About Time: Bill to Enhance Nuclear Security Moves through House

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX).

By Benjamin Kagel

Legislation necessary to ratify two international treaties that improve nuclear security and strengthen measures to prevent nuclear terrorism finally passed the House of Representatives on June 28 after multiple failed attempts to bring U.S. federal code in line with these important treaties.

The Nuclear Terrorism Conventions Implementation and Safety of Maritime Navigation Act of 2012 brings the United States into compliance with the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and the 2005 International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT). President Barack Obama committed to complete ratification of the two treaties at the 2010 nuclear security summit in Washington; however, legislation stalled in Congress until now.

Once the bill makes its way through the Senate, and is signed into law by the President, the U.S. federal code will finally comply with provisions in the treaties allowing the U.S. to deposit its ratifications of the nuclear security pacts.

Senate approval of this legislation and subsequent ratification of the two treaties will:

  • Enhance the national security of the United States– The treaties provide an improved international framework for combating nuclear terrorism and securing nuclear material that greatly reduces the likelihood of illicit nuclear related activities.
  • Strengthen international counterterrorism and nonproliferation legal framework– Ratification reinforces a global nuclear security architecture emphasizing multilateral instruments that undertake nuclear security as well as complements international initiatives like the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and the Proliferation Security Initiative.
  • Encourage other nations to ratify the treaties as well– Many nations are using prolonged U.S. ratification efforts to justify their reluctance to ratify the treaties. Ratification will bolster U.S. leadership in supporting future counterterrorism and nuclear security treaties.

The original CPPNM, which entered into force in 1987, requires protection for nuclear material in international transport. The 2005 amendment extends protection to nuclear facilities and materials in peaceful domestic use, storage and transport and imposes new legal penalties for misuse of radiological materials and sabotage of nuclear facilities. The ICSANT, on the other hand, provides pre-emptive measures that criminalize planning, threatening, and performing acts of nuclear terrorism. It also provides a clear definition of nuclear terrorism and specifies how states should handle offenders and illicit materials when seized.

Former Soviet states like Ukraine and Kazakhstan have already ratified both treaties, as have the nuclear weapons countries of Russia, China, and the United Kingdom. Yet, the United States remains in the company of countries like Syria, Somalia, Iran, and North Korea, all with unchecked boxes in the ratification columns.

While the ICSANT entered into force in 2007, the CPPNM amendment will not enter into force until at least 97 of the 145 parties to the convention ratify it. So far, only 56 countries have completed ratification. Congressional disagreements over the implementation legislation have not only held up U.S. ratification of the two treaties but have also delayed other countries’ efforts to ratify them as well. The CPPNM amendment fills in vital gaps in nuclear material protection requirements and must enter into force soon to strengthen global nuclear security.

Between the 2010 nuclear security summit in Washington and the 2012 Seoul summit, 19 countries ratified the 2005 amendment and 12 countries ratified the ICSANT, according to an Arms Control Association and Partnership for Global Security report that tracked the national commitments of states attending the summits. The United States had ample time to be among those nations that fulfilled this commitment, but Congress managed to miss the deadline.

Passing legislation to bring U.S. laws into compliance with treaties that both Republicans and Democrats agree only strengthens our national security should not be controversial. However, Congress seems intent on making every step a struggle. The U.S. federal code already complies with many provisions in the nuclear security and counterterrorism treaties following the ratification of twelve related counterterrorism conventions.

Past Attempts

Efforts to implement the 2005 amendment and the convention on suppressing nuclear terrorism began in 2008 during the George W. Bush administration when the treaties first received Senate advice and consent. President Obama submitted a similar draft bill in 2010, then again in 2011, but each proposal failed to obtain Congressional approval.

In an October 2011 Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security hearing, Congressman Robert Scott (D-VA) said that the House Judiciary Committee “should close [gaps in existing statutes] in a manner that simplifies the criminal code, rather than complicates it.” His argument that “the Administration has clearly asked for more than is necessary to implement” the nuclear security treaties, represents the inertia to push legislation through Congress.

The use of wiretaps in federal investigations and the possible application of the death penalty to individuals for a crime of nuclear terrorism concerned many in the Judiciary Committee including Scott. Other conventions that already address these issues explain Congress’ apprehension to pass redundant provisions that could confound U.S. laws further. These superfluous measures to the proposed bill have postponed the passage of this crucial legislation. The bill approved by the House and sent to the Senate, dropped controversial language that plagued previous draft proposals.

The bill also includes implementing legislation for two treaties dealing with maritime security.

The Next Step

The Senate received the House version of the bill on June 29 but has yet to deliberate on the legislation. Senate approval of the implementation legislation is the last impediment to complete ratification of the 2005 amendment to the CPPNM and the ICSANT, two treaties that diminish inadequacies in international protection of nuclear material and suppression of nuclear terrorism.

According to a June 6 press release from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), the treaties “advance a common-sense obligation and duty of Congress and of those that serve and protect the United States in other ways to keep America safe.” Smith first introduced the bill to the Judiciary Committee on June 5.

The Senate must not delay the approval of this legislation any longer. Four years have passed since the first proposal to bring the U.S. Criminal Code into compliance with the two treaties. President Obama made nuclear security a top priority in his National Security Strategy and Congress agrees that a nuclear terrorist attack is one of the biggest threats to U.S. national security. Congress must do what is necessary to ratify the treaties that will only further strengthen global nuclear security and counterterrorism efforts.

The ball is in the Senate’s court now. Will the United States continue holding up another international nuclear weapons and materials related treaty from entering into force? Congress needs to get its act together and finally pass legislation required to ratify the CPPNM as amended and the ICSANT.

When it comes to preventing a nuclear terrorist attack, Congress should be doing whatever it can, as quickly as it can, to protect the United States. Further delays in ratifying these treaties only helps rogue actors reach their goals. It’s about time Congress gets this right.

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