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U.S. and Allies Set to Search Vessels

Some experts and governments warn that the move to curb arms traffic may be illegal.

September 10, 2003|Paul Richter and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In a new effort to halt the shipment of banned arms and missiles, the United States and allied nations will rely on both routine maritime rules and specialized weapons control agreements to challenge ships at sea, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.

Authorities may be able to challenge ships because of relatively minor infractions such as improper flagging or faulty cargo documents, or even because of the way their cargo is handled in port, said the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

"We are very confident we have substantial legal authority to undertake this," the official said. "You could write a shelf-long treatise on what the various possible authorities are."

Legal experts and governments, however, have warned that some seizures might be illegal. Experts have pointed out that ships may be boarded on the high seas only in exceptional circumstances.

And although the administration's initiative singles out no nations, North Korea -- a primary target of the measures -- has warned that any interference with its shipping would violate the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

State Department officials stressed that the initiative was not intended to mount a blockade against any nation, because it was aimed only at illegal exports. A senior official last week said the United States had no intention of trying to "strangle" North Korea.

China has raised questions about the legality of the plan and has urged others not to take any step that would escalate a year-old nuclear crisis involving North Korea, its neighbor.

The United States and 10 allied countries have so far agreed to take part in the new effort, known as the Proliferation Security Initiative, unveiled by President Bush in May.

Last week, officials of the 11 cooperating countries met in Paris for two days of talks, then announced a series of land, air and sea exercises to begin preparing for interdictions.

Even with the new initiative, however, the U.S. and its allies will find it difficult to seize missiles or other conventional weapons, some experts say. Under existing international law, the sale of such weapons is legal and commonplace.

Because North Korea is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime, which bans long-range missiles, nothing prevents it from selling its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The senior official acknowledged that cargoes of ballistic missiles might not be illegal. But he said authorities might be able to seize such a cargo because it violated hazardous-substance or export controls in a port, or for other reasons.

He said the group of cooperating nations might consider developing new national or international rules if necessary. It has not ruled out seeking a United Nations Security Council resolution to provide additional authority, though it currently has no plans to do so, he said.

Significantly, the agreement does not define what constitutes a weapon of mass destruction that should be interdicted on land, sea or air. Nor does it name the target countries, identified only as "non-state actors or states of proliferation concern."

State Department and White House officials have repeatedly denied that the initiative, or the exercises to be held next week in the Coral Sea, off Australia, were aimed at North Korea. However, Australia recently chased and caught a North Korean ship carrying heroin and prosecuted the crew, and the Coral Sea exercises appear designed to rehearse for just such a scenario.

To stop and search a ship or plane, a nation needs "reasonable" cause to believe there are weapons of mass destruction on board -- not an easy task when the object of scrutiny is North Korea. The agreement calls for improved intelligence-sharing among the 11 member nations.

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