Ambitious goals set at nuclear summit

Nuclear summit sets lofty goals for member nations. Interim Kyrgyz government asserts its authority. Fighting displaces 100,000 in Mogadishu, says UN. Thai red shirt protesters refuse talks. Mexico's drug violence kills 23,000. Hostilities erupt in southern Philippine island. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Rukeyya Khan
14 April 2010

Representatives of forty-seven countries, who attended the nuclear security summit in Washington, have agreed to secure all the world's vulnerable nuclear materials within the next four years. At the end of the two-day summit on Tuesday, leaders pledged to establish preventative measures to stop terrorist groups acquiring nuclear material.

The summit's final communiqué called on participants to increase security but 'not infringe upon the rights of states to develop and utilize nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and technology.' Countries were also called upon to ‘work cooperatively as an international community to advance nuclear security.’ The statement reaffirmed the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog, and pledged to ensure that the agency has the resources and expertise to carry out its mandate.

At a post-summit news conference, US President Barack Obama urged leaders to commit to meaningful steps and said that he is hopeful that allies can agree on new sanctions against Iran, which the US wants in place by June. Obama said that sanctions can 'change the calculus' of a country like Iran, and make them see that there are more costs and fewer benefits to pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. He pledged to continue working with Pakistan to secure its nuclear weapons arsenal, and to try and get North Korea to return to the negotiating table.

Obama said the two-day nuclear summit is an important first step in carving out a new mindset about international security and nuclear technology. The summit affirmed Obama's nuclear weapons agenda set out in Prague last year in which he called for greater international cooperation and the strengthening of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The openSecurity verdict:  At the heart of what analysts refer to as the 'Obama doctrine' lies the central foreign policy theme of nuclear disarmament. Building on what was proposed in Prague, the two-day nuclear summit has yielded some results. Representatives from forty-seven countries have signaled their readiness to better secure their weapons-grade nuclear material and technology. At the culmination of the summit, leaders endorsed Obama's goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material within the next four years. Whether such an ambitious target is possible is a matter of debate among experts. It will take a while to ascertain what is 'vulnerable', how much nuclear material is out there and where it is. So far, it is estimated that between 1,300 and 1,900 tons of weapons-grade uranium is stockpiled worldwide.

Some steps have been taken at the summit to achieve the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Egypt has passed new legislation criminalising trafficking of nuclear goods whilst Malaysia has tightened export controls. Argentina and Pakistan agreed to increase port security to ease concerns about trafficking. Ukraine and Mexico have both vowed to give up highly enriched uranium and instead use low-enriched uranium in their reactors. Russia agreed to shut down a plutonium factory and amended an existing agreement with the US whereby both countries will work to cut the number of deployed warheads by 30% to 1,550 by 2017. Further talks are scheduled between Russia and the US countries to discuss weapons that are not covered by the START 2 treaty. Symbolically, the agreement between both sides has signaled a resetting of relations.

Almost twenty years after the end of the Cold War rivalry, concerns are now emerging about the nuclear aspirations of groups like al-Qaeda and non-state actors. Participants at the nuclear summit have agreed to tighten security and safeguards to prevent the proliferation of nuclear technology and know-how. For this to be achievable, a stronger IAEA will have to be more intrusive in demanding accountability over nuclear technology.

The IAEA's most crucial test at present is Iran. The US and others suspect the country is seeking to build nuclear weapons. Iran has continued its protest this past week and has accused Obama of bullying. The country has reiterated that its programme is to build nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes and create fuel for electricity generation. Referring to Iran's nuclear programme, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that any sanctions ought not to 'lead to [a] humanitarian catastrophe, where the whole Iranian community would start to hate the world.' In spite of these concerns, Medvedev acknowledged the threat posed by nuclear terrorism, adding that ‘if nothing happens, we will have to use sanctions.’ The Chinese meanwhile have said that they will cooperate with Europe and the US on new UN sanctions, though they too are reluctant to endorse any measures that hurt their trade with Iran. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, also in Washington for the summit, announced that his country – also on the UN Security Council – would oppose new sanctions against Iran. Brazil, another Security Council member, also opposes sanctions, calling instead for dialogue.

The preference given to dialogue over sanctions is likely to make the Obama administrations desire to isolate Iran difficult. However the nuclear summit has provided Obama with an opportunity to recast how other nations view the US. The US has clearly realised that by establishing its leadership on non-proliferation it can command greater authority in its quest to prevent Iran's development of nuclear technology. The US may find it easier to convince other nations that Iran is a nuclear threat via the spread of nuclear materials and technologies to terrorist groups than on account of Tehran's willingness to use nuclear weapons offensively.

