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Weapons of mass destruction: the time to act is now
9 January 2015

The African continent has made significant efforts to strengthen the capacity of states in better preventing and combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery; in particular to non-state actors, such as terrorists.

Various activities, such as training, consultations, sensitisation and awareness campaigns have been converging towards the same objective: ensuring that states undertake all necessary steps to prevent nuclear, chemical or biological weapons (or the materials needed to produce them) from being acquired, trafficked or used.

The Peace and Security Department of the African Union Commission deserves recognition for its role in developing a framework towards non-proliferation policies on the continent.

Sooner or later, terrorist groups will consider using weapons of mass destruction

The designation of the Head of the Defense and Security Division, Dr Tarek Sharif, for matters related to United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1540 has been an important achievement in the African Union (AU), raising its profile on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) issues.

Several other international organisations can also be credited for developing effective partnerships on the continent and for facilitating the creation of non-proliferation capacities. These include the 1540 Committee and its Group of Experts, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to name a few. These and other continental bodies conduct remarkable capacity-building activities at the national, sub-regional and regional levels. Some non-African states are also contributing technical and financial resources to regional and sub-regional bodies, as well as individual African states.

As El-Ghassim Wane, Director of the Peace and Security Department at the AU Commission said, ‘The more engaged we become on matters of disarmament and non-proliferation, the more we will have access to resources to build our human capacity in law enforcement and in the sciences and technology fields for socio-economic development in the fields of human and animal health, agriculture and many more.’

Although the continent continues to face many socio-economic and security challenges, African states have a duty to protect their citizens from the risks posed by the potential use, or threat of use, of weapons of mass destruction. The acquisition and use of such weapons by terrorist groups could result in devastating consequences that would outrank the most tragic terrorist events that the continent has experienced so far.

Given that such groups, in Africa as elsewhere, systematically resort to new techniques to gain maximum impact in the media, one can only assume that, sooner or later, they will consider using weapons of mass destruction on the continent. Indeed, the technical know-how and some of the materials needed for such weapons are already accessible, and the perpetrators would immediately gain unprecedented notoriety.

Without being excessively pessimistic, one could therefore assume that it is only a matter of time: time that must be used to raise the non-proliferation bar and reduce the probability that proliferation attempts would succeed.

No manufacturer of civilian drones would like to see its systems used to spread chemical agents

The risk that weapons of mass destruction could be used for terrorist purposes is not the only reason why states are so interested in preventing their proliferation. Demonstrating tangible efforts to ensure that sensitive equipment, materials and technology intended for legitimate purposes do not fall into the wrong hands builds trust and facilitates economic, industrial and strategic partnerships.

Foreign investors are increasingly assessing whether effective measures are in place to prevent the misuse of dual-use goods. No pharmaceutical group would like to see its brand associated with the development of biological weapons, and no manufacturer of civilian drones would like to see its systems used to spread chemical agents.

Regional economic communities (RECs) and regional mechanisms (RMs) for conflict prevention, management and resolution are currently raising their profile on non-proliferation matters, which is another positive trend. This should make a significant difference, as collective efforts at the sub-regional level always bring the best results.

The many positive developments that are taking place on the continent to better tackle the threat of weapons of mass destruction should not overshadow remaining challenges. In spite of important breakthroughs, African states are still facing important human, technical, organisational and financial difficulties in building their non-proliferation capacities.

At a time when budgetary constraints are the rule worldwide, and not the exception, more needs to be done with less. Providers of assistance therefore have a responsibility to better synchronise their programmes, as too often, there is a perception on both sides that assistance activities are insufficiently co-ordinated.

The UN 1540 Committee and the Global Partnership Working Group established by the Group of Eight are well positioned to facilitate the exchange of information among assistance providers, and to ensure that appropriate resources are allocated to the right priorities. On the continent, the AU and the RECs and RMs can play a lead role in structuring the discussions on CBRN capacity-building, and thus ensure that assistance needs are adequately voiced and met.

Nicolas Kasprzyk, Consultant, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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