Straight talking on export controls

Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan and the rise of proliferation networksBy Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

I’ve just come back from playing the uninhibited academic on Slovenia’s Adriatic Coast. I was at the latest International Export Control Conference, convened by the US State Department and partners. The conference, which runs until tomorrow, mostly discusses the nuts and bolts of export controls, trying to ensure, for example, that exports don’t end up assisting nuclear and missile programmes in countries such as Iran and North Korea, or similar.

Most speakers at gatherings such as this are from government departments or international organisations, and have to be careful about not causing offence among any of the 80 or so participating countries. But the organisers like to have at least one non-governmental speaker who is not so constrained. This year that was me.

In my presentation, I started off gingerly enough, detailing the improvements in the global non-proliferation regime in the past decade that have kept to single digits the number of countries with nuclear and chemical weapons. A leading official in one of the global export-control regimes later told me over dinner that I wasn’t forceful enough in painting a scary picture. But others were appreciative that I departed from the diplomatic script by actually naming those countries and individuals who have violated proliferation norms.

For example, I pointed to the Chinese origin of the transport-erector-launchers carrying mock-up missiles in a parade through Pyongyang last month. I politely suggested that closer cooperation between government and industry in China would have helped the Wanshan Special Vehicle Company, which exported the chassis in question, to determine in advance that the North Korean People’s Army was the real end-user of the vehicles that purportedly were being exported to Cambodia for log harvesting.

I applauded the recent setting of a date for the Swiss trial of the Tinner family associates of Pakistani black marketer Abdul Qadeer Khan, and lamented that Khan himself was not forced to pay a higher penalty than loose house arrest for his sins. But one other black market arms merchant, the Russian Viktor Bout, is serving time in prison after his extradition from Thailand and trial in the US last year, following years of channelling weapons to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and war-torn parts of Africa. Some of my dinner partners said that when I named those cases they had looked around the room to see if any Chinese, Russians or Pakistani representatives were going to storm out. Fortunately, nobody was offended enough to make a scene. And really, it would take extraordinary audacity to be indignant about such notorious bad guys having been put out of business.

Overall, conference discussions among the 300 or so participants from Customs, Commerce, Foreign Ministry and other regulatory offices put an emphasis on partnership, most importantly between organisations such as the European Commission that have dedicated budgets and countries that need assistance making sure exports don’t end up in the wrong hands.

As I said in the conclusion of my presentation, those in the export-control business play a key role in peaceful policy strategies to keep proliferation programmes in Iran and North Korea limited and contained. They are unsung heroes.


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