This attempt to forge consensus around a principled approach to non-proliferation, by which Iran can be targeted, is threatened by Obama's silence on Israel's nuclear weapons arsenal – an issue that concerns both Arab states and Iran. Others have accused the US of singling out Iran and North Korea, while reserving the right to change the new policy of unconditional commitments against nuclear attack on all non-nuclear states faithful to their non-proliferation commitments.

It remains to be seen whether the ambitious targets set at the nuclear summit will usher in the new approach necessary to contain the development of nuclear weapons technology. The major stumbling bloc will likely be the voluntary nature of the bold plans set out at the summit. The reliance on the goodwill of supporting countries alone may not be enough to inspire and enforce the disarmament of those outside and on the verge of transgressing the Non Proliferation Treaty.

Interim Kyrgyz government asserts its authority

The United States said on Wednesday that it is willing to help Kyrgyzstan's new rulers. The recent unrest gripping the Central Asian country has been of concern to both the United States and Russia, both of whom have military bases in the country. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said yesterday there was a very real risk that Kyrgyzstan could become a 'second Afghanistan.' He said the country was 'on the verge of civil war' and that a 'calm way' out of the crisis was necessary to dispel tensions.

The interim government meanwhile has said that Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the deposed president, must stand trial for 'spilling blood' in the recent political unrest. Roza Otunbayeva, head of the interim government, told reporters that Bakiyev 'has already had his chance to leave' and that 'he will be put on trial' if found.

Fighting displaces 100,000 in Mogadishu, says UN

According to the United Nations humanitarian office, at least 100,000 people have been displaced in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, this year amid intense fighting. The body has criticised government forces and insurgents for 'clear violations of the law of war' and accuses them of indiscriminately shelling densely populated areas. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says health workers in the city's hospitals are overwhelmed by casualties.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama announced an executive order on Tuesday freezing the US assets of Al-Shabab militants, the most prominant Islamist group at war with the Transitional Federal Government. Obama said the measure did not target 'the entire country of Somalia, but rather is intended to target those who threaten peace and stability in Somalia.'

Thai red shirt protesters refuse talks

Thailand's Red Shirt protesters congregated in Bangkok’s downtown business district on Wednesday, preparing a 'final battleground' in their efforts to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government. Red shirt leaders have said that 'there will be no more negotiations' and are demanding that Abhisit relinquish his position and dissolve parliament ahead of new elections. Their encampment in the heart of Bangkok’s economic district has hit investor confidence in previous days with overseas investors reacting to the weekend's bloodshed by selling a net of 3.2 billion baht ($99 million) in the past two trading days.

Red Shirt protesters called off a planned march on an army base where Abhisit is taking shelter on Wednesday and reports suggest that Bangkok is peaceful. However tensions could flare again after celebrations marking the Thai New Year come to an end on Friday. Analysts say that Abhisit's government is teetering towards collapse with this week's announcement by the Thai Election Commission that the ruling Democrat Party should face charges of illegal funding. If a court upholds the charges, Thailand’s oldest political party could face dissolution and Abhisit may be banned from holding office.

Mexico drug violence kills 23,000 in three years

Almost 23,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico in the three years since President Felipe Calderon took office and launched a crackdown on drug cartels. A report leaked to the media on Tuesday revealed that gang violence resulted in the deaths of more than 9,600 people nationwide last year and nearly 3,300 so far this year. The figures are significantly higher than the tallies that have previously been assembled by the Mexican media.

According to the report, more than 120,000 drug suspects have been detained since 2006 though no official figure of convictions has been released. The government has deployed more than 48,000 soldiers and federal police officers along the US border and in other drug-smuggling hot sports though critics say this has done little to stem the flow of narcotics. The Mexican government attributes the surge in violence to gangs retaliating against security forces and infighting among cartels.

Hostilities erupt in southern Philippine island

Philippine security forces on Wednesday clashed with Abu Sayyaf militants on the southern Basilan Island, a day after an assault by insurgents left fifteen people dead. Marine commandos and policemen have sealed off the island province's capital, Isabela City, in a bid to deter attacks and contain clashes. Authorities have warned citizens to remain vigilant and say that violence could spill over to other cities.

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