“Dirty Bomb” Threat Awakens Dormant Disarmament Conference

Daniil Kobyakov
Nicolas Florquin
August 26, 2002

If an international institution’s efficiency is partly determined by its ability to respond to external shocks and crises,[1] the Jose Padilla controversy may help revive the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD). Following the revelation of terrorist plots to conduct a dirty bomb attack on the United States and reports on the alarming vulnerability to theft of radioactive material,[2] the multilateral disarmament negotiating forum began informal consultations to discuss the need for a ban on radiological weapons.

Chronology of Events

Dirty Bomb Palais des Nations

Council Chamber of Geneva’s Palais des Nations,
where CD plenaries are held.

On June 10, 2002, US Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest of Jose Padilla for his involvement with the terrorist group Al Qaeda in planning a radiological bomb attack on the United States.[3] Two weeks later, in a press release dated June 24, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that the “materials needed to build a ‘dirty bomb’ can be found in almost any country in the world, and more than 100 countries may have inadequate control and monitoring programs necessary to prevent or even detect the theft of these materials.”[4]

Three days later, in his opening remarks as incoming president of the CD, Ambassador Heinsberg of Germany cited “recent news reports about terrorists’ efforts to build ‘dirty bombs'” as demonstrating the “topicality” of radiological weapons and announced his intention to hold informal consultations on the issue.[5] On July 31, the German delegation circulated a discussion paper calling on the CD to examine the need for a ban on radiological weapons. The paper was then discussed during an informal debate on August 8, which prompted over 20 interventions by members of the negotiating body. In a speech delivered on August 15, Ambassador Heinsberg proposed continuing consideration of the issue through the appointment of a Special Coordinator.[6]

Chronology Box: The CD and Radiological Weapons

1948: The Commission of the United Nations for Conventional Armaments stated that “radioactive material weapons” should be included in the definition of weapons of mass destruction.
1969: The UN General Assembly adopted resolution 2602c (XXIV), inviting the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (CCD, the CD’s predecessor) to consider the issue of radiological methods of warfare. After considering the issue, the CCD concluded that there was no practical need to discuss measures related to radiological weapons
1978: In its final document, the General Assembly’s Special Session on Disarmament called for the conclusion of a convention “prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling, and use of radiological weapons.”
1979: The CD included radiological weapons in its agenda under item 5 “New types of weapons of mass destruction and new systems of such weapons; radiological weapons.”
1979: The USSR and the United States make a joint proposal on major elements of a treaty banning radiological weapons (documents CD/31 and CD/32).
1980: The CD decided to establish an Ad Hoc Committee on radiological weapons.
1983-1992: The Ad Hoc Committee was divided into two contact groups dealing with the prohibition of radiological weapons and the prohibition of attacks against nuclear facilities.
1992: The Ad Hoc Committee on radiological weapons was established for the last time and submitted a summary of its work in document CD/1159.
2002: Germany initiates a reconsideration of the issue of radiological weapons in the CD.

The CD’s Edge on Radiological Weapons

The CD’s preliminary work on radiological weapons should be welcomed as it brings a timely issue to an institution that already possesses relevant expertise. Radiological weapons have been on the CD’s agenda since its creation in 1979 under item number 5: “New types of weapons of mass destruction; radiological weapons.” As a result, it has considered the issue from 1980 to 1992 through the work of an Ad Hoc Committee with a mandate to reach agreement on a convention prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling, and use of radiological weapons.[7] After 1983, the work of the Committee was divided into two contact groups. Contact Group A considered “traditional” issues relevant to the prohibition of radiological weapons, while Contact Group B addressed the prohibition of attacks against nuclear facilities.[8] The second issue gained international momentum following the 1981 bombing of Iraqi civilian nuclear facilities by Israel and similar incidents that occurred during the Iran-Iraq war. Among the stumbling blocks that prevented the completion of the convention, the issue of verification was particularly problematic, as it would have required inspections and tracking of the production and use of tens of thousands of radioactive sources, items which are not covered by IAEA safeguards. Other contentious issues included the scope of the ban, the definition of radiological weapons, and the relationship of the proposed treaty to other nuclear disarmament measures.[9] Given this expertise and experience, there is little doubt that the CD is an appropriate forum to negotiate a ban on such weapons.

