U.N. Resolution Could Close Nuclear Loopholes

The United States, Britain, France, China and Russia have all asked the U.N. Security Council to endorse one of the most ambitious attempts in decades to stop the spread of nuclear arms. Under the terms of a surprisingly broad resolution, all countries in the world would be required to close their territory to any group that tried to make or acquire nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or the means to deliver them. In addition, all countries would have to control any item that could be used to make such weapons, including its export. If the resolution passes, it could have more effect on national laws than has any other treaty on arms control.

“Non-state actors” such as Al Qaeda are the resolution’s first target. These are defined as an “individual or entity, not acting under the lawful authority of any State.” No such entity could “manufacture, acquire, possess, develop, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery ….” in any country that belongs to the United Nations. All countries would have to enact laws banning such behavior. The ban would even include assisting or financing such activities.

The aim of the resolution is nothing less than to deny all national territories to illicit bomb makers. This would close a loophole in existing treaties. Odd as it may appear, there is no international prohibition today against having a group of terrorists move into a country and set up shop to make bombs. Nor, for that matter, is there a prohibition against having a group of entrepreneurs do the same thing to make money. The now-famous nuclear smuggling network set up by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan provides a recent example of how dangerous the loophole can be. Khan’s associates used companies in Dubai to order the manufacture of bomb-making centrifuge parts in Malaysia. This activity seems to have been legal in both places. If Malaysia and Dubai were made to outlaw this sort of thing, it would be a great step forward.

The resolution’s second target is countries. All nations would be obliged to enact effective export control laws. If this happened, it would be a true revolution. Only a handful of states now have anything like effective controls. When components for centrifuges capable of making nuclear weapon fuel were shipped from Malaysia to Libya last year, no law was broken. The reason was simple. Malaysia has no export control laws to speak of. Neither does Dubai, which hosted the companies that arranged the shipment.

If the resolution passes, both Malaysia and Dubai would have to start controlling centrifuge parts, as well as hundreds of other dangerous items. The resolution, in fact, obliges all states to control both weapons and “related materials.” These latter are defined in the broadest possible way. They include the long list of material and equipment now regulated for export by the United States, Japan and the European Union. The list includes things like high-accuracy machine tools, which are needed to shape bomb parts, and precision electrical switches, needed to detonate nuclear explosions. If places like Malaysia and Dubai really started regulating such products, these countries would no longer function as smugglers’ havens.

In addition to the above provisions, which are mandatory, the resolution asks states to do a number of things. It urges them to strengthen existing treaties against proliferation, to help each other implement their new legal obligations, and to cooperate in preventing illicit trafficking. This last is a nod to the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), an agreement among countries to interdict illicit shipments of mass destruction weapons. Within three months of adoption, states would need to report on their implementation of the resolution to a new U.N. Security Council committee.

The resolution seems to have had its genesis in President George W. Bush’s call last September for an “anti-proliferation resolution” in an address to the U.N. General Assembly. In February he repeated his request for “swift passage” of an appropriate measure. Since December, the United States has spent considerable effort enlisting the support of the other permanent members of the Security Council. With that support now secured, the resolution has a good chance of being adopted.

The Bush administration hopes that a U.N. stamp of approval will encourage at least some countries to strengthen their export controls. U.N. backing may help countries overcome local opposition, and avoid the appearance of bowing to pressure from Uncle Sam. And because the resolution has been offered under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, sanctions are possible for noncompliance.

Nevertheless, some states are already criticizing the resolution for trying to stop proliferation through an order from the Council rather than an international agreement. Such an agreement, of course, would take years to negotiate. In view of the imminent danger from mass destruction weapons, loopholes need to be plugged now. The resolution would go a long way toward making the world a safer place.

Gary Milhollin is the director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. Arthur Shulman is a research associate at the Project.