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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 44, March 2000

The State of Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament: Reversing Negative Trends
By Jozef Goldblat

Editor's note: the last issue of Disarmament Diplomacy contained William Walker's suggestions and priorities on nuclear arms control for governments in what he called "difficult times". The following article offers further alternatives and is adapted from a paper written by Jozef Goldblat for the February 2000 International Seminar of the Programme for Promoting Nuclear Non-Proliferation.


Any assessment of the state of nuclear arms control and disarmament must start with the 1946 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) recommendation to eliminate nuclear weapons from national armaments - a recommendation, which was later transformed into an international obligation by virtue of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). During the past three decades since the entry into force of the NPT, steps have been taken towards nuclear disarmament, but the obligation to abolish nuclear weapons is far from being implemented.

Given that the significance of the arms control agreements reached to date - such as the START treaties and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty - has been overshadowed by negative trends which threaten to bring the nuclear disarmament process to a halt, several alternatives for reversing such trends should be considered.

1. The START Process

Bearing in mind the current obstacles to bringing the START II Treaty into effect, it would appear advisable for the United States and Russia to leave the Treaty dormant and begin negotiating another one. A new treaty could provide for lower ceilings for nuclear warheads than those so far envisaged. Something similar happened with the 1979 SALT II Treaty (signed but not brought into force), when the two superpowers embarked on drafting the more substantial START I Treaty, subsequently signed in 1991. In order to reduce the risk of a surprise attack or an unauthorized or accidental launch (for example, in response to a false alarm), all strategic forces should now be taken off alert. Such an undertaking could be followed by an observable separation of nuclear warheads from delivery vehicles in such a way as to render their use physically impossible without a considerable delay facilitating detection of preparations for use. To this end, new talks would be required, preferably with the participation of all nuclear powers.

2. The ABM Treaty

Regarding anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs), there is no way to reconcile the acquisition of a nationwide system of missile defence with the purpose of the ABM Treaty. However, since the principal reason for creating such a system - as given by the United States - is the fear of a nuclear armed missile attack by a "rogue state" (rather than by a declared nuclear power), and since such a state is unlikely to secretly manufacture a significant number of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles of intercontinental range, it might be enough to centre a missile defence system on the national capital. The original text of the 1972 ABM Treaty permitted the deployment of ABM systems at two sites in both the United States and the Soviet Union: one for the protection of the national capital, and the other for the protection of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) complex. In 1974 the two Parties agreed, in a special Protocol to the Treaty, to limit themselves to a single area of deployment. The Soviet Union chose the defence of Moscow, whereas the United States chose the defence of an ICBM complex, which it subsequently gave up. The 1974 agreement could be reversed without affecting the substance of the ABM Treaty. The location of the ABM site for the protection of an ICBM complex could be left to the discretion of each party, with or without a change in the requirement that the two permitted sites should be separated by at least thirteen hundred kilometres. The permitted number of interceptor missiles (one hundred) at each of the two ABM deployment sites could also be increased, provided that no changes are made in the deployment of other ABM system components, and, in particular, no space-based radars are used.

3. India and Pakistan

The status of India and Pakistan - countries that have crossed the nuclear threshold - should be determined in a way which would benefit the NPT. Neither country may join the NPT as a nuclear-weapon State (NWS), because the Treaty defined such a state as one that had manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or another nuclear explosive device prior to January 1, 1967. Nor are these countries likely to follow the example of South Africa in destroying the nuclear weapons they have manufactured, and to join the NPT as non-NWS. What India and Pakistan can and may, perhaps, be willing to do, is to solemnly declare that they will behave like NWS Parties to the NPT in not transferring nuclear weapons to any recipient whatsoever, and in not assisting anyone in acquiring such weapons. (This was the official position of France before it signed the NPT in 1992). They might reconfirm their moratorium on nuclear weapons testing and commit themselves to accede to the CTBT once the five generally recognized NWS have ratified that Treaty. They might also pledge themselves to engage in negotiations for the cessation of production of fissile materials for weapons purposes. 'In exchange', the NPT Parties would stop requiring acceptance by India and Pakistan of comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safeguards (those covering all nuclear activities) as a condition for supplies to these countries of nuclear material or equipment for peaceful purposes. Nuclear safeguards would thus apply only to items imported by India or Pakistan, not to their indigenous production. Such a concession might be seen by some as a 'reward' for nuclear misbehaviour. In fact, however, it would mean no more than a return to the situation, which prevailed prior to 1993, when most suppliers - quite aware of the nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan - were not making their supplies contingent on the acceptance of comprehensive IAEA safeguards by these countries. A modification of the relevant provision of the Guidelines for Nuclear Transfers would be required.

