end users.

National Control Systems

One method of measuring overall ATT compliance is the establishment of national control systems. Article 5 of the treaty obliges states-parties to maintain such systems, which must include a national arms control list and clearly identified, competent national authorities and designated focal points to facilitate and expedite the exchange of information on matters related to implementation.

Although most ATT members have reported having national control systems, little is known about how they work, whether they are effective, and whether they are regularly updated. For example, the updates of national authorities involved in implementing the treaty and the national contact points are useful for addressing practical aspects of cooperation and information exchanges. Even so, more attention on this matter is needed.

National control systems must be effective and applicable to all arms imports and exports in such a way that they prevent the authorization of treaty-prohibited transfers.1 To ensure this objective, exporting countries, before authorizing a transfer, must establish risk assessments that allow them to evaluate in an objective, nondiscriminatory manner the potential of that weapon to undermine peace and security or to be used to commit crimes of international concern. Exporting countries, in collaboration with the importing state, also must take measures to mitigate any risk of this nature.2

Risk Assessments

State-parties must carry out risk assessments before authorizing a treaty-covered arms transfer and perhaps afterward if new, relevant information comes to light. In some cases, legal arms transfers have ended up in the wrong hands in conflicts in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Yemen, and other countries and are an indicator that exporting countries need to do more to improve their risk assessments.

Although this evaluation is one-sided—carried out by the exporting state—it cannot be a mechanical exercise, and the role of the importing state should be better defined. The assessment must be exhaustive, objective, and on a case-by-case basis. It must include information provided by the importing state and analyze all relevant factors, including compliance with international law and international humanitarian law by the importing state, diplomatic reports on the security and political situation in the importing country, and an evaluation of the potential that the weapons may be used to carry out illegal acts or to facilitate serious acts of violence. In this regard, risk assessments should give greater consideration and weight to the provisions of Article 7.4, which establishes criteria to avoid transfers that facilitate gender-based violence.3 This is extremely relevant because, in armed conflict, women and girls are disproportionally affected by arms violence.

Carried out seriously and under the parameters required by the ATT, risk assessments could lead to the denial of an arms transfer. The treaty refers to information that is provided by the importer, but nothing prevents a third state from providing additional information that helps to properly inform risk assessments. This is especially important when dealing with data that document detected or suspected diversion that has affected the state providing the information.

Preventing Arms Diversion

ATT states-parties involved in arms transfers are obliged to prevent their diversion.4 Although this is a fundamental obligation, it is not uncommon that weapons that were legally transferred to one country later appear in another, fueling conflict and violence.

The Conference of the States Parties is the vehicle for promoting information exchanges and practices to prevent, mitigate, address, and eradicate arms diversion among ATT members. Dialogue among the parties characterized by good faith, respect, and collaboration is the basis for achieving the ATT objectives.

It is a cause of concern, however, that despite the fact that there is an online platform for the exchange of information among ATT member states and states that have signed but not ratified the treaty, it largely has been disregarded. Some members argue that before using the platform, it is necessary to determine the type of information that can be shared. Others stress that technical and confidentiality criteria, which so far have not been addressed, must be considered first. The result is that this mechanism has not been effective for the exchange of information that is necessary to analyze and combat cases of illegal arms transfers.

The Diversion Information Exchange Forum, active since 2022, is the most recent promise within the ATT framework to prevent and combat arms diversion. The forum is the first mechanism of its kind that seeks the exchange of technical and operational information to identify and combat suspected or detected cases of diversion and illegal arms trafficking.

To strengthen trust among members, only the participation of states-parties and signatories is contemplated for now due to the sensitivity and confidential nature of the information that is meant to be shared in the forum. Civil society has questioned this format, and in the near future, the forum should consider including other stakeholders that have very relevant research and information that could contribute to analyzing cases. Given the creativity of arms traffickers, it is necessary for the conference to monitor constantly the effectiveness of its mechanisms and encourage the parties to adapt their national regulations and laws as necessary to prevent, combat, and reduce the risks of diversion; tighten risk assessments; and improve mitigation measures in the process of authorizing arms transfers.

Strengthening Reporting

States-parties are obligated under Article 13 to submit initial and annual reports on arms exports and imports. In recent years, however, compliance has weakened: Fewer annual reports have been submitted, fewer have been submitted on time, several countries have not submitted their annual and initial reports at all, more states have made their reports nonpublic, and more states are excluding information considered sensitive for security and commercial reasons and are reporting aggregate data that make independent analysis difficult.5

These are alarming trends given that a fundamental treaty obligation is not being fulfilled adequately. This has consequences for the analysis of flows of arms transfers globally and regionally, the building of trust among treaty states-parties, international cooperation, and the effective implementation of the treaty. In terms of the risk assessments exercise, the information contained in these reports can help to support decisions to grant or revoke arms transfer licenses and even facilitate the identification of possible cases of arms diversion. In addition, weak reporting related to the ATT undermines its overall compliance vis-à-vis other arms control instruments.

