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The Proliferation Security Initiative: Five years later, losing its sheen?

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 07, 2008

    On May 27, 2008, participants from 91 countries assembled in Washington to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) – a controversial counterproliferation initiative launched by President George W. Bush in Krakow, Poland on May 31, 2003, with a view to improve global coordination to intercept shipments of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related materials by ‘rogue’ states and terrorist groups.

    Five years after its launch, the milieu has transformed, though not drastically. Proponents of PSI argue that instances of proliferation have come down. There is heightened surveillance over countries of proliferation concern as well as non-state groups that are likely to engage in WMD proliferation. However, one cannot credit this trend as a total success because the Initiative has been mired in controversies and systemic issues that have hampered its proactive propagation. Moreover, security planners have been pondering over its legal validity and political feasibility given its promotion of military interdiction to tackle WMD proliferation.

    Since its launch in 2003, there have been just a handful of declared cases of successful PSI interdictions. Instead, what has been seen in the past five years are numerous plenary meetings with platitudinous declarations and an umpteen number of military interdiction exercises among PSI participants. The once-effusive proponents of the Initiative in the Bush administration are now guarded in their reference to the PSI.

    On the sidelines of the fifth anniversary, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Rood outlined “a number of successes” for the Initiative, including international exercises and the increasing numbers of signatories. But he refused to go into detail about how many actual interdictions have happened so far. “We have released some examples of successes but there are intelligence and other issues involved. There are reasons why, when information has been clandestinely acquired, are protected from public disclosure. Depending on the circumstances of the interdiction, various people will know, or may not know," he said.

    Interestingly, unlike the secrecy maintained now, the initial years of the Initiative were witness to intense campaigning and projection of interdiction successes so much so that the first purported PSI interdiction – the BBC China, which was allegedly carrying centrifuge parts to Libya in December 2003 – was stated as a “seizure that had a major role in Libya’s decision to give up the pursuit of WMD.” However, PSI managers immediately retracted this claim after John Wolf, a former undersecretary of state for non-proliferation, remarked that this interdiction was not a PSI operation. After this controversy, the Bush administration continued asserting the successes of PSI, but has abstained from divulging details for “fear of disclosing and damaging sensitive operations and intelligence sources.”

    In a May 2005 PSI event, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claimed that “in the last 9 months, PSI partners have cooperated on 11 successful efforts.” Under Secretary Robert Joseph went further by claiming that there were over 30 successful PSI operations. Joseph had also claimed that PSI partners have worked to prevent Iran from procuring goods to support its nuclear programme, and also prevented a ballistic missile programme in another region from receiving equipment to produce propellants.

    During the fifth anniversary, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley shared with participants an example of a successful PSI operation in February 2007, “when four nations worked together to interdict (missile-related) equipment bound for Syria.” Hadley’s assertion has been typical of PSI managers claiming success for the Initiative without substantiation with hard data. It was therefore not surprising when Hadley claimed that PSI interdictions have been successful all over the world, and have stopped “many shipments of sensitive materials destined for Iran, North Korea, and Syria.”

    While ambiguity on its success rate continues to diminish the Initiative’s glaze, other issues add to its diminishing glory. Foremost among them is the nature of membership and lack of clarity on who constitutes its actual participants. During the fifth anniversary celebrations, PSI managers had declared that the number of participants had risen from 86 in 2007 to over 91 countries this year. The ‘Washington Declaration’ adopted at this meeting noted that “91 PSI participating states have endorsed the Statement of Interdiction Principles.” John Rood also referred to this figure saying that “the metric (of success) number one: we have over 90 countries participating in just five years.”

    Critics of the Initiative contest these figures for many reasons. Though participants have downplayed the concept of membership by explaining it as an ‘activity’, actual participation is currently done through two interlacing methods. The first is to publicly endorse the Principles through a diplomatic note accompanied by a public statement of support; and second to sign Ship Boarding Agreements. The first group of around 20 members including the erstwhile core group and later entrants (like Argentina, Singapore, Canada, Denmark, Turkey, Norway and Georgia) have publicly supported the Initiative and endorsed its Principles. But only a handful of countries are known to have signed Ship Boarding Agreements with the United States. Eight countries, which are not prominent actors in global anti-proliferation, but are Flag of Convenience (FoC) states with a major share in global shipping (Malta, Liberia, Belize, Cyprus, Croatia, Mongolia, Marshall Islands, and Panama), have signed Ship Boarding Agreements with the US, presumably bringing under the PSI’s ambit nearly 70 per cent of the world’s commercial fleet.

