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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(June 10, 2005) With the seventh Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ending in abysmal failure at the United Nations, the worst fears about a tiny number of influential states holding the rest of the world hostage to their narrow interests have materialised.

(629.5700) Praful Bidwai - The four week-long meeting (2 to 27 May 2005) failed to produce a consensus declaration or even an agreed account of the worrisome developments that have taken place since the last such conference, in 2000, and the progress (or lack of it) on the commitments made by the five "recognised" nuclear weapons-states (NWSs) in respect of disarmament.

So, why did the NPT review fail? The short answer is that the world's leading nuclear powers do not have the political will to defend and abide by the 'Grand Bargain' that lies at the core of the treaty -- to accept the obligation to disarm their own nuclear weapons in exchange for the rest of the world, consisting of some 180-odd non-nuclear weapons-states, agreeing not to make nuclear weapons.

The vast majority of the world's non-NWSs have abided by the bargain. But the NWSs have failed to move towards disarming their nuclear arsenals, and indulged in clandestine transfers of nuclear materials/know-how to allies such as Israel.
At the latest conference, the NWSs refused critical scrutiny of their record since the 2000 review, in which they accepted disarmament as an obligation and made an "unambiguous" commitment to nuclear elimination. Instead, they paid lip service to disarmament as a "moral" and "political" goal.
However, the International Court of Justice clarified, in a landmark judgment in 1996, that nuclear weapons are incompatible with international law and that the NWSs are legally obliged to complete talks for their total elimination.

The NWSs' failure produced a climate of utter cynicism (at the meeting), which allowed aspiring nuclear powers like Iran to run rings around everyone else. This also made it possible for the total of 153 governments present to get so entangled in procedural disputes that they could not even agree to a working agenda for the first 10 days of the conference!

At the core of the NWSs' failure was the United States' attempt to manipulate the Review Conference in such a way that Washington would be under no obligation to get rid of its nuclear weapons, but the non-NWSs would be more effectively prevented from having them than in the past.

Five years ago, the US and the other four NWSs agreed to 13 steps, including acknowledging the principle of irreversibility for all nuclear disarmament and arms reduction measures, bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force at an early date, completing talks on a fissile material cut-off treaty, and executing an "unequivocal" undertaking to eliminate nuclear arsenals.

The Bush administration says it no longer supports the 13 steps. The 2000 consensus agreement is "merely historical" and can be set aside -- especially in the light of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The US has "unsigned" the CTBT and reneged on many other commitments. It wants to develop "usable" mini-nukes and redesign old-generation bombs for "bunker-buster" capabilities against terrorists and weapons facilities hidden deep underground. The US and Britain have launched multi-billion dollar programmes to do research on fusion-based weapons, and space-based nuclear weapons.

The US believes the NPT can only work if it allows it to keep its nuclear weapons. But Article VI of the Treaty explicitly mandates the total elimination of nuclear weapons. According to an important decision of the International Court of Justice of 1996, the NWSs have a duty not just to pursue, but also to bring to a successful conclusion, talks for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The ICJ is the world's highest authority on international law.

The US's strategy at the Review Conference turned out to be counterproductive at least in part. Because the NWSs stonewalled any discussion of nuclear arms reduction and disarmament, the non-NWSs too refused to discuss how new proliferation threats might be met.

For instance, if an NPT signatory uses the access the treaty provides to civilian nuclear technology to reach the threshold of becoming a nuclear state, and then decides to walk out of the treaty, what can and should the international community do? Should the present regime of inspections be modified? How to dismantle the global black market in nuclear technology and materials -- not just through AQ Khan "Wal-Mart", but through leaks in the former Eastern bloc and other countries? Should there be multilateral efforts to press North Korea to roll back its nuclear weapons programme? Or should the task be left to the US, Russia, Japan and other major powers?

The US has shown it has no coherent strategy to deal with any of these issues. It periodically threatens North Korea and Iran with military "action", but has not calculated the real cost, including possible retaliatory attacks on its own 35,000-plus troops stationed in South Korea. It has pursued tough sanctions against Iran, but President Bush himself admits to the failure of the sanctions strategy.

The US is now aggressively promoting a Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), under which signatories co-operate to halt suspect nuclear shipments everywhere, especially to "rogue states". But the PSI has just 21 active participants. And, it leaves out of the net "friendly", "cooperative" regimes, which are useful to the US in the "war on terrorism".

The real tragedy today is that the world has not been able to fully implement what has been termed its most successful and significant disarmament agreement -- even though more than a decade has passed since the Cold War ended, destroying the last excuse for the existence of nuclear weapons. The globe continues to be menaced by some 27,000 nuclear weapons, each capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people at one go. Thousands of these weapons are on high alert; some might even go off accidentally.

All states have a stake in the elimination of nuclear weapons, including India and Pakistan. Nothing would be more worthy than that the two states should bilaterally agree to nuclear risk reduction and comprehensive nuclear restraint measures, and then jointly campaign for the global de-alerting of nuclear weapons -- they have both supported resolutions demanding this in the UN -- as the first step to complete nuclear disarmament.

Alas, the issue is not on their agenda at the moment

Sources: Inter Press Service, 30 May 2005; The News International (Pakistan), 4 June 2005

Contact: Praful Bidwai at
(The writer is a Delhi-based researcher, peace and human rights activist, and former newspaper editor)