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The Role of the UN in Prevention of WMD Proliferation
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Weapons of Mass Destructions (WMDs) constitute nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiological weapons, which not only affect the natural environment, but its potential to carry out widespread destruction is one of the biggest concerns for the international community. The United Nations (UN) works on the mandate for prevention of proliferation of WMDs, and to deal with global threats and challenges that can have disastrous consequences for the humankind.

A number of multilateral treaties and conventions exist which outlaw the various classes of WMDs and seek out solutions to the challenges in the international security regime. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution on WMD – 1540 establishes obligations for all the member states to take appropriate measures to prevent proliferation of various classes of WMDs and their means of delivery, especially to non-state actors. WMDs falling into the wrong hands can be dangerous, and therefore, proactive measures are being taken by nation-states to ensure that the risks from such threats are curtailed.

The paper is an attempt to examine the role of the UN in prevention of proliferation of WMDs, which is one of the most threatening challenge to international security, with a special focus on UNSC Resolution 1540.

Categories of Weapons of Mass Destructions (WMDs)

WMDs typically refer to nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. As per the definition in the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, which is a collection of military related terminology prepared by the United States (US) Department of Defense (DOD), WMDs are “chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons capable of a high order of destruction or causing mass casualties”, excluding the means of transportation and delivery of the weapons.[1] There seems to be a debate on whether chemical weapons can be considered as weapons of “mass destruction”, as they are less lethal than conventional explosives. And also radiological weapons cause local contamination and requires costly clean up, but that cannot be considered as ‘mass destruction’.[2] But nevertheless, the damaging consequences that each one of the categories of weapons can have are immense, and therefore, all of them have got equal priorities for their counter-proliferation policies.

Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapons on earth. Nuclear weapons can cause catastrophic effects, as it jeopardizes the natural environment, and have the potential to kill millions in just a single usage. As per the UN estimates, almost 22,000 nuclear warheads reportedly remain in the world, and more than 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted so far.[3] Their very existence is extremely dangerous, and is one of the biggest challenges for the international community.

The goal of universal disarmament seems extremely unrealistic and impractical, but several treaties have aimed to prevent nuclear proliferation and testing. These include the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). CTBT has yet to enter into force. Other multilateral groupings such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, and the Wassenaar Arrangement, seek to reduce or eliminate nuclear weapons, its proliferation, and are efforts to establish stringent security regimes to prohibit the transfer of weapons technology and its means of delivery.[4]

Biological Weapons

Biological weapons include viruses, bacteria, pathogens, and germs, which are disease-producing agents that kill people slowly by disabling human lives. Their effects are not just restricted to human beings, as they also affect plants and animals. It can result in spreading of plagues, which can have disastrous consequences for the human race. Biological weapons have been used for centuries, whereas the nuclear weapons were invented approximately 70 years ago.[5] Anthrax is another deadly biological weapon, which is caused by biological agents such as Bacilus anthracis (Tier 1 agent). Anthrax has been used for nearly a century all around the world.[6] It is highly lethal, and can cause mass casualties.

The first UN-led multilateral disarmament treaty for banning the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons was the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The BWC was opened for signature in the year 1972, and came into effect in 1975.[7] The convention was followed by a number of review conferences, which looked into matters related to future scientific and technological developments relevant to the same. However, the absence of a verification regime has raised questions regarding the convention’s efficacy.[8]

Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons include chemicals that are used to inflict death or harm to human beings. Chemical weapons include toxic chemicals, using “munitions, and devices, specifically designed to cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of those toxic chemicals.”[9] Certain examples of toxic chemicals are chlorine, phosgene (a choking agent), and mustard gas. The modern usage of chemical weapons dates back to World War I, and since then, chemical weapons have caused more than one million deaths globally.[10]

