Policy

Countering weapons proliferation

Issue

The spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) poses a threat to the UK and the international community. Indiscriminate trade in conventional arms and the use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons and ballistic missiles raises serious humanitarian and security concerns.

We’re working around the world to champion and implement UK policies as set out in the National Counter-Proliferation Strategy to prevent the spread of CBRN weapons and ballistic missiles.

Actions

The UK works with international partners and through organisations such as the UN, G8, NATO and the EU to reduce terrorists’ ability to create, obtain or use CBRN materials and technologies.

Global Partnership

The Global Partnership (GP) is a multilateral non-proliferation initiative created by G8 countries at the Kananaskis Summit on 27 June 2002. GP countries fund projects to prevent terrorists and other proliferators from acquiring chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons and materials of mass destruction. The GP also helps countries work together on WMD threat reduction.

Counter-Proliferation Programme

One of the FCO’s tools to combat these threats is our Counter-Proliferation Programme. In the financial year 2013 to 14 the value of the programme is £2 million. This funding is used to support projects around the world which increase political will or technical capacity to reduce the threat of weapons proliferation.

National Counter-Proliferation Strategy

The government published its National Counter-Proliferation Strategy in March 2012. The strategy’s main aims are:

  • to deny terrorists the materials and expertise to make and use WMD
  • to stop countries such as Iran and North Korea from obtaining WMD or advanced conventional weapons
  • to build up the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), UN and other organisations and treaties that help us meet our goals through the international community and which help to protect global security and prosperity.

Chemical weapons

The UK supports the destruction of remaining chemical weapons stocks and works to encourage full national implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) by all countries. The Chemical Weapons Convention bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.

Biological weapons

The UK has signed up to the global implementation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). The purpose of the convention is to help prevent states acquiring or keeping biological and toxin weapons, and prevent them ever being used by states or terrorists.

Because, unlike the CWC, the BTWC does not have a verification system, participating countries are required to submit relevant data and declarations, or confidence-building measures, to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. This increases openness and gives participating countries confidence that others are complying with the convention. The UK’s confidence building measures are published on the Implementation Support Unit website.

Nuclear weapons

We are working towards nuclear disarmament. The UK is one of 189 states that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty aims to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and ultimately eliminate them. The NPT has three equally important ‘pillars’:

  • to work towards non-proliferation
  • to champion nuclear disarmament
  • to encourage the peaceful use of nuclear energy

Nuclear security

The UK will continue work to strengthen international nuclear security by:

  • improving the security of fissile materials
  • reducing the number of sites containing nuclear and radiological material
  • preventing the acquisition of proliferation-relevant information and expertise by terrorists

Through the successful development of the UK’s Global Threat Reduction Programme we are reducing the threats posed by nuclear and radiological materials and expertise in vulnerable locations worldwide.

We are also supporting the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all states to refrain from supporting non-government agents from developing, acquiring, manufacturing, possessing, transporting, transferring or using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their delivery systems.

The UK also supports and contributes to the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, agreed at the G8 Summit at Kananaskis, Canada in 2002.

The UK is a State Signatory to the 1997 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits the carrying out of any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion. The Treaty is not yet in force. The UK is working to ensure universality of the Treaty and the completion and maintenance of its verification regime: the International Monitoring System, the International Data Centre and an on-site inspection operational capability.

State programmes

The existence of an international legal framework supported by a range of conventions and treaties is not on its own sufficient to dissuade some countries from seeking to develop, produce and, in some cases, sell weapons of mass destruction. The UK works through various international organisations and groupings to seek peaceful means to reduce the threat posed by among others - the nuclear programmes of Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as well as working to address issues arising from Syria’s possession of chemical and biological weapons. In addition to taking forward activity to reduce the threat posed by the programmes themselves, the UK separately works to dissuade businesses and individuals from supporting the activity of the networks that support them.

Mines and mine action

The UK has shown a strong commitment to mitigating the effects of landmines and cluster munitions (a type of explosive weapon which scatters smaller munitions). The UK has signed and ratified:

Arms Trade Treaty

The UK has led international efforts to secure an Arms Trade Treaty in the United Nations since co-authoring the original UN Resolution in 2006 (with Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan and Kenya). At the conclusion of the negotiating conference on 28 March 2013, Iran, Syria and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea blocked consensus on the adoption of the draft Treaty. The UK, with the co-authors, and New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Mexico and US, then tabled a Resolution in the United Nations General Assembly to adopt the draft Treaty. This was passed on 2 April 2013, by 154 votes in favour, 3 votes against and 23 abstentions.

Further details on the UN process towards an ATT and submissions from states (including the UK’s views on an ATT) are available on the United Nations General Assembly website.

Export licensing

The UK has joined other governments around the world to pursue collective implementation of export controls to prevent the proliferation of WMD. The 4 main export control regimes are:

  • the Australia Group - designed to harmonise export control measures aimed at curtailing the unhindered proliferation of chemical weapons
  • the Missile Technology Control Regime - an informal and voluntary association of countries that share the goal of non-proliferation of unmanned delivery systems of WMD
  • the Nuclear Suppliers Group - responsible for making sure nuclear export controls work in practice
  • the Wassenaar Arrangement - established to promote transparency and greater responsiblity in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies

Read further details about the international non-proliferation and arms control regimes.

The UK’s regulatory authority responsible for assessing and issuing strategic export licences to UK exporters is the Export Control Organisation (ECO), part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Read more about the UK’s policies and procedures for controlling defence, security and dual-use strategic exports.

Background

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was born out of fear that the Cold War era would lead to a nuclear arms race and is still the basis of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. All states are now party to it apart from India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan.

The NPT provides for a Review Conference every 5 years, both to review developments over the previous 5 years and to look ahead to the future. At the last Review Conference in 2010 a series of action plans were agreed to enhance implementation of the treaty.

The International Atomic Energy Agency was set up as the world’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ organisation in 1957 within the UN family, and supports the NPT. The agency is at the centre of international efforts to address Iran’s nuclear dossier and to ensure the benefits of safe and secure peaceful nuclear energy are accessible to everyone, not just to the developed world.

President Obama hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2010. Forty-seven countries and three international organisations participated, and each committed to work towards ensuring the security of all vulnerable nuclear material within four years. A second NSS was held in Seoul in 2012, with the fifty-three participating countries and four international organisations focusing on progress in implementing those agreements. The third NSS, in The Hague in 2014, will centre on the results achieved and look towards the future, and final, 2016 NSS.

See our detailed guides on sanctions, embargoes and restrictions. and Current arms embargoes and other restrictions

Within the framework of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the EU applies restrictive measures in pursuit of the specific CFSP objectives set out in the Treaty on European Union. (see particularly Article 11)

The EU External Action website provides an overview of restrictive measures adopted in the framework of the CFSP that are currently in force.

The UN Security Council Sanctions Committees website contains links to the latest versions of all UN Security Council targeted sanctions lists. The individuals and entities included in these lists are subject to the relevant measures imposed by the Security Council, and all member states are obliged to implement these measures. Each separate list is maintained by the relevant Security Council Committee.

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