International non-proliferation and arms control regimes
Overview about agreements, conventions and treaties which impact on the UK's strategic export control policy and legislation.
Export controls are not just a UK issue but a worldwide concern. The UK’s current strategic export control legislation is derived and updated as a result of the UK’s international commitments.
International treaties and regimes
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
The NPT dates from 1968 and commits the 5 ‘official’ nuclear weapon states (USA, UK, France, Russia and China) to not transferring nuclear weapons or technology to others or assisting, encouraging or introducing their manufacture or acquisition. The other signatories of the NPT, the non-nuclear weapon states, have undertaken not to acquire nuclear weapons and to accept monitoring of their civil nuclear programmes by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Over 180 countries are signatories of the NPT.
Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)
In force since 1975, the BTWC bans the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition and use of bacteriological (biological) and toxin weapons and provides for the destruction of existing weapons. For more information see the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention website.
Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)
The CWC entered into force in 1997. It bans the possession, development, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons, and provides for the destruction of existing weapons and their means of production.
A full current list of member states can be found on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemicals website.
See also Countering weapons proliferation.
To complement these legally binding treaties, like-minded countries have set up informal groups to work together against the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and arms proliferation. Their work involves drawing up common lists of goods and technology considered relevant to the activity of proliferators and agreeing to control exports of these. Many countries are now involved. Download a listing of non-proliferation regime members.
The main international groups are:
- Australia Group - the aim of this group is to harmonise export control measures aimed at curtailing the unhindered proliferation of chemical and biological weapons
- Missile Technology Control Regime - the MTCR is an informal and voluntary association of countries that share the goal of non-proliferation of unmanned delivery systems of WMD
- Zangger Committee - this group is responsible for drawing up detailed lists of nuclear controlled items
- Nuclear Suppliers Group - this body is responsible for ensuring nuclear export controls work in practice
- Wassenaar Arrangement - this group was established with the aim of promoting transparency and greater responsiblity in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies
Controls have been in place for many years on the export of chemical warfare agents and certain biological agents that may produce casualties in humans or animals, or damage crops or the environment.
Since 1985 a group of like-minded countries known as the Australia Group (because of Australian chairmanship) has met regularly to exchange information on chemical and biological weapons (CBW) proliferation. The group also meets to agree common Control Lists of dual-use chemicals, pathogens, toxins and equipment which are critical for a significant CBW programme.
The number of countries belonging to the group has increased steadily since 1985. To see the countries that are currently signed up to the Australia Group you can download the listing of non-proliferation regime members.
The following indicates the kinds of items appearing on the Australia Group’s common control lists, and where export from the EU is specifically controlled.
- chemicals which may be used as precursors for toxic chemical agents
- certain human pathogens, zoonoses and toxins
- certain animal and plant pathogens
- certain genetically modified micro-organisms
- vessels and equipment made from, or lined with, corrosion resistant materials, including:
- heat exchangers
- double or multi-walled piping
- distillation columns
- fermentation vessels
- biological containment facilities
- freeze drying equipment
- continuous flow centrifuges
- biological safety cabinets or isolators
- toxic gas monitors
- incinerators designed to destroy chemicals
- cross (tangential) flow filtration equipment
You should consult the UK Strategic Export Control Lists for the full lists of goods and their control parameters. You will also need to bear in mind End-Use Control requirements when considering exporting similar goods or other goods that might be useful in a chemical or biological weapons programme.
Missile Technology Control Group
Exports of missiles, rockets, related equipment and accessories specially designed for military use have been controlled for many years.
In 1987, guidelines were agreed between Canada, France, the Federal Republic of Germany (as it then was), Italy, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom covering the export of missile technology. The number of countries belonging to the Regime has increased steadily and became known as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). To see the countries that are currently signed up to the MTCR you can check the listing of non-proliferation regime members.
The MTCR was originally committed to controlling the transfer of equipment and technology able to contribute to a ballistic or cruise missile, capable of delivering a 500kg nuclear warhead to a range of at least 300km. The MTCR has since become increasingly concerned about the proliferation of missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of carrying chemical or biological payloads, which can be significantly lighter. In January 1993, the Regime agreed to extend its scope to include any missile and UAV capable of a range of at least 300km. Meetings of the Regime are held annually to exchange information about missile programmes of concern and review the equipment and technology commonly controlled by participating governments and which are critical to missile programmes.
The MTCR is neither an international treaty nor a legally binding agreement. MTCR Partners voluntarily pledge to adopt the regime’s export guidelines and to restrict the export of items in the regime’s annex of listed items. There are no provisions in the regime for the enforcement of its terms or sanctions for violations. Trade of MTCR controlled items between regime partners and with non-partner states that adhere to the guidelines is not absolutely prohibited, but it is constrained by national export control legislation.
In the MTCR, Category I systems are those capable of delivering at least a 500kg payload to a range of at least 300km. In reviewing the proposed applications for transfers of Category I missile and UAV systems each Partner will take account of the ability to trade off range and payload. However, the guidelines stipulate a ‘strong presumption to deny’ transfer of Category I missiles and go further in not allowing for the transfer of Category I production facilities.