By further pursuing its current efforts, the CD could join a small number of international institutions that have recently undertaken initiatives aimed at combating the threat of nuclear terrorism, with the prospect of making a significant contribution without duplicating other efforts underway. At the multilateral level at least, the fight against nuclear terrorism is led by the Vienna-based IAEA, which is now in the process of implementing its Action Plan to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.[10] Regarding the issue of radioactive material, the plan offers states assistance in securing their radioactive material by issuing non-binding guidelines and sending advisory teams to states requesting the agency’s expert advice. Efforts have also been underway since 1996 at the United Nations General Assembly’s Sixth (Legal) Committee to complete a Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. The current draft focuses on acts committed by non-state actors and provides for the prosecution of those seeking to obtain or use such materials without authorization. Its preventive provision, however, is rather weak, simply calling on states to adopt measures to ensure the physical protection of radioactive products, substances, and waste.[11]

With the issues of the physical protection of radioactive materials being addressed at the IAEA and the use of radiological weapons by non-state actors being examined within the UN framework, the CD could add to these efforts by producing a ban on radiological weapons at the state level. Although such a ban would not directly address the “dirty bomb” threat posed by terrorist groups, it would nevertheless constitute a timely contribution given current concerns over Saddam Hussein’s programs to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including radiological weapons.[12]

Furthermore, there are ways of using the current momentum to make such a ban also relevant to threats posed by non-state (terrorist) actors. There is currently no comprehensive legally binding instrument requiring states to assure the physical protection of all radioactive materials. The existing Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials[13] does not apply to radioactive sources or to nuclear material in domestic storage, transport, or use, and to date the IAEA has only issued non-binding guidelines to address these loopholes (i.e., the 2000 Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources,[14] and INFCIRC/225/Rev.4[15]). Negotiations on a ban on radiological weapons might lead to a legal requirement for states to abide by such guidelines as a mandatory preventive measure. This would promote compliance with these non-binding recommendations and enhance control over the acquisition and management of radioactive materials, thereby reducing terrorist groups’ access to such materials. Also, existing measures dealing with radioactive sources exclude those sources used for defense purposes. Endeavoring to fill the gap in this area would certainly be challenging for the CD; however, among existing international institutions, this disarmament forum is the best suited to deal with this sensitive issue.

Prospects for Negotiations

Although institutions focusing on international security should respond to new threats in a timely fashion, this has not necessarily been the case in the CD over the last several years. Ever since the re-establishment in 1998 of an Ad Hoc Committee to negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile material, the CD has remained in a stalemate triggered by disagreement between major powers on how to prioritize key issues in its program of work. As a result, the CD has been unable to respond to the international community’s repeated appeals as expressed in United Nations General Assembly resolutions and in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference. The latter called upon the CD to begin substantive work on nuclear disarmament, a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT), and the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). Instead, most of the CD’s activity over the last two years focused on procedural matters such as the review of the agenda, expansion of membership, and improved functioning of the conference.

The current initiative, therefore, enabled the CD to hold lively discussions on a substantive topic that is high on the international agenda. The real challenge now facing the CD is how to reflect in writing the discussions it has undertaken, with a view toward including the issue in subsequent program of work proposals.

Negotiations, however, are contingent upon breaking the current stalemate at the CD over its program of work, which is not likely to happen during the last few weeks of the 2002 session as divergent views on how to address the top four agenda items (FMCT, nuclear disarmament, PAROS, and negative security assurances) persist. Some states might also try to link negotiations on radiological weapons to conducting work on other issues they regard as higher priorities (i.e., nuclear disarmament, prevention of attacks against nuclear facilities, depleted uranium), thus further complicating the issue and making the adoption of a program of work even more difficult. Appointing a Special Coordinator to address the issue of radiological weapons independently from the program of work, as proposed by Ambassador Heinsberg, might be a more realistic alternative. It would have the advantage of enabling the CD to pursue the initiative in a systematic manner despite the current deadlock, and would allow the CD to report on its discussions in its annual report to the General Assembly.

