Multilateral export controls to prevent proliferation of WMDs

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An overview of the multilateral export control regimes to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)

By ILPI
December 2016

Preventing export of weapons (or components of weapons) of mass destruction is high on the international agenda. An intricate web of rules, norms and institutions ensure a degree of international attention to this overall goal, but much remains to be done for the world to be safe from such weapons. This short overview will give an introduction to some of these rules and systems, based on information given on, and providing links to, the relevant web-sites.

Main WMD treaties

The three main multilateral treaties regulating WMDs are:

  1. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC);
  2. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC);
  3. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Both the BWC and the CWC categorically prohibit the export (transfer) of the weapons in question. The NPT prohibits export of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states as defined by the NPT.

These three treaties are not export control regimes as such. Nevertheless, they lay down general prohibitions against export, and provides a multilateral framework for discussing export control.

WMD-related export control regimes largely pertain to components or products with dual usage, i.e. to items that may be legitimate export articles under certain circumstances. Compulsory systems for export licensing authorizations by governments are meant to mitigate some of the dangers of exporting dual use items.

Instruments and initiatives relating to all WMDs

Security Council Resolution 1540

Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540, adopted in 2004, was an important milestone in the international efforts to prevent diversion of sensitive materials to non-state actors. The resolution imposes binding obligations on all states to adopt legislation to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and their means of delivery. It also obliges states to establish appropriate domestic controls over related materials to prevent their illicit trafficking. Moreover, it encourages enhanced international cooperation on such efforts. The resolution affirms support for the multilateral treaties aimed at eliminating or preventing the proliferation of WMDs, and recalls the importance of all states implementing them fully. It also makes clear that none of the obligations in UNSCR 1540 shall conflict with or alter the rights and obligations of states parties to the NPT, CWC, or the BWC or alter the responsibilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Traditionally, export control regimes have applied to states, notwithstanding the fact that many non-state actors (such as arms producers) have been part of the equation. UNSCR 1540, however, aims at preventing proliferation of WMD related materials to non-state actors (‘in particular for terrorist purposes’).

The Wassenaar Arrangement

The Wassenaar Arrangement aims at preventing proliferation and diversion of goods that can be used in the productions of WMDs. The arrangement was made as a contribution to regional and international security and stability, promoting transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies, thus preventing destabilizing accumulation. The aim was also to prevent the acquisition of these items by terrorists. Participating states seek, through their national policies, to ensure that transfers of sensitive items do not contribute to the development or enhancement of military capabilities which undermine these goals, and are not diverted to support such capabilities.

Participating states control all items set forth in the List of Dual-Use Goods and Technologies and Munitions List, with the objective of preventing unauthorized transfers or re-transfers of those items. In fulfilling the purposes of the Arrangement as described above, participating states have, inter alia, agreed to a number of guidelines, elements and procedures as a basis for decision-making through the application of their own national legislation and policies.

Initiatives relating only to chemical and biological weapons

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)

Non-proliferation of chemical weapons is one of the fundamental tenets of the Chemical Weapons Convention. To this end, export control of chemicals is key. The OPCW is the secretariat of the CWC, and has among its core tasks to assist the States Parties of the CWC with controlling the export of toxic chemicals and their precursors with a view to avoid proliferation of chemical weapons.

The Australia Group

The Australia Group is an informal forum of countries that, through the harmonization of export controls, seeks to ensure that exports do not contribute to the development of chemical or biological weapons. Coordination of national export control measures assists Australia Group participants to fulfil their obligations under the CWC and the BWC to the fullest extent possible.

The principal objective of the Australia Group is to use licensing measures to ensure that exports of certain chemicals, biological agents, and dual-use chemical and biological manufacturing equipment and facilities do not contribute to the proliferation of WMDs. The Group achieves this by harmonizing participating countries’ national export licensing measures. The Group’s activities are especially important as the international chemical and biotechnology industries are a target for proliferators as a source of materials for chemical and biological weapons programs.

Participants have recognized from the outset that export licensing measures are not a substitute for the strict and universal observance of relevant international treaties regulating WMDs. All group participants are states parties to both the BWC and the CWC. Support for these regimes and their aims remains the overriding objective of Australia Group. Export licensing measures instituted by individual members assist in implementing key obligations under the CWC (Article I, 1 (a) and (d)) and the BWC (Articles I and III).

Export licensing measures also demonstrate participants’ determination to avoid not only direct but also inadvertent involvement in the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, and also to express their opposition to the use of these weapons. It is also in the interests of commercial firms and research institutes and of their governments to ensure that they do not inadvertently supply chemicals, chemical equipment, biological agents or biological equipment for use in the manufacture of WMDs. Global chemical and biological industries have consistently supported this principle.

Instruments and initiatives relating to nuclear weapons

There exists several multilateral initiatives, arrangements, and other instruments and institutions aimed at preventing export of items that may contribute to proliferation of nuclear weapons:

The IAEA Safeguards

IAEA safeguards form an essential component of the international security system. The Safeguards are anchored in Article 3 of the NPT, and are aimed at deterring the spread of nuclear weapons by the early detection of the misuse of nuclear material or technology. The Safeguards constitute a set of technical measures applied by the IAEA on nuclear material and activities, through which the IAEA seeks to independently verify that nuclear facilities are not misused and nuclear material not diverted from peaceful uses. States accept these measures through the conclusion of safeguards agreements with the IAEA.

Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a group countries that seeks to contribute to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons through the implementation of two sets of guidelines for nuclear exports and nuclear-related exports.

According to the guidelines, a supplier can authorize a transfer only when satisfied that the transfer would not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The guidelines are implemented by each participating government in accordance with its national laws and practices.

The participating governments (suppliers) have established two sets of guidelines with the aim of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and preventing acts of nuclear terrorism.

The first set of guidelines is for nuclear transfers such as physical protection, safeguards, special controls on sensitive exports, special arrangements for export of enrichment facilities, controls on material usable for nuclear weapons, controls on retransfers as well as supporting activities.

The second set of NSG Guidelines governs the export of nuclear-related dual-use items and technologies, that is, items that can make a major contribution to an unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle or nuclear explosive activity, but have non-nuclear uses as well, for example in industry.

The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT)

The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) is a voluntary international partnership of 86 nations and five international organizations that are committed to strengthening global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear terrorism. The GICNT works toward this goal by conducting multilateral activities that strengthen the plans, policies, procedures, and interoperability of partner nations.

All partner nations have voluntarily committed to implementing the GICNT Statement of Principles (SOP), a set of broad nuclear security goals encompassing a range of deterrence, prevention, detection, and response objectives. The eight principles contained within the SOP aim to develop partnership capacity to combat nuclear terrorism, consistent with national legal authorities and obligations as well as relevant international legal frameworks such as the Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and UNSCR 1373 and 1540.

The United States and Russia serve as co-chairs of the GICNT, while the Netherlands leads the Implementation and Assessment Group (IAG) under the guidance of the two co-chairs. To date, the GICNT has conducted over 70 multilateral activities and nine senior-level meetings. The GICNT is open to nations that share in its common goals and are actively committed to combating nuclear terrorism on a determined and systematic basis.

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)

The aim of the MTCR is to restrict the proliferation of missiles, complete rocket systems, unmanned air vehicles and related technology for those systems capable of carrying a 500 kilogram payload at least 300 kilometers, as well as systems intended for the delivery of WMDs.

The Regime’s controls are applicable to certain complete rocket systems (to include ballistic missiles, space launch vehicles (SLVs), and sounding rockets) and unmanned air vehicle (UAV) systems (to include cruise missiles, drones, UAVs, and remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs)). The partners recognize the importance of controlling the transfer of missile-related technology without disrupting legitimate trade and acknowledge the need to strengthen the objectives of the regime through cooperation with countries outside the Regime.

The MTCR partners initiated in 1999 the process that resulted in The Hague Code of Conduct (HCoC). The Code was launched in The Hague in November 2002 and now has 130 subscribing states. The HCoC is open to voluntary subscription by all countries. It provides subscribing states with a forum for promoting ballistic missile non-proliferation.

The Zangger Committee

The Zangger Committee, named after its first Chairman, Prof. Claude Zangger, was formed in 1971 to draft a trigger list of (a) source or special fissionable materials, and (b) equipment or materials especially designed or prepared for the processing, use, or production of special fissionable materials. Under Art. III.2 of the NPT, these items should be subject to IAEA) Safeguards if supplied by NPT parties to any non-nuclear-weapon states. In 1974, the Committee published the trigger list, i.e. a list of items that would “trigger” a requirement for safeguards and guidelines (“common understandings”) governing the export of those items to non-nuclear-weapon states not party to the NPT. These guidelines establish three conditions of supply:

  1. a non-explosive use assurance;
  2. an IAEA safeguards requirement;
  3. a re-transfer provision that requires the receiving state to apply the same conditions when re-exporting these items.

The Trigger List was first published in September 1974 and has been amended several times since then.

Nuclear Security Summit (NSS)

The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) is a United States initiative to gain greater control of sensitive nuclear material. Responding to President Obama’s call for a summit in 2010, nearly fifty heads of state gathered for the inaugural Summit in Washington DC. Since then, three follow-up summits have been held.

The aim is to address the threat of nuclear terrorism by enhancing international cooperation to secure all weapons-useable nuclear material. According to the IAEA, 16 incidents involving trafficking of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium (fissile materials needed to make nuclear weapons) were reported between 1993 and 2005. Securing such nuclear materials is important to prevent non-state actors from gaining access to these resources and reduce the risks of nuclear terrorism. The 2010 NSS concluded with a high-level political statement by the participating states to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, embracing the goal of securing all weapons-grade plutonium and uranium world-wide within four years. The Summit also agreed on a Work Plan, which lays out specific steps for realizing the goals of the statement, including ratifying and implementing treaties on nuclear security and nuclear terrorism, converting civilian facilities that use highly enriched uranium to non-weapons-usable materials, reviewing national regulatory and legal requirements relating to nuclear security and nuclear trafficking, working with the IAEA to update and implement security guidance, and implementing UNSCR 1540 (2004).