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For the bathroom or the missile factory? Why dual-use trade controls matter

What do cooking pots and missiles have in common? Or toothpaste and chemical weapons? In both cases, a so-called dual-use item: the same machine tool can be used in the production of both pots and certain missile parts, while fluoride compounds, industrial chemicals that are needed to manufacture the deadly nerve agent sarin are also used in common bathroom products. Cooking pots and toothpaste are harmless consumer products, but we want to strictly limit who can produce missiles and prevent the production of chemical weapons altogether. No wonder dual-use goods—those with both civilian and military applications—pose so many dilemmas for policymakers, export licensing authorities and frontline customs officers.

Policymakers around the world have declared combating the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons—weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—a high priority. Furthermore, the United Nations Security Council has adopted a series of resolutions that oblige states to place strict controls on the movement from or through their territories of dual-use items that could be used in connection with WMD or their delivery systems.

Four international regimes—the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Australia Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Missile Technology Control Regime—have drawn up long and highly technical lists of dual-use items whose cross-border movement should be controlled. These lists have also been given the force of European Union and, in many cases, national law. However, such high-profile commitments to non-proliferation are rarely matched by equal commitments to make sure they can be effectively enforced.


From fine words to effective controls

There is inevitably a trade-off between accelerated trade flows and rigorous dual-use trade controls. Checking every consignment of goods that leaves or enters a port to see if it includes dual-use items that risk being diverted to a WMD programme would bring trade flows in some crucial hubs to a grinding halt. Conversely, the massive global movements of cargo provide ample cover for proliferators and their trafficking networks. However, in the current economic climate, few policymakers are willing to risk losing trade traffic by imposing stricter and more frequent checks.

Easier to solve is the problem of policymakers placing unrealistic demands on the structures and people who must implement strategic trade controls. This is largely the result of a disconnect between the policy and the operational levels.

Surprisingly little thought is given by those adopting new embargoes and resolutions to what it will take to implement and enforce them properly: the financial and staff resources, revised operating procedures in customs agencies, updating risk profiles to allow selective targeting of the riskiest shipments, and so on. Sometimes a whole package of laws may need to be revised in areas such as foreign trade, customs, international treaty implementation, procedural law and the penal code.

One reason for this type of disconnect is that while foreign ministries tend to adopt new policies and negotiate new agreements in this area, it is finance, industry, economy, interior and justice ministries that will be responsible for implementing and enforcing them. A foreign ministry cannot simply instruct a state’s customs authority—which is usually under the finance ministry—to change its priorities. Customs authorities traditionally focus on import controls and revenue collection rather than export controls and security measures. A WMD non-proliferation or international security statement by finance ministers at regional or international levels could signal a shift in or at least rebalancing of customs priorities.

Customs and other enforcement officers need to be equipped and supported for the crucial roles they play in dual-use trade controls. In particular, all frontline customs officers need to be aware of the dual-use problem, and a sufficient number also need specialized training. They also need both adequate legal powers and assurance that if they hold up a suspicious shipment, they will have the support of their superiors. Finally, they need speedy access to technical experts who can assess the goods in question.

The effective implementation and enforcement of dual-use trade controls also requires international cooperation, since they are, by definition, targeting a transnational activity. The need for international cooperation is not limited to the senior diplomatic and policy levels, or even intelligence agencies. Customs and licensing officers, border authorities, police and prosecutors can all benefit enormously from exchanging information and experiences, and building relationships and trust, with their counterparts in other countries.

The World Customs Organization Strategic Trade Control Enforcement conference held in November 2012 in Brussels was a positive step, as were the joint meetings of customs and licensing officers initiated in 2010 in the EU context. However, there are still no regular international or regional forums for the officials responsible for enforcing strategic trade controls. Only a few states include enforcement officers in their delegations at meetings of international export control regimes. Enforcement officers also do not usually have a travel budget, so they can participate only when their expenses are covered by other authorities, organizations or countries.


Playing catch-up with the proliferators

Other important dynamics in dual-use controls are the constant shifting in the procurement patterns proliferators use, the multiplication of actors involved and technological developments that make proliferation-sensitive flows increasingly difficult to control through traditional enforcement methods. New skills and means are needed; more ministries and agencies need to cooperate; and a wider range of states need to be involved in controlling consignments that transit through, or are moved from one transport means to another (a process known as trans-shipment) in, their territories.

With the number of states and actors potentially involved in or used for proliferation activities having exponentially increased in the 2000s, more and more state actors are affected by international obligations on dual-use trade controls and resulting national legal requirements. In the private sector, not only producers but also shippers, traders, freight forwarders, financers and others can be subject to laws regulating controls, and knowingly or unknowingly involved in proliferation activities.


Match resources to the task

With North Korea’s recent threat to launch a new long-range missile and suspicion that the Syrian Government may be planning to use chemical weapons against its citizens, the dangers of WMD proliferation are as clear ever. It can safely be assumed that dual-use items for WMD programmes pass around the world without detection. However, successful investigations and prosecutions in Germany, Malta, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom have shown that stopping proliferation-sensitive transfers is possible.

Dual-use trade controls need more investment and more attention, particularly in less traditional contexts like parliamentary debates on budget, trade, security and justice matters; in policy groupings dealing with financial, trade and justice matters; and in international organizations like the World Customs Organization. It may be that the ongoing negotiations for, and eventual implementation of, an international arms trade treaty provide new impetus. There are enough similarities and potential synergies and overlaps between dual-use and conventional arms trade controls for the two processes to be mutually supporting. Whether this happens or not, the possible consequences of WMD proliferation should be enough to keep the implementation and enforcement of dual-use trade controls high on the agenda.



Dr Sibylle Bauer is the Director of Studies, Armament and Disarmament, at SIPRI.