What one should know about the NSS

The NSS has drawn varying kinds of criticisms from the participating states as well as from some observers


Zahir Kazmi March 31, 2016
The writer is a former visiting fellow (strategic affairs) of the International Institute of Strategic Studies and a visiting faculty member at the NDU’s Strategic Studies Department

The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process will conclude with the final summit in Washington DC, on April 1. The NSS will also mark the twilight of Barack Obama’s presidency, as both dawned together in 2009. There are six things that are often overlooked about the Summit process.

The first is parallelism. The NSS has drawn varying kinds of criticisms from the participating states as well as from some observers. The major criticism has been that the NSS was tantamount to setting up an unnecessary parallel to the already existing international norms and organisations, whose mandate is to assist states in enhancing their safety and security credentials.

The second important aspect of the NSS is the notion of national responsibility. The safety and security of nuclear materials remains the sole responsibility of the state in which the material resides. There has been a thought to extend support to states in securing nuclear materials without dictating policies or monitoring progress. However, the prevailing interest has been that nuclear safety and security is a national responsibility in which infringement is unacceptable unless a state seeks assistance.

Another feature of the NSS is its unique reporting mechanism. Since it is a single-country initiative, there have been reservations regarding the submission of reports at the NSS meetings and little stomach for such a mechanism. This is why the NSS has remained a voluntary platform and the participating states prefer to give national statements rather than reports.

The NSS also stands out because of its ambitious goals. The goals set at the launch of the initiative were too ambitious to be completed in the four-year time period. Although the US insists that the progress seen in the safety and security of nuclear materials around the world is an outcome of the NSS process, some experts are of the view that most of it would have still happened under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). States and international organisations were conscious of the issues set as the NSS agenda and were already moving towards these goals. Therefore, the NSS basically, pointed out existing norms and structures for the past six years.

As far as its legacy is concerned, the NSS is seen as a mechanism designed to contribute to Obama’s presidential legacy. With the concluding summit, his term as the 44th US president sees its end. He will leave a legacy of winning the Nobel Peace Prize for merely promising to work for nuclear disarmament, which he himself admitted is not going to happen in his lifetime. Likewise, he would be remembered for catalysing the efforts to make the nuclear material stockpiles of the world safer and secure.

When one considers the post-NSS future, one has to take into account that its internal working is not made public. Despite this, one can look at history and offer a critique of the post-NSS environment. The main issue in the concluding Summit would be whether it should proffer future actions regarding nuclear security, to other organisations.

At its fag end, the NSS remains a plurilateral process of 52 states and four organisations, including the IAEA and Interpol. Some countries do not participate in the NSS. Likewise, some of the participating countries in the NSS are not members of other organisations. Therefore, how appropriate would it be that a plurilateral one-time initiative suggests courses of action to other larger and more permanent organisations?

Only 47 States and three organisations participated in the first NSS at Washington DC, while 53 States and four organisations participated in second and third summits. Russia had dropped out in 2014, stating that the process is discriminatory and that most of the pledged commitments were met and the agenda has been exhausted.

The above critique notwithstanding, the NSS can be considered a success and a win-win story. Russia gave some 20,000 warheads’ worth of highly enriched uranium out of its nuclear arsenal, to America, which was down-blended for electricity generation. Twelve countries had completely eliminated highly enriched uranium (HEU) or separated plutonium from within their borders. Twenty-seven countries removed or disposed of nearly 3,000 kilograms of HEU and separated plutonium. Twenty-four HEU nuclear reactors in fourteen countries were successfully converted to low-enriched fuel use, or verified as having been shut down. NSS commitments would remain political and voluntary in nature and a national responsibility. The IAEA has a central and leading role and the NSS has complemented it for six years.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2016.

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