After a decade of UN resolution 1540, is the world a safer place?

Individuals and private companies are major players in nuclear proliferation. EPA/Yonhap

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the the United Nations Security Council adopting resolution 1540. The resolution – an important, but perhaps underappreciated, element of the non-proliferation regime – requires all states to put in place a range of measures in order to prevent the involvement of non-state actors in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to either other states or to terrorists.

The adoption of Resolution 1540 had its genesis in the post-9/11 climate which saw a growth in concern regarding the role of non-state actors – defined by the resolution as those “not acting under the lawful authority of any State” – in international security. A specific example of this was the A Q Khan black market nuclear proliferation network. This was a group of individuals in a number of countries, including Malaysia, Switzerland, South Africa and the UAE, but led by Khan who worked to supply the programmes of Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Khan, a nuclear scientist, used contacts developed during his work on Pakistan’s centrifuge enrichment programme to supply sourced goods and expertise from both Pakistan’s own program and myriad western manufacturers for a healthy profit.

The shock caused by the extent of the network’s activities turned attentions to the holes in the patchwork of national non-proliferation measures that existed at the time. Numerous states, including many used by the network, had no export control legislation in place at all. In those countries that did, Khan’s network was easily able to circumvent the controls by using corrupt businessmen and illicit procurement practices.

Recognising the risks that a recurrence of a Khan-like network posed to international security, the P5 (UK, US, France, Russia, China) saw a need to act. Nuclear proliferation up to that point had largely involved the nuclear weapons states facilitating proliferation to third-party countries. In contrast, the Khan network highlighted the challenges posed by the globalisation of supply chains and the manufacturing base. Successful efforts to address this would need to be global in scope and binding on all. It was with this in mind that US government officials penned what would become Resolution 1540 and submitted it to the Security Council, where it was subsequently adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

To fully implement the resolution – a mere 4 pages and 12 clauses – states are required by the Security Council to adopt some 300 measures (specified by the 1540 Committee) in order to prevent proliferation, from export controls to physical protection around nuclear sites and materials.

Significant progress, ongoing challenges

It is not possible to judge how many would-be proliferators have been thwarted by the adoption of resolution 1540, if any have been at all. However, in the ten years since 1540’s adoption there has been significant progress in expanding the implementation of the resolution’s requirements.

Some of this progress has been easy to measure. For example, a number of states including Malaysia and the UAE, the two key nodes of the Khan network, have adopted comprehensive export control legislation for the first time. On the nuclear security side, significant steps have been taken by states – primarily under the auspices of contribution to the Nuclear Security Summit process – to secure nuclear materials and to return High Enriched Uranium to the US and Russia.

A key point, however, is that adoption of legislation – or indeed the fulfilment of the 300-plus criteria – is not going to be enough on its own to prevent proliferation. Instead, it is everyday action taken in businesses and elsewhere that can prevent the type of proliferation that the resolution seeks to tackle. In particular, businesses that hold proliferation-sensitive technology must not only apply for export licences – authorisations provided on application by national governments – when shipping their goods. They must also ensure that their supply chain and customers will not divert the goods to nefarious end uses.

Looking ahead

Anniversaries provide a good opportunity to reflect on progress. Are we better off now than a decade ago? Are we moving in the right direction? Whatever the answer to these questions it is apparent that the risks that 1540 was adopted to counter are ongoing: as the UN Panel of Experts on Iran sanctions has highlighted repeatedly, Iran’s nuclear program is largely sustained through illicit procurement of dual use goods from the international marketplace. Perhaps for this reason the UN Security Council acted in 2011 to extend the mandate of the 1540 Committee up to 2021. Therefore, the focus for the next decade must be in ensuring that the implementation of the resolution goes beyond the adoption of legislation: there must be a focus on identifying and plugging the gaps to the resolution’s implementation that could otherwise enable the next A Q Khan.

Civil society – in particular NGOs and academia – must do these things and more in every country if the resolution’s objectives are to be realised. There are a number of examples where civil society are rising to the challenge. But much potential remains untapped.

One area in which civil society can play a role is in providing a systematic assessment of the resolution’s implementation. Presently, it is simply not known where the gaps are: there is no good measure of national implementation. Both national self-reporting and UN administered monitoring have thus far failed to accurately keep track of the implementation of the roughly 300 requirements of the resolution in each of the 193 member states. New approaches are needed in order to know where we stand before we try to move forward. The use of new technology to crowd-source this information is one approach being explored for this purpose.

As we enter the resolution’s second decade, it is clear that significant work remains if non-state actors are to be prevented from becoming involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In this second decade, it is vital that implementation goes beyond the adoption of national legislation. For this purpose, it is vital that civil society around the world becomes more involved in the resolution’s implementation.

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