Scope for ensuring compliance with arms control agreements

Disarmament and arms control agreements often, though not always, contain provisions on how implementation and compliance by the signatory states should be checked. Verification and monitoring regimes vary depending on the aims of a treaty, the matters it governs (especially categories of weapon) and relations between states parties. The general objective is to deter the parties from treaty infringements, to identify such infringements as early as possible to trigger the necessary countermeasures, and to build trust and confidence among the parties. How much verification is regarded as “sufficient” in each case will ultimately depend on the political assessments of the relevant states. For, as a rule, there is no one-hundred-per cent guarantee that violations will not take place or will always be discovered by verification measures.

Compliance control methods and technologies

A general distinction is made between two types of method:

1. National technical means (cf. Alan Krass) legally deployable without the consent of the country to be monitored. Usually, only the most technologically and militarily advanced countries have such capabilities. Monitoring technologies underwent rapid development from the late 1950s. They are extremely sophisticated today and include satellite imaging, measurements of seismic shocks and nuclear radiation (for detecting nuclear weapons tests), radar imaging and the recording and analysis of communications signals.

2. Cooperative measures agreed by states parties These may include the permanent technical monitoring of specified nuclear and other facilities or regular and ad hoc on-site inspections. Apart from inspections by control personnel on-site, monitoring can be conducted from the air if special aircraft having the right, after notification, to fly over the territory of another state and take aerial photographs.

Under many of the disarmament and arms control agreements, the states parties undertake to submit, at regular intervals, data on the extent of their armament or disarmament activities. These data then form the basis for verification by national technical means, by on-site inspection or by a combination of the two.

How much monitoring is sufficient?

Every arms treaty requires the parties to decide how strong its verification mechanism should be. It depends not only on what is technically possible in each case but also on the military strategies of treaty states, their assessment of the potential military disadvantages of data disclosure, and their judgment of potential economic disadvantages of accepting on-site inspections in, for example, production facilities.

In the period between the two world wars, the few arms agreements that existed contained hardly any provisions on compliance control. Consequently, treaty violations tended to be recognized late. The escalation of international conflicts, largely driven by the rapid build-up of armed forces in Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, caused these treaties to collapse. Then, after 1945, the Soviet Union rejected lengthy on-site inspections because Moscow feared espionage. These reservations impeded the emergence of new arms agreements. Only after advances in technology enabled monitoring by satellite and radars— i.e. using “national technical means”—did the first treaties take shape. This was the case with the conclusion in 1963 of test-ban arrangements with the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and under Water. When the policy of détente between the United States and Soviet Union finally gained ground in the 1970s, the nuclear superpowers were then able to introduce more cooperative monitoring elements into their disarmament and arms control agreements.

Compliance regimes — Examples from arms treaties

The provisions on monitoring, supervision and inspection differ widely from one agreement to another. The Antarctic Treaty of 1961, designed to prevent a militarization of Antarctica, and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which outlaws any moves to establish military bases or conduct military exercises on the Moon or any other celestial body, both contain provisions that would allow the states parties to inspect installations in these places at any time. Yet it should be borne in mind here that, when these treaties were signed, no-one foresaw that the Antarctic or the Moon would be of real strategic importance militarily.

At the other extreme, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1971, banning the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons and demanding the destruction of such weapons, and the Mine Ban Treaty of 1997, outlawing the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel mines, both provide no verification mechanisms whatsoever. In the case of the Biological Weapons Convention, the United States has been particularly averse to including an inspection regime.

By contrast, the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC, in full the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction), drafted in 1992, is administered by an international authority specifically set up to check on compliance. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, with a staff of around 500, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its work. The most comprehensive monitoring system of all is contained in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1967.

