Expert Spotlight: UN Security Council Expert Dr. Richard Cupitt

Tower Center Undergraduate Fellow and Jack C. and Annette K. Vaughn Foreign Service and International Affairs Internship recipient, Varsha Appaji, had the opportunity to interview Dr. Richard Cupitt during her internship with the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. She asked about his time as an Expert with the U.N. Security Council and how he overcame challenges when implementing policy resolutions with other countries.

Could you talk a bit about your experience working as an expert for the UNSC Resolution 1540 Committee? How did your day-to-day tasks align with the environment of the UN?

The mandate of the committee is not permanent, so the shadow of the future has an impact on the goals and the challenges you face. Originally, in 2004, the mandate was for two years. Because you cannot presume a decision by the UNSC, you cannot act as if there are any additional years.

Initially, our primary task as the experts for the committee was to monitor the implementation of the resolution. The committee had received above 100 reports and our task was to go through them and see how states were implementing their obligations under the resolution. The reports varied from a page or two, to 70–80 pages, much of which often did not have a lot to do with the resolution. Overall, there was an awful lot of variance in the reports we received.

So, the first thing that we did was try to identify all the specific obligations and recommendations in the resolution. We also looked at what some states said was important, even if it wasn’t specifically stated in the resolution. From this we built a matrix with around 300 fields and tried to take each report and put it into the matrix format. We were not allowed to assess the quality of a state’s report and could only “examine” them. The only outside source of information we could use was the UNODA treaty database.

As we furthered our process, the committee wanted us to take this data and write to particular states in an “accusatory” way—as in they wanted us to press states on why they were not taking certain measures required by the resolution. The experts didn’t want to do this, and we were threatened to be fired. In the end what happened was the matrix was sent back with a letter to the states, drawing their awareness to deficiencies they may have. This also subtly made the matrix a public document versus an internal document. That process of sending it out to the countries and making it public proved very helpful. We got a big increase in information because the matrix helped tell states exactly what we wanted to know, which helped to eliminate much of the variance in information received by the states, ultimately increasing the efficiency of the experts’ work.

This progress convinced the UNSC to extend the mandate of the committee, and during this time, we (the experts) convinced the committee to permit the usage of government and international organization sources as well. This meant that we could now do a matrix assessment for every UN state, not just those who submitted a report. This meant a lot more work for us. In addition, more and more IOs got interested in what the committee was doing and asked for the committee to conduct outreach. There was also an increased interest in doing more assistance. In addition to resolution implementation and assistance, we had responsibilities to facilitate transparency and outreach to the media, civil society, and academia.

What were some of the challenges you experienced with this work?

Well, primarily, it’s challenging to get countries to commit and then maintain their commitments. For some states, responsibilities related to 1540 were not as urgent as other policy objectives. Even though we, as the experts, would argue that there is a lot of overlap. Also, maintaining commitments when governments change is very difficult.

The UNSC also has a legitimacy deficit, given the council’s power-dynamics and particularly here and with the counterterrorism resolution. Because 1540 is one of the most demanding resolutions—unlike most, which say continue doing what you’re doing, or continue not doing what you’re not doing, 1540 tells states to do something that they aren’t. 1540 was meant to fill gaps in the non-proliferation structures, so it also dealt with non-state actors—all stuff that no one had already done. It’s demanding, and many states would say that the UNSC is unfairly legislating for us.

Another challenge from the administrative side was the difficulty in finding true experts. Some “experts” were just diplomats or functioned as spokesman for their countries of origin. It was also frustrating that as experts, we weren’t allowed to give advice. Even when countries were open to reform and were just asking for us to tell them what to do.

In your opinion, what aspects of the resolution, or your work as an expert provided the greatest possibility of positive change?

I think of 1540 like a mission statement. It tells you what to do not how to do it— there is lots of discretion involved, which allows for regional organizations to take part and helps alleviate some reporting fatigue that states feel.

Eventually, with the involvement of regional organizations or other functional organizations, all states supported 1540, which did influence action a little bit. And no state will say that it’s good to give terrorists WMDs. At one point, Costa Rica chaired the committee and I used to say, 1540 is like Costa Rica, everybody likes it. Also, because the experts’ work wasn’t accusatory in nature, it was more from a perspective of trying to find a solution, it was easier to approach states.

Based on this, what do you think are some of the broad challenges that global governance generally faces?

Well, global governance isn’t a lot of governance and international organizations work on a very limited scale. Especially the UN, which has numerous bureaucracies all connected by a larger one. But I feel like doing global governance—building new systems, regimes, and social technologies—is one of the most fun things that you can do. In life if you’re going to get judged, hopefully it’s on how much you want to make the world a better place.

What does the future of non-proliferation policy look like? 

There are still a lot of gaps that exist in securing biological and chemical materials facilities, or in addressing proliferation finance challenges. This issue is very widespread because it can occur anywhere, with just a bank.

There are also emerging risks with new technologies. For example, the civilization of space—now private companies essentially have missile launch capabilities. With drones, there is a heightened capability of administering biological or chemical weapons.

But it’s likely that the international community will continue to silo things, despite recognizing the flaws of doing so. If you look at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Biological Weapons Convention chairs, they don’t talk to one another. Things that might be common problems, are still dealt with in traditional silos, which also leads to pressure of things being siloed within a country as well.

I don’t think that there will be any major changes to the obligations of 1540. I also don’t think there will be a lot more resources for this unless something bad happens—international governance is frequently reactive rather than proactive.

How did your experience at the UN compare to that of working at the State Department? 

As a UN expert you can help states think about what they want to do, but you can’t decide what actually gets done since you follow the committee and the member states. But it was way easier to go into a country and work with other governments if we were coming from the UN, versus if we were representing the US government.

Another thing is that as part of civil society you can take more risks than if you were part of an IGO/national delegation. But the latter has more resources and legitimacy.

Do you have any advice for someone who is trying to enter this general field of work? 

Pretty early on I found an area that interested me because it covered science, economics, and security. I learned a lot about it and spent a lot of time in the field and the government, so I was able to acquire a level of expertise. I actually think that’s a really useful thing to do. I know a lot of people foreign service/state department emphasize generalists.

But I would say to find a couple of things you really like and try to be the best at it. You may not become the best, and for some things who even knows what the “best” is. But in the process of trying, all sorts of things will happen, including the ability to innovate. That’s the advice I give all students—try to be the best at something.


Dr. Richard T. Cupitt is currently a Senior Associate and Director of the Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program at the Stimson Center. His areas of expertise include WMD nonproliferation, export controls, and foreign policy. Prior to joining Stimson, he served as the Special Coordinator for U.N. Security Council (UNSC) in the Office of Counterproliferation Initiatives at the U.S. State Department from 2012 through 2016. As such, he led U.S. government efforts to further implement more than two hundred legally binding obligations to combat proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery, especially to non-state actors such as terrorists and criminal organizations. From 2005 to 2012, he worked as an Expert for UNSC, monitoring and facilitating implementation of resolutions in all U.N. Member States, building relationships with more than forty international organizations, coordinating assistance activities, and conducting outreach with industry and academia. Elected coordinator of the Experts from 2010-2012, he also led the work in several specialized areas including combating the financing of proliferation and export controls. You can find his full bio here.