It is too early to draw definitive conclusions about these trends. The global pandemic may have affected the ability of states to submit reports. Developing countries in particular still face difficulties in submitting treaty-required reports. In some cases, only a single official is filing reports to comply with a number of other international and regional arms control regimes besides the ATT, or officials charged with reporting responsibilities lack capabilities. There are also challenges to collecting information from diverse governmental agencies and, in some instances, a lack of political commitment to their obligation to submit reports.

More attention should be devoted to the subject of reporting and to the development of measures that can address legitimate concerns and solve structural problems. The treaty’s working group on transparency and reporting is developing initiatives and tools to encourage reporting and to improve the quality of reporting by including more useful and relevant information in them. Some tools developed by the working group are an outreach strategy led by the conference president that would engage states-parties and drive home the importance of meeting their ATT reporting obligation, a voluntary peer-to-peer project to help states-parties with the preparation of reports, a guidance document on the annual reporting obligation, and an online reporting tool posted on the ATT website.

The working group recently updated the reference templates for the initial and annual reports. These updates are timely and pertinent because they seek to resolve inconsistencies, errors, doubts, and omissions in the submitted reports. Although use of these templates is voluntary, because the treaty establishes the obligation to report without specifying the manner of reporting, they are widely used and facilitate the work of members. The working group also promotes the use of the information exchange platform located on the ATT website and the possible development of an online database that could facilitate the search and cross-checking of information contained in the reports that are submitted in compliance with the treaty.

It is essential to continue efforts to support and encourage timely, meaningful reporting and to support states-parties that face difficulties in meeting their obligations. The ATT Voluntary Trust Fund is a valuable resource that can support projects aimed at developing and improving reporting capacities. States-parties not in compliance with the reporting requirements should consider using the fund.

Also, the Diversion Information Exchange Forum can facilitate the exchange of practical and operational information that helps to deal with detected or suspected diversion cases. For regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean, where there are no formal channels for exchanging information among national governments to prevent diversion and the regional mechanisms focused on illicit arms trafficking have had few results, the forum represents an opportunity to exchange information among the countries at the regional and subregional levels.

Toward Greater Participation

As the number of conflicts around the world continues to increase, many major arms exporting and importing countries are not yet parties to the treaty. Notable absences include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

Some of the countries that have joined the treaty in recent years are Afghanistan, Andorra, Canada, China, Lebanon, the Philippines, and São Tomé and Príncipe, which is encouraging given the geographic diversity and the countries’ profile in the arms trade. Currently, the treaty has 113 states-parties; 28 states that have signed the treaty but have not ratified it; and 54 states that remain outside the regime.6

Only eight years after the treaty entered into force, a significantly high number of countries have ratified it as states-parties, and that is definitely a positive accomplishment. For the ATT to achieve its objectives, however, the participation of all states is required.

Moreover, in recent years, the trend of new treaty accessions has decreased (fig. 1). Although there were more than 30 annual ratifications in the early years, in the last two years the growth was very modest, with one country in 2021 and two in 2022.7

This should not be interpreted as a lack of support for the treaty. It is logical that, in the early years, a large number of countries would join the new regime. Yet, this trend means that achieving new ratifications and accessions in the future will require more focused actions, a medium- or long-term perspective, and sustained efforts to address the reasons and challenges that have prevented more accessions.

For example, some countries do not consider the treaty a priority instrument or do not see the potential benefits of joining it. Others believe that membership would imply disproportionate burdens because they must fulfill other reports for several other arms control regimes. Some countries believe that before joining the treaty, they must establish or develop their national arms control systems and the legal framework that ensures their implementation. Other states simply believe that the treaty does not respond to their strategic interests.

It is striking that the Asia-Pacific and African regions, the two that suffer the most from the armed violence associated with diversion and illicit arms trafficking, historically report the lowest numbers of ATT states-parties.8 Achieving universal treaty membership requires particular attention to these regions.

States-parties should increase efforts at expanding treaty membership. Germany and South Korea, the current chairs of the working group on universalization, have proposed a constructive approach to develop medium- and long-term plans, focus outreach efforts and resources on underrepresented regions, and enlist treaty-supportive states to advocate for more accessions and ratifications in their regions. Special attention also should be given to engaging major exporters and importers, which set the trends in the global market, as well as to using the support of regional and subregional organizations.

Over the years, several international actors and civil society organizations have played a crucial role in favor of universalization through awareness campaigns and providing legal and technical assistance to countries that are considering joining the ATT. These efforts should receive more visibility and support by states-parties in political and financial terms. Above all, the best way to get more accessions is to demonstrate that the treaty works.


