Discomfort with verification, and how to overcome it

In the West, handheld devices are attracting considerable attention these days because of their potential to aid in the verification of multilateral arms control arrangements. With penetration of handheld devices nearly total in the West and continuing to increase in the developing world — Asia, Africa, and Latin America are expected to account for a majority of the growth in mobile subscriptions over the coming years — opportunities are indeed emerging for technologies such as mobile phones and tablet computers to play a role in verifying compliance with agreements on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Many of the key verification problems associated with arms control arrangements are centered in developing countries. Anything that can contribute to nonproliferation in these nations should be welcomed. But it is not clear that people in the developing world will regard handheld devices and their potential verification uses in the same way that many in the West do. Three reasons for skepticism in this regard stand out.

First, in India and many other developing countries, individuals who participate in societal verification efforts might put themselves at considerable personal risk. They might find themselves viewed in the way that human rights activists are sometimes viewed — as less than patriotic, or as dangers to national security. And even if they do not violate any laws, they might nonetheless become targets of bureaucratic and political ire. In India, even a technology like Google Maps has faced significant opposition because it shows the locations of sensitive sites, and Google Earth has encountered official resistance in many countries. Taking all this into account, it may simply be irresponsible to encourage citizens of certain countries to participate in societal verification.

Second, the idea that ordinary people can contribute to treaty verification, whether by carrying out crowdsourcing projects or by gathering information with handheld devices, is based on the assumption that ordinary people will wish to become active partners in arms control arrangements. Even putting aside the negative repercussion that participants in societal verification might suffer, this assumption seems dubious in the developing world. Citizens of developing countries simply do not view arms control in the same way that it is viewed by arms control advocates in the West.

Many people in developing countries tend to be highly nationalistic, and their nationalism is often bound up with a certain amount of anti-Westernism — which is unsurprising, considering that many developing countries are former colonies of Western nations or have otherwise been dominated by the West. Arms control in particular is often regarded as an instrument of Western domination, and significant opposition to arms control measures can exist at the popular level. This popular distrust of arms control efforts is exacerbated by the West's perceived lack of credibility — often, the West is accused of treating arms control as a matter of convenience, something to be discarded when it conflicts with other, more pressing interests. These views are unfortunate, and perhaps not valid, but they are deeply held. Therefore, it is probably not safe to assume that ordinary people in developing countries will choose to participate in societal verification efforts.

Third, verification efforts of any kind can provoke discomfort in developing countries. As an example, though many developing nations have negotiated Additional Protocols with the International Atomic Energy Agency, sympathy still exists for a country like Iran, which has signed but not ratified an Additional Protocol. To many people in developing countries, the Additional Protocol seems to allow foreign inspectors to enter national territory at will and inspect any location they please. This recalls the colonial era, when developing countries lacked control over their own territory. And though some verification measures, such as those included in the Chemical Weapons Convention, have gained wide acceptance, this acceptance is rarely accompanied by any real sense of comfort.

Another example of developing nations' discomfort with verification procedures is provided by the confidence-building measures that countries like India, China, and Pakistan have put in place to reduce bilateral tensions. These measures build on a model established during the Cold War by the United States and the Soviet Union. But though the Cold War superpowers included arms control verification as a significant element of their confidence-building measures, nations like India, China, and Pakistan have not even considered doing so.

Given such sensitivities, seeking to involve ordinary citizens in verification arrangements might only heighten the discomfort that developing countries feel about multilateral arms control measures. Indeed, the bureaucratic and political elites in developing countries would likely regard as illegitimate any effort to involve citizens in monitoring the behavior of states on behalf of an extraterritorial agency. And any arms control initiative that contained arrangements for societal verification might likewise be seen as illegitimate.

Does all this mean that societal verification is a nonstarter in the developing world? Not necessarily. But societal verification's success probably depends on arms control itself becoming much more politically palatable. Resistance to arms control measures across the developing world stems in part from developing countries' not having been fully involved in the development of treaties and regimes. Making arms control processes more transparent, and involving as many developing countries as possible in those processes, especially in the drafting stages of arms control agreements, would provide the developing world with a worthwhile sense of ownership about those initiatives. A more inclusive process would also encourage treaty compliance and, ultimately, result in greater effectiveness for arms control regimes. In my view, societal verification can contribute to nonproliferation efforts and treaty compliance, but only after arms control itself becomes more widely accepted.

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