U.N. passes treaty aimed against nuclear terrorism

Thursday, April 14, 2005

UNITED NATIONS -- After a seven-year struggle, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a global treaty Wednesday to prevent nuclear terrorism, making it a crime to possess radioactive material or weapons with the intention of committing a terrorist act.

The treaty is meant to be a new safeguard to make sure that nuclear material does not fall into the hands of terrorist groups. Russia has been at the center of those fears, following numerous reports of material that disappeared after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Alexander Konuzin, said the treaty would assure that national laws do not leave "the slightest loophole for immunity for terrorist acts."

Moscow launched the campaign for a treaty to combat nuclear terrorism in 1997 when Boris Yeltsin was president, but it was stymied for years because countries believed the draft convention was trying to define terrorism -- an issue that has deeply divided the General Assembly.

The Russian-sponsored resolution adopted by consensus by the world body Wednesday called on the 191 U.N. member states to sign and ratify the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

The convention is the 13th U.N. treaty to fight terrorism and the first adopted by the General Assembly since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Must be ratified

It will be opened for signatures on Sept. 14 -- the day world leaders gather at the United Nations for a summit on reforming the world body -- and must be ratified by 22 countries to come into force.

"The nuclear terrorism convention, when it enters into force, will strengthen the international legal framework to combat terrorism," U.S. deputy ambassador Stuart Holliday said.

The treaty makes it a crime for any person to possess radioactive material or a radioactive device with the intent to cause death or injury, or damage property or the environment. It also would be a crime to damage a civilian or military nuclear facility.

Threatening to use radioactive material or devices -- or unlawfully demanding nuclear material or other radioactive substances -- also is a crime. Accomplices and organizers also would be covered by the convention.

Countries that are parties to the treaty would be required to make these acts criminal offenses under their national laws, "punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account the grave nature of these offenses."

Signatories also are required to adopt measures making clear that acts designed to provoke terror cannot be justified under any circumstances "by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature."

Konuzin said the treaty is the first convention trying to prevent terrorist acts.

"In an environment of unrelenting escalation in the threats of international terrorism, it is important and necessary to continue to increase the arsenal of anti-terrorist measures," he said.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the convention "will help prevent terrorist groups from gaining access to the most lethal weapons known to humanity," and he urged all countries to ratify it without delay, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

Diplomats said the stalemate was broken after the drafting committee's last formal meeting in November, when the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference decided that the new treaty could focus on criminalizing specific actions related to nuclear terrorism, as other anti-terrorism treaties have done.

The drafting committee then quickly agreed on a text April 1, leaving the difficult issue of defining terrorism to a new overall convention on terrorism, which is still being debated.

Annan and Holliday both called on U.N. members to build on the success of the nuclear terrorism treaty and adopt a comprehensive convention.

But the problem of defining terrorism remains troublesome because one nation's terrorist can be another's freedom fighter.

"Any agreement on a definition of terrorism must not prejudice the legitimate rights of people to struggle against foreign occupation and for self-determination and national liberation -- nor exclude state terrorism," Pakistan's U.N. Ambassador Munir Akram said Wednesday,

Akram also urged U.N. members to improve efforts to prevent terrorists from using biological or chemical weapons, saying they are more likely to acquire these devices.

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