The Mexico Example

Mexico faces a great problem with the illegal entry of roughly half a million weapons annually through its northern border. Most of the weapons end up in the hands of criminal groups, inflicting untold suffering on the population. Combating diversion and illicit arms trafficking is a priority that Mexican foreign policy addresses in various international forums, most notably the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

The treaty has helped Mexico to visualize and raise awareness about challenges and consequences of diversion and illicit trafficking of conventional weapons, promote standards for responsible international arms trade, and take advantage of its provisions on international cooperation to exchange information and consult on best practices in an effort to prevent and combat these illicit trafficking cases. In this regard, Mexico's general evaluation of the treaty is positive, although it recognizes the challenges the treaty faces and is therefore involved actively and purposefully
in improving the treaty’s operational processes.

Mexico played an active role in the adoption of the treaty, its entry into force, and the efforts in favor of universalization and effective implementation. The first conference of states-parties, chaired by Mexico in 2015, established the general basis of the bodies that monitor
the application of the ATT.

Mexico’s role in the ATT is reflected in the activism of its delegations; in the continuous work that it carries out along with other actors, including governments and civil society organizations, to promote its effectiveness; and in its participation in the treaty governing bodies. It has held relevant positions within the institutional structure of the treaty, such as the regional vice presidency of the Eighth Conference of States Parties, chair of the forum on the exchange of information on diversion, the co-chair of the working group on transparency and reporting, and member of the ATT Voluntary Trust Fund selection committee.

As co-chair of the working group, Mexico promoted the creation of the forum, believing that this will help to create the necessary conditions for open and direct exchanges among the members. It is essential to ensure that this mechanism is effective.

Mexico has also underlined the responsibility that states have to ensure that the weapons that transit through their territories are not used to commit serious crimes and that the states are not in violation of their obligations under international law. It has promoted the treaty’s synergies and complementarities with other international and regional arms control regimes, such as the UN Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Traffic in Small Arms and Light Weapons, the Protocol on the Control of Firearms, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives.

Although Mexico has a strict national arms control system and systematically submits its reports to the ATT, more can be done to ensure full compliance with its obligations in the domestic domain. These steps would include more transparency in the way the country implements the ATT and manages the licensing process. It would be useful to know how the country carries out its risk assessments, what factors are taken into account, and whether it has experienced challenges in preparing its reports and improving the quality of information they contain. Mexico should encourage more of its technical, licensing, and enforcement officers to participate in the Conference of States Parties and its preparatory meetings, so that they can share experiences in the detection of illicit transfers and diversion of arms that end up in the hands of criminal groups.

Mexico must continue contributing to the efforts to ensure the effective implementation of the ATT because it is a case study in all the elements needed to achieve a more responsible international arms trade. That is not an easy task, given the obscure interests pursued by the different actors involved in diversion and illicit arms trafficking, but it is a moral and ethical imperative for the innocent victims who suffer every day from the impacts of armed violence.—ALEJANDRO ALBA FERNÁNDEZ


1. Pursuant to Article 6 of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), arms transfers that violate UN Security Council resolutions or other international obligations or that take place with the knowledge that the weapons could be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, or other war crimes typified in international agreements are prohibited. Arms Trade Treaty, April 2, 2013, 3013 U.N.T.S. 269, art. 6.

2. Ibid., art. 7.

3. Ibid., art. 7.4.

4. Ibid., art. 11.

5. For trends in ATT reporting, see Arms Trade Treaty Baseline Assessment Project, “Taking Stock of ATT Reporting,” Stimson Center, August 2022, https://www.stimson.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Report_Taking-Stock-Web.pdf.

6. Arms Trade Treaty, “Treaty Status,” n.d., https://thearmstradetreaty.org/treaty-status.html?templateId=209883 (accessed April 25, 2013).

7. Dumisani Dladla, “Arms Trade Treaty: Status of Participation,” February 15, 2013, https://thearmstradetreaty.org/hyper-images/file/ATT%20Secretariat%20-%20Status%20of%20Participation%20(15.02.2023)/ATT%20Secretariat%20-%20Status%20of%20Participation%20(15.02.2023).pdf.

8. As of May 31, 2020, the regions with the lowest number of ATT members were Africa (27 of 54 countries), Asia (eight of 14), and Oceania (five of 14). Europe (39 of 43 countries) and the Americas (26 of 35) have a higher regional proportionality of states-parties. See “State of the Arms Trade Treaty: A Year in Review June 2019–May 2020,” ATT Monitor 2020, n.d., https://attmonitor.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/EN_ATT_2020_State-of-the-ATT.pdf.


Alejandro Alba Fernández, a member of the Mexican Foreign Service, served as chair of the Arms Trade Treaty Diversion Information Exchange Forum in 2022 and co-chair of the treaty’s Working Group on Transparency and Reporting from 2019 to 2021. The author's opinions are his own and may not reflect the positions of the government of Mexico.

In its first decade, the Arms Trade Treaty has established itself but new memberships have slowed and the illicit arms market continues to flourish.


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