IPCS Special Commentary

The Hague Nuclear Security Summit: Penitent Preachers

28 Mar, 2014    ·   4356

Vice Adm Vijay Shankar comments on the recently concluded Summit and the future of Nuclear Security

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)
The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) has a singular sweeping aim: to prevent nuclear terrorism around the Globe. The third of the series that 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 with a wink from the USA hardly constitutes a credible deterrent to future networks. The time for penitence is perhaps at hand. 

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 trivialise the dangers that nuclear terrorism actually presents which President Obama so eloquently beseeched the world to recognise as the “most immediate and extreme threat posed to global security” in his now celebrated Prague speech. 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. 
The recently concluded third rendition of the Summit (25 March 2014) rounded its deliberations by a rather affected proclamation that “the world had become a safer place”. It is fortuitous that the conflict in the Ukraine comes at a time when that nation had already surrendered its stockpile of fissile material to Russia; the other security ramifications of the Crimea divide is yet to unfold. Whether the proclamation was to emphasise self-eminence of the gathering of 58 world leaders under one roof or, an emotional plea to the assembly to make it so, was not clear. Concrete achievements of the Summit were hard to see other than a petition that urged self-interest of the participating nations to promote cooperation and mutual trust in order to reduce stockpiles of fissile material. Prescriptions were also suggested for information exchange, security measures to make safe radio active material and to bridge the trust deficit between nations. Agreements and proposals remain non-binding.    
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 A Q 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, information exchange, areas of cooperation 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 the Nuclear Security 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 final episode of the Summit in 2016 made support to and promotion of UNSCR 1540 the single point in the agenda.  
Vice Admiral (retired) Vijay Shankar is a former Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command of India & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS