Nonproliferation
Policy Paper

International Safeguards for Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction

in Program

When the Stimson Center’s project on “Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction” began in January 1994, there was little serious discussion of the elimination option. Today, in contrast, a growing number of respected institutions and knowledgeable individuals both in the United States and abroad have begun or completed projects focusing on the achievement of a nuclear-weapon-free world, including, most recently, the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

Almost all of these studies point to effective safeguards and verification provisions as essential preconditions for elimination. As events in recent years have demonstrated, however, formidable political and technical obstacles must be overcome in order to craft an effective collective response to violations of an international agreement. Two notable cases of non-compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) highlight the difficulties associated with creating more effective mechanisms to ensure treaty adherence and to respond to attempts to cheat. Although a member of the NPT, Iraq launched a clandestine nuclear weapon development program that was not revealed until after the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The Iraqi violations underscored the need to develop better tools for verification, and to extend the mandate of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)  so as to allow it to detect undeclared  nuclear facilities. North Korea-also a party to the NPT-has been suspected of producing plutonium in excess of the amount declared on its initial declaration of nuclear materials and facilities as submitted to the IAEA in May 1992, raising concerns that Pyongyang was trying to divert plutonium to a nuclear weapon program. In early 1993, North Korea failed to comply fully with its obligation under the NPT to allow the IAEA to conduct additional inspections to verify the declaration, and instead threatened to withdraw from the treaty. Pyongyang’sbehavior-includingits prolonged delay in signing a safeguards agreement with the IAEA after joining the NPT in 1985—demonstrated the degree to which the NPT and its safeguards regime are hostage to the political will of member states to fulfil treaty requirements.

In both these cases, effective international tools for responding to violations of the treaty were lacking. The NPT does not include enforcement provisions, only mechanisms to report violations to the UN Security Council, leaving open the possibility that a violation will go unpunished. In the Iraqi case, the legal basis for highly intrusive inspections and the destruction of its nuclear weapon program was the UN cease-fire resolution, rather than the NPT. In the North Korean case, despite the global outcry at the possibility that Pyongyang would choose to break the non-proliferation norm rather than comply with the NPT, the United States was unable to rally enough international support for economic sanctions or military action. In the end, the US negotiated a bilateral settlement in which it agreed to make economic concessions in exchange for the freezing of the North Korean nuclear program and successive steps to bring Pyongyang in line with its treaty obligations. Both cases illustrate the need for more effective instruments to punish, and thus hopefully deter, cheaters.

In his study, International Safeguards for Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction, Dr. George Quester examines some of the mechanisms that might be used to respond to attempted violations of a total ban on weapons of mass destruction, or to deter potential violators from even attempting to cheat. To prevent states from cheating, Quester notes, one must address the reasons states might be tempted to acquire nuclear weapons. For states that see a nuclear program as an answer to their security concerns, alternative security arrangements, possibly in the form of collective security, could be an essential safeguard. More effective verification mechanisms could also help to stop potential cheaters, since states might be less inclined to cheat if they feared detection. The powers and resources of the IAEA would have to be increased and perhaps supplemented with additional transparency measures or “societal verification.” Yet all of these measures, Quester notes, are unlikely to eliminate completely the risks of cheating.

Additional safeguards could be necessary to provide states greater insurance against these residual risks. For example, Quester argues, “it might be desirable to retain some kind of international nuclear force as a hedge against one or more nations cheating on a disarmament agreement.”Initially, a small force could be seconded to UN command, and over time all national forces could be eliminated, with the international nuclear force retaining access to reserve weapons. Alternatively,”para-disarmament”by the sovereign nuclear powers could reduce the nuclear threat and provide a “more meaningful step in the transition toward total nuclear disarmament.” Quester describes several possible variations for para-disarmament. Nuclear warheads could be maintained but separated from launchers. Delivery vehicles could be banned or restrictions imposed on the storage and deployment of warheads. Para-disarmament also could entail destroying the warheads but maintaining bomb production facilities to deter other states from assembling nuclear weapons. The critical question, he points out, “might be at which stage of readiness mutual deterrence would be most robust.”

If the goal is the elimination of nuclear weapons, however, the key question then becomes “how might the world move from para-disarmament to a more total nuclear disarmament in which the logic of mutual deterrence would no longer hang over the world?” Quester observes that friendly relations between and among nuclear weapon states could lead to a situation in which deterrence at any level was no longer considered necessary. Changing perceptions both of the legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons also could help to move the process of disarmament forward. In the final analysis, as Quester notes, the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction may have to “be grounded in changes in the underlying feelings of peoples all around the world about what are legitimate forms of state behavior.” The spread of democracy, for example, has helped change perceptions of the utility and legitimacy of military force against other democracies. And the development of a perceived “taboo” against chemical weapons could serve as a useful model for a ban on nuclear weapons.

This study was conducted under the auspices of the Henry L. Stimson Center’s project on “Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction,”which seeks to encourage a national and international debate on the long-term nuclear future. The project is based on the premise that the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the grave dangers of proliferation provide both reason and opportunity to reexamine fundamental assumptions regarding the relative benefits and risks associated with weapons of mass destruction.

The study is the fourth in a series that examines key challenges for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. Other studies in this series examine the implications of further reductions of nuclear weapons for US and Russian defense policy; the problems of verifying nuclear disarmament; the linkages among efforts to eliminate biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons; and the relationship between deeper cuts in offensive weapons and the development of defensive systems. In undertaking this analysis, these studies seek to identify the main obstacles to the progressive elimination of mass destruction weapons from all nations and to propose solutions­ both intermediate  measures and longer-term approaches-to  overcome these obstacles.

The Stimson Center is grateful to the Ford Foundation, whose funding makes this work possible. We are particularly grateful to Christine Wing of the Ford Foundation for her continued support. We also wish to thank Howard Kee for his comments, and editorial and administrative support.

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