    A vast majority of other declared participants are said to have stated their support, but their status on endorsing the Principles and signing Boarding Agreements are still unknown. Though the Washington Declaration claims that 91 countries have endorsed the Interdiction Principles, the State Department website provides data of only a handful of states declaring their endorsement, while it is still unclear what level of support a majority of other declared participants like Russia have given to this Initiative.

    Such structural issues apart, the PSI is seriously restrained by its weak legal basis for military interdiction even while its managers suggest participants would perform such actions within the ambit of their individual national legal authorities and international legal frameworks. As a matter of fact, the Bush administration could barely make progress in tackling the legal impediments on military interdiction. When the Initiative was launched, its managers cited provisions in various legal entities and UN Resolutions including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, the 2005 Protocol Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA Convention), and Right of Self Defence enshrined in the UN Charter as imparting legal sanction for interdiction of ‘illicit’ WMD material.

    However, none of these could legitimise a maritime or aerial interdiction without the consent of the flag state or unless the targeted cargo is within the territorial jurisdiction of the participant state or any other state leading the interdiction operation. A breakthrough came with the 2005 Protocol to the SUA Convention, which, for the first time, gave legal sanction for military interdiction though subject to conditions that include consent of the flag state. Attempts by the Bush administration to justify interdiction in international waters or airspace by citing the right of self defence under the UN Charter (Articles 51, 52 and 53) also proved futile as these Articles sanction self defensive actions only in the event of an armed attack. PSI managers now argue that the Charter has to be reinterpreted in the post 9/11 context with every act of proliferation being deemed an armed attack. With such serious legal bottlenecks derailing a global momentum in favour of the PSI, its managers now place major emphasis on UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which prohibits the transfer to and from North Korea of WMD (and related materials), and Resolution 1737 sanctioning Iran for its uranium enrichment activities.

    On the other hand, the Initiative is gradually moving forward by getting more nations to extend in-principle support. In fact, PSI managers are now focusing their energies on roping in the two Asian giants – India and China – into the Initiative. Their absence has heavily impeded the Initiative’s cause in the Asian region. China is averse to any external policing in its neighbourhood and littoral, and is apprehensive about a US-led counterproliferation initiative monitoring its nuclear activities in its backyard, especially given its history of supporting proliferation involving Pakistan and North Korea. India, for its part, has refused to join the Initiative, but participates as an observer in its meetings and exercises. While prospective political repercussions at home is a natural deterrent, the primary obstacle for India’s involvement is the reference in the 2005 Protocol to the SUA Convention, which allows nuclear trade only by non-weapon states that have the IAEA’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) in place. India has item-specific safeguards for some of its facilities and does not accept the CSA given its de facto nuclear weapon state status.

    Despite such shortcomings, over 90 countries seem to have theoretically agreed to cooperate on interdiction of illicit WMD and related materials. These countries would ultimately end up forming a ‘web of partnerships’, as envisioned by President Bush, to lead a global momentum against WMD proliferation. The Initiative has also served as a platform for greater cooperation in intelligence sharing and enforcement. Besides, the increasing monitoring and surveillance over international maritime and air traffic after the 9/11 attacks has considerably put the brakes on proliferators. The fifth anniversary meeting notably discussed measures to strengthen monitoring of the international financial system. Efforts are also afoot to criminalise proliferation-related trafficking by air. In fact, this is likely to provide a new impetus as till now the PSI campaign was mostly confined to creating maritime surveillance against WMD proliferation. PSI managers are also now focussing on attracting more active participants and strengthening their national legal authorities which could be supportive of anti-proliferation actions within their territorial jurisdictions.

    In the event, the Bush administration believes that a truly global web of participants would help the Initiative transform into a global norm to be followed in practice by most nations. Such optimism notwithstanding, managers of the Initiative have to contend with the fact that US-promoted counterproliferation initiatives are losing their sheen as a domino effect of the declining fortunes of the Bush administration. Moreover, though the Initiative was envisaged as a complement to the NPT-oriented non-proliferation regime, it has ended up promoting a new anti-proliferation order. States concerned about the United States’ unilateralist tendencies are concerned about the likelihood of these mechanisms being used as a tool to further political agendas like regime change and democratisation. The prospective new dispensation in Washington can, however, give a fresh impetus to the PSI by delinking counterproliferation from other political game plans.