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On 13 April 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted by consensus an international treaty against nuclear terrorism.6 Thus the Nuclear Terrorism Convention (NTC) will open for signature on 14 September 2005 and enter into force after twenty-two states ratify it. This step coming after seven years of negotiations and less than a month after the report of the Secretary General, In Larger Freedom: Towards Development. Security and Human Rights for All, issued on 21 March, is a happy augury for more decisive action by the UN to ensure that nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, i.e., weapons of mass destruction (WMD), do not fall into the hands of terrorists. 

The Secretary General's report contains a warning of the dangers of "catastrophic terrorism." This warning has been repeated with increasing levels of urgency in the policy making community especially after the events of 11 September 2001, since it is well known that groups such as AI Qaeda have had plans to acquire WMD. The report recommends measures to be adopted by member states, such as the recommendation that negotiations for an international convention for the suppression of nuclear terrorism be completed. However no other specific tasks or reforms of the United Nations (UN) have been recommended to ensure that the UN is able to playa significant and effective role in the prevention of WMD terrorism. 

The High-level Panel, appointed by the UN Secretary General to assess current threats to international peace and security, came out with a report that has addressed the issues of WMD and terrorism separately.7 While warning about WMD proliferation, making a specific identification of the threat of WMD terrorism, and recommending that the UN and specialized agencies take preventive action, the link between WMD and terrorism has been clearly established. Paragraphs 135 to 138 make the link explicitly. Paragraph 135 proposes urgent "short-term action" to defend against the "possible terrorist use" of WMD through the consolidating, securing and, when possible, eliminating of hazardous materials and implementing effective export controls. The Global Threat Reduction Initiative is welcomed by the Panel but the time line for its implementation is recommended for halving to five years. The Security Council, acting under resolution 1540, is urged to provide states with model legislation for action on WMD materials and the establishment of minimum standards by 2006 and a permanent liaison between the committee implementing Security Council resolution 1540 and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). In dealing with a definition of terrorism, the problem of WMD terrorism is clearly kept in mind. While all 'these are laudable recommendations they do not by themselves ensure that the UN will be at the centre of global efforts to counter the threat of WMD terrorism nor that it will be the most effective body in this task. More will have to be done to identify the actual threat and keep it under review and devise defences against these threats. To do that we must review what the UN has said and done in the past. 

Speaking at the UN General Assembly on 1 October 2001, Secretary General Kofi Annan said, "It is hard to imagine how the tragedy of 11 September could have been worse. Yet, the truth is that a single attack involving a nuclear or biological weapon could have killed millions. While the world was unable to prevent the 11 September attacks, there is much we can do to help prevent future terrorist acts carried out with weapons of mass destruction." He went on to propose strengthening the global norms against the use or proliferation of WMD by redoubling efforts to ensure the universality, verification, and full implementation of key treaties relating to WMD; promoting cooperation among international organizations dealing with these weapons; tightening national legislation over exports of goods and technologies needed to manufacture WMD and their means of delivery; and developing new efforts to criminalize the acquisition or use of WMD by non-state groups. 

More recently, on 10 March 2005, Secretary General Annan in his "five Ds" speech in Madrid said, "Nuclear terrorism is still often treated as science fiction ... That such an attack has not yet happened is not an excuse for complacency. Rather it gives us a last chance to take effective preventive action." He went on to identify biological terrorism as a threat against which state capacity had to be built up with local health systems at the front line. 

In the almost three-and-a-half years between the two statements, the UN has acted to prevent WMD terrorism as the global appreciation of the extent of the problem increased. It is useful to describe this action briefly as well as the current estimates of the threat of WMD terrorism before we identify ways and means for the UN to act more effectively.

