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Big Powers Skirt Anti-Nuke Terrorism Treaty

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - A long-awaited international convention against nuclear terrorism will come into force next week, nine years after it was originally proposed by Russia and 10 months after it was adopted by the 192-member General Assembly.

But most of the major powers, including those with nuclear weapons, are giving it a miss -- at least so far.

"The convention will help prevent terrorist groups from gaining access to the most lethal weapons known to man," says Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who describes nuclear terrorism "as one of the most serious threats of our time."

The new international treaty, which has 115 signatories, needed 22 ratifications before it became international law. The 22nd country to ratify it was Bangladesh. The treaty comes into force Jul. 7.

Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a senior fellow with the Center for Peace and Security Studies and an adjunct full professor in the Security Studies Program at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, however, expresses doubts about the effective implementation of the convention.

To fully implement this convention, she pointed out, signatories must also carry out related measures through national legislation. "This will not be easy," Goldring told IPS.

As of mid-June, she said, the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to ratify the convention is Russia. And the only other nuclear state that has ratified the convention so far is India. The United States has signed the convention, but has not ratified it, she added.

Still, Goldring said, this convention is likely to contribute to efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism by bringing additional attention to this crucial issue.

"However, the world community has a great deal of work to do. We need to limit access to nuclear weapons and radioactive material much more effectively than is currently the case."

The 22 ratifying parties who have expressed their willingness to implement the treaty include: Austria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Comoros, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Hungary, India, Kenya, Latvia, Lebanon, Mexico, Mongolia, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The world's five declared nuclear powers are the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. India and Pakistan have declared their nuclear weapons but are not considered "nuclear weapon states" under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because it defines nuclear weapons states as those that tested weapons before January 1967. Israel and North Korea are also believed to have nuclear weapons.

Officially titled "The International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism", the treaty outlaws specific, concrete acts of nuclear terrorism.

One of the objectives of the convention is protection against attacks involving a broad range of possible targets, including nuclear power plants and nuclear reactors.

Under the convention, all parties to the treaty will have to cooperate in preventing terrorist attacks by sharing information and assisting each other with criminal investigations and extradition proceedings.

"The entry into force of the Nuclear Terrorism Convention must of course be welcomed as a demonstration of the consensus within the international community that nuclear weapons must not be acquired by terrorist groups," a former U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, Jayantha Dhanapala, told IPS

However, he pointed out, there is a rich irony in the fact that key members of that same international community have failed to ratify such important treaties as the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty preventing the development of new nuclear weapons.

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and at least three other countries outside the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, he said, have about 26,000 nuclear weapons among them, of which 12,000 are on alert status.

"These are weapons of terror and there can be no distinction between 'right' hands and 'wrong' hands for their possession in terms of the humanitarian principles of war and the International Court of Justice's Advisory Opinion of 1996," said Dhanapala, who is also a member of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission.

Cora Weiss, the U.N. Representative of the International Peace Bureau and president of the Hague Appeal for Peace, says the best thing about this convention is that it brings the nuclear issue back to the table, and hopefully, to the consciences of the world's governmental leaders.

"What would really prevent nuclear terrorism is the total abolition of nuclear weapons. And that is not a pipe dream," Weiss told IPS.

She said that a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal calling for a nuclear-free future, and authored collectively by former U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn, has been in wide circulation among anti-nuclear activists and members of civil society.

She said there is also the World Court decision that generally nuclear weapons are illegal under international law; there is the Hans Blix Commission report on weapons of mass destruction; "and we have just celebrated the 25th anniversary of filling Central Park with one million people who gathered to say, 'Good bye nuclear weapons'."

Even the most recent foreign secretary of Britain, Margaret Beckett, endorsed the Wall Street Journal op-ed piece.

"And we will soon, once again, remember the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombings," Weiss said.

She said there has never been a better time to revive the campaign to free the world of the most deadly and lasting possibility: nuclear devastation.

Goldring described the convention as one of a constellation of measures to decrease the risks of nuclear terrorism.

If fully implemented, she said, it would increase the level of cooperation among states and the quantity and quality of information they share with respect to terrorist incidents.

"It also has an important focus on safeguarding any nuclear or radiological material that is captured by states," she said. "Unfortunately, while this step is laudable, no single measure is going to solve this problem, and the convention is relatively modest in comparison with the work that needs to be done."

Goldring also said that outlawing nuclear terrorism is not enough: "We urgently need to secure the surplus nuclear material in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, and to protect nuclear facilities around the world."

Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

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