4. Fissile Materials

Cessation of production of nuclear weapons-usable materials directly concerns only the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel. All other States Parties, as Parties to the NPT, are already under the obligation not to produce the materials in question, and are subject to comprehensive IAEA safeguards; they are not expected to assume additional non-proliferation obligations. It might, therefore, be expedient to cease linking the fissile material cut-off measure with other arms control measures and to negotiate it in a forum composed of the eight countries specified above, rather than at the Conference on Disarmament composed of 66 countries. Other states would be involved, through the IAEA, in verifying compliance with the reached agreement, but only states directly affected by the agreement should bear the additional costs. The cut-off measure - a transitional step in the process of nuclear disarmament - should be followed by the establishment of a comprehensive international register of highly enriched uranium stocks as well as of plutonium stocks, both weapons-grade and reactor-grade. Such a register will be absolutely necessary to verify a possible future ban on the use of any fissile materials, whether stockpiled or extracted from dismantled warheads, for the production of weapons.

5. Nuclear-Free Zones

Agreements establishing nuclear-weapon-free zones should specify that their denuclearisation provisions are valid both in time of peace and in time of war. They should ban the deployment of nuclear-weapon-related support facilities serving the strategic systems of the nuclear powers and prohibit transit of nuclear weapons through the territories of zonal states. Moreover, the assurances not to use nuclear weapons against zonal states should be unconditional. Some international action must be envisaged in the event of violation of the obligations assumed by the nuclear powers.

6. CTBT Entry Into Force

Since meaningful progress in nuclear disarmament is improbable as long as nuclear test explosions are not definitively and universally banned, it is imperative that the CTBT enter into force without undue delay. Failing this, one can envisage a 'provisional' application of the Treaty - in accordance with Article 25 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties - after the five, generally recognized NWS have adhered to it. Such a solution would enable the essential components of the CTBT monitoring system to continue functioning. The conferences of states, which are envisaged by the CTBT in case the Treaty does not become effective three years after its opening for signature, should take effective measures to accelerate the ratification process. The so-called sub-critical nuclear tests conducted by some NWS, ostensibly to ensure the safety and reliability of their nuclear arsenals, must cease as well. Although they do not involve explosions releasing nuclear energy, they are considered by many as violating the spirit of the CTBT, because they may contribute to the qualitative improvement of nuclear weapon designs.

7. Security Assurances

As regards the security assurances for non-NWS, the UN Security Council Resolution 984 of 1995

took note of the relevant statements made by the United States, Britain, France and Russia. In these statements the four powers reaffirmed that they would not use nuclear weapons against non-NWS Parties to the NPT, except in the case of an invasion or any other attack on them, their territories, their armed forces or other troops, their allies, or on a state towards which they have a security commitment, carried out or sustained by a non-NWS in "association or alliance" with a NWS. This convoluted formula is considered inadequate by most nations. "No-use" of nuclear weapons should become a norm of international law, as it already is with regard to chemical and biological weapons. A legitimate retaliatory ("second") use of nuclear weapons would then be an exception to the general rule. The non-use obligations should be included in a multilateral treaty open to all states - not merely to NPT Parties. However, the Treaty should become effective only upon ratification by all states possessing nuclear weapons or admitting to possess the capability to produce them. Legally binding assurances of no use of nuclear weapons would require changes in the composition and deployment of nuclear forces. In the first place, short-range nuclear weapons, those having first-use characteristics, would have to be abolished. For once deployed close to the front lines - as they must be to have military value - such weapons are likely to be employed very early in armed conflict to avoid capture or destruction by the enemy's conventional forces.

8. The 2000 NPT Review Conference

The realization of the proposals outlined here requires an improved international climate. It is hardly imaginable at a time when nuclear arms control is held captive by domestic politics in the United States and Russia. The forthcoming 2000 NPT Review Conference is not likely to improve the situation. On the contrary, it may exacerbate the antagonisms and the confrontation between the nuclear haves and have-nots. Indeed, in departure from the rule of consensus, a resolution pillorying the nuclear powers for the present stalemate is being prepared for adoption by the majority of the conference participants. Calls may be made for amending the NPT in order to render the nuclear disarmament obligation more explicit and more binding, and threats of withdrawal cannot be excluded.

Jozef Goldblat is a consultant to the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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