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The Non-Proliferation Treaty: Challenging Times

ACRONYM Report No.13, February 2000

Part I: The NPT and Early RevCons

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) entered into force in 1970 and now has 187 States Parties. Only Cuba, India, Israel and Pakistan remain outside. The NPT is frequently described as the "cornerstone of nuclear non-proliferation" and its near-universal membership reflects the importance of the Treaty for international security.

The impetus behind the NPT was a series of resolutions to the United Nations initiated by Ireland in 1958. By 1965 the major nuclear powers, recognising that the value of their own nuclear forces would diminish if many others acquired the capabilities, were prepared to negotiate. A prime concern was to limit the acquisition of nuclear weapons potential without closing off the development of nuclear energy, in which there was growing interest. The nuclear weapon states (NWS) sought to protect their own weapons programmes, but accepted the need to prevent the transfer of nuclear weapons technology and devices to countries which did not already have them. Non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) sought a balance of responsibilities on the nuclear and non-nuclear states, demanding a commitment to nuclear disarmament in return for their own undertaking not to acquire nuclear weapons. Two questions arose early: those renouncing the option of nuclear weapons wanted security assurances from the nuclear powers guaranteeing not to attack them (negative security assurances - NSA) and promising to come to their aid in the event of a nuclear armed attack against them (positive security assurances); and nuclear sharing among allies of the NWS, an issue of particular significance for NATO members and the Soviet Union.

Although the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee had been negotiating multilaterally, the final text of the NPT was largely the product of bilateral negotiations between the United States and Soviet Union.

  • Article I placed obligations on the NWS not to transfer nuclear devices or weapons to any other state, not to transfer control over nuclear weapons, and not to assist or encourage any NNWS to manufacture, acquire or gain control of nuclear weapons.
  • Article II contained the reciprocal obligation on NNWS not to accept nuclear devices or weapons or seek to manufacture, acquire or control them.
  • Article III required each NNWS to undertake bilateral safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), by way of verifying their obligation not to divert nuclear materials or technology from peaceful purposes, such as generating energy, to military purposes, specifically nuclear weapons. In its only explicit verification requirement on the NWS, Article III also prohibited the transfer of fissionable materials to NNWS except under IAEA safeguards, while at the same time requiring that the safeguards regime should not hamper economic or technological development or cooperation for 'peaceful nuclear activities'.
  • Article IV referred to the 'inalienable right' to research, produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and offered the incentive of preferential nuclear cooperation among NPT Parties.
  • Article V concerned 'peaceful nuclear explosions', but has been superceded by the CTBT, which prohibits all nuclear explosions, regardless of the intended purpose.
  • Article VI deals with nuclear disarmament. Negotiated by the US and USSR and imposed on the NNWS, Article VI fell far short of the obligations which most NNWS wished to place on the NWS to balance their Article II obligations not to acquire nuclear weapons. As finalised in 1967, Article VI places responsibility on all NPT parties to pursue negotiations in good faith on halting the nuclear arms race, nuclear disarmament and also general and complete disarmament.
  • Article VII supports regional nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) arrangements.
The rest of the short treaty, which was concluded in 1968, deals with administrative and procedural issues. Of these, the most unusual was Article X, which set the Treaty's duration at only 25 years, with a further decision to be taken to determine for how long it should be extended. This provision was insisted on by Italy, Germany and other Western European negotiators, who were unsure if the NPT regime would effectively halt the spread of nuclear weapons, and who did not want to be stuck with a permanent Treaty obligation if others were going to develop nuclear capabilities with impunity. Similarly, Article VIII provided for optional interim review conferences among the Treaty parties every five years. In June 1968, in conjunction with the NPT, the UN Security Council approved a resolution providing positive security assurances to those states acceding to the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states (UNSC 255).

Background on the Review Conferences 1975-1990

The First and Third Review Conferences (RevCon), in 1975 and 1985, adopted final declarations. In 1985 different views on the CTBT nearly scuppered agreement, but the President, Mohamed Shaker of Egypt, pulled together a declaration in which para 12 of the section on Article VI acknowledged the different views in two "they said; they said" sub-paragraphs.(1) First Review Conference, 1975

By 1975 the NPT had 91 States Parties.

