For several decades now, the world has been living with the illusion that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) established a functioning treaty regime that has spared the world from nuclear danger. It is an illusion partly because three nuclear-weapons aspirants (Israel, India and Pakistan) have kept clear of the treaty and yet suffered no adverse consequences when they developed nuclear arsenals.
On the contrary, United States president George W Bush's proposed nuclear deal with India under which the US would share reactors, fuel and expertise must be understood as a major diplomatic reward in spite of India's crossing the nuclear-weapons threshold. And Israel has been allowed to develop a formidable nuclear arsenal while the West kept completely silent.
Richard Falk is emeritus professor of international law at Princeton University, and chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His many books include The Declining World Order: America's Imperial Geopolitics (Routledge, 2004) and The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004).
Also by Richard Falk in openDemocracy:
"An alternative to Iraqi delusions"
David Krieger is the president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
This article is also published on the website of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
But this is not the only concern. The NPT which was signed in 1968, and came into force in 1970 has generated a new set of pretexts for launching aggressive war. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was mainly vindicated, in public at least, because of Baghdad's stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and its covert nuclear-weapons programme. The reality that such a stockpile did not exist, nor the programme, conveys the perverse message that a country hostile to the US might be better off with the weapons than without.
Iran and North Korea certainly heard this message. And now, shifting course, the US is leading a second charge toward aggressive war, this time against Iran, and in so doing approaching the nuclear precipice. Rumors abound that the only sure way to disable Iran's nuclear capabilities is by relying on nuclear warheads to hit and destroy protected underground facilities.
And there is more to worry about. The NPT's Article IV promises as a matter of "inalienable right" full access to peaceful forms of nuclear technology for non-weapons states. Several countries (including parties to the NPT such as Germany and Japan) have a complete nuclear-fuel cycle, including enrichment phases, which makes it possible for them to acquire weapons in a matter of weeks or months. Iran is being threatened with military attack and United Nations sanctions if it moves in a similar direction.
This appears to be such a blatantly discriminatory application of a vital provision of the NPT as to give Iran grounds for regarding itself free from any duty to comply. It is elementary treaty law that if an important provision is violated, this constitutes a material breach that allows other parties to declare their unwillingness to remain bound by the treaty. In any event, the treaty allows for parties to withdraw, and North Korea has already exercised this option.
If this were not trouble enough, there is another cluster of difficulties with the NPT. The nuclear-weapons states, starting with the US, have failed to uphold their obligations under Article VI to pursue negotiations on nuclear disarmament in good faith and, beyond even this, to seek general and complete disarmament. In July 1996, the International Court of Justice in The Hague unanimously called upon nuclear-weapons states to regard Article VI as a solemn legal obligation. Most non-nuclear-weapons states have been upset about this failure for years. It is long past time that they do something. It is not tolerable to keep sliding closer and closer to the nuclear precipice while hoping for the best.
It is time for a group of governments, as many as possible, to step up and say that we have waited long enough. It is time to say that the NPT was based on mutual commitments, and is failing. It is past time to awaken the nuclear-weapons states by administering shock therapy.
Also in openDemocracy on nuclear weapons and global politics:
Achilles Skordas, "A right to use nuclear weapons?"
Patricia Lewis, "The NPT review conference
Paul Rogers, "By any means necessary: the United States and Japan"
Brian Cathcart, "Britain and the atomic bomb"
Brian Cathcart, "Joseph Rotblat's humanity"
Paul Rogers, "The United States, nuclear weapons, and Iran"
Lisa Lynch, "The United States's nuclear fix"
Two pacts to save the world
This is not a plea for proliferation. It is an urgent plea for nuclear disarmament based on a negotiated agreement, reliable monitoring and verification, phased reductions in weapons arsenals and a commitment to the total prohibition of the threat or use of these weapons. Only the US has the stature and shoulders the responsibility to take such a momentous step towards safeguarding its own security and contributing to the realisation of a nuclear-weapons-free world. It is absurd to believe that we can have an arrangement whereby some states acquire and continue to develop these weapons while others are punished with war for doing the same thing on a miniscule scale.
This logic of the NPT in practice is to endorse double-standards of the worst possible sort. It would have been treated as absurd if such an approach had been taken with respect to the treaties renouncing the right to develop or possess chemical and biological weapons. Even though some states had huge stockpiles of these weapons, the treaties were based on the equality of obligations binding on all states. Why should nuclear weapons be treated differently?
And the approach of the NPT to nuclear power is also flawed. There is no way to allow this access to countries without giving them the status of being latent nuclear-weapons states. The only solution at this stage is to impose a moratorium on the production of weapons-grade fissionable materials, and those materials already produced should be placed under strict international controls in all countries, including the US. Additionally, an International Sustainable Energy Agency should be established immediately and generously funded to extend aid to poorer countries to develop various types of sustainable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, tidal). Such a step would both ease the prospects of a global energy crunch, and would contribute to environmental protection.
In effect, we are calling for two new pacts: a nuclear disarmament treaty and a treaty establishing an International Sustainable Energy Agency. These are the only initiatives that have a reasonable chance of moving us back from the terrifying edge of the nuclear precipice.
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