Nuclear Security Summit 2014: The Penitent Preachers


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

 This article was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website

Keywords: Nuclear Security Summit 2014, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540, Nuclear Black Market, Prague Declaration

The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) has a singular sweeping aim: to prevent nuclear terrorism around the globe. The third of the series, which began in 2010 as a sequel to President Obama’s 2009 Prague declaration, has proclaimed an incontestable three- pronged strategy:

  • Reduce the amount of dangerous nuclear material around the world.
  • Improve security of all nuclear material and radio active sources.
  • Improve international cooperation.

Since nuclear terrorism is largely related to the ready and, at times, willing sale of nuclear material, it is ironic that the Netherlands, which is the venue for the third and penultimate summit, is also the nation that was at the centre of the nuclear black market for the closing three decades of the last century. The Dutch nuclear industry was the font of the AQ Khan illicit nuclear bazaar. The fact that the metallurgist Henk Slebos, considered the most notorious of Khan’s confederates, was charged and convicted for smuggling nuclear material and technologies to Pakistan served only four months in jail is suggestive of gravitas attached to the initiative and indeed the conviction to fight nuclear terrorism (see IISS strategic dossier on nuclear black markets, 2007). The light sentence given to other collaborating entities and personnel in Germany, Switzerland, the UK, Japan, Malaysia and Turkey hardly constitutes a credible deterrent to future networks.

Pakistan is no exception, for, observing that Khan’s foreign accomplices remain free and the nuclear world having placed commerce above security, he on political grounds remains free too. The ambivalent approach that has so far been apparent on nuclear proliferation has prompted some cynics to even suggest that the policy to set-a-thief-to-catch-one does not quite work! But this would trivialize the dangers that nuclear terrorism actually present, which President Obama, in his now celebrated Prague speech, so eloquently beseeched the world to recognize, as the “most immediate and extreme threat posed to global security”. He announced an international effort to secure vulnerable nuclear material and vowed to break up international nuclear black markets, detect and intercept unlawful nuclear material in transit and to use financial tools to disrupt illicit nuclear trade. This declaration translated to the Nuclear Security Summit.

The first summit of 2010 held in Washington formulated the “Washington Work Plan” which proposed that the participating states make a commitment to voluntarily implement the Plan consistent with and without prejudice to national laws. It took a non-binding, volitional and uncompelling approach. The Plan tendered the following twelve proposals before the 43 participating states and three organisations:

  •       Reaffirm the fundamental responsibility of States, consistent with their respective       international obligations.
  •       Call on States to work cooperatively.
  •       Recognize that highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium require special       precautions.
  •       Endeavour to fully implement all existing nuclear security commitments and work       toward acceding to those not yet joined.
  •       Support the objectives of international nuclear security instruments.
  •       Reaffirm the essential role of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the                 international nuclear security framework.
  •       Recognize the role and contributions of the United Nations.
  •       Acknowledge the need for capacity building for nuclear security and cooperation      at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels.
  •       Recognize the need for cooperation among States to effectively prevent and               respond to incidents of illicit nuclear trafficking.
  •       Recognize the continuing role of nuclear industry in nuclear security.
  •       Support the implementation of strong nuclear security practices.
  •       Recognize that measures contributing to nuclear material security have value in         relation to the security of radioactive substances also.

The second edition of the Summit was held in Seoul, South Korea. 53 heads of State attended along with four other international organisations. It built on the objectives of the Washington Work Plan and concentrated on Cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, protection of nuclear materials and related facilities and prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. It set about defining specific actions to be taken by states on a non mandatory basis. Three issues stand out in the joint communiqué that was released at the end of the Summit:

  •       Time lines were put out for progressing nuclear security objectives.
  •       Nuclear security and safety were to be managed without prejudice or jeopardy         to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
  •       Radiological terrorism was to be the subject of more rigorous preventive                     measures.

Clearly, while the outcome of the Washington Summit was long on hope and a little economical on precision which Seoul sought to remedy, neither summit could obligate conformance to the declarations.

Now what of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 which was adopted in 2004 and is universal in scope, mandatory in application and recognises non-state proliferation as a threat to global peace and obliges states to modify their internal legislation? Resolution 1540 was adopted by the UNSCR not just in response to the discovery of the Abdul Qadeer Khan proliferation network but also with the aim of preventing the acquisition of nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological weapons by terrorist groups and non-state actors. Besides, it is obligatory for all UN members, whether or not they support its aims. The Resolution is a significant evolution in the history of the UN for it attempted to reconcile individual sovereignty with the needs of global security. It has faced considerable flak because many states have criticised the resolution for being cumbersome and ill-adapted to their situations. The objection is to interference by the UN in individual states’ national sovereignty, in that it obliges member states to make internal legislative changes. Opposition is also to the belief that the 15 member Council had a mandate to usurp control and stewardship of global proliferation. And yet it is abundantly clear that if action is to be taken to combat nuclear terrorism then global coordination and regulation is necessary and the only entity that is acceptable and best positioned to undertake it is the UN.

The question that now begs an answer is why then the Nuclear Security Summit? Is it not duplicating, diluting and eroding the efforts of UNSCR 1540? In balance the Summit; a one Man’s vision which has gained some traction because of its non-obligatory appeal to the ‘enlightened self interest’ of its participants (measures such as creating particularised centres of excellence and internal regulatory bodies) and yet unattractive to some due to its origins, badgering nature and without a conviction of longevity (the next summit in 2016 is the last of the series almost as if a deadline has been drawn). On the other hand is UNSCR 1540 which addresses the same issues of the Summit and has similar if enlarged objectives; in addition it is mandatory and has international legality but lacks popularity because it is seen to imply a compact with America’s war on terror. The awkward paradox is that both Summit and UNSCR 1540 are in the same boat but wearing out each others exertions!

Perhaps ‘Penitent Preachers’ will find the endeavour far more focussed and rewarding if the Summit made support to and promotion of UNSCR 1540 the single point in the agenda for its final edition in 2016.

5 thoughts on “Nuclear Security Summit 2014: The Penitent Preachers

  1. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something which I think I would never understand.

    It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I
    will try to get the hang of it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s