The very, very least we should demand of the NPT

IssueMarch 2010
Feature by Milan Rai

At the War Resisters’ International Triennial in Ahmedabad, I met a 100%, thorough-going Indian unilateralist. He’s spent his life critiquing the Indian nuclear power programme and, since India acquired the Bomb, arguing for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

He’s the kind of person who, in Britain, would be fervently supportive of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and trying to use it as leverage to force the major powers towards the abolition of nuclear weapons. When the NPT came up in discussion, however, he said, simply and flatly, that the NPT was illegitimate as it was a discriminatory treaty.

The NPT recognises that there are nuclear weapon states, and there are states without nuclear weapons. It actually reinforces that division. Non-nuclear-weapon states are obliged to stay that way by the treaty, while countries with the bomb are obliged under Article 6 (take a deep breath): “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

(We mostly forget about that “general and complete disarmament” bit.) So there is no deadline for nuclear disarmament or even for starting negotiations, and no penalties for failing to abolish the bomb, or for developing new kinds of nuclear weapons.

A discriminatory treaty indeed.

Right to attack

The situation is even worse, actually. The major powers are not only determined to hang onto their weapons, and to use the NPT to force other countries not to develop the Bomb, they even reserve to themselves the right to use nuclear weapons on non-nuclear-weapon states.

Since the beginning of the NPT process, the majority world has been asking for legally-binding “negative security assurances”, and the great powers have been refusing. A positive security assurance is a guarantee of help to someone when their security is in danger. A negative security assurance (NSA) is a promise not to endanger someone’s security.

In relation to the NPT, an NSA is a guarantee that you will not use nuclear weapons against a country. The very, very, very least that the NPT should offer non-nuclear-weapon states signing the treaty is a legally-binding guarantee they will not be attacked with nuclear weapons by the nuclear-weapon state signatories to the NPT. It is an absolute scandal that this is not part of the NPT.

It is an absolute scandal that the nuclear disarmament movements of the declared nuclear weapon states have not made this Point One of their campaign programmes. It was the conflict over NSAs that sank the 2005 NPT Review Conference, with non-nuclear-weapon states demanding legally-binding NSAs and the major power refusing. From a third world perspective, the lack of concern over this issue in western peace movements is, to put it mildly, puzzling.


The most likely use of nuclear weapons is precisely by a nuclear weapon state against a non-nuclear-weapon state. If your priority is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, this is, or should be, a high priority.

If your goal is to abolish nuclear weapons, then what is needed is a strategy to get from here to there. A strategy is made by identifying the smaller goals that lie along the path.

Crucial intermediary steps to abolition will be to limit the military options of the nuclear weapon states, forcing them to give binding NSAs to non-nuclear-weapon states and to give binding no-first-use pledges. There is no way to vault over these foothills in one superhuman leap to the very summit of the mountain. There is no way to reach nuclear abolition without first winning these forms of protection for the majority of countries in the world.

There are people involved in disarmament work who counsel abandoning NSAs, because they are too difficult or because they are obsolete in the new strategic environment. NSAs are difficult, and there are nuclear weapon threats from other quarters, but that does not remove the strategic necessity of NSAs as critical steps on the way to abolition.

It also does not absolve the western peace movements of their duty to offer what partial protection can be offered within the limited framework of the NPT.

Loophole city

No doubt officials in the Foreign Office would counter that Britain (and the other declared nuclear weapon states) have offered NSAs. Yes, they have: as unilateral declarations without legal force – and with enough loopholes to drive a Trident submarine through. What’s needed is a legally-binding treaty.

Britain’s 1995 NSA reserved the right to use British nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-weapon state signed up to the NPT if, for example, it was fighting British armed forces and it was “associated” with a nuclear-weapon state.

The exception given in the NSA is in the case of an invasion “or any other attack” on the UK, its dependent territories, “its armed forces or other troops, its allies or on a State towards which it has a security commitment,” where the attack is carried out “or sustained by” the non-nuclear-weapon state “in association or alliance” with a nuclear-weapon state.

Finally, the 1995 NSA says that even this loophole-ridden guarantee is void if the non-nuclear-weapon state is “in material breach” of the NPT. As for the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, they harmonised their NSA declarations in 1995, except for China, which gave an unconditional no-first-use and an unconditional undertaking “not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries and nuclear-free zones”.

Where now?

Since then, the US has made it clear that NSAs are history as far as it is concerned, especially in relation to the use of chemical and biological weapons by non-nuclear-weapon states (see, for example, September 2002’s National Security Presidential Directive 17). Perhaps it is time for western peace movements to align their forces more closely with the concerns of the majority world.

Achieving legally-binding nuclear negative security assurances – even just within the NPT – would be a big step forward for the security of poorer countries, would be a significant strategic move on the road to nuclear abolition, and it’s the very, very least we should expect from the NPT. Maybe then disarmament activists in places like India will be just a bit less dismissive of the treaty.