"Weapons of mass destruction cannot be used without delivery systems"

In order to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we must also address the issue of delivery systems. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), with its 35 member states, develops guidelines for controlling the export of delivery systems and technologies for ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, drones and other military and combat equipment. As Benno Laggner explains, the issue has a significant bearing on Switzerland's security policy and economy. The Swiss diplomat will chair the MTCR for one year.

The image shows part of a missile delivery system. A metal container and pointed cover are visible.

Guidelines for the export of delivery systems and technologies aim to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. zVg

Mr Ambassador, Switzerland will chair the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) for one year from 19 October 2022. How would you describe the MTCR in a few words?

The MTCR is a political agreement between an informal group of 35 countries. It is not an international organisation or treaty. The aim of the control regime is to prevent the proliferation of missile systems and missile technology for weapons of mass destruction. To achieve this, the MTCR uses export controls, information sharing among members, and outreach with key third countries. 

Portrait photo of Ambassador Benno Laggner.
Ambassador Laggner currently serves on the board of governors and is Switzerland's resident representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and permanent representative to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in Vienna, where he also leads the department covering nuclear issues at the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the OSCE, the United Nations and other International Organisations. © FDFA

What priorities does Switzerland pursue as an MTCR member state?

Switzerland pursues security policy interests – in particular the prevention of proliferation. It can also bring its membership to bear to help develop common export control rules in this field. These rules apply to all the regime's partner countries and thus create a level playing field. This means that Swiss companies that export relevant goods and technologies are subject to the same rules as their competitors in the other partner countries. This is economically relevant to Switzerland because there are a large number of companies in the partner countries supplying sophisticated goods and technology. 

The Missile Technology Control Regime

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) was established by the G7 countries in 1987. Switzerland became a member of the MTCR in 1992. The original aim was to prevent the proliferation of delivery systems for nuclear weapons. In 1992, the regime's scope was extended to include delivery systems for all weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear, biological and chemical weapons). This covers missile systems (ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, space launchers and sounding rockets) as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as drones. The export controls apply not only to the systems as a whole, but also to the components, software and technology used in their production.

The members of a 'control regime' agree to abide by common guidelines for the export of delivery systems and technology. They also agree on a list of goods and technologies whose export is subject to controls. This list is constantly reviewed and adapted to account for technological and other developments. All decisions in the MTCR are made by consensus. Implementation then takes place at the national level in each case. This means that if a company in Switzerland wishes to export such goods or technology, SECO (the country's national export control authority) must check whether this export is in line with the guidelines.

For our second chairmanship – after the first in 1993 – we have set three priorities: first, we want to preserve and strengthen the MTCR and its institutional structures. Second, we want to increase the visibility of the MTCR to the outside world, which will also increase its relevance. Exchanges with key third countries are an important part of this. Not all missile technology exporters are represented in the MTCR, and international trade also passes through countries of transit. It is important to talk to these states as well and convince them to help curb proliferation so that no gaps in control arise. Finally, we also want to emphasise the importance of the regime's technical dimension. We would like the technical experts to be able to have a further meeting after the plenary week in Montreux and to involve them more closely in our outreach activities. 

Graphic with figures and illustrations providing information about the missile technology control system, its tasks and instruments.
Visual representation of the missile technology control system, its tasks and instruments. © FDFA

In January 2022, the Federal Council adopted the Arms Control and Disarmament Strategy 2022–25. What part does the MTCR play in this regard?

Nuclear weapons and chemical and biological weapons constitute two of the strategy's five fields of action. In order to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we must also tackle the issue of delivery systems. Weapons of mass destruction cannot be used without them! One of the strategy's goals, therefore, is to strengthen and further develop transparency and governance instruments relating to delivery systems. Chairing the MTCR allows us to make a real contribution to this. I would cast the net even wider, though, as the UN Security Council also deals with non-proliferation. Against the backdrop of our upcoming term on the Council, chairing the MTCR allows us to show we are willing to take on responsibility in this field at the international level. 

The MTCR can make it significantly more difficult and expensive to procure delivery systems and technology for weapons of mass destruction.

What 'ideal scenario' is the MTCR working towards?

Ideally, the MTCR would completely prevent any proliferation of delivery systems and technology for weapons of mass destruction. But that isn't realistic. Not all countries that have these systems and technologies are MTCR members, which means they aren't bound by its rules. In addition, countries that want to acquire such systems and technologies are very inventive in their procurement strategies. What the MTCR can do, however, is make procurement considerably more difficult and expensive.

What responsibilities does chairing the MTCR involve for Switzerland?

Switzerland is initially responsible for organising the annual plenary week, which is being held in Montreux this year. The plenary week includes meetings in which technical experts and specialists in export licensing and proliferation exchange views. It also includes the plenary meeting itself, where political issues are discussed. The plenary meeting is the MTCR's highest decision-making body.

