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Issues and Prospects of the NPT Review Conference 2010

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 30, 2010

    On May 3, 2010, 187 member countries of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) will gather in New York for the 8th NPT Review Conference (NPT Revcon). Review conferences are held every five years. The last Review Conference held in 2005 was a failure as it could not adopt a final document. Will the forthcoming Revcon be any different?

    The Review Conference is being held amongst heightened expectations and in the backdrop of some positive developments like the Russia-US Treaty on Strategic Arms Reduction, the 47-nation Nuclear Security Summit convened by President Obama in April 2010, and the positive thrust given by the US president in Prague last year outlining his agenda for a nuclear free world.

    However, these developments alone would not ensure a positive outcome for the Review Conference. Pious hopes are not enough for the success of the Revcon. The long shadow of Iran’s nuclear programme will likely mar the proceedings. The world is divided over the scope and nature of the sanctions against Iran for pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapon programme.

    The NPT faces a number of structural deficiencies. It is an inherently flawed treaty as it discriminates between the nuclear weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS). The treaty, in force since 1970 and extended indefinitely in 1995, was based on what are popularly known as the “three pillars” of non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. There has been uneven progress on each of the three pillars.

    The primary role of the treaty is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. On the non-proliferation front, the treaty has not been able to prevent either the horizontal or the vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons although some analysts say, with some justification, that nuclear proliferation would have been much worse without the NPT. As things stand, North Korea, one of its former members, has tested nuclear weapons. Iran, presently a member, is suspected to be pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. In addition, the nuclear weapon countries continue to give primacy to nuclear weapons in their national security and have continuously carried out improvements in their nuclear weapon stocks.

    Nuclear disarmament, a fundamental plank of the treaty, is also its weakest link. Nuclear weapon countries have not fulfilled their obligations under Article VI of the treaty towards disarmament. The language of Article VI is so weak and ambiguous that the NWS even refuse to accept that Article VI binds them to time bound nuclear disarmament. The article binds them to pursue negotiations on nuclear disarmament and cessation of the nuclear arms race in “good faith”. The lack of progress on nuclear disarmament has been a major cause of tension within the treaty and it is likely to resurface at the NPT Revcon.

    The third pillar of the treaty was that the non-nuclear states would have the “inalienable right” to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Nuclear weapon states are chary of giving unrestricted access to nuclear energy fearing that nuclear technologies can be used for developing nuclear weapons. Essentially, the NWS want to prevent NNWS from possessing enrichment and reprocessing technologies even though some of them, like Japan, have complete nuclear fuel cycle. A strong non-proliferation regime is being erected within and outside the NPT. Efforts have been made to strengthen the IAEA safeguards system by means of an “additional protocol”, which all non-nuclear weapon states are being persuaded to sign. Many countries have yet to agree to sign the additional protocol. Nuclear weapon states are likely to insist upon strengthening the IAEA’s authority and capability to act as a nuclear watchdog over the activities of non-nuclear weapon states. The universalization of IAEA safeguards will be a major issue at the Revcon.

    Preventing the NNWS from having complete nuclear fuel cycle is a key objective of non-proliferation efforts. Support for the idea of multilateralising the nuclear fuel cycle has been gaining ground. Russia has already set up one such centre in Angarsk. The idea here is to set up international nuclear fuel centres under the IAEA safeguards to meet the demand of countries for nuclear fuel for energy purposes. This idea is likely to be discussed at the Review Conference.

    North Korea’s opportunistic withdrawal from the NPT and its nuclear tests have made the “right to withdraw” under Article X a hot issue. What prevents other countries from doing the same? Nuclear weapon states want to plug the loopholes and make withdrawal from the Treaty stringent, if not impossible.

    Israel’s nuclear status will cast a long shadow on the Revcon. In 1995 the NPT was extended indefinitely. The Middle Eastern countries backed the extension only after extracting a resolution which called for making the Middle East a nuclear weapon free zone. The resolution implied disarmament of Israel. Israel has not given up its nuclear weapons and is unlikely to do so. Iran is on the way to developing a nuclear weapon. The Middle East nuclear question can potentially derail the conference.

    For a long time, the Non-Nuclear Weapon States have been demanding “negative security assurances” from the nuclear weapon states. This implies that nuclear weapon states should give assurances that they will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. Such negative assurances have not been forthcoming. The Revcon will have to deal with this issue too.

    The recently held Nuclear Summit has brought sharp focus to nuclear security and safety issues. There is growing global consensus that nuclear materials need to be secured. The threat of nuclear terrorism is real and palpable. The issue of nuclear terrorism will most likely be discussed at the NPT Revcon. On nuclear security issues, there would be better agreement than on other issues at the Revcon.

    Discussions at the NPT Review Conference are marked by intense political rhetoric, posturing and bargaining. The NPT has several country groupings pursuing different agendas. Ahead of the Revcon, the US has pulled out all stops to project its soft image as a country in favour of a nuclear weapon free world. However, the US has not ratified the CTBT. The US Nuclear Posture Review is a clever rhetorical document which projects a benign US image. But has the US really diminished the salience of nuclear weapons in its national security? Nuclear weapons have not lost any of their charm for the nuclear weapon states no matter what the rhetoric is. The US Senate has yet to ratify the US-Russia arms strategic reduction treaty. Although much lip service has been paid to the cause of nuclear disarmament, none of the Nuclear Weapon States appears to be fully committed to a nuclear weapon free world. Most NWS think that nuclear disarmament is unrealistic and a distant goal. The non-nuclear weapon states are also divided. There are countries, like Japan, which enjoy the security benefits of nuclear weapons through the US nuclear umbrella, while there are others, mostly in the non-aligned group, which want negative security assurances and the right to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. There is a lot of double speak on nuclear disarmament.

    The hard issues outlined above are not new. They contributed to the failure of the 2005 conference. The political climate of 2010 is, probably, better than that of 2005 although the Iran question is a tedious one. One cannot be too hopeful of a positive outcome from the Review Conference which commences in New York next week. The NPT is ridden with too many internal contradictions. It is unlikely that the Revcon will be able to agree on a credible roadmap for nuclear disarmament although there may be some marginal progress on some issues.

    For India, the NPT remains a flawed treaty. India has in the past faced pressure to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon country. That is an impossible scenario. Also the NPT is unlikely to be revised to accommodate India as a NWS. So, India will remain outside the treaty. That does not impact India adversely. India will watch the Revcon proceedings with considerable interest as some of the issues discussed will have an indirect bearing on India, but is unlikely to be unduly perturbed whether it is a success or not. The Indo-US nuclear deal and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver have ensured that India will be able to engage in nuclear commerce, a key Indian necessity. India will need to look beyond the NPT and consider how to associate itself with the new non-proliferation regime that is being constituted outside the Treaty.

    The views expressed are his own.