Reinvigorating Nuclear Disarmament

By Alley, Roderic | New Zealand International Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Reinvigorating Nuclear Disarmament


Alley, Roderic, New Zealand International Review


Roderic Alley comments on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference of 2000.

From 24 April until 20 May 2000, the Sixth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was held at United Nations headquarters in New York. Prospects for an effective outcome appeared inauspicious. Preparatory conference sessions -- in particular the 1998 session derailed by acrimony over nuclear proliferation in the Middle East -- did not bode well. This engendered apprehension, since Review Conference consensus failure erodes the NPT's standing and efficacy. Notwithstanding such foreboding (possibly on account of it), the 155 treaty states attending did reach a consensus statement, something that preceding review conferences in 1990 and 1995 had failed to achieve.

Opened for signature in 1968, the NPT entered into force two years later, and by January 2000 comprised 187 members, including the five nuclear weapon states. Non-signatories include India, Pakistan, Israel and Cuba. Currently the most widely subscribed to disarmament treaty, the NPT seeks to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, promote co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and achieve nuclear and general and complete disarmament. The Treaty enshrines two central agreements: in return for forgoing the option of acquiring nuclear weapons, non-nuclear weapon states have under key Article VI the formal commitment of the nuclear weapon states to pursue good faith measures leading to nuclear disarmament and, under Article IV, unimpeded access to nuclear energy for non-military uses. Through the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the treaty maintains a safeguards system conducting inspections designed to detect and warn against diversions of nuclear materials and equipment for the production of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. These safeguards are not applied to countries the NPT defines as nuclear weapon states, namely those that manufactured or exploded a nuclear device before January 1967 -- in effect the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. That is one of the perceived asymmetries that have kept the treaty's thirty-year implementation politically contentious, along with claims that the nuclear weapon states have not kept faith with their Article VI obligations.

After substantial nuclear weapon states pressure, the 1995 Review Conference approved the NPT's indefinite extension. This was in return for strengthened review procedures and a designated set of Principles and Objectives. They sought to universalise adherence to the NPT, establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, negotiate a fissile material cut-off treaty, develop nuclear weapon free zones, and have a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in place by the end of 1996. NPT Article VI commitments systematically and progressively to reduce nuclear weapons, including the ultimate goal of their entire elimination, were reaffirmed.(1) In evaluating the overall integrity of the non-proliferation regime, the 2000 Review Conference provided the first opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the 1995 Principles and Objectives.

Partial discharge

Although the CTBT was duly finalised in 1996, most NPT members viewed its overdue arrival as doing no more than partially discharge nuclear weapon states' obligations to NPT Article VI requirements. Perceptions then hardened that nuclear disarmament had lost momentum. This was manifest in delay and obstruction over strategic arms limitation (START II); the United States' assertions that it did not rule out nuclear weapons use in retaliation against chemical or biological attacks; consequential doubts about the value of nuclear weapon states' negative security assurances; growing Russian reliance upon tactical nuclear weapons; delays over CTBT ratification; complications in the orderly management, custody, and stocktaking of fissile material inventories; and a stalemated nuclear disarmament agenda at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament epitomised by failure to launch negotiations for a fissile materials cut-off treaty

By early 1998, senior UN disarmament official Jayantha Dhanapala justifiably claimed that `the importance of 1995 as a watershed demanding a fundamentally different approach to the review process does not appear to have been fully grasped. …

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