What the UN Has Done So Far

The threat of WMD terrorism predated the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. Events such as the 1995 use of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway had already alerted the world to the possibility of WMD terrorism, which several instances of the theft of WMD material and the likelihood of WMD technology experts being lured by non-state actors only served to underline. Many experts in the field had already written extensively on the subject and individual countries had taken measures to prevent the threat from materializing. The US Nunn-Lugar legislation, which grew into the Co-operative Threat Reduction program, was one example where US concerns about the safe custody of nuclear materials and the future of the nuclear scientists in the countries of the former USSR were translated into a practical program of action which was later supported by the G-8. The UN's Department for Disarmament Affairs kept these developments under regular review. The adoption of Security Council resolution 1373 (2001) provided a broad framework within which the UN could now act under Chapter VII. Strengthening the capacity of member states was a priority and with the Counter Terrorism Committee (CTC) in place and headed in its first few years by the very effective UK Permanent Representative, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the prevention of WMD terrorism was also addressed. Revitalized through Security Council Resolution 1566 (2004), the CTC established an Executive Directorate to enhance its co-ordinating function in implementing resolution 1373 and in capacity-building. 

In August 2002 the Secretary General published the report of his Policy Working Group, which made several recommendations including the biennial publication of a report on WMD terrorism;8 development of the technical capabilities of the IAEA, the OPCW, and the WHO to provide assistance to states in the event of the threat or use of WMD; arrangements to develop and maintain adequate civil defence capabilities through the same organizations; the creation of codes of conduct for scientists aimed at preventing their involvement in terrorist activities and the restriction of public access to expertise on the development, production and stockpiling and use of WMD. There is no indication that any of the recommendations have been pursued energetically although an enhanced level of inter-agency coordination has certainly begun. 

The Security Council has undoubtedly been the engine room where much of the action on combating terrorism in general and WMD terrorism in particular has been taken. The CTC has been crucial in this. but beyond making assessments of state capabilities to prevent and respond to WMD terrorism no measures had been initiated within the UN system to enhance the capacity of t he organization to respond to the challenge. The major achievement which changed this has, of course, been the adoption by the Security Council on 28 April 2004, of resolution 1540 under Chapter VII of the Charter as a comprehensive ban on support to non-state actors in the development or acquisition of WMD. The resolution is a call to all states to adopt measures for the safe custody of WMD materials and more proactive measures to prevent proliferation of WMD. Most importantly a Committee of the Security Council was established to report on the implementation of the resolution and national control lists were requested from member states. This resolution greatly empowers the UN to act decisively on WMD terrorism and provides a mechanism to coordinate action within the UN system and with member states. It is too early to assess how effective the resolution and the Committee established to oversee its implementation has been.

The Parameters of the Problem

The need for a pragmatic balance between panic-driven reactions and smug complacency is self-evident. Deconstructing WMD terrorism is also vital because the nature of the weapons grouped under WMD varies greatly and the threat assessment of terrorist acquisition and use of these weapons. also differs. All three categories of weapons have the potential of inflicting a scale of death and destruction higher and more long-lasting than conventional weapons as well as the capacity to terrify and coerce populations. Conflating nuclear. biological. and chemical weapons as WMD is misleading because of the distinct physical and political effects of these weapons. Some experts add radiological weapons as a separate WMD category, despite its close link to the nuclear weapon category.  

Nuclear weapons are the greatest threat because of the lethality of the weapons, their long-lasting effects on-the environment, and the danger that a nuclear exchange would lead to the devastation of large areas of the world. The easy availability of the technology on how to manufacture nuclear weapons is well-known, so much so that experts have concluded that any intelligent student of physics could acquire the knowledge of how to make a nuclear weapon. The access to nuclear weapon material, whether enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium, in sufficient quantity to make a nuclear bomb, is also well-documented. HEU is more sought-after because of t he ease of making a gun-type device. The startling revelations of the nuclear bazaar run by the Pakistani scientist Dr. A.Q. Khan and his network have proved how widespread the illicit trade in nuclear materials has been. And yet experts doubt the capacity of non-state actors to organize the elaborate infrastructure necessary to manufacture nuclear weapons in a clandestine fashion, undetected by the national technical means of major states through satellite surveillance and through intelligence agencies. This may still be possible either in a failed state or in a state that permits this kind of activity unless inspection under IAEA safeguards recently enhanced by the Additional Protocol is taking place. This conclusion refers to nuclear weapons similar to what states require, whereas non-state actors are more likely to seek more Crude arid improvised nuclear devices (IND). The absence of an international norm banning nuclear weapons heightens' the risk of nuclear terrorism. Nuclear terrorism can also take the form of a terrorist seizure of a nuclear weapon that has been made in a nuclear weapon state or the bombing of a nuclear installation as a deliberate attempt to disperse radioactive material. 

