What's In Blue

Posted Thu 21 Sep 2017

Ministerial Meeting on the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Today (21 September), the Security Council will hold a ministerial-level briefing on the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and their delivery systems. Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, is expected to brief. The meeting was requested by the US in order to discuss ways the Council can better enforce its resolutions on non-proliferation and to identify ways to ensure that its resolutions on weapons of mass destruction are respected.

The US circulated a concept note in which it suggested that members address the following themes:

• steps the Council can take to improve implementation of its WMD-related
• ways to improve the capacity of countries to implement their obligations under
WMD-related Council resolutions;
• actions countries should take to stem the illicit supply of nuclear- and ballistic
missile-related technology to dangerous actors;
• practical means to respond to those states which regularly violate proliferation-
related Council resolutions.

The Council considers the matter of non-proliferation both as a thematic topic as well as in relation to specific countries – most notably the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Iran and Syria. This What’s in Blue story provides background on the Council’s past efforts to address weapons of mass destruction.

Past High-Level Non-proliferation Meetings

The Council has held two summit-level meetings on the thematic issue of non-proliferation. The first was on 31 January 1992 and was chaired by John Major, the then Prime Minister of the UK, as president of the Council for that month (S/PV.3046). At the meeting, the Council adopted a presidential statement (S/23500) that declared that the proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction constituted a threat to international peace and security and committed the Council to work to prevent the spread of technology related to the research for or production of such weapons.

On 24 September 2009, the Council held its second summit-level meeting, which was chaired by then US President Barack Obama (S/PV.6191). The Council adopted resolution 1887 at the end of the meeting, which called on countries to sign and ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to refrain from conducting a nuclear test explosion, and to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

On 15 December 2016, the Council held a high-level debate titled “Preventing Catastrophe: A Global Agenda for Stopping the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction by Non-State Actors”, to mark the conclusion of the second comprehensive review of the status of implementation of resolution 1540, which is aimed primarily at keeping WMDs out of the hands of non-state actors (S/PV.7837). The Council adopted resolution 2325 at the meeting, endorsing the review and noting the findings and recommendations of its final report.

A rare high-level meeting on a country-specific, non-proliferation issue took place on 28 April 2017 when the Council discussed the denuclearisation of the DPRK at a meeting chaired by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said in his national statement that the time had come “to put new pressure on North Korea to abandon its dangerous path” (S/PV.7932). He urged the Council to act and said there was a need to work together to adopt a new approach.

Resolution 1540

On 28 April 2004, the Council adopted resolution 1540. It requires all states to:

• Refrain from providing any form of support to non-state actors in their attempt to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery.
• Adopt and enforce appropriate effective laws which prohibit any non-state actor from engaging in any of the foregoing activities. States were required to make these activities by non-state actors (and any assistance to them) criminal offences in their domestic laws.
• Take and enforce effective measures to establish domestic controls to prevent the proliferation of WMDs and their means of delivery, and appropriate controls over related materials. The resolution detailed the actions required of states to achieve this end.

The resolution left it up to states to determine how they would implement the provisions of the resolution, whether by legislative or administrative measures or both. The resolution further called on states, consistent with international law, to take cooperative action to prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery.

Resolution 1540 established a Committee consisting of all members of the Security Council to report to the Council on the implementation of the resolution. The committee is currently chaired by Ambassador Sacha Sergio Llorentty Solíz (Bolivia).


The Council first imposed sanctions on the DPRK through the adoption of resolution 1695 on 15 July 2006. Since then, it has adopted seven more resolutions expanding and strengthening the sanctions: S/RES/1718 (14 October 2006), S/RES/1874 (12 June 2009), S/RES/2087 (22 January 2013) , S/RES/2270 (2 March 2016), S/RES/2356 (2 June 2017), S/RES/2371 (5 August 2017) and resolution 2375 (11 September 2017). In spite of the strengthening of sanctions over the years, the DPRK has continued to develop its nuclear capabilities and ballistic missiles in violation of the resolutions.

Council dynamics on this issue have made it generally difficult to respond quickly to even major violations, with press statements often being the default action, and negotiations on more substantive outcomes frequently taking significant time. However, this year, with the missile tests increasing in frequency and a more powerful nuclear device being tested than in the past, the Council has adopted two resolutions within two months imposing expanded sanctions and new listings.

The importance of finding a diplomatic solution has been stressed by China and Russia, as well as a number of Council members, and will most likely be raised again during the meeting tomorrow. There are different views among Council members as to whether further pressure or a military solution is the answer to stopping the DPRK’s nuclear development.


