Despite a Difficult Year, a Win for Nonproliferation

    By Beatrice Neal and Payson Ruhl | 26 May 2021
    The Stimson Center

    (Photo by Mathias P.R. Reding on Unsplash)

    Twenty-twenty was set to be a big year for nonproliferation, with the United Nations Security Council scheduled to review the status of one of its latest additions to the international nonproliferation framework: United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 (UNSCR 1540). Unfortunately, as with many activities during the past year, this too was abruptly constrained by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, the international body responsible for reviewing UNSCR 1540 has been working to adapt its activities to a new normal.

    United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 (2004)

    The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1540 in 2004 in response to increased international awareness of the need for a multilateral approach to preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially to terrorists. Most nonproliferation frameworks address the development and use of chemical, biological, and nuclear (CBN) materials by State actors, but Resolution 1540 is the first to focus especially on proliferation activities by non-State actors.

    Under the auspices of the UN Charter, Resolution 1540 obliges all 193 UN Member States to implement national controls to prevent non-State actors from developing, acquiring, or using CBN weapons and their delivery systems. The obligations of UNSCR 1540 are demanding; to achieve compliance, Member States must implement significant measures ranging from comprehensive legislative and regulatory frameworks to taking steps to detect illicit trade at the border.

    Aware of the demands on Member States, UNSCR 1540 established a subsidiary body of the Security Council known as the 1540 Committee to monitor and facilitate States’ progress toward full implementation of the Resolution. When the pandemic began, the Committee had already started to conduct its third Comprehensive Review of Resolution 1540, as required by the Security Council. In August 2020, citing delays caused by the pandemic, the Committee postponed activities related to the Review until 2021. Eight months later, just three days shy of the expiration of the 1540 Committee’s existing mandate and without agreement on how to adapt the Review to a new timeline, the UN Security Council voted to extend the Committee’s mandate through February 28, 2022, allowing the UN body to resume the Review. The Committee now faces a new challenge: ushering a Comprehensive Review through a pandemic.

    COVID-19 and the Comprehensive Review Process

    A robust Comprehensive Review is a time-consuming and resource-intensive process involving months of planning and data collection efforts by the 1540 Committee, negotiations within the Committee on findings and recommendations, and the submission of a final document to the UN Security Council. A critical component of the Review is soliciting inputs from Member States, relevant international and regional organizations, and civil society on ways to improve implementation of the Resolution. In the second Review, for example, the 1540 Committee hosted in-person outreach events, including open consultations at the UN Headquarters in New York. Participation in these consultations was high—over the course of the multiday event, the Committee heard formal interventions from 59 Member States (thirty percent of all UN Member States), 19 international and regional organizations, and 14 civil society representatives.

    With many countries still in lockdown due to COVID-19, a quick return to the traditional modality of in-person consultations seems near impossible. Though the UN has proven to be able to adapt to virtual diplomacy, the 1540 Committee is likely to find it difficult to replicate the success of its previous outreach events. Several Member States have expressed hesitation around the use of online meeting platforms, and there is some concern that virtual meetings disadvantage participation from low-capacity countries, whose involvement is essential for achieving full implementation of UNSCR 1540 across all Member States.

    A Win for Nonproliferation

    Despite these setbacks, the third Comprehensive Review will still provide valuable insights into what progress has been made in implementing the Resolution over the past five years and what gaps remain. The timing of the third Comprehensive Review presents a unique opportunity for Member States to address emerging challenges to nonproliferation—such as new technological risks and the impact of COVID-19 on governmental funding and capacity—and adapt their national strategies accordingly. By taking full advantage of the Review and its findings, Member States can do their part to shepherd Resolution 1540 through a post-pandemic world.

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