May 29, 2017 |

State of Play and Future of the Multilateral Non-proliferation Regimes and Initiatives

Briefing at the Annual NATO Conference on WMD Arms Control, Disarmament, and Non-Proliferation
  • The last couple of years have seen mixed progress in non-proliferation, arms control, and disarmament. On the positive side, we can applaud the Ministerial-level Nuclear Security conference in December 2016 and actions emanating from that.
  • There have also been no new nuclear proliferation cases, but nuclear weapons build-up continues in South Asia and in North Korea.
  • On the negative side of the leger, we have seen the tragic use of chemical weapons in Syria not only by a state, but also by non-state actors. The jury is still out on whether the international community can draw a complete picture to ensure that all chemical weapons and capabilities to produce them have been dismantled and that users are brought to justice.
  • Let me now make a couple of observations on nuclear issues noting that there are separate panels addressing developments in the Middle East and in Asia.
  • First, I would like to look at nuclear terrorism. We are fortunate that we have thus far not experienced any acts of nuclear terrorism. But bear in mind that terrorists have already openly expressed their desire to gain nuclear weapons.[1]The IAEA has documented thousands of incidents of lost, stolen, or unauthorized possession of nuclear and radioactive material in recent decades, and such materials could one day fall into the hands of terrorists.[2] Nuclear security could also be compromised in other ways, such as through a cyber attack on the energy sector or sabotage at nuclear installations.
  • Terrorist organizations are getting more sophisticated. A recent report on Islamic State’s ammunition production by the UK-based organization, Conflict Armament Research revealed that the extremist group conducts its own industrial quality control.[3]In other words, Islamic State is able to attract skilled engineers to its production activities. We should therefore not ignore the possibility that such organizations are able to recruit individuals with nuclear skills, potentially resulting in threats to nuclear installations or a dirty bomb.
  • At the same time, when we consider acts of nuclear terrorism, we should not confine ourselves to traditional ways of thinking. Just as nuclear material could be used to build a dirty bomb, holding such material could also be used for blackmail or for dispersion in urban environments.
  • Threats of nuclear terrorism also come from many sources, ranging from sophisticated and well-financed terrorist organizations, nuclear smugglers, and hackers capable of launching devastating cyber attacks to would-be terrorists with inside information on nuclear installations. All of these challenges affect how these threats are managed by the facility operators, nuclear regulatory bodies, and organizations in charge of emergency planning and response.
  • The adoption of relevant International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) treaties, conventions, and non-legally binding codes of conduct and United Nations resolutions and the sharing of best practices and resources are all considered part of today’s global nuclear norms.
  • What is adopted on paper, however, varies from what is implemented in practice. Currently, information on states’ undertakings on nuclear safety, safeguards, and security is scattered within various IAEA and other UN documents, including records of review meetings and the UN Security Council Resolution 1540 committee. Such information is not only unthreaded, thereby making it more difficult to present a holistic picture, but data provided is also often lacking in public assessments on the effectiveness and efficiency of those measures.
  • In order to provide the international community with a full picture on the global status of nuclear safety, safeguards, and security, we should seek to continually review and improve our investigative, monitoring, and reporting methods. New ways of reporting at the IAEA, including an assessment of the adherence and implementation of all treaties, conventions, resolutions, and codes of conduct for all states of the United Nations can be useful.
  • There is a constant need to both support as well as grow non-proliferation efforts. That has always taken hard work. Today’s world has shown the continued relevance of this cause.
  • That is why the last point I want to make relates to the nuclear weapon ban treaty, which is currently being negotiated. The first draft of the treaty was published last week.[4]Time does not allow us to address in detail the verification arrangements considered, which are cornerstones of any arms control treaty. What is alarming is the low verification standard suggested: IAEA INFCIRC/153 safeguards without an additional protocol. This, together with the provisions for the verification of dismantlement of weapons and related infrastructure, will not provide credible assurances the completeness of state’s declarations on all nuclear materials and facilities. In other words, it undermines the current IAEA Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty verification standards.

Read the full briefing here.

[1] At least two terrorist groups, al-Qaeda and the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo, have made serious efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, and there are indications of Chechen terrorist interests as well (including incidents of terrorist groups carrying out reconnaissance at Russian nuclear weapon storage sites). Al-Qaeda had a focused nuclear weapons program and repeatedly attempted to buy stolen nuclear bomb material and recruit nuclear expertise. Al-Qaeda went as far as carrying out crude tests of conventional explosives for its nuclear bomb program in the Afghan desert. Matthew Bunn, Martin B. Malin, Nickolas Roth, and William H. Tobey, “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Continuous Improvement or Dangerous Decline,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, March 2016. (

[2] Incidents reported to the IAEA demonstrate that illicit trafficking, thefts, losses, and other unauthorized activities and events involving nuclear and other radioactive material continue to occur. Since 1995, the IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) has accumulated more than “2,890 confirmed incidents reported by participating States. Over 15% of these confirmed incidents involved unauthorized possession and related criminal activities, over 25% involved reported theft or loss, and over 54% involved other unauthorized activities and events. In the remaining cases, the reported information was not sufficient to determine the category of incident.” Nuclear Security: Tools, “ITDB | Incident and Trafficking Database,” International Atomic Energy Agency, accessed May 28, 2017. (

[3] “Standardization and Quality Control in Islamic State’s Military Production: Weapon manufacturing in the east Mosul sector,” Conflict Armament Research, December 2016. (

[4] Draft Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, New York, May 22, 2017. (


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