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Proliferation Control Regimes: Background and Status

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Publication Date: January 2008

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL31559

Topic: International relations (Diplomacy)


Weapons of mass destruction (WMD), especially in the hands of radical states and terrorists, represent a major threat to U.S. national security interests. Multilateral regimes were established to restrict trade in nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and missile technologies, and to monitor their civil applications. Congress may consider the efficacy of these regimes in considering the potential renewal of the Export Administration Act, as well as other proliferation-specific legislation in the 110th Congress. This report provides background and current status information on the regimes.

The nuclear nonproliferation regime encompasses several treaties, extensive multilateral and bilateral diplomatic agreements, multilateral organizations and domestic agencies, and the domestic laws of participating countries. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, U.S. leadership has been crucial in developing the regime. While there is almost universal international agreement opposing the further spread of nuclear weapons, several challenges to the regime have arisen in recent years: India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998; North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 and tested a nuclear explosive device in 2006; Libya gave up a clandestine nuclear weapons program in 2004; and Iran was found to be in non-compliance with its treaty obligations in 2005. The discovery of the nuclear black market network run by A.Q. Khan has spurred new thinking about how to strengthen the regime, including greater restrictions on sensitive technology. However, the possible extension of civil nuclear cooperation by the United States and other countries to India, a non-party to the NPT, has raised questions about what benefits still exist for non-nuclear weapons states that remain in the treaty regime.

The chemical and biological weapons (CBW) nonproliferation regimes contain three elements: the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), and the Australia Group. The informal Australia Group coordinates export controls on CBW-related materials and technology. Current Australia Group issues are expansion of membership, possible transhipment of restricted commodities, and the Group's relationship to the Chemical Weapons Convention. After 25 years of negotiations, the CWC entered into force in April 1997. It prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons, and mandates the destruction of existing chemical weapon arsenals. BWC states parties have not yet been able to agree upon a verification protocol to be added to the Convention.

The missile nonproliferation regime is founded not on a treaty, but an informal agreement created in 1987, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The MTCR's goal is to limit the spread of missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Thirty-four countries now adhere to the guidelines, which have been modified over time to include missile systems designed for the delivery of chemical and biological weapons. The regime, which has no enforcement organization, is thought to have been instrumental in blocking several missile programs, but it has been unable to stop North Korean missile development, production, and exports, or to win the full cooperation of Russian and Chinese entities. This report is updated annually.


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