Recently the United Nations unanimously approved a treaty that outlaws the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists and their supporters. Incredibly, such actions were not illegal before. The treaty has been touted — by the United States, no less — as an important step in the fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It thus seems that the U.N. is benefiting from low expectations.
Every member of the General Assembly voted to approve the Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, the 13th antiterrorism treaty passed by the U.N., and the first to be adopted since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It opens for signature next September and will go into effect 30 days after it is ratified by 22 states.
Negotiations began seven years ago as Russia’s then-President Boris Yeltsin worried about the safety and security of his country’s nuclear stockpiles. At the time of its collapse, the Soviet Union had more than 27,000 nuclear weapons, and possessed enough weapons-grade plutonium and uranium to triple that number. Reports of missing or stolen “suitcase bombs” and periodic arrests of individuals with radioactive materials suggest that the concerns were not exaggerated. The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported 175 nuclear-smuggling incidents since 1993, 18 involving highly enriched uranium.
The treaty criminalizes the possession or use of radioactive material or a nuclear device “to cause death or serious bodily injury.” It also makes it a crime to use a nuclear device to damage property or the environment, or to attack a nuclear facility. Governments that ratify the treaty must amend their laws to prevent terrorists and their supporters from financing, planning or participating in nuclear terrorism. They are also encouraged to share information, ease the extradition of suspects and pursue criminal prosecutions of suspects linked to such terrorist acts.
Nonproliferation experts have applauded the agreement. It provides a legal basis for fighting terrorism involving radioactive material or nuclear devices. Significantly, it aims to prevent such attacks; governments need not wait until after terrorists have struck.
Holes remain, though. Incredibly, there is as yet no agreement on how to identify a terrorist. The treaty struck a compromise that explicitly avoids a generic definition. This is an inexplicable omission, as there is no room for the romantic notion that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Moreover, the convention only applies to nonstate actors; governments remain free to use such weapons. That, too, is a glaring oversight, although supporters of the treaty say such a distinction was inevitable.
Conspicuously, the treaty does not provide international funding to help governments secure nuclear stockpiles or build up their capability to detect the presence of nuclear materials. A number of international efforts, such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative, are aimed at protecting those materials. Those programs have made some progress but, as indicated, the scale of the problem is huge and funds are not sufficient. It is perplexing that governments can devote seven years to negotiating this treaty yet seem unwilling to allocate the funds needed to directly address this problem. To its credit, Japan has committed more than $200 million to the Group of Eight Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Unfortunately, that is just a fraction of what’s needed.
The U.S. has backed the treaty and sees it as another tool in the effort to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Given the rocky U.S.-U.N. relationship over the past few years, American support for the initiative is to be welcomed. Mustering an international consensus on an issue of this significance is important. Still, the treaty sets the bar for meaningful international action awfully low.
Yes, it does raise international consciousness of the threat posed by nuclear proliferation. Yes, it creates an affirmative obligation on the part of national governments to respond to that danger. But a rhetorical commitment of this sort looks suspiciously like the consequence-free, “feel good” action by the U.N. that critics in the U.S. have frequently denounced.
More to the point, it is fair to ask whether this is the most effective use of limited U.N. resources. Of all the issues on the U.N. agenda, is this the most pressing? Or, is this the most politically convenient? As the U.N. debates structural reform, member states should be ever-conscious of the need to take actions that are both politically relevant and have a practical effect. These should be the guiding principles of U.N. action and a test for the U.N. agenda in the months and years ahead.
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