  • On nuclear disarmament, the First RevCon expressed serious concern at the continuation of the nuclear arms race, urged all parties, but especially the NWS, to achieve the early and effective implementation of Article VI, and urged negotiation of a CTBT.
  • The IAEA was given full backing to develop and improve its safeguards and recruit and train staff on a wide geographical basis. The safety and physical protection of nuclear materials in use, storage and transit was also raised as an issue that needed to be addressed more concretely.
  • Article IV was strongly reaffirmed. In calls for assistance to meet the growing needs of developing states for special assistance in developing nuclear energy, the adherence of recipient States to the NPT was to be given weight.
  • In relation to export controls, the Zangger Committee had been established in 1971 and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG - also called the London Club) of NPT parties in 1975. The First RevCon noted that a number of States supplying nuclear material and equipment had adopted standard requirements for IAEA safeguards and generally supported such 'common export requirements' linked with safeguards.
  • Security assurances were also the subject of much debate, which underlined the importance of UNSC 255 (1968). The NWS were also urged to support nuclear weapon free zones (NWFZ), as an effective means of curbing the spread of nuclear weapons' and to provide binding security assurances to states entering into such regional arrangements.
Second Review Conference 1980

By 1980, the NPT had 110 States Parties. The Second Review Conference took place after the First UN Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSOD I) in 1978 and it underlined many of the priorities and concerns raised there. Lack of agreement between the NPT members in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the NWS regarding nuclear disarmament issues caused a breakdown which prevented the RevCon from adopting a final declaration.

  • The non-aligned countries made a statement on nuclear disarmament issues. In addition to emphasising the importance of SALT II, the CTBT and a testing moratorium, the statement called for Article VI to be strengthened by the NWS committing to participate in an "ad hoc working group that would begin negotiations on the cessation of the qualitative improvement and development of nuclear weapons systems; the ending of the production of all types of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery, and the production of fissionable material for weapons manufacture; and the initiation of a comprehensive phased programme to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery".
  • On safeguards, the 1980 review conference emphasised that improvements in safeguards were necessary to handle an increasingly complex nuclear fuel cycle but disagreed over whether full-scope safeguards should be made a condition of supplying nuclear materials or technology. Support was also expressed for the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which opened for signature in March 1980.
  • With regard to Article IV, support was given to the convening in 1978 of a Committee on International Plutonium Storage (IPS) for "excess plutonium" and for the IAEA's Committee on Assurances of Supply (CAS), established in June 1980. Non-aligned states emphasised that more resources should be devoted to technical assistance and the international transfer of equipment and nuclear materials for developing states.
  • For the first time export controls became a major issue of contention. A number of non-aligned states expressed dissatisfaction with what they deemed "restrictive export control policies" of the nuclear suppliers, and argued that Article IV rights had not been met. They argued that all contracts with NPT parties should be honoured, that no unilateral supply conditions should be applied, and that threats to cut off nuclear supplies in order to negotiate more stringent conditions were unacceptable.
  • The 1980 review conference confirmed the validity of UNSC 255 (1968) and encouraged the NWS to undertake binding commitments to refrain from the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against states joining NWFZ, which were perceived as contributing to regional security and to curbing the spread of nuclear weapons.
Third Review Conference 1985

By 1985 there were 128 NPT Parties. The Third RevCon, taking place at the height of US-Soviet Cold War confrontation in Europe, was the first meeting to divide the work among three, rather than two, Main Committees: Main Committee (MC) I, dealing with nuclear disarmament, as in Article VI and preambular paragraphs 8-12, as well as Articles I and II; MC II dealing with nuclear safeguards (Article III) and related issues, including NWFZ; and MC III dealing with 'peaceful uses' of nuclear energy. Security assurances were addressed in both MC I and MC II. Export controls were raised in both MC II and MC III.

The 1985 RevCon nearly foundered like its predecessor over differing assessments of Article VI implementation. Determined that there should not be a second 'failed review' in a row, the President crafted a final document which contained paragraphs reporting that certain issues and concerns were raised, as well as elements that had consensus agreement.

