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Central Asia: UN Official To Discuss Treaty On Nuclear-Free Zone

  • Antoine Blua

The top United Nations official for disarmament affairs, Jayantha Dhanapala, embarked yesterday on a lengthy visit to Central Asia. The visit will focus on a draft treaty now under negotiation to create a region-wide nuclear-weapons-free zone. Dhanapala will also address the issues of small arms and light weapons, transparency in armaments trading, and the threat of terrorism.

Prague, 15 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations Undersecretary-General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala arrived yesterday in Tajikistan, the first leg in a two-week visit to the five Central Asian republics.

The visit will focus on a draft treaty to create a regional nuclear-weapons-free zone in Central Asia now being negotiated by Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

The idea to create a nuclear-free zone was originally proposed in the 1997 Almaty Declaration following a summit meeting of the presidents of all five states.

The UN declined to comment on Dhanapala's visit while it was still under way. But Christopher Langton, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, described the aims of the UN in the region. "This [UN] initiative is, in brief, to lay the ground for future work, both for the removal of existing nuclear assets from the region where they may exist, and also to lay the ground for agreement on nonproliferation. There are facilities from the Soviet era which have not been properly shut down because the countries concerned don't have the means to do it. And if one is being utterly frank, the international community has not helped them to do it, even though in some cases [the countries] have requested assistance," Langton said.

The UN has adopted three resolutions to provide assistance to the Central Asian states in order to aid progress on the nuclear-free-zone treaty. But Langton noted that no noticeable progress has yet been made. The analyst said Dhanapala's visit is a reflection of how recent events in Afghanistan and the war on terrorism have put Central Asia's "dangerous assets" in the international spotlight. In addition to hosting numerous nuclear facilities, Central Asia is also a hub of small-arms proliferation.

Langton said the UN, whose drug-control and crime-prevention agency is already fighting narcotics trafficking in the region, could be useful in controlling the small-arms trade. Both the UN Small Arms Proliferation Project and the UN Register of Conventional Arms, he added, could be much more effective with added international support.

Langton said large amounts of Soviet-era military hardware and nuclear materials remain in Central Asia. This, combined with Central Asia's security risks and porous borders, have drawn attention to the risk that radioactive materials might be easily stolen. "[Small weapons] have become the currency of drug smugglers and smugglers of any commodities. One of those commodities might well be nuclear material. It is possible. So the problem needs to be looked at realistically, and from the point of view of smuggling of any dangerous material, whatever it is, and against the background of the proliferation of small arms," Langton said.

In June, the International Atomic Energy Agency said "uncontrolled radioactive sources" were "widespread" in Central Asia's five former Soviet republics. The IAEA has reported 181 cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials worldwide between 1993 and the end of 2001.

Anxiety over the issue was heightened with the May arrest of Jose Padilla, an American citizen and alleged Al-Qaeda operative accused of planning to build a so-called "dirty bomb" -- a conventional explosive packed with radioactive waste -- to be used in the U.S. Padilla reportedly traveled to Central Asia in April hoping to buy radioactive materials.

John Pike is the director of the Virginia-based globalsecurity.org information firm. He told RFE/RL that the UN has laid down an appropriate policy agenda, even if doesn't have the money to implement that agenda. He said the UN, unlike the U.S., is playing an important role in helping to unify the fractious Central Asian states. "The United Nations is not perceived as having any ulterior motive or a larger geopolitical agenda. The United Nations is able to serve as an impartial convener of these meetings and bring together countries that otherwise might not be eager to meet with each other to discuss these common problems," Pike said.

The U.S. does have an array of programs run by the U.S. Customs Service and departments of energy, state, and defense, aimed at controlling nuclear smuggling. As of June, the U.S. had spent more than $90 million on equipping more than 30 countries, including Central Asia, with radiation-detection equipment, mobile X-ray vans, inspection tools, and training. Just before 11 September, about 80 customs and border officials from the five Central Asian republics participated in a three-week training course in Texas, focusing on radioactive contraband.

This year, the George W. Bush administration has indicated it may spend up to $25 million to help find radioactive material in the former Soviet Union. But Pike said he doubts these funds will significantly improve inspection methods. "The amount of assistance that's been provided thus far for detecting nuclear smuggling is relatively small, and I think cost-effective, and [is] potentially deterring smugglers. The problem, of course, is that this detection equipment is only in place at the major border-crossing areas. And presumably anybody who is going to be trying to smuggle the nuclear material would find some other less closely observed part of the border to try to get across," Pike said.

In recent years, however, agents have stopped several radioactive-materials smugglers on or near the borders of Central Asia. Thanks in part to portable radiation "pagers" provided by the U.S., Uzbek authorities in March 2000 seized 10 radioactive lead containers concealed in scrap metal in a truck entering from Kazakhstan. The U.S. Customs Service reported that the Iranian driver of the truck and his cargo were bound for Pakistan.

Before defining just how much money it will take to address the problem adequately, Pike said that radioactive materials should be quantified. He called for an accounting of all sources of radiological materials, such as hospitals, labs, and industrial facilities, as well as a comprehensive inventory of radioactive materials like plutonium, uranium, and certain isotopes of strontium, cesium, and cobalt. At the same time, he said, control over these materials should be tightened. "The initial challenge is simply to understand what sort of materials there are, where they are located, who is using them. And then the second challenge is to develop a consistent set of security standards to make it at least a little more difficult for criminals to steal this material and put in onto the black market," Pike said.

In the past 10 years, efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear materials have had some success in Kazakhstan -- a Soviet-era nuclear-arms producer -- by dismantling its nuclear factories and removing nuclear weapons from its soil. But, Pike said, small-scale radiological sabotage still has to be suppressed.

In April, Moscow and Washington announced the formation of a joint task force to study how to secure radioactive sources in Russia. A similar approach, however, still has to be created for Central Asia.

Pike said the international community remains uncertain how much attention it should dedicate to detecting possible sources of radioactive material. For its part, he added, the U.S. government has not yet issued new guidelines for domestic radiological security.

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