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"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Interdiction Initiative Participants Agree on End, Differ on Means
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The United States has enlisted 10 other countries for its plan to seize shipments of deadly arms to terrorists and countries suspected of pursuing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. However, they have yet to reach consensus on all the measures to accomplish this mission.


Diplomats at an Oct. 9-10 meeting in London discussed what legal steps would be needed to follow through on President George W. Bush’s Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and board vessels suspected of carrying dangerous cargo. Yet, they did not complete work on a model agreement to guide future interdictions because of differing interpretations on what is permissible, according to diplomats familiar with the fourth plenary meeting of PSI participants.

Like-minded countries within the initiative may still draft a boarding agreement, but it would not be a binding document. A chairman’s statement by the British government at the meeting’s end urged countries to share swiftly further comments on a boarding agreement presented by the United States so those “interested can move forward with concluding the agreement.”

The diplomats, who spoke on background, downplayed the differences as not being detrimental to the initiative’s future operation. They said the lack of an agreement reflects the flexible and informal nature of the initiative, which the chairman’s statement described as “an activity not an organisation.”

Per that understanding, the diplomats did not foresee a big expansion of the core group of countries involved in the initiative even though more than 50 countries have reportedly expressed support for its objectives. Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the current participants.

Other governments may be invited on an ad hoc basis to participate in or observe interdiction exercises or called upon to help perform or permit an actual cargo seizure, but such involvement will not necessarily signify formal membership. One of the diplomats explained that the initiative is a “much looser arrangement than typical arms control agreements.”

China and Russia are not counted among the 50-some countries endorsing the initiative, although both have been consulted about it. Moscow and Beijing question the legality and implications of the U.S.-led effort.

Due to their ties to Iran and North Korea—two of the initiative’s targets, in the eyes of the United States—and their own proliferation records, China and Russia could ultimately determine the initiative’s effectiveness. One diplomat said constructive Chinese behavior is essential to constraining North Korea’s weapons trade. Absent Chinese support, North Korea could bypass an initiative dragnet by importing or exporting WMD or related goods via Chinese territory or airspace.

Although the British chairman’s statement declared that the initiative’s participants are prepared to stop WMD trade “at any time and in any place,” there are legal limits to what actions they can take. Participants cannot seize cargo that is within another country’s borders or territorial seas without that government’s permission. The initiative’s participants also do not have freedom of action in international waters or airspace. For example, a ship on the high seas can only be stopped under certain scenarios, such as when it is not flying a national flag. Participants agree that the initiative needs to respect existing international law, the diplomats said.

Still, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton holds out the hope that the initiative will lead countries to act more aggressively within current law and, in effect, change it. In comments published Oct. 21 by The Wall Street Journal, Bolton said, “As state practice changes, customary international law changes.”

In any case, ensuring that they have the necessary legal authority to act does not rank high among the participants’ worries. They are more concerned about gathering and sharing accurate intelligence in a timely manner to enable interdictions.

The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Walter Doran, told reporters in early October that a key issue in stopping smuggling and unwanted shipments is “situational awareness—what do we know about what’s moving on the ocean.” At this time, “[w]e don’t know enough,” Doran was quoted as saying.

The 11 participants continue to prepare for the moment when they have enough information. On Oct. 8, officials met in London for a simulated exercise of how to deal with an aircraft transporting dangerous goods. An Italian-sponsored exercise involving real aircraft is set for early December.

A U.S. naval ship and surveillance aircraft also participated in an Oct. 14-17 maritime interdiction exercise, SANSO 03, in the Mediterranean Sea. Hosted by Spain, the exercise included France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. Another naval exercise is scheduled for late November.

Although continuing to hone their interdiction capabilities, the participants are going to take a short rest from plenary meetings. Portugal will host the next plenary in early 2004.