Biological weapons are the next greatest threat because pathogens or toxins can be easily made in a small area and if spread in sufficient quantities could cause widespread deaths causing larm and panic. Biological weapons are banned by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), but the absence of effective verification measures and an organization to implement the BWC are serious inadequacies. The developments in biotechnology, easy availability of materials needed for biological weapons, and the possibility of their manufacture being undetected has heightened the fears of this category of WMD terrorism more than any other. The yet undetected perpetrator of the anthrax letters in Washington, DC, in late 2001 and the earlier 1984 contamination of salad bars in Oregon with the non-lethal salmonella pathogen are examples of how biological weapons can be used to cause panic. Biological weapons can not only be used against humans but also against crops and livestock adding to social disruption. Some microorganisms can attack physical infrastructure by degrading plastics. Biological agents -- bacterial organisms, viruses, or toxins -- have to be weaponized to cause harm. They have also, as with nuclear weapons, to be delivered. And yet the psychological consequences of the threat or actual use of biological weapons is great. Most experts believe that terrorist use of biological weapons is more likely than nuclear weapons despite problems in growing bulk quantities of biological seed stock, weaponization and delivery. 

Chemical weapons have been banned through the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997 and has effective verification measures implemented by the OPCW in The Hague. This is an effective bulwark against the likelihood of terrorists using this category of WMD. Effective control and supervision of supply of precursors of chemical weapons, arrangements for assistance in the event of a threat or use of chemical weapons and provisions for notice inspections have built confidence among state parties in the CWC. Nevertheless, the CWC is not universal and has 167'parties. Moreover chemical weapon stocks have still to be destroyed in many countries and their safe custody is doubtful. The extent of damage that can be caused by chemical weapons is regarded as less than by nuclear or biological weapons. 

Radiological weapons have been identified as a more likely weapon to be used by terrorists. Simple high-explosive bombs can be used to disperse radioactive material such as the cobalt used in industrial plants.  This device, or "dirty bomb," would be difficult to handle safely, but it could still cause widespread deaths and damage, spreading panic. The scale of death and destruction would still be much less since the radiation would not spread beyond the blast area. The reports of thefts of nuclear material make this form of terrorism likely. 

Finally, WMD terrorism would require delivery vehicles in the form of missiles or airplanes to be really effective. However, IND could be assembled on site and/or delivered in a truck or van. Small quantities can of course be smuggled in through airports and seaports or across borders. Increased surveillance, through improved technology, minimizes the risk but does not eliminate it.

Constructing UN Barriers Against WMD Terrorism

There is no doubt that the international community regards WMD terrorism as a threat to international peace and security. It follows that the UN must be at the centre of all efforts to combat this danger. It is a danger that can be controlled through effective cooperation by all member states if cooperative security is to be a meaningful concept. Prevention of the danger of WMD terrorism is obviously better through peaceful means than through pre-emptive action of a military nature. Military action to destroy suspected WMD-capable sites could carry greater risks to life and can create the very panic that one seeks to avoid. 

A number of proposals have been made, both within the existing treaty regimes and outside, for the international control of WMD proliferation in general-such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) -- which will of course; reduce the danger of WMD terrorism. Some are specific to the type of WMD involved. For example the latest report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on "Universal Compliance -- A Strategy for Nuclear Security"9 recommends six obligations: 

  • Making non-proliferation irreversible by tightening the controls on the production of fissile material and rules for withdrawal from the NPT; 
  • Devaluing the political and military currency of nuclear weapons;  
  • Securing all nuclear materials by adopting more robust standards;  
  • Stopping Illegal Transfers with national legislation to implement UNSC resolution 1540 etc.; 
  • Committing to conflict resolution since non-proliferation measures alone are not enough; and 
  • Solving the problem of the three states with a nuclear capability outside the NPT by persuading India, Israel, and Pakistan to accept the same non-proliferation obligations of the nuclear weapon states within the NPT. 

