Is the nuclear non-proliferation regime fit for purpose?

While the world turns, nuclear weapons are modernised and revalued in nine nuclear-armed states, causing a growing number of nuclear-weapon-free countries to reassess their options for security. Rebecca Johnson reports from Vienna where diplomats are gathering to review progress on the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

The Preparatory Committee meeting of parties to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) opens today in Vienna.   Much has happened since I wrote about the review conference in May 2010, which succeeded in adopting a consensus document containing 64 commitments for actions on regional and international non-proliferation, disarmament and nuclear energy. 

The hot button news item from 2010 was the decision to hold a conference of all states in the Middle East in 2012 to take forward the long-standing objective of a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, as contained in the NPT’s 1995 Resolution on the Middle East.  Yet despite the importance of this agreement to the success of the 2010 conference, it took over 15 months for governments to agree to hold the conference in Finland and to entrust the Finnish Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Security Policy, Jaakko Laajava, to facilitate implementation of this decision. There is still no date for the actual conference, which is supposed to take place this year. Politics dictates that this needs to be after the US presidential election in November. The idea for this Middle East Conference was originally an Arab initiative, with Egypt and the United States as the major protagonists in the negotiations. Though adopted by the 2010 NPT conference, it was decided to hold the 2012 Conference under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General in order to engage Israel, the only non-NPT state party in the region, estimated to have a nuclear arsenal of 80-100 nuclear weapons. 

At present, both Iran and Israel appear reluctant to participate, aware that the conference will address their nuclear programmes. The conference remit also offers opportunities to these key governments to have some of their critical security interests taken seriously, so the challenge will be to construct the conference with a purpose and agenda that offers something important for the security of all the participants. While Laajava and others engage diplomatically to bring all the governments in the region on board for the meeting, there is also a need to take into account the transformative actions of Arab civil society over the past 18 months, which have toppled some governments and rocked many more in the Middle East. 

Despite being the target of numerous censuring reports and resolutions from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UN Security Council, as well as the Stuxsnet computer virus and assassination of nuclear scientists, Iran has accelerated its uranium enrichment programme and appears to be well on the way to developing independent fuel cycle and missile technologies.  Iran’s programmes are not yet developed enough to make or deliver nuclear weapons, and its leaders have repeatedly claimed that its nuclear programme is solely for energy and other “peaceful purposes” consistent with Article IV of the NPT. On February 22, following the most recent (inconclusive) IAEA inspection visit to Iran, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told nuclear scientists, “We are not after an atomic weapon. We want to break the supremacy (of the world powers) that relies on nuclear weapons.” 

One reason why Iran has such difficulty convincing the world of its peaceful intent is that most nuclear weapons programmes since 1970, from India and Pakistan to North Korea’s recent example, started out as real or ostensible nuclear energy programmes. Taking all its elements into account the configuration of Iran’s programme indicates at the very least a desire to be equipped with the technologies for a “nuclear weapons option” for the future, even if it doesn’t actually decide to make nuclear weapons. That should not come as a great surprise, considering its geo-strategic neighbourhood and the high value accorded to nuclear weapons possession by the nine nuclear-armed states – whether for status, national identity, or as the ultimate, indispensable insurance policy, as claimed by some British politicians. 

One of the biggest disappointments in the 2010 NPT conference was how proposals to devalue nuclear weapons and implement earlier disarmament commitments were sidelined in the final document due to the concerted opposition of the five NPT-defined nuclear-weapon states (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China). Majority-supported proposals from the delegations of nuclear-weapon-free countries for these pernicious weapons to be delegitimized, marginalized and eliminated from military and security doctrines were cut out or watered down. There was also more debate than in previous meetings on proposals to remove and eliminate short range so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons and end the doctrine of “nuclear sharing” as practised by NATO, where around 180-200 US nuclear bombs are still deployed on the territory of Belgium, Germany, Italy Netherlands and Turkey. The nuclear -armed states blocked everything except weakly worded commitments to “undertake further efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate all types of nuclear weapons”, move “towards an overall reduction in the global stockpile” and “further diminish the role and significance” of their nuclear armaments. Such promises are actually weaker than the commitments adopted by the 2000 NPT Review Conference.

