washingtonpost.com  > Nation > National Security > Foreign Policy

U.N. Votes To Outlaw Nuclear Terrorism

No New Restrictions Put on Atomic Arms

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page A23

UNITED NATIONS, April 13 -- The 191-member U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday unanimously approved a treaty outlawing the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists and their supporters.

The Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism is the first anti-terrorism treaty to be adopted since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. It is the 13th anti-terrorism treaty and builds on recent efforts by the U.N. Security Council to compel states to strengthen their laws and policies to combat terrorist groups.

The treaty, which governments will begin signing at the General Assembly session in September, criminalizes the possession or use of radioactive material or a nuclear device "to cause death or serious bodily injury." It also makes it a crime to use a nuclear device to damage property or the environment or to attack a nuclear facility.

It requires governments that ratify the treaty to amend national laws to prevent terrorists and their supporters from financing, planning or participating in nuclear terrorism. It also calls on governments to share information, ease extradition proceedings and pursue criminal prosecutions of suspects linked to such terrorist acts.

The nuclear treaty, which places no new restrictions on the use of nuclear weapons by states, will become law after it is ratified by 22 states.

"The convention will provide a legal basis for international cooperation in the investigation, prosecution and extradition of those who commit terrorist acts involving radioactive material or a nuclear devices," said Stuart W. Holliday, the U.S. representative to the United Nations for special political affairs.

Wednesday's vote ended seven years of negotiations that began when former Russian president Boris Yeltsin proposed a treaty to prevent rogue terrorists from getting their hands on nuclear material from insecure facilities spread across the former Soviet Union.

An agreement on language was struck after members of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference were assured that the treaty would not be used to impose a generic definition of terrorism. Defining terrorism has been an intensely controversial issue at the United Nations, where Islamic governments have argued that anti-Israel national liberation movements that have targeted civilians should not be considered terrorists.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has pressed the U.N. membership to adopt another convention by the end of next year that would provide a simple, universal definition of terrorism and outlaw all forms of terrorism against civilians.

Nuclear arms proliferation experts generally welcomed the General Assembly's actions as an indication of its recognition of the threat but voiced skepticism over the treaty's capacity to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.

"It's a good thing" that they are making a concerted effort to grapple with the threat of nuclear terrorism, said Charles D. Ferguson II, an expert on terrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But the bottom line is, it's not going to stop it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company