This agreement accords considerable powers to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Since 1970, it has had both the mission and the right to routinely observe and inspect any declared nuclear installation of the non-nuclear-weapon countries within the NPT. This compliance regime is designed to establish whether nuclear material is being diverted into military purposes. The IAEA has a staff of more than 2,300 and conducts over 2,500 on-site inspections of nuclear facilities a year. Its inspection rights have not, however, always proved adequate to the task. For instance, the agency failed to notice that Iraq was covertly running a nuclear weapons programme prior to 1991. The IAEA responded to the criticism by drawing up an “Additional Protocol” to strengthen the safeguards. It requires states to accept more rigorous and unannounced inspections. However, more than 30 of the 159 states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have either not yet signed the new arrangement (including Argentina, Egypt and Brazil) or not ratified it (including Iran).

Most of the bilateral agreements between the United States and Russia on reducing strategic nuclear weapons contain far-reaching verification provisions. These compliance regimes include national means, declarations and on-site inspections. Nevertheless, disputes over compliance with treaties can repeatedly flare up, as happened above all during the Cold War.

The 1990 Treaty on Convention Armed Forces in Europe between the then member states of the Warsaw Pact and NATO respectively sets out detailed inspection arrangements. The Treaty was intended to scale down the presence of heavy weapon systems (tanks, armoured combat vehicles, artillery systems, combat aircraft and attack helicopters) and thus remove each side’s capacity to launch large-scale surprise attacks in Europe. In addition to information sharing and surveillance by national means, large numbers of on-site inspections were conducted under the terms of the Treaty. However, Russia unilaterally suspended its implementation in 2007, bringing inspections of Russian forces to a halt.

Challenges of compliance arrangements

The types of weapons addressed by a treaty determine how far a comprehensive or near-comprehensive compliance regime is technically possible, economically feasible or politically desirable.

Weapons that require large-scale technologies, and thus have a big footprint or need extensive testing, can be monitored relatively easily by satellites, radars and other technical means. This is the case, for instance, with the uranium enrichment plants and nuclear reprocessing facilities needed to produce weapons-grade fissile material for atom bombs as well as nuclear warheads for long-range ballistic missiles. At the other end of the spectrum, it is far more difficult to keep track of covert efforts to acquire weapons that are relatively small (e.g. small arms, landmines etc.) or require only small-scale production facilities (biological weapons and chemical weapons in small quantities). Even critical public scrutiny in the countries concerned or on-site inspections where suspicions arise will not be able to quickly uncover every treaty violation perpetrated by a state that deliberately seeks to circumvent its treaty obligations.

Another fundamental problem is that only those states that have signed and ratified an arms treaty are bound by its provisions and thus by its compliance rules. For instance, neither India nor Pakistan nor Israel is subject to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and all three have developed their own nuclear arsenals. And the Chemical Weapons Convention has not yet been joined by Egypt, Israel and North Korea, among others, while Syria did not become a member until 2013. These countries either possess chemical weapons or are suspected of possessing them.

Moreover, every agreement contains a termination clause. This option was chosen by North Korea in the case of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thus ending inspections of its nuclear facilities by the IAEA. And, in 2002, the United States, under President George W. Bush, terminated the Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) Treaty with the Soviet Union/Russia so that the Americans could develop and deploy missile defence systems without any legal obstacles.

Since it is impossible, or unfeasibly expensive, to have a hundred-per cent guarantee that arms treaty infringements will be discovered by the verification arrangements, such arrangements are always a matter for political judgement. Verification is therefore often a point of contention in the domestic policy arena. For instance, opponents of arms control in the United States have used demands for watertight verification mechanisms as a means of torpedoing treaties.

The claim that a complete ban on nuclear tests could not be policed became an important argument used by the majority of the US Senate in its 1999 decision to reject ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Since that time, the treaty’s implementation body, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Commission, operating under a provisional status, has in fact achieved the highest verification standards. Having set up 292 (December 2017) certified monitoring stations to measure seismic, hydroacoustic, infrared and radioactive events across the world, the commission is now capable of proving any nuclear test worldwide. Yet the US Senate—along with China, Egypt, Iran and Israel—still refuses to ratify the Treaty. Moreover, India, North Korea and Pakistan have not even put their signatures to it. Verification problems can thus be cited as a pretext, concealing other motives such as disapproval of nuclear disarmament.

Sources and further information

BICC 11/2013

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