This persistent resistance of the nuclear-armed governments to undertake a genuine process of nuclear disarmament frustrates the hopes of non-nuclear countries and acts as a proliferation driver by perpetuating the image of nuclear weapons as desirable and valuable. It is not enough for the weapons possessors only to reduce the numbers in their arsenals – such reductions may be welcomed, but their primary objective is viewed as rationalising over-kill capacities at lower levels because the high cold war numbers are pointless and very expensive for national budgets to maintain.  Such reductions appear to do nothing to diminish the value that the nuclear-armed states, nuclear-umbrella allies and potential proliferators attach to nuclear weapons.  As long as acquiring or maintaining nuclear weapons (or options) is represented as prudent or desirable by some government leaders, this will feed into the reasons why other governments consider getting nuclear energy technologies - whether admitted or not. 

The NPT played a useful role in the past 40 years in keeping a lid on proliferation, but the confidence that it helped to build has been eroding since 1995.  Iran’s leaders’ proclamations that Iran “regards the use of nuclear weapons to be illegal and haram (religiously forbidden)” won’t be believed, in part because the economic and environmental arguments for nuclear energy do not stack up, and also because NPT support for nuclear energy was used by others (notably Iraq and North Korea) to facilitate “peaceful programmes” that were turned into weapons programmes.  Although efforts have been made to strengthen the non-proliferation regime’s tools to prevent this happening again, the structure and politics of the 2010 review conference meant that NPT parties failed yet again to deal with compliance and implementation shortcomings. They also failed to adopt any of the proposals to strengthen the regime institutionally or develop mechanisms to deter withdrawal from the Treaty. It even proved impossible to agree that the Additional Protocol that was negotiated in the 1990s to strengthen the IAEA’s powers to inspect NPT members’ nuclear materials and facilities should become the verification standard or a “condition of supply” that governments wanting to receive nuclear technologies should adhere to.

The current regime’s inadequacies in dealing with the hard proliferation challenges stem in part from the contradictions inherent in the NPT’s dual role in which it is supposed to prevent proliferation while fostering nuclear energy. As the Fukushima disaster tragically reminded the world, when nuclear technologies go wrong – for whatever reason, be it a natural event, terrorist attack, technical incompetence or human error – the consequences can be catastrophic, far outweighing any hoped-for benefits.

The diplomats gathering in Vienna are given the tasks of reviewing progress to date, adopting an agenda for the review process, and paving the way for the commitments undertaken in previous meetings to be implemented by 2015, when the next review conference is scheduled.  With geopolitical and proliferation events moving swiftly in today’s interconnected world, a major drawback is that meetings such as the Vienna PrepCom have become little more than a talk shop, just going through the motions. Despite commitments in 1995 to strengthen the review process, this is still a regime that only once every five years gets a decision-making conference. For the past two decades a similar list of complaints, concerns and demands have been raised and documents full of exhortations and commitments have either been adopted or not adopted. While the world turns, nuclear weapons are modernized and revalued in nine nuclear-armed states, causing a growing number of nuclear-weapon-free countries to reassess their options for security.  That doesn’t mean that they will emulate North Korea and go nuclear.  For the vast majority that is neither a desire nor a solution. Instead, they are becoming increasingly vocal in demanding a comprehensive approach to stop nuclear dangers by eliminating all countries’ nuclear weapons in a multilaterally negotiated, managed and verified process.

This was actually the goal embedded in the NPT in 1968 and made explicit in its 2010 final document which recognised the need to “establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons”. Over 140 governments have now openly advocated negotiations to achieve a multilateral nuclear treaty in the near future in order to prohibit the use, production and deployment of nuclear weapons and provide time-lines for existing arsenals to be dismantled and eliminated. These demands draw from the example of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as the humanitarian-based disarmament processes that have recently been used to ban landmines and cluster munitions, while also recognising the political context and characteristics of current nuclear weapons dependencies. 

Despite their rhetoric, the nuclear-weapon states are themselves undermining the NPT, using it to justify their own nuclear weapons while others evoke the Treaty’s Article IV provision on “peaceful uses” to promote nuclear energy and prevent tighter restrictions on technology transfers. The status quo that the nuclear-armed governments want to preserve is untenable, as proliferation pressures mount.

For dealing with nuclear threats and dangers, the NPT is no longer fit for purpose. But that does not mean it should be undermined or trashed. Our human and global security requires that we construct a stronger, more credible regime with the right tools to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons – applicable to everyone!  When they meet in Vienna, will NPT parties demonstrate a willingness to transform this out-dated regime into something less discriminatory and more fit for the purpose of preventing the spread, deployment and use of nuclear weapons?  Or will they just pay lip service and go through the motions until the next nuclear tragedy occurs?

This is the first in a series of articles Rebecca Johnson will write from the two week conference in Vienna