Preventing the Spread of the Most Dangerous Weapons

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses the United Nations Security Council meeting during a meeting on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction during the U.N. General Assembly, September 21, 2017, at UN headquarters.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses the United Nations Security Council meeting during a meeting on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction during the U.N. General Assembly, September 21, 2017, at UN headquarters.

Preventing the Spread of the Most Dangerous Weapons

In the past several months, the world has witnessed egregious examples of countries willing to defy treaty obligations or United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions using the most lethal weapons. In April, the Syrian regime used sarin gas on civilians. Earlier this month, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. And both Iran and North Korea continue to defy the UN Security Council by testing ballistic missiles.

This week, world leaders have gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. On September 21, the UN Security Council convened a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the growing threats from the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

The Security Council’s to-do list is long: to improve the capacity of smaller countries to implement their international legal obligations to impose sanctions and adopt effective measures to prevent the spread of WMDs and delivery systems; to restrict the illicit supply of weapons and nuclear-related technologies to non-state actors; to respond to countries that are in regular violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

Despite the daunting nature of this to-do list, inaction is simply not an option. If we are to preserve international security, the Security Council and the international community must act.

UN Security Council resolutions impose legal obligations on certain countries to abandon their efforts to use or obtain weapons of mass destruction. For example, they prohibit Syria from using chemical weapons and bar North Korea from conducting any nuclear tests or launching ballistic missiles. They also require all Member States to take specific steps to counter proliferation, such as implementing sanctions on North Korea. In addition, they require all UN member states to adopt and enforce effective laws that prohibit non-state actors from manufacturing, acquiring, or transferring WMD.

These legal obligations on Member States to implement Security Council resolutions are every bit as vital to international security as those binding the actions of those seeking to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction. Comprehensive implementation of existing resolutions is often the greatest contribution that any Member State can make to the cause of international peace and security. International diplomatic efforts to change the behavior of those who wield weapons of mass destruction hinge on our maintaining a unified front of collective pressure through effective sanctions implementation.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a Security Council meeting, September 21, 2017, at United Nations headquarters.

Despite these obligations, countries such as North Korea and Syria openly flout UN Security Council resolutions. Each violation gravely undermines international peace and security. The Security Council must ensure that all UN member states fully support and implement its resolutions. From Pyongyang, to Tehran, to Damascus, all breaches of nonproliferation norms, treaties, and Security Council resolutions must be treated seriously.

We must hold states that violate these resolutions and treaties accountable. A strong, resilient nonproliferation regime is essential to international peace and security.

As the President said in his speech on Tuesday, “If we are to embrace the opportunity of our future and overcome the dangers of the present together, there can be no substitute for strong, sovereign, and independent nations.” As strong, sovereign, and independent nations, the global community must work together, bilaterally, regionally, and globally, to stem the tide of proliferation. It takes sovereign steps to produce global good.

Breaches by state actors also increase the threat from non-state actors. We must be fully aware there are non-state actors who will never conform to international law governing nuclear weapons and other WMD. Terror groups seek glory in violence and death. Their eagerness to commit atrocities makes clear they would commit them on an ever-larger scale if ever given the chance.

We must continue to work to secure WMD technologies and materials, and disrupt proliferation networks so that terrorists cannot access these dangerous capabilities.

Stopping the proliferation of WMD, and controlling related material, equipment, and technology is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State. Nonproliferation issues are always at the top of the agenda for any administration. This is not a field where we can afford to remain passive.

The Security Council can use the tools at its disposal – including sanctions, political pressure, and diplomacy – to give teeth to longstanding international norms against the use and spread of WMD and ballistic missiles. Doing so is an imperative. And we must be prepared for a reinvigorated approach. The status quo is not an option.

About the Author: Gonzalo Suarez is the Director of the Strategic Communications and Outreach office in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on

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