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Burma still has work to do to end doubts about WMD ambitions

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi deposits the articles of ratification of the CTBT at a ceremony at the UN headquarters in New York on 21 September 2016. (Photo: MOFA / Facebook)

Last week, Burma took the very welcome step of ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a multilateral agreement that aims to end all nuclear explosions by state actors, whether for military or civilian purposes. This important act reinforces the determination of “the new Burma” to rejoin the community of responsible nations and honour its international obligations. By agreeing not to test nuclear weapons — a largely symbolic gesture, since Burma has no ongoing nuclear weapons programme and is unlikely to ever have a nuclear weapon to test if it follows its stated international obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — the country has moved closer to shedding its long-held pariah status.

Even before the current National League for Democracy government assumed power earlier this year, Burma ratified another key treaty that it had signed more than two decades ago, when the country was still under military rule. The ratification in July 2015 of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which the former regime signed in 1993, was significant because Burma has frequently been accused of having a chemical weapons programme. Ratification of the CWC allows the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons in The Hague to work with Burma to confirm that the country doesn’t have chemical weapons or the means of making them. Subjecting itself to proving it has no chemical weapons sent a powerful message of cooperation.

Both measures indicate that Burma is moving in the right direction; but there is still one more step that the country needs to take to complete a suite of commitments not to make Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Burma has a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that has never been enforced due to a little-known exclusion clause. Burma opted itself out of inspections by claiming, without proof, that it had no nuclear materials or facilities to inspect. But in 2013, Burma signed a new agreement with the IAEA called an Additional Protocol (AP) that eliminates that loophole and puts Burma in a position where it must allow inspections and answer questions about suspicious activities.

Unfortunately, when Burma signed the agreement, the press and others lost interest in the most important follow-through: ratification. Signing an agreement without ratifying it is meaningless. But it was enough to make the world forget about longstanding doubts about Burma’s commitment to remaining free of WMD.

Even when the AP is ratified, Burma can take several years to take practical steps to bring it into force. Under a ratified AP, Burma can still tell the IAEA that it has no nuclear materials or nuclear facilities. This puts the IAEA in a difficult position again, because it normally can inspect only facilities that Burma declares. If Burma declares none, then the IAEA will be in the position of having to demand access to suspicious sites identified by defectors and through its own detective activities.

To date, the IAEA has publicly announced only one workshop with the Burmese government on how to account for nuclear materials that it has already said it doesn’t have. A much more aggressive approach to resolving old issues and inspecting equipment and facilities identified in 2010 will be necessary. The typical symbolic approach of doing a pro forma visit to a university chemistry lab will not be enough.

DVB and others have documented claims of a nuclear programme in Burma as far back as 2010. This would be an ideal time for the country to ratify the new agreement and encourage inspectors to visit all the sites where suspicious work such as uranium mining was done. Inspectors need to examine equipment seen and photographed there. They need to take samples for traces of nuclear materials that remain in the environment for decades. It seems likely that any work on nuclear weapons would have stopped in the wake of press revelations and the new government increasing transparency on the treaties mentioned above. A few serious inspections could clear the air, document what was done, if anything, and erase lingering concerns about Burma’s past nuclear intentions.

September is an important month in the international nuclear inspection world. It is the month of the IAEA’s annual General Conference. Burma announced its signing of the IAEA agreement in September three years ago. Another announcement of ratification only three years later — as opposed the 20-year delay with the CWC and the CTBT — would be a very positive sign.

Robert Kelley is a former Los Alamos weapons scientist, and was an IAEA director from 1992 to 1993, and again from 2001 to 2005. He is currently an Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.