The Geneva Protocol of 1925 failed to address the issue of development, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons, only limiting itself to prohibit the usage of chemical weapons in warfare. Though it was a welcome step, it had major shortcomings.[11] But since World War II, chemical weapons were used in only a few cases, for instance during the Iran-Iraq War. After more than 12 years of negotiations during the Cold War, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was adopted in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in 1992. It was opened for signature in 1993, and came into effect in 1997. The convention establishes an international control regime for complete elimination of chemical weapons. It was followed with the establishment of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to prepare detailed operational procedures, and to provide infrastructure for the permanent implementing agency as per the convention.[12] The CWC is far more comprehensive and all-inclusive as compared to the international treaties on chemical weapons in the past.[13]

Radiological Weapons

The poorly secured commercial radioactive sources globally, which number in thousands, pose a serious challenge for international security. Radiological dispersive devices (RDD) are used to spread radioactive material with the intent to kill and inflict damage.[14] ‘Dirty Bomb’ is a type of RDD that combines conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive material.[15] Though it is unlikely that radiological weapons could cause mass casualties and ‘mass destruction’, it can incite mass panic, can affect commerce in areas that are affected, and the decontamination procedures are very expensive.[16]

Assessing the Threat of ‘WMD Terrorism’

One of the gravest potential risks for the world is the probable nexus between WMDs and terrorism. A successful WMD terrorist attack can cause hundreds and thousands of casualties, and can have disastrous economic and political consequences for the international community.[17] The types of WMDs discussed in the previous section are generally the accepted categories of weapons that the terrorists may seek to get hold of and launch a WMD terrorist attack.

The new debate is about the security and protection of nuclear weapons and fissile material. This is one of the gravest concerns for the nuclear weapon powers in the world today. The possibility that if such weapons or materials fall into the wrong hands, especially that of the non-state actors, ‘nuclear terrorism’ is one threat that has, therefore, received much attention and recognition.[18] Terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda have openly stated their desire to acquire and use nuclear weapons. The risk is that in case of availability of scientific and technological know-how, and the right kind of material, terrorist organizations can build nuclear weapons.[19] Moreover, terrorist groups are unlikely to be hesitant before using such weapons. This poses one of the severe challenges for the world community.

Biological weapons are the most deadliest weapons ever produced. Many countries in the world possess the capability to produce and weaponize biological agents, if they want to do so. The 2001 anthrax letter attacks in the US had raised the debate on the possibility of ‘bioterrorism’, and has revived international efforts to keep a check on the production and the misuse of such biological weapons.[20] Terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda had manifested their intent of acquiring such weapons to be used in mass casualty attacks. Once dispersed and disseminated successfully, it has the ability to spread across oceans and to distant continents, and therefore, it will be extremely difficult to limit the number of mass casualties from such attacks. Terrorist organizations are likely to get hold of such weapons in case it is sponsored by some state, or the technical know-how being shared by technicians and scientists earlier affiliated to any state program.[21] This is another potential risk that the world faces today.

Chemical weapons have received less attention compared to nuclear and biological weapons, but historical records suggest that chemical weapons are the most widely used and proliferated WMD. Chemical weapons use toxic chemical to cause harm ranging from discomfort to death. It can also have consequential psychological and physical effects. Chemical weapons are relatively cheaper, and technologically less demanding as compared to nuclear and biological weapons. Therefore, non-state actors have particular interests in developing such weapons. The international community has been wary of the consequences if such weapons fall into the wrong hands, and therefore, stringent measures are being taken to prevent proliferation of chemical weapons, and to keep a check on the technologies that are used to produce them.[22]

Radiological terrorism involves the intentional dispersion and dissemination of radioactive materials to contaminate people, to inflict physical injury, loss of life, and destruction of property. Radiological dispersive devices (RDD), also sometimes referred as ‘dirty bombs’, are generally used to carry out such attacks. Radioactive materials can be collected from numerous possible sources, as they are used in medical centers, laboratories, and industrial plants. Radiological effects are not contagious and do not cause endemics. However, there are high medical risks and can have long-term effects, depending on the exposure to radiological material.[23] Radiological weapons potential to carry out mass casualties are limited and therefore, these are sometimes referred as weapons of ‘mass disruption’, as they spread fear and disrupt daily life.[24] Radiological terrorism could be the future form of WMD threat that the world may face and therefore, the international community has been taking measures to curb challenges emanating from such threats.