  • The final declaration contained 29 paragraphs dealing with nuclear disarmament. Under category A (for which there was near agreement), the Conference noted the continuing development of nuclear weapons and raised concerns (in relation to Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative) about 'a new environment, space, being drawn into the arms race'. Under category B, the declaration noted the importance of Article VI in strengthening the NPT, noted that the objectives of Article VI had not been met, and reaffirmed the commitment of all States to Article VI implementation. The declaration contained paragraphs urging a moratorium on nuclear weapon testing pending conclusion of a CTBT, noting UN General Assembly resolutions for a freeze on the quantitative and qualitative development of all nuclear weapons, and recommending that the CD convene multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Most notably, paragraph 12 under the section dealing with Article VI contained sub-paragraphs with different views on the CTBT from non-nuclear weapon states calling for the test ban, the UK and US emphasising deep reductions in the arsenals as a higher priority, and the Soviet Union submitting a draft test ban and stating its readiness to negotiate a CTBT forthwith.
  • The declaration underlined the importance of IAEA safeguards and welcomed that four of the five NWS had concluded voluntary safeguards agreements with the IAEA covering some of their non-military facilities. It also recommended that the NNWS should take IAEA safeguards into account when planning, modifying, designing or constructing nuclear facilities. The 1985 RevCon also criticised the June 1981 air attack by Israel on Iraq's uncompleted and safeguarded Osirak reactor, noted the "grave dangers" of radioactivity being released by such attacks, and stated that an armed attack or threat of attack on a safeguarded nuclear facility would necessitate action from the UN Security Council. Two statements were attached from Iran and Iraq concerning alleged attacks by Iraq on Iran's unfinished nuclear power plant at Bushehr.
  • The 1985 RevCon acknowledged the IAEA as "the principal agent of technology transfer" for nuclear energy and called for more money to be made available for its technical assistance and cooperation programmes to fulfill Article IV aspirations, as well as establishment of a "Financial Assistance Fund" for developing states wishing to benefit from nuclear energy.
  • The final declaration required that all NNWS not party to the NPT should accept IAEA full scope safeguards as a condition of being supplied with transfers of nuclear material, technology, equipment and assistance.
  • In addition to general statements supporting the establishment of NWFZ to enhance regional security and reinforce non-proliferation, there was a specific call for the Parties concerned to establish a NWFZ in the Middle East. There was also criticism of South Africa's nuclear programme and ambitions. The CD was enjoined to seek ways of developing an international, legally binding instrument on security assurances.
Fourth Review Conference 1990

By 1990, there were 138 States Parties in the NPT. As happened in 1980 and was only narrowly avoided in 1985, the 1990 RevCon dissolved in acrimony over the issue of nuclear disarmament, particularly the refusal of the NWS to commit themselves to negotiate a CTBT.

  • The non-aligned states welcomed that there had been some progress towards disarmament, as exemplified by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and START negotiations. However, they called for a CTBT to curb the qualitative development of nuclear weapons which was continuing "unabated". The NWS were divided, with the Soviet Union backing immediate negotiations on a CTBT, while Britain and the United States refused, arguing that a test ban was a long term objective. With the NWS refusing to agree to the language calling for a CTBT, a number of NPT Parties, led by Mexico, blocked consensus on any final declaration that omitted such a paragraph.
  • Several states were disappointed by the collapse of the 1990 Conference because they feared that some important agreements on safeguards would thereby become lost. Some NPT parties, therefore, submitted the agreed documents from MC II and MC III for circulation by the IAEA as an official INFCIRC. In addition to calling for continued support for the IAEA, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (which had entered into force in 1987), and of cooperation between the IAEA and EURATOM, the 1990 Review Conference had pushed for the conversion of research reactors from high enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium fuel, in the interests of non-proliferation, and urged the IAEA to undertake special (on-site) inspections in the event of questions or suspicions of non-compliance by NNWS parties to the Treaty. The NWS were called on to implement a "wider application of safeguards", to separate their military and non-military nuclear facilities, and to maintain high standards of security and physical protection in nuclear matters.
  • In the aftermath of the serious nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986, interest in nuclear energy was waning, but the Conference nevertheless continued to call for international cooperation and finance to promote nuclear power programmes in developing states. There was talk of resuming the Committee on Assurances of Supply (CAS), which had been set up in 1980, but had not been active for some years, and support given to the UN Conference for the Promotion of International Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (UNPICPUNE), which was finally established in 1987, several years after being called for by non-aligned states in the UN General Assembly. A number of issues of nuclear safety, radiological protection and waste management were also raised.
  • An important theme in 1990 was security assurances. Nigeria submitted a draft agreement for an international convention on negative security assurances, which it wanted States Parties to discuss with a view to negotiating such an instrument to be attached as a protocol to the NPT. There had also been significant backing for Egypt's earlier calls for a new resolution on security assurances to replace UNSC 255 (1968), with explicit reference to sanctions and a wider definition of assistance in the event of a threat or attack by a nuclear armed state.


(1) This section has been compiled from various publications by the Programme for Promoting Nuclear Non-Proliferation (PPNN) and Jozef Goldblat, Arms Control: A Guide to Negotiations and Agreements, PRIO, Sage Publications, 1994.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.