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SEMMEL: Nuclear terrorism treaties still incomplete

Other nations look to U.S. as example

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Congress hasn't given its best effort to prevent nuclear terrorism. Despite broad bipartisan recognition that nuclear terror is one of the biggest threats of our time, two common-sense anti-terrorism treaties have been on the "to-do" list for more than half a decade. The Senate has the opportunity to pass those treaties in the weeks ahead and should do so for one simple reason: They would make America more secure.

There is a long and commendable record of U.S. bipartisan support for policies and practices that prevent nuclear terrorism and impede nuclear proliferation. Successive administrations and both political parties have broadly agreed that combating nuclear terrorism ranks at the top of our foreign policy and national security agenda. The 9/11 Commission warned, "The greatest danger of another catastrophic attack in the United States will materialize if the world's most dangerous terrorists acquire the world's most dangerous weapons." Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates noted, "Every senior leader, when you're asked what keeps you awake at night, it's the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear."

Despite these and other meritorious actions, including the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the threat of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation is not going away. We need more tools and more legal cooperation with other states to fill gaps that enable terrorists and other rogue elements to exploit weaknesses in the international system, weaknesses that jeopardize our security and the security of our friends and allies. The 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) build upon past U.S. international initiatives to strengthen our hand against terrorism.

Implementing legislation for these two treaties is necessary because the treaties would expand existing legal protections against the loss or theft of dangerous materials and against acts of international nuclear terrorism. The amendment to the CPPNM requires parties to protect nuclear facilities and materials that are stored, used and transported domestically; the original treaty required physical protection of nuclear materials only when in international transit. The ICSANT provides an important international legal basis for cooperation with other parties to the treaty to investigate, prosecute and extradite alleged perpetrators of terrorist acts. Both treaties require the United States to enact legislation to criminalize certain acts not now in our statutes, such as the possession of radioactive materials other than nuclear material.

Diplomats in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have made a point of urging ratification of these two treaties in meetings with their counterparts. There is little doubt that other countries look to the U.S. for leadership to help make it easier for them to ratify the treaties and contribute their part in the global fight against nuclear terrorism. Early approval of the implementing legislation by the Senate would send a clear and unambiguous message to other countries and help motivate them to follow our example and speed the treaties' entry into force.

The United States took a leadership role in 2010 in jump-starting a coordinated effort to secure vulnerable nuclear materials and combat nuclear terrorism when it hosted and successfully organized the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. The second summit convened in Seoul in March. U.S. delegations at both summits pledged that the United States would complete ratification of the two treaties, a pledge we have not fulfilled. We are now close to honoring that commitment: Senate approval of the pending implementing legislation remains the last hurdle.

Some have expressed qualms about the wisdom of adapting international legal standards to sensitive U.S. issues, and, on occasion, such reservations may have merit. However, such qualms ought to be set aside or eased when those standards and practices bring benefits and protections to our country and our citizens and when other countries choose to join these efforts by looking to the United States for an example.

The immediate fate of the implementing legislation that is needed to enact and complete ratification of these two treaties rests with the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate. Completing these final steps in the treaty ratification process would help modernize and strengthen the legal framework needed for countering nuclear terrorism and preventing nuclear proliferation. Enactment would strengthen the ability of the United States and, ultimately, the international community, to fight the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism and help prevent nuclear proliferation.

Andy Semmel served as deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation in the George W. Bush administration. He is on the board of directors of the nonpartisan Partnership for a Secure America.

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