NPT Review Conference: Business as Usual Now, Disarmament Perhaps Later

By René Wadlow

The Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has Article VIII calling for a review conference every five years to see how the terms of the Treaty are being respected and its goals promoted. As this Treaty, a cornerstone of arms control efforts, came into force in 1970, there has been every five years a review conference starting in 1975.

Negotiations leading to the Treaty were carried out for nearly the whole of the 1960s in Geneva, and each article was the result of long discussions and compromises. The Treaty has three main goals based on the realities of the 1960s, which was the middle of the 1945-1990 Cold War, with the USA and the USSR as the main protagonists. The main aim, as indicated in its name, is preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond the five states that already had nuclear weapons when the Treaty was negotiated: the USA, USSR, England, France, and China.

In the 1960s, there were estimates that at least 20 states had the scientific know-how to develop nuclear weapons. These included Japan, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa and Brazil. There was a fear that if an ever-greater number of states had nuclear weapons, the rather stable but yet dangerous “balance of terror” that existed between the USA and the USSR could be upset. Since the two leading powers were also leaders of military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, it was feared that nuclear weapons could be transferred to other states within the alliances. The transfer of Soviet nuclear weapons to Cuba, under Soviet control but in unclear conditions, led to the Cuban Crisis of 1962, one of the Cold War’s most tense confrontations. Thus the Treaty prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons from the five named nuclear-weapon powers to other states.

In exchange for states renouncing the possibility to develop nuclear weapons, they were to receive aid in the development of peaceful nuclear energy. The 1950s-1960s were periods of general enthusiasm about the use of nuclear energy as a motor of development and freedom of dependence on oil. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was set up primarily to promote the use of nuclear energy, and only very secondarily as a “watchdog” agency to see that nuclear programs were not diverted to military uses.

The five recognized nuclear-weapon states pledged themselves in the Preamble and in Article VI of the Treaty to take steps toward nuclear disarmament as well as general and complete disarmament. As the Preamble sets out the aspirations of the Treaty “Desiring to further the easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States in order to facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery pursuant to a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control…”

Each Review Conference has been concerned with how well these three aspects—non-proliferation, promotion of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and the disarmament initiatives of the five nuclear-weapon states were being carried out. To make matters more complicated but politically realistic, the policies of the nuclear-weapon states which have never signed the NPT—India, Israel, Pakistan—color the discussions in each Review. North Korea had ratified the NPT but then withdrew in 2003. Each state has the right to withdraw under certain conditions. Iran is a member of the NPT states, but questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the control of the IAEA on its peaceful nuclear activities and whether it is enriching nuclear material to weapons level.

There are deep disagreements over the evaluation of each of these three dimensions, although enthusiasm for peaceful nuclear energy has cooled since the 1960s. However, developing countries want to keep the peaceful nuclear energy option open and usually complain that not enough money is given to the IAEA to promote nuclear energy. Currently, there is increasing attention being given world-wide to alternative energy possibilities and the need to develop a real world energy policy.

Thus, the Review basically concerns nuclear weapons: Is non-proliferation working as a durable policy? Are the five nuclear-weapon states disarming? What is to be done with the nuclear-weapon states outside the NPT? These questions re-appeared with force during this 2010 Review Conference held 3 to 28 May at the UN in New York.

Three states, three crises

In order to highlight the issues, by chance or not, outside events came to bring home to the delegates that they were at the heart of world politics. North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean ship, the Cheonan, in the Yellow Sea near the contested maritime border between North and South Korea, increased tensions between North and South Korea, drew in US support to the South Koreans, and worried the governments of both Japan and China. While military action is unlikely, the division of Korea into two opposed states was highlighted and the need to resume serious negotiations on the future of Korea—not just the nuclear weapon program of North Korea—is increasingly evident.

