The Perils of Proliferation: Combating WMD in an Age of Terror

By Burian, Peter | Harvard International Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Perils of Proliferation: Combating WMD in an Age of Terror

Burian, Peter, Harvard International Review

Not so many years ago, the international community approached the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as an issue exclusively connected with the activities of states. Non-state actors seemed to have little interest in acquiring or using nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Their capacities to acquire such weapons also appeared to be lacking, if not nonexistent. However, the appearance of well-organized, well-financed, and well-equipped terrorist groups, especially hybrid networks like Al Qaeda, began challenging that perception in the mid-1990s. The troubling revelation of Abdul Qadeer Khan's nuclear black market in 2004 was one event that put an end to such innocent outlooks. These revelations demonstrate that non-state actors, including terrorist organizations, have easy access to even the most sensitive WMD expertise and hardware. The likely expansion of civilian nuclear programs also provides an opportunity for criminals and terrorists to access fissile and radioactive materials, which they may use to create nuclear weapons or dirty bombs.

The threat of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction is real and growing. The terrorist attacks of the past decade--ranging from massive embassy bombings in East Africa, the indiscriminate bombings of commuter systems in Europe and Asia, the massive terrorist attacks of 9/11, and most recently the use of chlorine gas in attacks in Iraq--all clearly indicate that terrorists will not hesitate to use even the deadliest weapons if they acquire them. Considering the unprecedented growth of terrorist movements, the international community of nations should be aware that it currently finds itself in a race against time. Without further action, the current threat of nuclear proliferation among non-state actors might become a much crueler reality.

Under these circumstances, it is crucial to recognize the importance of the UN Security Council's adoption of Resolution 1540 in 2004, which affirms that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery--as well as illicit trafficking of related materials--constitute a threat to international peace and security. Nations must work toward conquering the many challenges that currently impede full implementation of this resolution through regional, national, and global cooperation.

The adoption of Resolution 1540 was a necessary step toward building a comprehensive global system of prevention and protection against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The resolution establishes binding obligations for all states regarding non-proliferation and creates a subsidiary body of the Security Council--the 1540 Committee--to review relevant measures taken by states to meet these obligations.

Since the adoption of Resolution 1540, there has been significant progress in the implementation of its provisions in various regions. At the same time, there is no room for complacency. More needs to be done, including the development of tools that states may create for themselves, in order to successfully implement all aspects of the resolution. In April 2007, the 1540 Committee submitted a comprehensive report to the Security Council on the work of its first biennium. Among other observations and conclusions, the report identified several important gaps in the implementation of Resolution 1540 in the areas of accountability, physical protection, border controls, law enforcement efforts, and national export and trans-shipment controls. Given these gaps, the report also notes that the internal administrative and technical capacities of many states must be strengthened in order to effectively address the threat of proliferation.

Even those states that have made significant progress in the implementation of Resolution 1540 need to regularly enhance national systems to license export items and control relevant activities, including transit, trans-shipment, or re-export.

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