Needed: Motivation and support

By Jamal Khaer Ibrahim, May 7, 2013

The increasing prevalence of handheld devices presents new opportunities for ordinary people to participate in treaty verification. It has been suggested, for example, that the accelerometers in smartphones could be used to detect unusual seismic events that might indicate nuclear tests or that various kinds of data crowdsourcing could identify efforts to subvert the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. As handheld devices continue to spread — and, particularly in the developing world, as they become more affordable — opportunities for societal verification might well be expected to grow.

But handheld devices are just hardware that runs software — the sort of tool sometimes called a "tangible enabler." If societal verification is to flourish, intangible enablers will be critical as well. These might include broader public appreciation of the importance of nonproliferation and disarmament efforts; awareness of handheld devices' potential to contribute to these efforts (that is, an understanding of what people might detect and report with the aid of handheld devices); and ultimately a willingness to participate in societal verification initiatives. Governments could establish these enablers within a society through educational efforts, but to people in many developing countries, especially nations that do not possess weapons of mass destruction, disarmament and nonproliferation issues may seem matters of low priority. Compared with questions of immediate and local concern, treaty verification efforts may struggle to engender public enthusiasm, despite vigorous educational efforts.

Complicating matters further is the fact that, although some segments of civil society in developing countries maintain a global outlook and have a good understanding of the disarmament and nonproliferation regime, their perspectives may be characterized by a degree of cynicism. Developing countries may perceive that regime as mainly intended to preserve the status quo, according to which certain nations possess weapons of mass destruction and others don't. This perception is only intensified by the rough correlation that exists between, on the one hand, the developed world and those with nuclear weapons and, on the other, the developing world and those that lack such weapons. Also, nuclear weapon states are often the most vocal proponents of strong nonproliferation measures, yet they generally do not demonstrate a corresponding commitment to comprehensive disarmament. So nonproliferation arguments may be the wrong basis on which to build enthusiasm about societal verification in developing countries.

Aligned incentives. Greater potential for success may exist in more localized contexts. For example, some of the more advanced developing countries are home to firms involved in precision engineering — businesses that in some cases entail inherent proliferation risks because of their ability to produce items that might be put to malicious uses. In 2004, for example, a Malaysian precision-engineering firm was investigated for its alleged role in producing components for Libya's uranium-enrichment program. Partly as a result, Malaysia in 2010 passed a strict export-control law, which included heavy penalties that might concern professionals who work in industries like precision engineering. These professionals, even if they are not very interested in societal verification as a means to contribute to nonproliferation per se, might find that their personal and professional interests align with those of the international nonproliferation regime.

But if professionals in fields like precision engineering are indeed motivated to participate in societal verification, a proper "ecosystem" would need to be established so that their efforts could have the best chances of success. In my view, such an ecosystem — perhaps consisting of online support, official outreach, and facilitation of linkages with experts in related fields — would probably best be established through a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. The physicist Joseph Rotblat suggested that "the right and the civic duty of the citizen" to engage in reporting on verification issues will "have to become part of … national codes of law." But I believe that an ecosystem for societal verification solely based on laws and regulations — especially if they are closely aligned with international legal instruments like the Additional Protocol or UN Security Council Resolution 1540 — would struggle to overcome the cynicism about nonproliferation initiatives that often exists in the developing world. Such a legal structure, on its own, would probably not be effective.

So what could national authorities do to encourage societal verification? They could support the establishment of social media tools that would allow professionals to discuss practical implementation issues in societal verification. They could contribute to these discussions through consistent outreach activities, which would include quickly responding to questions and concerns raised by participants. And they could seek to facilitate communication and cooperation between the professionals who might contribute to societal verification and the nongovernmental organizations, including think tanks, that are active in disarmament and nonproliferation.

Any ecosystem for societal verification, however, would function best if it were supported by a credible road map toward general disarmament and by further progress toward that goal. Progress toward general disarmament would instill wider confidence in the developing world in the disarmament and nonproliferation regime, and this in turn would motivate individuals to become more proactive in societal verification efforts.

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