Make the NPT work for peace

IssueMay 2005
Comment by Rebecca Johnson

Most of the nations of the world have joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which has its seventh Review Conference in New York this month. India, Israel and Pakistan remain outside, and North Korea announced its withdrawal from the treaty in 2003. Yet the NPT is weak and getting weaker, and forecasts suggest that the conference will fail to find solutions to the most pressing challenges.

Up to the job?

Though the NPT is usually represented as a bargain between the nuclear weapon states and non nuclear weapon states, it is really several kinds of trade-off involving non-acquisition, non-transfer, nuclear disarmament, nuclear energy and intrusive verification, called safeguards.

The United States has made clear that it intends to point an accusatory finger and condemn non-compliance by certain non weapon states like Iran. However, discussions at the 2005 Review Conference are likely to highlight the following four inter-related issues: nuclear disarmament-- including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), fissile materials ban and nuclear use doctrines; the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly uranium enrichment and plutonium separation (reprocessing); nuclear safety and security and the need to keep nuclear weapons and weapons related technology and components out of the hands of states or individuals that might use them; and institutional weaknesses in the regime -- including the right of withdrawal from the treaty, the lack of decision-making powers given to member states, and the roles and inadequacies of the IAEA, Conference on Disarmament, and UN Security Council. Thirty-five years after the NPT entered into force, the world has to decide if, as it currently stands, this non-proliferation regime is up to the job of ensuring that nuclear weapons are never used again.

Reconciling differences

While government delegations debate these issues in the formal meetings, hundreds of NGOs will be in New York and at assorted nuclear bases and capitals to carry the hopes and demands of civil society, who want the world to be made free of nuclear weapons forever.

Ranging from grassroots activists and university-based experts to elected officials, most NGOs will be focussing more on nuclear disarmament and implementation than on other treaty elements. In this, but not necessarily on other issues, civil society will find many allies among the non nuclear weapon states. It was, after all, government/civil society partnership that achieved consensus agreement at the 2000 Review Conference on a ground breaking programme of some 18 principles and steps for nuclear disarmament, misleadingly dubbed the “Thirteen Steps”.

While many activists also want to halt nuclear power programmes and invest in sustainable energy production and conservation, that is an option that will barely be debated in May. However, in the light of North Korea's announced withdrawal from the treaty and the persistent allegations about Iran's uranium enrichment programme, there will be pressure from different sides to constrain or control uranium enrichment and reprocessing, and to make withdrawal from the NPT more difficult, if not impossible.

The problem at the heart of the NPT is that, unlike biological and chemical weapons, nuclear weapons are not legally prohibited for everyone. Though most people think nuclear armaments should be banned completely, the primary role of the NPT when it was negotiated was to prevent the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons after a small number of states had already acquired them. That is unsurprising, since the concept of non-proliferation arose out of attempts by the United States and the Soviet Union to organise world stability in conformity with their own strategic interests. But it is inappropriate and counterproductive now, and leads to the bizarre paradox that even as the majority of peoples are legally bound never to acquire such ultimate and inhumane weapons, a handful of governments continue to assert that nuclear weapons have military utility and/or security value. Hence, the nuclear weapon states expect applause for great reductions made since the end of the Cold War and become peeved when the non-nuclear weapon states demand more.

Some credit is deserved of course, since the fewer weapons the better, but this cannot be treated as genuine disarmament as long as military doctrines rely on nuclear weapon use or threat and new nuclear systems continue to be researched to replenish arsenals that are withdrawn, ageing or obsolete.

Moving forward

What kind of outcome can we expect from the conference? Most diplomats are deeply pessimistic, but they tend to measure conference success in terms of adopting a consensus document. We need to distinguish between this and an outcome that reduces nuclear dangers for the future. If inappropriate linkages, arm twisting and chequebook diplomacy result in a document that sweeps the hopes and disagreements under lowest common denominator diplo-speak, that could be much worse than a conference that honestly faces up to the contradictions and limitations of the NPT, even if it ends up without substantive agreement. Whatever the conference outcome, it must stimulate new thinking to reduce nuclear insecurity.

In essence, this is the message of civil society that will be conveyed by Mayors for Peace, led by the Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If, when the conference dust has settled, it is clear that the governments have failed to make the non-proliferation and disarmament regime more effective, then it must be buttressed with further agreements that will forbid any use of nuclear weapons, eliminate (not just withdraw) the weapons, and ensure much higher standards of control, safety and security for materials and facilities pending their complete dismantlement. We have to take nuclear weapons related resources and technologies out of circulation for good. It's a daunting challenge, but the alternative task -- of clearing up after a nuclear weapon has been intentionally or accidentally detonated -- would be much, much worse.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons