US President Barack Obama is certainly living up to the pledges he made for promoting international security and peace during the 2008 US presidential election campaign. One of these pledges was to secure the world’s existing stockpiles of weapons-grade nuclear materials so that they should not fall into the hands of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, whose destructive ambitions include causing a global catastrophe through Weapons of Mass Destruction.
It was because of Mr. Obama’s noble vision for the world that he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009. Critics questioned the said award, terming it premature. However, as we see increasingly now, President Obama is doing all he can to lesson the burden of huge responsibility placed upon him by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. It was upon his initiative that leaders from 47 countries, including 38 heads of state and government, gathered at the Convention Center in Washington, DC on April 12-13 to free the world from the threat of nuclear terrorism.
The Global Nuclear Security Summit was the largest-ever gathering of world leaders—including the heads of the United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Council—in the US Capital since the founding of the UN at San Francisco in 1945. And its outcome, in the shape of a Joint Communiqué and an Action Plan, is anything but a historic success, reflective of global consensus on the urgent need for achieving nuclear security in the world during the four-year period of Obama’s Presidency.
The event symbolized the US President’s ambitious goal of realizing global nuclear disarmament, which he had announced in a major speech in April 2009. A week before the summit, Mr Obama signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Prague. The agreement aims to reduce each side's deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550. The same week, the Obama Administration unveiled the four-yearly US Nuclear Posture Review, in which the United States has committed itself to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons for national security, refrain from conducting nuclear tests and for not using nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them.
President Obama opened the Nuclear Security Summit by framing the problem of nuclear terrorism as a “cruel irony of history”— nuclear dangers on the rise, even after the end of the Cold War and decades of fear stoked by a US-Soviet arms race. “A terrorist group in possession of plutonium no bigger than an apple could detonate a device capable of inflicting hundreds of thousands of casualties,” he warned.
In recent years, al-Qaeda is known to have strived to obtain fissile material or a crude nuclear device. There are about 1.6 million kilograms of highly enriched uranium and about 500,000 kilograms of plutonium in the world. Fissile material is held at hundreds of locations, with varying levels of security. There are more than 130 research reactors alone that are powered by highly enriched uranium, some of them in developing or transitional countries where the risks of fissile material falling into wrong hands is greater. It takes only about 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium or eight kilograms of plutonium to make a crude nuclear bomb.
The Nuclear Security Summit took place a month before delegates from nearly 200 countries gather at the UN Headquarters in New York for the five-yearly Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, which will focus on preventing non-nuclear states from joining the club while those with nuclear weapons move toward disarmament. In the previous NPT review conferences, the United States and other four declared nuclear powers received criticism for not meeting the desired goal of nuclear disarmament. The US under Obama’s leadership—with a START Treaty, the pledge to realize Global Zero and the debut step towards nuclear security from terrorism—can, therefore, expect lesser criticism at the May NPT review conference.
The expansion of peaceful nuclear energy will be an important topic at the upcoming NPT Review Conference. The Nuclear Security Summit has, thus, helped build confidence that the right to peaceful nuclear energy contained in Article IV of the NPT can be exercised safely. It also demonstrates that President Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament agenda is a pragmatic programme aimed at global security.
The Nuclear Security Summit ended with leaders from 47 nations signing off on a non-binding a joint communiqué and an action plan that presses for collective global action to secure all vulnerable fissile materials such as highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium within four years.
“Nuclear terrorism is one of the most challenging threats to international security, and strong nuclear security measures are the most effective means to prevent terrorists, criminals or other un-authorized actors from acquiring nuclear materials,” stated the a joint communiqué. It reaffirmed the fundamental responsibility of states, consistent with their respective international obligations, to maintain effective security of all nuclear materials, which includes materials used in nuclear weapons and nuclear facilities under their control.
The 12-point joint communiqué included a global commitment to “fully implement all existing nuclear security commitments and work toward acceding to those not yet joined, consistent with national laws, policies and procedures;” and an unconditional support for “the objectives of international nuclear security instruments, including the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, as amended, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, as essential elements of the global nuclear security architecture.
The world leaders reaffirmed “the essential role of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the international nuclear security framework” and acknowledged “the need for capacity building for nuclear security and cooperation at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels for the promotion of nuclear security culture through technology development, human resource development, education, and training.”
The joint document, thus, puts the onus on nations to prevent non-state actors from obtaining the information and technology required to use such materials for making bombs. Other pledges adopted at the summit include setting up of robust national legislative and regulatory frameworks for nuclear security; taking concrete measures to secure the safety of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium; and expanding capacity building for atomic security at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels for the promotion of nuclear security culture. The non-binding document also called for greater sharing of information and expertise relating to nuclear security.
A lot was also achieved on the sidelines of the summit. Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich on its opening day pledged to get rid of the country's stockpile of highly enriched uranium by 2012. The United States has agreed to provide technical and financial assistance in that endeavor. In another major development, Chinese President Chinese President Hu Jintao’s agreed with the US leader to impose stringent UN sanctions against Iran for its nuclear activities. China has backed three previous sanctions resolutions on Iran, and its support is crucial because it is one of five veto-wielding members of the Security Council.
On the second day of the summit, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov formally signed an agreement to amend the US-Russian 2000 agreement on eliminating excess weapons-grade plutonium, which marked an essential step towards enabling full implementation of the two countries' obligation to safely and transparently dispose of such excess weapons-grade plutonium, enough material for several thousand nuclear weapons.
Under the agreement, each country will complete and operate facilities to dispose of at least 34 tons of plutonium by using it as fuel in civilian power reactors to produce electricity, although it will not start until 2018; monitors and inspectors will ensure against cheating. The combined 68 tons of U.S. and Russian plutonium represents enough for about 17,000 nuclear weapons.
During the summit, Canada announced that it will return its spent nuclear fuel to the United States. The announcement came after Chile said it had handed secretly over its last 40 pounds of highly enriched uranium to the United States. The European countries also showed their willingness to voluntarily adopt measure to ensure greater nuclear security in the continent.
Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia assured the US President that his government would adopt stricter import and export controls to prevent the country from being used as a transshipment point for smuggled nuclear materials and technology. The Pakistani leadership was equally forthcoming. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani assured the gathering that his country had taken fool-proof measures to prevent its nuclear assets from terrorists—with President Obama reportedly expressing “confidence” in Pakistan’s ability to safeguard its nuclear programme from terrorist organizations like Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
A Continuing Process
The next round of Global Nuclear Security Summit will take place in 2012 in Seoul, South Korea to assess progress on the national and international measures the world leaders agreed at the Washington summit to combat nuclear terrorism. Only time will tell us as how all of these measures for realizing global nuclear security are actually implemented.
The Washington summit being the first of its kind has, indeed, served its principal purpose: that of highlighting the urgency of preventing the world’s nuclear arsenals and fissile material from falling into the hands of non-state actors, including terrorists and criminals. Its concrete outcome augurs well for the future of peace and security in world marred by the threat of international terrorism.
Non-state actors pursuing their terrorist ambitions globally, and eying upon weapons with which they can cause mass destruction, pose a common danger to all the countries of the world. Any global initiative to prevent terrorists’ acquisition of nuclear material or arsenal must be welcomed internationally, as it already seems to be the case. The Obama Administration needs to sustain this initiative well into the future, as it will lead to more favourable outcomes at other nuclear forums such next-month’s NPT conference.
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