As chair, Switzerland is also responsible for the proper functioning of the regime for one year and represents it externally. We will, for example, need to find the next chair of the MTCR and ensure the relevant positions in the working groups are filled so that it retains its capacity to act. Another important task is maintaining contacts with relevant third countries.

What makes a third country 'relevant'?

'Relevant' states include those that have applied for MTCR membership or unilaterally committed to adopting the guidelines and control list. But they also include countries outside the MTCR that are significant producers or suppliers of delivery systems and associated technologies, as well as countries of transit for exports. We are planning bilateral outreach trips to nine countries. 

The claim that export control regimes unjustifiably restrict trade is false: the MTC's guidelines and control list create a framework for legitimate trade.

Export control regimes are often accused of creating unjustified trade restrictions...

...yes, that accusation is made repeatedly – and it's false! In the MTCR, members carefully weigh security policy and economic interests to strike a balance between the containment of proliferation risks and trade interests. The MTC's guidelines and control list create a framework for legitimate trade. Another of the chair's duties, therefore, is to represent the MTCR at multilateral events such as the annual Asian Export Control Seminar in Tokyo. Participation in conferences is an important part of raising awareness about the MTCR and its activities. 

This is a difficult time for the MTCR. First the COVID-19 pandemic paralysed its activities, then Russia became chair. How would you describe the current state of the MTCR?

All multilateral forums are suffering from the tense international situation. However, it is important to keep the expert and political levels separate. Our hope is that constructive discussions and work will remain possible in the working groups at the expert level. All partners have expressed the desire to preserve the MTCR and emphasised that its technical work is important. In addition, it is also important to keep in mind that the MTCR's mandate is limited.

The broader political situation cannot be completely ignored, though, and will make political discussions at the plenary meeting difficult. One of the more challenging tasks at the meeting is to agree on a public statement that reflects the discussions and can be published on the MTCR website. This will be even more challenging under the current circumstances.

My initial priority is to steer the MTCR ship through the storm of the plenary meeting reasonably unscathed.

In this context, what are your priorities as MTCR chair? In implementing controls – or in building trust first?

The national export control authorities – in Switzerland's case, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) – are responsible for implementing the controls. The chairmanship has nothing to do with that. My initial priority is to steer the MTCR ship through the storm of the plenary meeting reasonably unscathed. However, this will only be possible if everyone prioritises common interests once they have made their opening statements, which will likely present very different opinions. I have held preliminary bilateral consultations with almost all participating partner countries, outlined our priorities and – with all due consideration for diverging political positions – appealed to the common interest. We must also keep within the bounds of the MTCR's mandate. The remaining priorities are to find a successor for Switzerland as chair, carry out activities in the interim phase leading to next year's plenary meeting, and conduct outreach with third countries.

What would happen if the MTCR stopped functioning?

Weapon delivery systems are not prohibited and, unlike with weapons of mass destruction, there are no legally binding multilateral treaties in this area. The MTCR is therefore the main international instrument for preventing the proliferation of delivery systems and technology. Although it does have limited membership, its guidelines and the control list have been adopted by numerous countries as a reference standard. Indeed, all states are also obliged by UN Security Council Resolution 1540 to establish effective national export controls for delivery systems. The MTCR's disappearance would create a significant void.

For the sake of completeness, I should mention that there is another politically binding multilateral instrument in the field of missile proliferation that is complementary to the MTCR and was originally developed within its framework: the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. The Code's signatory states commit themselves to the greatest possible restraint in the development of ballistic guided weapons. The Code also includes measures for the responsible use of ballistic missiles, including various transparency measures. Some 143 countries have signed the Code, which Switzerland chaired in 2020–21. 

One asset we bring to the chairmanship is that Switzerland has always been a constructive and pragmatic partner in the MTCR. Our expertise and commitment are well recognised, especially at the technical level.

Switzerland is not a major player in the armaments sector. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage for the MTCR chair?

As an industrial hub, Switzerland is home to companies that produce cutting-edge technologies and components that can also be used in missile systems. This makes us an important actor in the MTCR, but is of no benefit for the chairmanship.

One asset we do bring to the chairmanship is that Switzerland has always been a constructive and pragmatic partner in the MTCR. Our expertise and commitment are well recognised, especially at the technical level. A colleague from SECO, Seraina Frost, has been co-chair of the technical expert group for two years, and Switzerland has organised meetings of technical experts on many occasions in the past. My personal advantage is that I can draw on my previous experience as chair of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Hague Code of Conduct.

What would you personally like to have achieved once Switzerland hands over the chairmanship in a year's time?

I hope that the common interest in a functioning MTCR prevails despite all the political differences, and that the regime's capacity to act is maintained. That means deciding the MTCR's next chair as well as those of the expert groups. I also hope that we can get back to a normal working rhythm. And finally, that we can conduct our outreach as planned to strengthen the visibility of the MTCR and increase its relevance in general.

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