18 June 2012
The Non-Traditional Nuclear Threat in South Asia: Managing the Focus
India, China and Pakistan need to develop a common framework to address the challenge of nuclear terrorism. Reciprocal exchanges of information may provide the important first step.
Prepared by: Martin de Lavernée
In South Asia, the rise of non-state actor networks with radical views and the fear of nuclear terrorism have changed the scope of non-proliferation from a state-to-state channel to include the non-state (therefore not politically responsible) actor interactions. This article aims to connect non-state nuclear threats with the different sets of options proposed to deal with the same. It highlights the major findings of several recent reports emphasizing non-state actors and the implications of state and non-state responsibilities. Given the complexity of issues pertaining to non-state nuclear threats, the old state-dominated theories have been the exclusive platform of anti-proliferation policies. Particularly in South Asia, an alternative framework is required to help deal with the specific challenges of the region.
In the aftermath of the fall of the USSR, the uncontrolled spread of nuclear materials became a matter of concern. The scale and sophistication of the 9/11 attacks (though not nuclear) achieved to translate this concern into a concrete threat awareness. The threat of nuclear terrorist attacks came to reality when terrorist groups were alleged to have established certain contacts and integrated enough networks to convert fissile material into operational nuclear weaponry.
Two challenges - proliferation and nuclear counter-terrorism - have to be addressed through a common framework, given the underlying linkage between the two. However, while this new threat perception is common across the board, a common understanding of the non-traditional threat is more difficult to achieve than the threat awareness in itself, given the often conflicting geopolitical imperatives of the various players. For instance, an agreement between China, Pakistan and India on trafficking and proliferation control is far from reachable because these elements are part of the collaboration between Islamabad and Beijing. China, though an NPT member, has bypassed international norms feeding material and technology to Pakistan (which has a first use doctrine). Yet despite such collaboration being common knowledge, China has not faced any consequences to date, giving rise to a dangerous status quo.
Pakistan is on the frontline of this proliferation-terrorism adequacy since its P-3 and P-4 facilities produce nuclear material which don’t need further enrichment and can be handled by non-state actors without major technical requirements. If it is believed that reliable security measures have been implemented, there is little information on the level of material control and accountability mechanisms.
With a lack of nuclear material accountability and a possible “intersection of nuclear weapons and terrorism”, as mentioned by the US Senate Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism in a 2008 report, it is also believed that a small scale terrorist group will be able to undertake the manufacturing of a “dirty bomb”. The scientific and technical means of some State entities can be used by non-state actors towards the aim of constructing and using a dirty bomb.
A rooted approach for India, China and Pakistan, along other international processes, can be undertaken on a South Asian level for self-restraint and confidence building through reciprocal exchange of information. Technical cooperation in terms of screening and surveillance capabilities (borders, airports, sea ports) would be an important first step. A 2008 NATO report affirms that most smuggled nuclear materials are intercepted at national borders. Capacity building and returns on experience in terms of materials transportation can help defuse confrontational relations. Such a stance can be bolstered by auditing nuclear forensics, as a central tool of non-conventional deterrence, and must be supported by both intelligence sharing and research & development programmes.
At the same time, nuclear terrorism has to be tackled at its proper scale, which is political and exceeds the exclusive field of nuclear materials control. An upstream approach must be fostered in order to deter the political motivations of procurement in itself, and the potential opportunity of connivance, leak or thefts. The provision for tying the acts of a non-state actor to the state from where such material was proliferated already exists in the Convention for Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. Even if enforcement proves difficult, repeating this as ones declaratory stance would at least help in curbing the impunity of certain State entities and in handling the asymmetry involved by non-state actors through a bottom up configuration.
It is generally admitted that the intra-state entities (infrastructural - civil or military) are the prime sources of proliferation, given the technological, financial and energy intensiveness of the scientific processes involved. Recognizing that current international transparency norms are difficult to enforce, any alternative framework must encompass different thoughts and doctrines.
Therefore, the main thrust of nuclear counter-proliferation and counter-terrorism must rely on the International Atomic Energy Agency, while at the same time considering bilateral alternatives and signaling on state responsibility in the sphere of accountability. Given the high political, psychological and organizational challenges that nuclear terrorism poses, unbending enforcement of rules and international legal obligations must be backed by political confidence-making and collaboration on technical empowerment of borders, internal security and transportation control.
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This article was first published with ISN partner IPCS.