The growing threat of WMD terrorism is one of the gravest challenges that the world faces for international security. Since the 9/11 attacks, there has been renewed focus on the threats from WMD terrorism, which is turning out to be one of the biggest strategic challenges in the modern age. The terrorists may use WMDs as ‘weapons of terror’, and therefore, the international community has taken proactive steps to ensure that the terrorist organizations do not engage in proliferation-related activities. Other than the various UN bodies and agencies discussed in the first section of the paper that seek out solution for the prevention of proliferation of various categories of WMDs by nation-states, the UNSC passed Resolution 1540 in 2004, with a special mandate to look into proliferation risks especially by terrorist groups, that could endanger international peace and security. The next section shall discuss the Resolution 1540 by the UNSC in detail, and its mandate and obligations for the member states.  

UNSC Resolution 1540: Mandate and Obligations

On 28 April 2004 at its 4956th meeting, the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 1540 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which affirms that proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and their means of delivery, constitutes a threat to international peace and security. The resolution obliges the states to refrain from supporting non-state actors from developing, acquiring, manufacturing, possessing, transporting, transferring or using the various categories of WMDs, and their delivery systems. It further imposes binding obligations on all states to establish effective domestic controls over related materials to prevent illicit trafficking.[25] This becomes crucial, as illicit trafficking was now considered as a new means of proliferation, and recognizes the risk posed by non-state actors such as terrorist organizations, in case they happen to acquire such weapons and related materials. As other international legal instruments govern activities of states, Resolution 1540 becomes significant as it explicitly mentions that the states should refrain from proliferation-related activities to the non-state actors, and should work in order to prevent probable illicit activities.[26]

The resolution affirms support for the existing treaties that work on the mandate for disarmament and prevention of proliferation of WMDs, and the importance for all states to implement them to promote international stability. The resolution recognizes that states are under binding legal obligations to prevent proliferation of WMDs, and to take effective measures to secure and physically protect sensitive materials, and their means of delivery. The resolution recognizes that states shall adopt effective legislations and laws so that non-state actors are prohibited from developing WMDs, and their means of delivery, and also to keep a check on such activities. The resolution obliges the states to maintain effective border controls and law enforcements to prevent illicit trafficking. The resolution also obliges the states to undertake effective national export and trans-shipment controls to check for materials including finances that could contribute to proliferation, and this should be in consistence with international law. The resolution recognized the need to assist states that lacked specific legal and regulatory infrastructure, implementation experience, and/or resources for fulfilling the required provisions.[27]

The Resolution 1540 becomes relevant to even those states that do not possess WMDs, because no state is immune from the consequences of use or threat of use of WMDs. Moreover, as WMD-related materials are traded across national boundaries and in different territories, this calls for active participation and cooperation among states to keep a check on proliferation-related activities.[28]

The main objective of the resolution is to prevent proliferation of WMDs and their means of delivery, and to prohibit non-state actors from developing such weapons and engage in activities for terrorism purposes. Though it does not directly deal with counter-terrorism, but is complementary to counter-terrorism efforts, as they seek to reduce the risks posed by proliferation of such weapons that could be used for terrorism purposes. Moreover, the 1540 Committee is further integrated to the UN’s broader counter-terrorism committees and their work.[29]

The 1540 committee is a subsidiary body of the Security Council that is composed of 15 members of the Council. The mandate of the committee was drawn from the Resolution 1540, and with subsequent resolutions 1673 (2006), 1810 (2008), and 1977 (2011). The Resolution 1977 extended the mandate of the 1540 Committee for a period of ten years until 2021. The resolution provides for two comprehensive reviews, one in every five years. Resolution 1977 also dealt with the need to provide technical assistance to states, and to enhance cooperation with relevant international organizations. The Security Council, thus, recognized the need for full implementation of the Resolution 1540, and reiterated the need for continuous efforts at national, regional, and international levels to reduce any potential risks that could involve WMD proliferation.[30]

