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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 43, January - February 2000

The Non-Proliferation Dilemma

There are two kinds of opponents to the CTBT in India: those who don't like the Treaty because they want India to become a fully paid-up member of the nuclear club; and those who don't like the Treaty because it doesn't contribute enough to real nuclear disarmament. In the United States there are also two main camps among the CTBT's opponents: those who think America should always maintain a strong lead in the nuclear arms race and not accept any constraint on its rights and abilities to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons; and those who worry that if the United States gives up testing others might take advantage, relying on the fact that the Treaty cannot guarantee 100 percent verification. There are worrying parallels with the gun-lobby which refuses to give up the right to bear arms, even though the conditions under which that right was established have long gone. So high school kids and even six-year-olds use guns and kill classmates to settle trivial scores, barely comprehended by the perpetrators, let alone the victims. The right to bear nuclear weapons could also degenerate into a nuclear free-for-all, which would terrifyingly lower the threshold of accident or use. Is that what we want? Do we imagine that missile defence can give 'special countries' some vast bullet-proof vest? What about our heads or the unexpected 'lucky' shot that somehow (but invariably) gets through?

The point about multilateral treaties, which are a form of social contract, is that you cannot have it all. If an arms control treaty does not involve some curbing of the weapons capabilities of the biggest powers and some restrictions on would-be weaponeers, what is the good of it? An individual or country accepts the restrictions because the collective measure contributes to overall safety. Some governments need to be reminded of this, as the sixth Review Conference of the NPT in April-May 2000 approaches.

Perhaps UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was thinking of this when he marked the thirtieth anniversary of the NPT entering into force (March 5, 1970) by calling on the international community to "immediately start taking new and effective measures to achieve the inherently linked goals of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation". From some of the statements and actions of the nuclear weapon states after the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995, it has become disappointingly clear that they regarded non-proliferation as an unequal endstate in which other nations forego nuclear weapons, while the Five get to rely on them "for the foreseeable future", as Britain's Strategic Defence Review worded it in 1998. Such an interpretation may have served during the MADness of the Cold War, but it is counterproductive and even dangerous now.

The logic at the heart of the NPT was that sustainable non-proliferation would require nuclear disarmament. Yet most of the recent opportunities have been ignored, squandered or sabotaged. National security is a serious matter, touching not only on military defence, but also on sovereignty and identity. Even in the 1960s, it was inconceivable that governments would voluntarily accept exclusion from a privileged clique of countries 'permitted' to possess a doomsday weapon, except as a temporary, interim stage towards equal-based security for all nations. In the absence of a nuclear free-for-all, the fear of which was the prime impetus behind the NPT, the basis for equal security, as Kofi Annan stressed, has got to be a world free of nuclear weapons. In the complex, multifocus world of the 21st century, the necessity to understand this basic logic is even more urgent than before.

The Acronym Institute has recently published the thirteenth in the 'redbook' series on the NPT and CTBT. Entitled "Non-Proliferation Treaty: Challenging Times", ACRONYM 13 analyses the difficult procedural and substantive issues confronting NPT parties and non-parties in 2000, providing also a brief history of the NPT, the 1995 decisions and the three PrepComs since 1997. The attempt to shore up the nuclear apartheid of the past fifty years is putting the NPT under intolerable strain. This is not a question of whether or not the Review Conference manages to adopt one, two or any number of documents or not. It is about whether there is genuine commitment by all the NPT parties, especially the P-5, to address the core problems of non-proliferation: universality, violators, and progressive disarmament by the haves.


ACRONYM 13, written by Rebecca Johnson, can be found on our website at www.acronym.org.uk/acro13.htm or from The Acronym Institute.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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