The following list indicates the kinds of dual-use items controlled:
- accelerometers and gyroscopes
- metal powders
- precision tracking systems
- rocket engines
- ceramics and carbon fibre composite materials
- space launch vehicles and sounding rockets
- production equipment for composite
- telemetry equipment materials
- small gas turbine engines
- gravity meters
- wind tunnels
- inertial navigation equipment
- isostatic presses
- vibration test equipment
You should consult the UK Strategic Export Control Lists for the full lists of goods and their control parameters. You will also need to bear in mind End-Use Control requirements when considering exporting similar goods or other goods that might be useful in a missile programme. Read guidance on the military end-use control or the weapons of mass destruction end-use control
Nuclear Suppliers Group
The NSG was established in 1975 when the international community became concerned that conditions of nuclear supply needed strengthening to better meet nuclear non-proliferation objectives.
To see the countries that are currently signed up to the NSG you can download list of non-proliferation regime members.
The NSG agreed a set of guidelines, published in 1978, for handling nuclear exports to reduce the possibility that such transfers could be diverted to nuclear explosive or unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle activities. The guidelines have been updated at intervals to include goods especially designed or prepared for nuclear purposes (similar to those items listed by the Zangger Committee). These high-risk goods are referred to as ‘trigger list’ items. The NSG has also produced separate guidelines to cover nuclear-related dual-use goods.
The NSG Control List encompass a wider array of nuclear dual-use equipment, materials and technology. Find out more about the export of nuclear equipment, material and technology: ‘Trigger List’ requirements.
The following list indicates the kinds of dual-use items controlled by NSG:
- capacitors (high energy)
- machine tools
- cold cathodes, triggered spark gaps and similar devices
- isostatic presses
- lithium enriched in the lithium-6 isotope
- pressure sensors/transducers
- neutron generators
- Aluminium and Titanium alloys
- maraging steel
- boron enriched in the boron-10 isotope
- mass spectrometers
- vacuum induction furnaces
- electron beam melting furnaces
- filament winding machines
- flash discharge x-ray equipment
- centrifugal balancing machines
- high speed cameras
- flow forming machines
- dimensional inspection machines
You should consult the UK Strategic Export Control Lists for the full lists of goods and their control parameters. You will also need to bear in mind End-Use Control requirements when considering exporting similar goods or other goods that might be useful in a nuclear weapons programme.
The Wassenaar Arrangement was agreed between 33 co-founding Participating States in July 1996 and began operations in September 1996.
To see the countries that are currently signed up to the Wassenaar Arrangement you can download the listing of non-proliferation regime members
The Arrangement aims to contribute to regional and international security and stability, through transparency and responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and other military goods and of dual use goods and technologies relevant to conventional military capability. It is not directed against any state or group of states, nor does it seek to interfere with the rights of states to acquire legitimate means to defend themselves, as recognised in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, nor to impede bona fide civil transactions.
The Arrangement maintains agreed control lists of both military and of dual-use items considered relevant to its aims.
It is for each Participating State to decide whether and under what conditions it authorises its own transfers of such items, in accordance with its national policies and with its own judgement as to the potential contribution to military capabilities and the impact on security and stability.
Participating States exchange information on a confidential basis on their transfers, and on their refusals to authorise transfer, of listed items. Information on transfers enables all the Participating States to be aware of trends in the movement and accumulation of controlled items. Information on refusals enables them to be aware of activity, involving attempted acquisition of controlled items, which could be contrary to the aims of the Arrangement. The information reported on military controlled items relates to transfers of the more major weapon systems and platforms. For dual use items, there is reporting of refusals, and of transfers of those items which are listed as being of greater sensitivity in terms of their potential to contribute to military capability. Other information may be reported where an individual Participating State considers it desirable to bring it to the attention of others.
The Wassenaar Arrangement’s Secretariat, based in Vienna, provides administration which facilitates its work.
Further information on the Arrangement can be found on the Wassenaar Arrangement website.
The EU implements the Wassenaar Arrangement munitions list into the EU Common Military List, which is referenced in the EU Intra-Community Transfers (ICT) Directive. The United Kingdom’s implementation of the military goods controls agreed under the Wassenaar Arrangement is through the Export Control Order 2008. The dual use controls are implemented in European Community legislation and can be found within Council Regulation (EC) 428/2009. For more details read an overview of export control legislation
The controls derived from Wassenaaar Arrangement agreements are then incorporated into the UK Strategic Export Control Lists
The committee was set up in 1971 specifically to interpret the obligations set out in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It defines and controls equipment and materials that are especially designed or prepared for nuclear use.
In particular the Zangger Committee was responsible for drawing up detailed lists of what was meant by ‘source or special fissionable material’ which the Treaty requires States to control. The list is called the Trigger List because the export of listed items ‘Triggers’ IAEA safeguard.
The work of the Zangger Committee is similar to that of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Both the Zangger Committee and the NSG were set up by nuclear suppliers (including the UK) to co-ordinate their nuclear supply policies, in order to comply with the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and other commitments to nuclear non-proliferation. Find out more about the export of nuclear equipment, material and technology: ‘Trigger List’ requirements.
You should consult the UK Strategic Export Control Lists for the full lists of goods and their control parameters. You will also need to bear in mind End-Use Control requirements when considering exporting similar goods or other goods that might be useful in a missile programme. Read guidance on the military end-use control or the weapons of mass destruction end-use control.
BIS ECO Helpline
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Published: 12 December 2012
Related guides: Do I need an export licence? Overview of export control legislation Weapons of mass destruction: End-Use Control Military End-Use Control Export licensing of Man-Portable Air Defence Systems UK Strategic Export Control Lists Assessment of export licence applications: criteria and policy Export of nuclear equipment, material and technology: 'Trigger List' requirements