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UNSCR 1540: A Critical Tool for a Safe, Secure World
February 2011

Editor’s Note: A new series of feature articles in think. will examine the main themes of the three issue areas on which the Stanley Foundation focuses its programming—global leadership, nuclear material security, and genocide prevention. Each article will lay out the concerns, international trends and dynamics, and underlying reasoning on which our approach and advocacy are based. We will also strive to inspire you to learn more, take action, and work with us as we push for better US and global policies that lead to a secure peace.

With nine nuclear weapon states at present, and more nuclear material in the world than most of us think, the thought of material required to make a bomb being given to, bought by, or stolen by the “bad guys” is not only terrifying, it is highly probable.

The international community’s understanding of the threat of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has evolved over the years. Today we know that Al Qaeda is trying desperately to acquire nuclear weapons. Just this week, we learned that the terrorist group is seeking enough nuclear material to build a so-called dirty bomb and wreak havoc through such an attack.

Born out of the urgency of this threat, in 2004 the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1540. When the Pakistani nuclear physicist A.Q. Khan confessed in 2004, a dangerous byproduct of an increasingly globalized world where porous borders and weak governments allow for the transit of dangerous materials, equipment, and know-how was revealed. A common misperception is that countries learn how to build nuclear weapons on their own. The Khan case showed that many of the newest members of the nuclear club have relied heavily on technological know-how, material, and equipment from outside of their borders and, as was the case with North Korea, Libya, and Iran, the sharing of state secrets.

The swift action by the United Nations Security Council obligated all nations to make sure that something like the A.Q. Khan network would not develop again. Resolution 1540 calls upon states to make it more difficult for terrorists to gain access to the material, equipment, and know-how required to develop WMD, whether chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear. Obscure in name and broad in its mandate, Resolution 1540 is a 21st-century tool put in place to manage an evolving threat. Not only does it address a wide range of capacity challenges that many nations face, it also levels the playing field in terms of requiring all countries to take the same preventive steps. Unlike the NPT, Resolution1540 is not a treaty, which is purely a voluntary commitment by countries. Instead, Resolution 1540 is a universal mandate. In our view, it is a logical multilateral mechanism that contributes to the Stanley Foundation’s vision for the world—a secure peace with freedom and justice, built on world citizenship and effective global governance.

The Security Council recognized that many nations would require assistance in implementing its mandate, so they encourage countries with the capacity to do so to support others' implementation efforts. In turn, Resolution 1540 urges nations in need to request any help that they deem necessary to comply with the demands of the resolution. Because the assistance provided under Resolution 1540 can be "dual-purpose," it provides a significant opportunity for poorer countries to tap into traditional security-related assistance available from wealthier countries. As a result, developing countries are able to meet their high priority internal development goals and human security priorities while simultaneously meeting international WMD nonproliferation obligations. It is our view that this sort of “dual-purpose” mechanism can help to break down the hurdles that exist in the current nonproliferation regime.

In upcoming editions of think., we’ll continue to demonstrate how, with full implementation of UNSCR 1540, the international community can thwart any possible WMD terrorist attack and how the multilateral tool Resolution 1540 is critical to keeping our world as safe and secure as possible.

Veronica Tessler

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