The above recommendations, mutatis mutandis, could apply to the other categories of WMD. They could also be adopted with the active assistance of the UN and/or the respective treaty bodies involved. The Madrid Agenda of 11 March 2005 also contains specific recommendations on WMD terrorism. 

It is logical that the UN, as the only universal body legitimately empowered by its 191 member states to maintain international peace and security, should be at the forefront of the global effort to combat the threat of WMD terrorism as an important component of the campaign against terrorism. This task has to be undertaken in a coherent manner without duplication of other efforts and without overlap with the work done by existing treaty regimes, multilateral groups, and Interpol. 

The definition of terrorism proposed by the High-level Panel and fully endorsed by the UN Secretary General in his report has important consequences for states apart from the (now fulfilled) obligation to conclude the protracted negotiation of a convention to prevent nuclear terrorism. The reference to the Geneva Convention implies adherence to the humanitarian principles of war. The International Court of Justice's 1996 landmark Advisory Opinion ruled that the use of nuclear weapons was generally contrary to the existing humanitarian principles of war. Thus the proposed definition effectively places a legal obstacle against state use of all WMD including nuclear weapons. While this would be logical for state parties to the BWC and the CWC it would universalize the actual ban on the use of biological weapons and chemical weapons to non-state parties as well. More importantly, it would apply to nuclear weapons where there is no legal ban on the actual use of these weapons. Thus states whose defence doctrines are predicated on the use of nuclear weapons either as a weapon of last resort or for pre-emptive use even as "bunker busters" would feel restrained by this definition and may be reluctant to accept it in its present form. A comprehensive convention on terrorism is certainly desirable in the ban on WMD terrorism but doing so without also addressing the larger issue of the elimination of all WMD, whether by states or non-state actors, would cause great difficulty. A universal norm needs to be established if WMD possession by non-state actors is to be effective. To argue that possession by some states is permissible would be difficult to sustain. Nor is it logical to regard the proliferation of WMD and their use by non-state actors as a threat to international peace and security while nuclear weapon possession by some states continues. 

There are, however, many other proposals to prevent WMD terrorism, which can and must be implemented. They include the implementation of the recommendations of the UN's Policy Working Group referred to earlier. The strengthening of the NPT regime has been proposed by many through a number of measures to be implemented especially by the IAEA in respect of its responsibilities for safeguarding nuclear material and making the transition from peaceful uses of nuclear energy to nuclear weapon production more difficult. 

The existing export controls of nuclear and chemical material are implemented by the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Australia Group outside the UN. They are viewed as discriminatory and a dialogue within the UN of suppliers and recipient states may help to increase understanding regarding the paramount need to prevent WMD terrorism through tighter export controls. At the same time, in line with the Trilateral Initiative, the IAEA, Russia, and the US should place more nuclear materials under controls. This initiative could be extended to other nuclear weapon states.  A series of other proposals have been made for the UN to establish stronger barriers against WMD terrorism. They include those that have already been mentioned in the body of this paper, plus:  

  • The strengthening of the capacity to verify the leakage of materials and technology such as through the institutionalization of the existing expertise in UNMOVIC as far as biological weapons and missiles are concerned; 
  • The mandatory requirement for Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) state parties of signing and ratifying the IAEA’s Additional Protocol in order to qualify for supplies for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy;  
  • The framing of a code of ethics for scientists in the defence sectors and in research establishments ensuring the non-transfer of knowledge to non-state actors. 
  • Strengthening the IAEAs Convention on the Physical Protection of

Nuclear Materials; 

  • Providing all member states with stakeholder status by creating a separate Commission on Terrorism under ECOSOC or the UN General Assembly (UNGA), using Article 68 of the Charter, where WMD terrorism can be discussed. Sharing of intelligence will also be necessary;  and  
  • Criminalizing the illegal possession of WMD material through national legislation.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Accountability by member states is finally the only means of ensuring that non-state actors are prevented from using WMD for terrorist purposes. 

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