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Countering Proliferation: Security Council Summit

Tomorrow morning (26 September), the Security Council will hold a summit-level meeting on countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), chaired by US President Donald Trump.

The US, this month’s Council president, initiated the meeting to discuss ways the Council can better enforce its resolutions on non-proliferation and counter the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

US Ambassador Nikki Haley first announced the US decision to hold this meeting when she briefed the press on 4 September. Haley said that the meeting would address what she called Iran’s violations of international law and its efforts to undermine stability in the Middle East. Several days later, however, the White House indicated that the meeting would focus more broadly on non-proliferation issues.

Last week, the US circulated a concept note which provided more details on the meeting. The note invites Council members to address the following issues:

• ways to better enforce existing sanctions and international obligations and norms on threats posed by WMDs;
• ways to increase the cost for regimes and non-state actors who violate international norms and obligations;
• ways to improve capacities of countries to implement their obligations under WMD-related resolutions; and
• actions member states should take to address the illicit supply of nuclear, chemical, biological and ballistic missile-related technology to dangerous actors.

Background on Past Summit Meetings on WMDs

Wednesday’s meeting marks the third time the Council will discuss non-proliferation in a summit-level meeting since 1992.

The first summit-level meeting on this issue was held under the UK presidency of the Council in January 1992, chaired by then UK Prime Minister John Major. At the meeting, the Council adopted a presidential statement (S/23500) that declared that the proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction constituted a threat to international peace and security and committed the Council to work to prevent the spread of technology related to the research on or production of such weapons.

The second summit-level meeting on this issue was chaired by then US President Barack Obama nearly 18 years later, in September 2009. At the end of the meeting, the Council adopted resolution 1887, which called on countries to sign and ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to refrain from conducting nuclear test explosions, and to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The Meeting

The focus of tomorrow’s meeting, as described in the concept note, bears significant similarities to the September 2017 ministerial-level meeting convened at the initiative of the US on the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, which was also held during the high-level week of the UN General Assembly. At that meeting, the majority of Council members expressed serious concern about escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, while maintaining that the diplomatic efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program had reaped positive results.

The Iran nuclear agreement and efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula are likely to dominate the discussions at tomorrow’s meeting as well. The international context with respect to both issues has changed significantly over the past year, however.

Diplomatic efforts between the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as well as between the two Koreas, have resulted in a notable reduction of tensions on the Korean peninsula. Since April, three inter-Korean summits have been held between the leaders of the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. On 12 June, DPRK supreme leader Kim Jong-un and Trump met in Singapore and signed a joint declaration committing both countries to strive to build new relations and work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

While there has been widespread support in the Council for diplomatic efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula, different positions have emerged with regard to the Council’s approach towards the use of sanctions. The US and most other members believe that the Council should continue to pressure the DPRK until it demonstrates concrete actions towards denuclearisation. China and Russia, however, seem to be open to considering some form of sanctions relief for the DPRK. These difficult dynamics have further complicated the bilateral US-Russia relationship, with the US openly accusing Russia of violating sanctions through ship-to-ship transfers to DPRK vessels of items prohibited under the sanctions regime.

The US decision in May to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program has put the agreement in jeopardy and exposed the rift on this issue between the US and other signatories (China, France, Germany, the EU, Iran, Russia and the UK), who are still committed to preserving the agreement. In the Council, the US finds itself increasingly isolated on this issue. Earlier this week, the remaining signatories of JCPOA announced that they would establish a mechanism that would facilitate payments for economic transactions with Iran. The purpose of this mechanism would be to shield entities doing business in Iran from the effects of the US sanctions on Iran.

Another issue that some members are likely to address during the meeting is the threat of chemical and biological weapons in light of the 4 March use of a nerve agent in Salisbury, UK. The issue resulted in significant tensions between Russia, on the one hand, and the UK and its allies, on the other. The UK has accused Russia of the attack. Russia has denied this accusation and said that there had been no research and development in Russia of the nerve agent used in Salisbury.

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