Disarmament Insight


Sunday, 6 May 2007

The NPT: Here we go again?

Last week, members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gathered in Vienna for a two week meeting to consider the health of the regime. It's the first of three preparatory meetings leading up to the NPT's next formal review in 2010.

The NPT has 188 members, almost every country in the world. Conspicuously, though, nuclear-armed India, Israel and Pakistan are not parties. And North Korea says it has withdrawn.

There are two official categories of member in the NPT. There are five designated nuclear weapon states (Britain, China, France, Russia - originally the Soviet Union when the treaty was negotiated in the late 1960s - and the United States) and the rest are non-nuclear weapon states. The bargain was basically that non-nuclear weapon states would agree not to make nuclear weapons but could have access to nuclear technology for peaceful uses. The nuclear weapon states would eventually disarm, phasing out their deadly nuclear arsenals.

North Korea's behaviour over the last few years has created challenges for the NPT, especially its nuclear test in late 2006 after deciding to leave the regime. Another reason for crisis is Iran's bid to enrich uranium in defiance of U.N. resolutions demanding that it halt. Iran says it sees no reason to stop doing what it sees as its legitimate right.

The situation, and the reasons for the NPTs problems, also go deeper. For instance, the NPT was originally envisaged for a duration of 30 years. But in the middle of the 1990s NPT members agreed to extend it indefinitely. Since then, progress on nuclear disarmament has been disappointing to most NPT members. Feelings of resentment and injustice have grown about the indefinite extension bargain: some non-nuclear armed Non-Aligned countries even grumble that they were cheated.

So, North Korea and Iranian challenges aside, the atmosphere in the NPT is not especially healthy anyway. Despite the looming challenges the global nuclear non-proliferation regime faces, the treaty's last five-year review conference in New York in 2005 resulted in nothing. The first two weeks of that meeting were spent in procedural wrangling, and at the end of the third week not even a final report had been produced, let alone recommendations to maintain and strengthen the regime.

It must be with an ominous feeling of déjà vu this weekend that, halfway through the Vienna preparatory meeting, diplomatic negotiators are again mulling over their inability to achieve an agreed agenda in the NPT.

The first preparatory meeting in each five year NPT cycle is traditionally the one in which the most substantive discussion and deepest discussion happens. Indeed, many useful contributions to the discussion have been announced by states, including several papers by the United States, the most powerful nuclear weapon state.

These opportunities for substantive work should be embraced. However, so far, half of the preparatory meeting's assigned time has already been wasted without an opportunity to discuss the relative weaknesses and merits of the various papers and proposals put forward. Iran disputes language about compliance in the meeting draft documents it believes is a further attempt directed at isolating and coercing it. So, despite placatory efforts by the meeting's chair (Japan), Iran is blocking a consensus unless it is changed.

The preparatory meeting only has one week left, and signs aren't good that the NPT's rules and the positions of various states will let it achieve much. Here we go again?

Let's hope not. The NPT has so often been described as the "cornerstone" of nuclear non-proliferation efforts that it's become a cliché. But it's true, however imperfect it's perceived to be as a grand bargain. Posturing aside, it's in the interests of the whole international community to move ahead on steps to address the challenges to nuclear non-proliferation, along with sufficient attention to examining and tackling their causes.

On Friday came news that South Africa, a heavy hitter in nuclear disarmament and a prominent member of the Non-Aligned, has proposed a compromise. This might just let a deal come together over the weekend in time for the second week of the meeting. Let's hope interests prevail over positions.

John Borrie


Excellent day-by-day summaries from the Vienna NPT meeting are available from the Acronym Institute website (www.acronym.org.uk). You can also read a chapter analysing multilateral negotiations by their author, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, in our third volume of work by clicking on the picture of the pink book at the top of the left column.

The U.S. documents mentioned can be found at the State Department website: http://www.state.gov/t/isn/wmd/nnp/c21893.htm.

See also Reuters, "Iran, N. Korea cast shadow on nuclear treaty meeting"
(http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20070429/wl_nm/nuclear_treaty_dc_1) (29 April 2007)

Reuters, "Iran mulls S.African idea to save atom treaty talks", (http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSL0367433420070504) (4 May 2007)