The second major event during the Review was the agreement—if it was an agreement—brokered by Turkey and Brazil, whereby Iran would deposit 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium with Turkey in exchange for a smaller amount of reactor-grade fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (see Rajan Philips’ article, page 16). Despite US opposition—and the expanded sanctions against Iran—it is still possible that the Brazilian-Turkish initiative has lowered the temperature world-wide and cooler heads may win out.

The nuclear weapons of Israel and their meaning for Middle East policies have long been the “elephant in the room” of the NPT Reviews—too large not to notice but too dangerous to deal with if anything else in the review process was to be done. After the Iraq-Iran war had nearly caused the 1985 Review Conference to fail, there was a start toward a realization that the Middle East and nuclear weapons needed to be looked at. This realization grew slowly and in 1995 there was an annex to the Final Declaration of the Review proposing that a conference on a potential nuclear-weapon free Middle East should be called. In practice, “the time was never ripe” and so in 2010 the call was renewed. This time a date for a conference was set for 2012. It is to be called not by the UN but by the five permanent states of the UN Security Council.

However, the US National Security Advisor said at the end of the Review Conference “As a co-sponsor of the 2012 Conference, the US will ensure that it will take place if and when all countries feel confident that they can attend. Because of the gratuitous way that Israel has been singled out, the prospect for a conference in 2012 that involves all key states in the region is now in doubt.”

Pakistan and India

The fighting in Afghanistan and certain areas of Pakistan are daily news so that the Pakistan-India nuclear-weapons policies remain crucial issues, even if the Review Conference did not want to deal with another “elephant in the room.” Thus there were weak calls for India and Pakistan to join the NPT as if they were not nuclear-weapon states. There were no indications that India-Pakistan relations would be influenced by NPT Reviews. So far, India-Pakistan talks—when they occur—have not progressed toward meaningful compromises and reduction of tensions.

US-USSR (now US-Russia) nuclear weapons and their strategic policies have always been too obvious to avoid. However the US and the Russians have always had a joint, common position in the Reviews “Leave us alone, we are doing the best we can through bilateral negotiations.”

Thus, in practice, after repeating that Article VI is not being met in a meaningful way and that “general and complete disarmament under international control” is on the agenda of no one, all NPT states go back to “business as usual.” There are repeated calls for serious negotiations on nuclear disarmament and the strategic policies of the nuclear-weapon states, but such negotiations seem far off. The Geneva-based Conference of Disarmament (CD) has made little progress since the end of the Cold War, notably in negotiating a fissile materials cutoff treaty.

However, the idea of a world without nuclear weapons is being mentioned more frequently now than at any time since the end of the Cold War, thanks to President Obama. Nevertheless, the USA and Russian strategic policies are based on the continued deployment of nuclear weapons. England, France and China have made no dramatic advances toward abolishing their more modest supply of nuclear weapons.

The Final Document, a Chairman’s Statement, on which the governments agreed after a good bit of last moment negotiations says “The Conference recognizes that nuclear disarmament and achieving the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons will require openness and co-operation, and affirms the importance of enhanced confidence through increased transparency and effective verification.”

It was only on page 22 that civil society was mentioned. “All States agree on the importance of supporting cooperation among governments, the United Nations, other international and regional organizations, and civil society aimed at increasing confidence, improving transparency and developing efficient verification capabilities related to nuclear disarmament.”

A Middle Eastern NWFZ

The holding of a conference on a Middle East Nuclear-weapon Free Zone is the only item with a fixed deadline prior to the 2015 Review. It may disappear from the world agenda, as did the 1995 Middle East statement.

Perhaps if civil society does organize around a 2012 Conference, some progress may be made. The 31 May Israeli attack in international waters of boats trying to break the Gaza blockade and the strong world-wide reactions to the attack highlights the tensions of the area. A conference on a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone could be a forum for a multilateral approach to the conflicts of the area and thus a focus for non-governmental pressure. If the tensions make such a conference impossible, 2012 will come and go without result. I prefer the first alternative.

René Wadlow is Representative to the UN in Geneva for the Association of World Citizens.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2010

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2010, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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