The 1540 committee has established working groups in four areas: 1) Monitoring and National Implementation; 2) Assistance; 3) Cooperation with International Organizations; and 4) Transparency and Media Outreach. The working groups are open to all members of the committee.[31] A Group of Experts, appointed by the Secretary General, assists the 1540 Committee. On 29 June 2012, Resolution 2055 was adopted by the UNSC, which increased the number of experts to nine in the Group of Experts supporting the 1540 Committee.[32]

The member states are required to report to the 1540 Committee on the progress and the steps taken for the implementation of the resolution. States that have not submitted reports are called upon to do so without further delay, and states that have submitted reports are encouraged to send additional information that could be relevant as far as the implementation of the resolution is concerned. As of January 2014, 171 states and one regional organization i.e. the EU, have submitted reports, while 108 of them have submitted additional information.[33]

States can seek assistance from the 1540 committee. The 1540 Committee can help states by providing them with technical expertise on preparing reports for the Committee, in preparing requests for assistance, and in implementation of the resolution, provided the 1540 Committee has sufficient resources. Several other bodies have been formed that provide varied forms of assistance, which essentially work on the mandate for effective implementation of the resolution. According to Paragraph 7 of the Resolution 1540, the UNSC invites states to offer assistance only to “specific requests”. The 1540 Committee also clears pending requests and does the job of approval for the same. The 1540 Committee Working Group works to process, examine, and matching of requests, and looks into offers that are efficient and effective.[34]

WMD Proliferation Risks

Though the Resolution 1540 makes it mandatory for member-states to ensure that proliferation-related activities are checked, the actual control of the export of items that could have military applications is much complicated in practice. Stringent enforcement of export control laws becomes complex as controlling the movement of items and technology that could contribute to WMD proliferation is extremely problematic. The listed items, such as those of having dual (civilian and military) applications, may be agreed upon and is expanded with time, but even non-listed items can pose a security challenge as they could also be used in WMD programme. Moreover, ‘intangible’ technology transfers using means such as software’s and emails could be other ways of transferring WMD technology.[35] Non-proliferation efforts should take into account of all such possible developments, and measures to prevent such threats will be crucial in the long run.

To add to that, WMD proliferation cases are rare and are highly unlikely. So, other practical legal challenges may include unfamiliarity of prosecutors and judges with the export control laws, the challenge of handling sensitive and classified materials in courts, difficulty of proving the intent of WMD end-use, difficulty in collecting evidences in different countries, and sometimes legal gaps and lack of legal clarity. These issues are some other practical legal challenges that a country may face in a WMD proliferation-related case. Therefore, for a state, ‘prevention’ should be the real goal, and if that happens to fail, other measures such as detection, disruption, investigation, and prosecution should follow accordingly. Stringent national laws, and coordination between domestic and international agencies would be some other essentials in curbing the WMD proliferation threat.[36]

Internationally, the most threatening WMD proliferation challenge is the inability of the international community to credibly surveil proliferation risks in Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran. This has posed newer security threats, and the international community has been vigilant regarding the developments.[37] The AQ Khan nuclear supplier network in Pakistan for the first time in history, led to the most severe loss of control over transfer of nuclear technology and materials to states such as “Iran, North Korea, Libya, and perhaps others.”[38] Given Pakistan’s history of proliferation, it is debated that some day an element in the Pakistani military establishment will provide nuclear materials to even more dangerous third party, or maybe to Saudi Arabia, that could lead to an arms race in the Middle East. Moreover, the newer debate is whether Pakistan’s strategic assets are safe or not. Experts say that as Pakistan is vulnerable to attacks from Taliban and other militant factions, which is proven by the fact that their military bases and facilities have been targeted many a times, it raises doubts over its ability to guard its nuclear arsenals.[39] As some of these countries are sometimes considered as ‘rogue’ nations and as ‘irresponsible’ states, the chances of WMD proliferation cannot be ignored, which are imminent threats for global security. Effective international mechanisms will be crucial in order to limit the probable chances of WMD proliferation, which would be detrimental not just for the immediate regional, but for global peace and stability.


