Nuclear Nonproliferation: Time to Make It Permanent

By Graham, Thomas, Jr. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview
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Nuclear Nonproliferation: Time to Make It Permanent


Graham, Thomas, Jr., Issues in Science and Technology


We must seize the opportunity to extend indefinitely the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

On April 17, 1995, the more than 170 "states parties" to the 1970 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will meet in New York to extend the treaty beyond its initial 25 years. The United States is, in the words of President Clinton, "leading the charge for indefinite extension" of the NPT, which remains the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and a necessary foundation for post-Cold War arms reductions.

The NPT enjoys the widest adherence of any arms control agreement in history. As the only nuclear nonproliferation agreement of global reach, the treaty has codified an international standard of behavior against which even states outside the regime are measured. The NPT has had remarkable success in promoting its three major goals: to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear technology, and to foster an end to the arms race and promote general disarmament.

By the time the NPT was negotiated, five countries had openly tested nuclear weapons: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, China, and France. Estimates at the time suggested that this number might be as high as 30 by the late 1970s and who knows how high by now if this emerging trend had been left unchecked. Many argued, and in fact still do, that the impetus for worldwide nuclear weapons proliferation is an unstoppable force. If that is so, then it met an immovable object in the NPT. Although a small (and diminishing) number of "threshold" states have muddied the waters, the 25 years the NPT has been in force have been free of a single addition to this list of declared nuclear powers. It may be difficult to prove that the NPT dissuaded even one state from building a nuclear arsenal, but in light of the marked change in global attitudes toward nuclear proliferation, it is indefensible to contend that it did not. In 1970, a state's declaration of having created a new nuclear arsenal stopped being a point of national pride. The NPT made it a violation of international law.

One needs to know some of the details of the NPT to understand why it is critical to approve an indefinite extension without conditions at the April conference. Article X.2 of the treaty explicitly provides that the NPT parties will meet in 1995 to "decide whether the NPT shall continue in force indefinitely or shall be extended for an additional fixed period or periods. This decision shall be taken by a majority of the Parties to the Treaty." In short, a majority decision at the conference will be immediately binding on all treaty signatories. No approval by national parliaments will be needed. The treaty's framers included this majority provision because they felt that the extension decision was too important to risk it being held hostage by a single state or group of states.

As a practical matter, the extension conference offers the one and only opportunity for an immediate, legally binding extension decision. A decision to extend the treaty that was made some time after the conference could only be accomplished by amending the NPT, which in turn would require approval by a majority of all states parties to the treaty (including ratification by their national parliaments). This majority would have to include all five nuclear-weapons states (NWS) and all other parties that are current members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors.

It is worth nothing that it took 19 years for the original 98 signatories of the NPT to ratify their decision. It is likely that any effort to make substantive amendments to the treaty, such as an extension not envisioned in the original text, would fail. And even if it did succeed, the ensuing legal ambiguity would give states that are less interested in preserving the integrity of the regime an opportunity to leave the treaty.

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