Nations Tussle over Bottling Nuclear Genie

Article excerpt

DIPLOMATS from 174 nations will gather in New York today to answer a deceptively simple question: Should the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of global efforts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons for 25 years, be given an indefinite lease on life?

Not only the answer, but also the manner of answering, will bear on the future of nuclear arms control. "The key is not whether the treaty gets indefinite extension, though that's very important, but how the conference arrives at that decision," says Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.

"It's essential to ensure that the conference agrees to an indefinite extension with enthusiasm and not grudgingly," adds Daniel Plesch, director of the British American Security Information Council. "Were there only to be a narrow majority or a larger majority ensured by threats and promises, then the treaty will be weakened."

Under the NPT, nonnuclear states have agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons. In return, the five declared nuclear states (the US, China, Russia, Britain, and France) have pledged to eventually phase out their nuclear arms.

The treaty, the subject of a three-week review conference starting today, has played a critical role in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

Only four states -- India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa -- have acquired nuclear weapons since the treaty went into effect in 1970. (South Africa has since destroyed its weapons and joined the NPT.)

Other states may have foregone the nuclear option because of the treaty, arms-control experts say.

US officials say the end of the cold war is an opportune time to make the treaty permanent and thus to remove the nuclear option in all future conflicts.

Virtually all the 174 signers of the treaty want it extended. The issue to be decided in New York is for how long. Among the options: a permanent extension; a fixed extension for, say, 25 years; or "rolling" fixed extensions.

US officials predict that if the vote on a permanent extension were held today, a majority of the member states would be in favor.

"They claim they have a majority, but I seriously doubt this," responds Nugroho Wisnumurti, Indonesia's permanent representative to the United Nations, whose country chairs the 111-nation Nonaligned Movement (NAM).

Before they will vote for a permanent extension, says Ambassador Wisnumurti, the NAM countries need to be convinced that the five declared nuclear-weapons states are serious about their commitment under the NPT to phase out nuclear arms. …