Iran’s activities with regard to nuclear issues first came to the Council’s attention in 2006, when the IAEA referred it to the Council after it found Iran to have violated the Safeguard Agreement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed in 2002. The first resolution on Iran’s nuclear program, resolution 1696, was adopted in 2006. It demanded that Iran implement steps required by the IAEA to re-establish confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme and to suspend uranium enrichment activities. Resolution 1737, adopted on 23 December 2006, banned trade with Iran of certain nuclear proliferation-sensitive items, imposed an asset freeze on a list of persons and entities involved in proliferation-sensitive activities, and established a Sanctions Committee.

Following these two resolutions in 2006, four more resolutions were adopted through mid-2010, with the general aim of getting Iran to suspend specific nuclear activities and strengthening the sanctions. The last of these (S/RES/1929), which imposed a fourth round of sanctions against Iran and established a panel of experts, was adopted on 9 June 2010.

The primary focus for a number of years after the adoption of resolution 1929 was largely outside the Council, as the P5 +1 (Germany) attempted to get Iran to engage in negotiations. On 14 July 2015, the P5, Germany, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Iran reached a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. In the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran agreed to the establishment of an international monitoring and verification system to ensure the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme, in exchange for the eventual termination of Security Council sanctions and all other multilateral and bilateral sanctions.

On 20 July 2015, the Council adopted resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA. According to the resolution:

• the Security Council sanctions regime, including the 1737 Sanctions Committee, would terminate once the Council received an IAEA report confirming Iran’s implementation of agreed nuclear-related measures set out in an annex to the JCPOA;
• “restrictions” would be established maintaining the embargo on conventional arms for an additional five years and ballistic missiles for an additional eight years;
• a “snap-back” mechanism would be created to automatically reactivate sanctions if Iran significantly violated the agreement;
• the Council would forward member state proposals for exports related to Iran’s nuclear programme to the Joint Commission, which oversees the implementation of the JCPOA, and review its recommendations before the goods or service can be provided; and
• the provisions of the resolution would end ten years after the JCPOA’s entry into effect and “Non-proliferation”, the subject under which Iran is considered, would be removed from the Council agenda.

On 16 January 2016, the Council adopted a presidential statement establishing the position of facilitator of the Council’s work under resolution 2231. Ambassador Sebastiano Cardi (Italy) is the current facilitator.

One issue that may be raised in today’s meeting is whether Iran’s missile tests since 2015 have been a violation of resolution 2231. In a statement by the P5, Germany and the EU annexed to the resolution, Iran is “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” The use of the term “called upon” is a weaker formulation than, for example, “decides”, which is considered mandatory language. Furthermore, the types of missile tests which are restricted are limited to those related to delivering nuclear weapons.

This year, Iran tested a ballistic missile on 29 January, and on 27 July it launched an advanced satellite-carrying rocket into space. Council members have been divided over whether or not these missile tests are violations, with China and Russia in particular maintaining that the restrictions in resolution 2231 are not legally binding obligations, and the missile must be explicitly designed to deliver nuclear weapons to be a violation. France, the UK and the US (the P3) have generally taken the position that these tests are destabilising and against the spirit of the resolution; of the P3, the US under the Trump administration has been the most critical of the JCPOA, while France and the UK have signalled their continuing commitment. These positions are likely to be further elaborated on during the meeting.

During today’s meeting, there may be some discussion of the “snap-back” mechanism for reactivating sanctions and how it works. According to resolution 2231, following a process to resolve concerns of Iranian non-compliance in the Joint Commission and among foreign ministers, a member of the JCPOA, if still unsatisfied, can notify the Council that it believes that there has been a significant issue of non-compliance. The sanctions automatically resume 30 days after this notification unless the Council adopts a resolution that continues the lifting of the sanctions. Any permanent member concerned about non-compliance could veto such a resolution.


After a 21 August 2013 chemical weapons attack by the government of Syria in Ghouta, the Council adopted resolution 2118 on 27 September 2013 requesting Syria to cooperate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) by declaring its chemical weapons arsenal and providing for its destruction. Resolution 2235, adopted on 7 August 2015, established a UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

While the Council is updated monthly on this issue and progress has been made over the last four years, the OPCW has repeatedly stated that it considers Syria’s initial declaration incomplete. The final report of the JIM regarding the 4 April 2017 chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun is expected in October. Past efforts to ensure accountability for chemical attacks in Syria have been vetoed, and Russia has repeatedly questioned the methodology of the JIM. The mandate of the JIM expires on 17 November 2017.

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