The possibility that a terrorist organization launches a WMD attack is one of the gravest threats to international security. Terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda have openly stated their desire for acquiring WMDs. This remains one of the most severe challenges that the world confronts today, and the international community has been watchful regarding such threats. The UNSC Resolution 1540 makes it mandatory for all member states to follow strict export control regimes, so that sensitive materials that could be used for development of WMDs do not fall into the wrong hands. Resolution 1540 makes it obligatory for the member-states to follow the mandate of the resolution, and to ensure that threats from such danger are reduced. However, the actual enforcement of the export control laws and other legal practical matters could be some additional challenges that a country may face to keep a check on proliferation-related activities. Therefore, stringent enforcement of export control laws and ‘prevention’ of WMD proliferation should be the ultimate priorities for nation-states. To add to that, countries like Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran, are some of the major proliferators that could pose a challenge to the very existence of peace in the international system. The international community has been on the alert regarding probable chances of proliferation of WMDs, and measures are being taken to make sure that threats to international peace and security are contained, and ultimately, eliminated.


Abhinav Dutta is currently working on his MA in Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, Karnataka, India.  He holds a B Sc in Geology (Honors) from the University of Delhi, Delhi, India. His research interests are International Relations Theory, International and Strategic Negotiations, Political Thought and Theory, and US Foreign Policy.

[1] See DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication1-02 (Washington D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2015, as amended).

[2] Ashton B. Carter, “How to Counter WMD”, ‘Foreign Affairs Article’ at Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), September/October 2004, see http://www.cfr.org/weapons-of-mass-destruction/counter-wmd/p7291, accessed on 27 October 2015.

[3] “Nuclear Weapons”, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), see http://www.un.org/disarmament/WMD/Nuclear/, accessed on 27 October 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Arvind Kumar, “Threats Emanating from Weapons of Mass Destruction”, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, see http://www.idsa.in/cbwmagazine/ThreatsEmanatingFromWeaponsofMassDestruction_akumar_0110, accessed on 27 October 2015.

[6] “Anthrax: The Threat”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), see http://www.cdc.gov/anthrax/bioterrorism/threat.html, accessed on 27 October 2015.

[7] “The Biological Weapons Convention”, UNODA, see http://www.un.org/disarmament/WMD/Bio/, accessed on 27 October 2015.

[8] n.5.

[9] See definition of “Chemical Weapons” in Article II of Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at https://www.opcw.org/chemical-weapons-convention/articles/article-ii-definitions-and-criteria/, accessed on 27 October 2015.

[10] “Chemical Weapons”, UNODA, see http://www.un.org/disarmament/WMD/Chemical/, accessed on 27 October 2015.

[11] “CWC: Genesis and Historical Development”, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), see https://www.opcw.org/chemical-weapons-convention/genesis-and-historical-development/, accessed on 27 October 2015.

[12] “Chemical Weapons”, UNODA, see http://www.un.org/disarmament/WMD/Chemical/, accessed on 27 October 2015.

[13] n.5.

[14] “Understanding the Radiological Threat”, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), see http://www.nti.org/threats/radiological/, accessed on 27 October 2015.

[15] “Fact Sheet on Dirty Bombs”, United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC), see http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/fs-dirty-bombs.html, accessed on 27 October 2015.

[16] n.14.

[17] “The Global Challenge of WMD Terrorism”, United States Department of State, see http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/65477.pdf, accessed on 28 October 2015.

[18] n.5.

[19] n.17.

[20] “Understanding the Biological Threats”, NTI, see http://www.nti.org/threats/biological/, accessed on 28 October 2015.

[21] n.17.

[22] “Understanding the Chemical Weapons Threat”, NTI, see

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