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Nations Refresh Campaign to Catch WMD Smugglers

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

Singapore Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Explosive unit operatives conduct an inspection demonstration during a 2005 Proliferation Security Initiative exercise. Participating states on Tuesday agreed to new steps to strengthen the U.S.-led program to intercept trafficking of weapons of mass destruction (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E). Singapore Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Explosive unit operatives conduct an inspection demonstration during a 2005 Proliferation Security Initiative exercise. Participating states on Tuesday agreed to new steps to strengthen the U.S.-led program to intercept trafficking of weapons of mass destruction (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E).

WASHINGTON -- The United States and allied governments on Tuesday pledged to strengthen a WMD trafficking interdiction program with more drills, more members and a stronger international legal framework.

Senior diplomats from 72 nations gathered in Warsaw, Poland, for a high-level political meeting observing the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Proliferation Security Initiative.

President George W. Bush announced the effort a decade ago as a means of strengthening the global community’s capacity to halt the illicit movement of biological, chemical, nuclear and radiological weapons and associated materials. There are now 102 nations that have pledged to collaborate for interdiction of suspect cargos carried by ships, aircraft or land vehicles.

Delegates in Warsaw highlighted the initiative’s central place in preventing proliferation of unconventional arms, the State Department said.

“The U.S. welcomed the announcements by PSI states to take specific, concrete steps to further the initiative in the years ahead, which includes deterring proliferators through more regular and robust PSI exercises; promoting legally binding international treaties to criminalize international WMD-related trafficking by commercial ships and aircraft; sharing expertise and resources to build critical interdiction capabilities and practices; and expanding the influence of the PSI globally through outreach to new states and the public,” Foggy Bottom said in a press release.

Nations represented at the meeting signed onto four statements in which they agreed to carry out “specific actions” toward meeting those four goals, according to the release.

Washington and five unidentified PSI participants intend to establish a yearly program of interdictions drills. The exercises would rotate between the six nations in the Asia-Pacific. The governments would also aim to have nations establish similar activities in other sectors.

“These exercises will help strengthen the capacity of partner states to interdict WMD-related cargoes; and the expansion of bilateral and multilateral outreach efforts to potential PSI endorsers, international and regional institutions and associations, and the public,” the State Department said.

The Obama administration also said it would press for U.S. adherence to two global accords that outlaw the use of commercial cargo vessels and aircraft in smuggling of unconventional arms.

Congress this year is again considering legislation under which the United States would accede to the 2005 Protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation and the 2005 Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf.

Speaking four years ago in Prague, President Obama said he would make the Proliferation Security Initiative a “durable international institution.” While details of actual interdictions are closely held, Washington says it has maintained a steady program of operational exercises, workshops and planning meetings.

Critics charge that the initiative has faltered under Obama. There has been a roughly 50 percent drop in the count of exercises and related projects, the Arms Control Association said in a Tuesday blog post. The 21-nation PSI Operational Experts Group -- consisting of those nations deemed most deeply involved in the effort -- now meets once or twice annually, compared to three to five times as under the Bush administration.

However, Bush administration National Security Council staffer David Asher estimated in March that the count of interceptions in recent years is likely greater than numbers from the early years of the program under Bush.

In a new report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute offered a number of recommendations for strengthening the program in years ahead.

Participating states should expand on the growing trend toward augmenting interception capacities by customs agencies at ports, where most WMD cargoes are likely to be found, rather than on military operations in open waters, wrote SIPRI senior researcher Aaron Dunne. “Comparatively few states have the naval capability, let alone the will, to intercept vessels in international waters,” he stated.

The program’s operational effectiveness also needs a boost, according to the report. Dunne called for a greater emphasis for drills and other projects to emphasize “operational realities” in actual interdictions and for “targeted capacity building that reflects the threats and requirements of all PSI participants.”

Other recommended steps included revamping the Operational Experts Group and working to ensure that governments have sufficient legal authorities to carry out PSI activities.

“If the PSI is to remain relevant after 10 years of operation, enhance its effectiveness and secure its future for the next 10 years, it needs to undertake an honest inward-looking self-assessment and develop a strategy for progress,” Dunne wrote. “The 10th anniversary in 2013 provides an ideal opportunity to do so.”

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