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Nuclear weapons: beyond non-proliferation?

The stakes are high and the outcome too close to call as the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty opens for four weeks of intense debate in New York.

Rebecca Johnson
29 April 2010

The eighth Review Conference of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will get under way at the United Nations in New York next week.  Scheduled to run for a month, the Conference brings together top diplomats from 189 countries and over 2000 representatives of civil society to debate a range of issues relating to nuclear disarmament, security and preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons and the fissile materials that make them.

When the Conference ends on 28th May, the outcome could be an agreed document containing substantive commitments to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and move decisively towards their elimination, as was adopted in 2000.  Alternatively, the Conference might fail, as happened in 2005, or achieve something in between. The stakes are high, and despite some shared objectives the gulf between the objectives, intentions and expectations of the nuclear-weapon states and the majority of non-nuclear countries – especially the developing states – is still quite wide.  On past experience, how the Conference addresses the nuclear programmes in the Middle East – Israel’s as well as Iran’s – may play a critical role in whether or not the outcome is successful.  Israel, like India and Pakistan, stayed outside the NPT and developed its own nuclear arsenal, to the enduring anger of its neighbours.  In 1995, it was necessary for the NPT Conference to adopt a resolution calling for negotiations on a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Without such a resolution, the Arab States had made clear that they would not vote for the treaty – which at that time had a 25 year time limit – to be extended indefinitely.  In 2010, the League of Arab States, backed by over 110 Non-Aligned governments under Egypt’s leadership, have made clear that they want the Review Conference to take more action to implement the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East. Others, particularly the United States, are wary of putting too much pressure on Israel, which maintains the utmost secrecy about its nuclear weapons and policies.

President Obama’s initiatives have given renewed impetus to calls for deeper cuts in the existing nuclear arsenals and more comprehensive progress on nuclear disarmament. This year, for the first time, a majority of NPT parties will be calling for the objective of a nuclear weapons convention to be put on the negotiating agenda.  While recognising that such a comprehensive treaty to ban nuclear weapons will take time to achieve, there is renewed determination to make this possible, bringing nuclear weapons into line with biological  and chemical  weapons, both of which have been banned under comprehensive multilateral conventions.

Just before the Conference starts there is intense speculation about the role the United States intends to play, following President Obama’s initiatives of hosting a special session of the UN Security Council to discuss nuclear weapons issues last September, inviting the leaders of 46 countries to a Nuclear Summit in Washington this April, and his signing a new strategic arms reduction treaty with President Medvedev of Russia in April -  New-START. The US Nuclear Posture Review, which was finally published in April – six months after it was first expected – gave mixed messages about US intentions. On the one hand, the Obama administration made clear their desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, promising not to use US nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are NPT members and deemed to be fully complying with their obligations. However, the policy continued to assert the relevance of nuclear deterrence and left open a “narrow range of contingencies” – including attacks with conventional, biological or chemical weapons – in which the United States would be prepared to use nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances”. Though the signing of the New-START agreement with Russia is very widely welcomed and there is considerable goodwill towards President Obama among NPT states, there are concerns that the US has still not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), despite the indispensable link between this treaty and the support of many states for indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995.

The NPT was negotiated in the 1960s soon after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis nearly turned the cold war into a nuclear war.  The shock of this propelled the key governments to the negotiating table. Though many countries wanted nuclear weapons to be abolished at that time, the political conditions made that impossible.  Instead, they agreed on a non-proliferation approach to halt the further spread of nuclear weapons.  This history is critical to understanding many of the treaty-related conflicts that are likely to unfold during the Review Conference.

Unlike previous kinds of treaties, which imposed restraints or prohibitions on all states equally, the NPT had to acknowledge that five countries had already become “nuclear-weapon states”. The core obligations therefore were that these five – Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union (now Russia) and the United States – were prohibited from transferring nuclear materials, control over nuclear weapons or know-how for nuclear weapons purposes and that they should “pursue negotiations in good faith” on nuclear disarmament. All other countries could only join the NPT as “non-nuclear weapon states”. They accepted obligations not to receive nuclear materials or know-how for nuclear weapons purposes and not to seek to develop any nuclear armaments. Along with this, the non-nuclear weapons countries agreed that the International Atomic Energy Agency would be able to inspect “safeguard” any of their civilian nuclear facilities to ensure that no materials were being diverted for weapons programmes. As an incentive to non-nuclear-weapon states to join the treaty, it was explicitly promised that they would not be prevented from developing civilian nuclear programmes; more than that, they were offered assistance to develop non-military nuclear reactors and programmes.  After the entry into force of the NPT there were further developments to strengthen the regime, including export controls imposed by suppliers of uranium and other nuclear products, nuclear-weapon-free zones – now covering the whole of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, South-East Asia and five countries in Central Asia.

I have covered every NPT meeting since 1994, and this one appears too close to call.  It would be a major problem for the credibility of the non-proliferation regime – and especially for the nuclear-weapon states – if the 2010 Conference were to collapse without agreement.  The fact that the 2005 Review Conference ended acrimoniously, having failed to agree on any substantive issue had less direct impact on the non-proliferation regime than some had anticipated, because it was predictable in view of the intransigent position of the Bush administration and refusal by a number of countries to adopt something much weaker than had already been agreed in 2000.  Iran and Egypt were also seen to have contributed to the 2005 deadlock, but they were clearly not the cause.

Expectations for the 2010 Review Conference are very different, not least because of the positive measures undertaken by President Obama. Yet these could still be swamped by the regional rivalries of the Middle East or if some of the other nuclear-weapon states refuse to reaffirm commitments made in 2000 that are still a long way from being fulfilled.  At the preparatory meeting held in 2009, France and Russia were digging their heels in over some of the disarmament proposals being put forward, while China was quietly anxious about what more transparency and accountability on disarmament matters might entail. If solid agreements on nuclear disarmament and the Middle East are on the table by the fourth week then that would be sufficient incentive for significant governments to exert pressure on potential spoilers. But that might not be the case if not enough is being offered in negotiations.

In this regard, a particularly wild card is whether the Security Council, currently chaired by Japan, will push ahead with a new sanctions resolution against Iran, as some politicians in the United States and elsewhere are demanding.  If so, then all bets for a positive NPT outcome will be off. Not only would such a sanctions resolution make Iran more likely to disrupt and block agreements in the NPT Conference, but it would also make it more difficult for other members of the Non-Aligned group of states to exert friendly persuasion on Iran to engage more constructively and not hold up agreements supported by the rest of the Non-Aligned countries.  The next four weeks will be critical for nuclear non-proliferation and security.

Rebecca Johnson will be covering the twists and turns and underlying politics of the conference for openDemocracy as it meets for the next four weeks in New York

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