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Nuclear Security
Cooperating to Prevent Catastrophe
Nations can secure nuclear materials by meeting developing world needs

The US Central Intelligence Agency began receiving fragmentary information regarding Osama bin Laden’s ongoing efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon in 1998. In the same year he was complicit in the bombings of two US embassies in Africa, bin Laden sent emissaries across the Afghanistan border to Pakistan to establish contact with rogue nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. For more than a decade, Khan’s black market in nuclear technologies spanned the globe, providing one-stop shopping to untold numbers of customers seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability. By 2003 the international community would learn that in addition to nebulous connections to Al Qaeda, Khan’s network had supplied critical nuclear technologies to an array of state clients from North Korea to Iran, and to Libya.

Beyond the immediate threat to international security, the Khan affair revealed a major gap in the ability of global mechanisms to address the role that individuals motivated by ideology or greed can play in undermining global nonproliferation. The case stands as a warning to the world that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty remains a critical but ultimately insufficient tool to prevent committed proliferators from capitalizing upon globalization and rapidly advancing technological markets.

In a direct response to these events, in April 2004 the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1540, mandating that all member states implement a rigorous set of controls to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons—including securing potentially dangerous materials, strengthening border security, and developing national export and trans-shipment controls over “dual use” items. The resolution also encourages states with the capacity to provide international assistance to do so and, in turn, invites states-in-need to request the assistance they require to meet the demands of 1540.

A Lack of Urgency
The response by governments to 1540 has unquestionably helped to strengthen global nonproliferation standards. Yet despite these efforts, the urgency of implementing 1540 in capitals around the world has not been commensurate with the threat. Critics point to a lack of institutional resources for the 1540 Committee, burdensome restrictions on the committee’s group of experts, and flagging interest among most UN member states. Beyond statements of political support, little evidence of widespread implementation of the 1540 mandate is evident—particularly in key regions of the Global South—a growing locus of proliferation concern.

While 1540 implementation has been far from robust, the potential for proliferation continues to grow. Even amidst the global economic slowdown, the overall number and geographic distribution of dual-use technology manufacturers continues to rise. And in a recent interview with Al Jazeera, the leader of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, made it clear that the terrorist organization continues its relentless pursuit of a nuclear capability. Referring to Al Qaeda’s Taliban allies in Pakistan, he said, “God willing, the nuclear weapons will not winter into the hands of the Americans and the mujahedin would take them and use them against the Americans.”

1540 Complements Development
At its root, the sluggish implementation of Resolution 1540 has become a question of resources and priorities. While no responsible government can reasonably disagree that keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists is an important goal, the vast majority of UN members are plagued with an array of threats to security and well-being of their people that seem to have little to do with the proliferation of advanced weapons and technologies. Implementation of 1540 thus ranks low on their long list of government priorities.

In Western capitals panicked by the growing nexus between technology proliferation and the rise of catastrophic terrorism, it is easy to lose sight of this realization: in the Global South, where more than a billion people live on less than $1 a day, one illness, one unlucky encounter with a drug or small arms trafficker, one hurricane, or one month of poor rainfall can mean death. It is unreasonable and even immoral to expect their governments to divert scarce resources from public health, education, or infrastructure development to meet the seemingly distant threat of WMD proliferation.

But when viewed expansively, UNSCR 1540 can be a complementary rather than competing priority for developing world governments. For instance, the technical assistance needed to detect and interdict weapons of mass destruction is equally critical to natural disaster response. The ability to prosecute potential weapons smugglers requires a well-trained police force and functioning judiciary—traits equally critical to the rule of law. The prevention of drug, human, and small arms trafficking relies upon many of the same resources and capacities necessary to detect and prevent proliferation. Assistance to help identify and prevent biological weapons proliferation could help address the endemic lack of public health resources, disease surveillance, and emergency medical responses across the Global South. And “safe ports” standards that challenge governments’ ability to remain competitive in the global supply chain can be achieved, in part, with nonproliferation security assistance.

Coordinating Efforts
Moving forward, governments intent on 1540 implementation have two central challenges. First, in order to demonstrate the benefits of full implementation, they must help draw the link between 1540 assistance for proliferation and the security and economic development needs of the Global South. Secondly, donor governments must better leverage security and development assistance. Both communities have much to learn from, and achieve through, better coordination.
The United States should lead by example and develop an interagency committee of donor agencies—including State/USAID, the departments of Defense and Energy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and others—to share information in key target regions, leverage one another’s activities, and ultimately promote a more robustly funded set of development activities while simultaneously building sustainable nonproliferation programs.

Better coordination between these communities has been a distant goal for policymakers for decades. Implementation of UNSCR 1540 provides a pragmatic opportunity to turn that rhetoric into reality in a pilot effort that addresses the greatest threat to global security.

— Brian Finlay, Senior Associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center and Director of the Managing Across Boundaries Program
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