Should the CD succeed in starting negotiations in next year’s session, it would still face significant hurdles before it can adopt such a convention. Among those is the issue of properly defining radiological weapons, which might be further complicated by recent attempts by some countries to bring into the discussion conventional weapons containing depleted uranium. In addition, several countries argue that radiological weapons have no military utility for state actors, making a ban on such weapons for states a hard sell. The scope of the proposed convention is also problematic, as radioactive materials have many legitimate civilian applications, which render an outright ban on their production, stockpiling, and use impossible to enforce. These problems dogged the Ad Hoc Committee’s work from 1980 to 1992 and eventually led to its deadlock.

One can only hope that the sense of urgency that has emerged from the global campaign against terrorism and the possibility of a US invasion of Iraq will be sufficient to make key states more flexible with regard to the CD’s program of work, and therefore will give the negotiating body the means to make a valuable contribution to the post- September 11 international security framework. Negotiating a ban on radiological weapons would, indeed, help restore the legitimacy of the CD, an institution that has given birth to such historical treaties as the NPT, the BWC, the CWC, and the CTBT, but that has now lost much of its credibility due to its inactivity over the last several years.

[1] Oran R. Young, “The Politics of International Regime Formation: Managing Natural Resources and the Environment,” in Friedrich Kratochwil and Edward D. Mansfield, International Organization: A Reader (Harper Collins College Publishers, 1994), pp. 109-127.
[2] Mohamed El Baradei, “MAGATE ishchet ‘gryaznye bomby’ Sovetskogo Souyza ikh zatailos’ nemalo,” Nezavisimaya gazeta online edition, August 15, 2002, www.ng.ru.
[3] David Stout, “US arrests American accused of planning ‘dirty bomb’ attack,” New York Times, June 10, 2002.
[4] “Inadequate Control of World’s Radioactive Sources,” International Atomic Energy Agency, Press Release, June 24, 2002.
[5] Opening remarks of the German Presidency by Ambassador Volker Heinsberg to the Conference on Disarmament, June 27, 2002, www.reachingcriticalwill.org.
[6] United Nations, Press Release, August 15, 2002, “Conference on Disarmament Hears China Outline its Position on International Security in the Context of New Threats.”
[7] V.A. Bogomolov, “Konferentsiya po Razoruzheniyu — Unikalnoye Obrazovaniye,” Moscow Journal of International Law 2 (April-June1996), pp. 70-72.
[8] Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Radiological Weapons, Conference on Disarmament document CD/1159, July 28, 1992.
[9] Special Report of the Committee on Disarmament to the Second Special Session of the General Assembly Devoted to Disarmament, Committee on Disarmament document CD/292, April 28, 1982, p. 50.
[10] “Nuclear terrorism action plan enters implementation phase,” Nuclear News 4/6 (May 2002), pp. 37-39.
[11] Report of the Ad Hoc Committee established pursuant to General Assembly resolution 51/210 of 17 December 1996, United Nations General Assembly document A/53/37, July 23, 1998, p. 8, www.un.org.
[12] William J. Broad, “Document Reveals 1987 Bomb Test by Iraq,'” The New York Times, April 29, 2001, p.A8, www.iraqwatch.org.
[13] International Atomic Energy Agency, INFCIRC271/Rev.1, The Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, May 1980, www.iaea.org.
[14] International Atomic Energy Agency, Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources, December 2000, www.iaea.or.at.
[15] International Atomic Energy Agency, INFCIRC/225/Rev.4 (Corrected), The Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities, 1999, www.iaea.org.

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