KEY MULTILATERAL NON-PROLIFERATION MECHANISMS
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT): The NPT, which came into force in 1970, is a landmark agreement aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. The Treaty, joined by all but five UN Member States, includes three overarching commitments: (1) states without nuclear weapons shall not acquire them; (2) states with nuclear weapons (currently recognized as the U.S., Russia, France, United Kingdom, and China) pledge to work towards eventual disarmament; and (3) all countries can access nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. To prevent the diversion of nuclear materials and technologies for weapons use, Article III of the NPT tasks the International Atomic Energy Agency with concluding safeguards agreements with non-nuclear-weapon states and carrying out inspections of their nuclear facilities.
- International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): The IAEA is a UN-affiliated specialized agency that verifies compliance with the NPT and other nonproliferation agreements, having concluded safeguards agreements with 182 countries. These activities can provide the international community with advanced warning of and trigger a global response to the existence of an illicit nuclear weapons program, including providing a basis for action by the UN Security Council. The IAEA also carries out a variety of nuclear safety and research activities. For example, the agency continues to provide technical support to help Japanese officials monitor radioactivity levels in the coastal waters and fish populations near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which suffered a major meltdown following a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
- Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT): The CTBT, ratified by 164 UN Member States, obliges parties not to detonate nuclear weapons or support those who do. The U.S. has signed but not ratified the CTBT.
- Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC): The CWC seeks to eliminate chemical weapons, prohibiting states parties from developing, producing, stockpiling, acquiring, transferring, or using chemical weapons. By joining the Convention, states parties also agree to destroy any stockpiles of chemical weapons they possess as well as any facilities which produced them. The U.S. Senate ratified the CWC in 1997.
- Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW): The OPCW was created to oversee implementation of the CWC. Under the terms of the treaty, OPCW inspectors have verified the destruction of more than 98 percent of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles.
SANCTIONING NORTH KOREA
Beginning in 2016, the UN Security Council significantly ratcheted up sanctions against North Korea over its expanding nuclear program. The Council unanimously adopted a series of U.S.-backed resolutions targeting the central pillars of North Korea’s economy, banning Pyongyang from exporting coal, iron, textiles, seafood, lead, and agricultural products; cutting imports of refined petroleum by 89 percent; requiring countries to expel North Korean guest workers, a critical source of hard currency for the regime; and compelling countries to seize and impound ships caught smuggling prohibited items to and from North Korea.
The UN Panel of Experts (POE) on North Korea—a body of independent experts that assesses the effectiveness and impact of the sanctions—plays a key role in monitoring international compliance with the Security Council’s directives. POE reports can also be used as a tool to pressure sanctions violators and inform efforts by individual member states, such as the U.S., to strengthen their own bilateral sanctions measures. The POE’s most recent report, released in August 2020, contained data from 43 Member States describing how North Korea circumvents limits on refined petroleum imports through illicit ship-to-ship transfers. The report also detailed the regime’s use of cyber attacks to steal money to fund its weapons program.
MONITORING IRAN’S NUCLEAR PROGRAM
After several years of diplomatic pressure, and robust sanctions adopted with strong U.S. support by the UN Security Council, the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran struck an agreement on July 14, 2015 to constrain Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for phased-in sanctions relief. The agreement (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, including requiring Iran to ship 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country, limit the purity of its enriched uranium to 3.67 percent (down from the 20 percent level it achieved prior to the deal), dismantle and remove two-thirds of its centrifuges, and remove the core of its Arak heavy water reactor and fill it with cement. The JCPOA also empowers the IAEA to monitor, inspect, and verify every aspect of Iran’s nuclear program in order to ensure that the country is abiding by limits on its nuclear activities included in the agreement and not diverting materials to a secret weapons program.
During the period when the U.S. was a party to the agreement, IAEA inspectors repeatedly verified Iran’s compliance with its obligations. In 2018, however, the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA and re-imposed bilateral sanctions. Iran, for its part, began to gradually exceed the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment, though still well below the levels it reached prior to the deal. The IAEA has continued its monitoring activities throughout this time, repeatedly raising alarm about Iran’s violations. In addition to reporting on Iran’s escalating enrichment activities, inspectors also found uranium particles at an undeclared site in Tehran in 2019, which the agency has repeatedly called on Iranian authorities to explain. Moving forward, as long as the deal remains in place, the IAEA will continue to fulfill this critical role, essentially serving as the eyes and ears of the international community on Iran’s nuclear program.
CONFRONTING THE USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS
In addition to overseeing and verifying the destruction of the world’s chemical weapons stockpiles, the OPCW is empowered by the CWC to investigate alleged instances of chemical weapons use. In this regard, the agency’s Syria fact-finding mission has been illustrative, confirming on multiple occasions the use of sarin, chlorine, and mustard gas during the Syrian civil war since 2014. While this investigative mechanism was previously only allowed to determine the facts regarding the use of chemical weapons—and not call out guilty parties—in June 2018 OPCW Member States voted overwhelmingly to allow the organization to begin attributing responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria. In this vein, the organization released a report in April 2020 blaming the Syrian air force for a series of sarin and chlorine attacks in the rebel-held town of Latamneh in 2017. While Russia continues to use its veto on the Security Council to shield the Syrian government from punishment, such investigations nevertheless play an important role in isolating the regime and its backers and potentially laying the groundwork for future accountability.
Outside of Syria, the OPCW also played an important role in investigating the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, an opposition activist and staunch critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who fell seriously ill in Russia in August 2020 and was evacuated to Germany for treatment. The German government formally requested technical assistance from the OPCW to determine whether Navalny was poisoned with a chemical agent. OPCW investigators found that blood samples taken from Navalny tested positive for Novichok, a nerve agent that was added to the CWC’s list of banned chemical agents earlier in the year. This strongly suggested that Navalny was likely poisoned by agents of the Russian state.