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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 48, July 2000

NPT 2000: Implementing the Disarmament Pledges
By Rebecca Johnson

On May 20, the states parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) gave consensus to a comprehensive document covering all aspects of the Treaty. With regard to nuclear disarmament, they accepted the "unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals", together with a 'plan of action' containing a number of practical steps in fulfilment of the 1995 pledge for systematic and progressive efforts to implement the NPT's Article VI. As the dust settles after the 2000 Review Conference, it is now necessary to address how to implement the agreements. Political conditions are clearly key, but practical thinking is also needed with strategies and ideas for implementing the commitments over the next five years. This paper aims to start the discussion rolling with some preliminary observations that we hope will stimulate wider thinking and discussion.

The scope of likely and achievable progress is easy both to overstate and underplay. It should perhaps be recalled that at the time of the Amendment Conference to the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1991, a comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) was regarded by most of the weapon states as premature and unrealistic. By 1994 they were negotiating it. Similarly, much of the New Agenda Coalition's initiative in 1998 was written off as over-ambitious, only to be substantially adopted by the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) as well as the non-nuclear countries in 2000.

The disarmament pledges and plan of action contain a mixture of exhortations and practical steps. Many have pointed out that the absence of a timetable is a weakness. That may be true, but the political realities of the review conference negotiations put the possibility of target dates or timetables out of reach, even for conclusion of a fissile material ban (fissban) or entry into force of the CTBT. Although the 2000 Conference considerably expanded on the 1995 commitment to "the determined pursuit by the nuclear weapon States of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally"1, it failed to make much headway with the 1995 priority objectives of CTBT and fissban, causing disappointment and some cynicism about the worth of the pledges being made in 2000.

Civil society worked hard with governments to get the weapon states to agree to a clearer undertaking and more concrete steps and focussed action by transnational civil society will be crucial in getting the commitments implemented. In effect, the 2000 NPT document contains a five-year plan, which can be used as a tool and lever to increase public attention and political pressure. Two aspects of the final document are particularly important to note:

i) The unequivocal undertaking to achieve nuclear weapons elimination gives diplomatic weight to the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice and provides the strongest yet political interpretation of the Article VI obligation. It has now been accepted publicly by all the NPT weapon states.

ii) The practical steps are not linear, but mutually complementary and reinforcing. The weapon states cannot hang around waiting for some treaty further up the line to be concluded. This is a multistranded approach of unilateral, bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral measures, which need to be addressed in parallel as part of the overall process of reducing the legitimacy of and reliance on nuclear weapons.

Many of these issues need more research, especially on technical and verification aspects. Civil society has the resources to help, even to initiate and lead such studies. At the same time, we welcome initiatives such as that undertaken by the British government on verifying a nuclear weapon free world, the UK 'food for thought' suggestions for steps that the five nuclear powers could usefully take now, and Russian proposals for controlling missile proliferation.

The NPT Pledges: Preliminary Assessment


The final document underscored the urgency of obtaining the necessary signatures and ratifications to achieve the early entry into force of the CTBT. Pending entry into force, NPT parties called for a moratorium on nuclear test explosions. They also referred to the necessity of prompt negotiations on a fissile material production ban, presently deadlocked in Geneva. In fact the NPT parties were able to do little to take the priority commitments to the CTBT and fissban/FMCT negotiations much further than in 1995. By linking the FMCT to a programme of work in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), as China had insisted in both the N-5 statement and the final document, it can even be said that the 2000 Conference stepped back from its 1995 undertaking on this issue.

To the surprise of many, the final document also referred to "the necessity" of establishing a CD body "with a mandate to deal with nuclear disarmament". The proposal to call also for a moratorium on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes pending conclusion of a fissban/FMCT, though widely supported, was dropped from the final document at China's insistence. Elsewhere, however, India and Pakistan were urged to engage in fissban negotiations and halt their production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) pending conclusion of the treaty, and the Middle East section implies (without an explicit demand) that Israel should do the same.

It is now more than four years since the CTBT was concluded. It will be important for a further conference of CTBT signatories and ratifiers to be convened, as provided for under Article XIV of the Treaty. Although it is clearly understood that the failure so far of India, Pakistan and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK - North Korea) to sign, and of the United States, China and Israel, among others, to ratify the treaty is due to underlying political problems, there is more that friends of the CTBT can do. Led by the states which have now ratified, including Britain, France and Russia, the Article XIV Conference now needs to consider provisional application with penalties in terms of representation and decision-making for states which seek to delay or defer their participation in the test ban regime.

With regard to the fissban, there are both political and structural reasons for the failure to get negotiations underway, despite agreement on a mandate in 1995. An uncomfortable question must now be faced: is the CD capable of making progress? If not, what are the alternatives? Giving up on the concept of a fissban is not an option if we are to achieve any significant progress on nuclear arms control and disarmament in the future. It is vital to put in place some form of regime to verify that no plutonium or HEU is being produced or diverted from commercial production for weapons purposes. The target states are the five NWS and the non-NPT states, principally India, Israel and Pakistan. Fissile material production for all others is monitored under the NPT, though establishing a more coherent, non-discriminatory regime would assist in the IAEA's task of administering safeguards and overseeing compliance.

Is it now worth considering alternative negotiating mechanisms, either through the NPT (thereby including the NWS but not the nuclear-capable three) or some other forum? Could the NWS begin negotiations with an explicit requirement to bring the treaty into the CD when that body has resolved its procedural problems and agreed a programme of work? The alternative to this option - explored in more detail later in the paper - may be perpetual deadlock, with a concomitant discrediting of multilateral arms control and the CD.

The START Process

While supporting the full implementation of reductions in strategic nuclear weapons under START II, recently ratified by the Russian Duma, NPT parties urged the United States and Russia to conclude a START III accord. No mention was made of Russia's proposal, repeated in the opening statement by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, for deeper cuts in strategic arsenals to at least 1,500 deployed weapons. Yet this lower figure has also been advocated by senior US analysts and former military officers as the obvious next threshold. Russia has, however, made clear that continued progress in strategic arms reductions will depend on preserving the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and strategic stability, though the latter term is open to several interpretations.

Although the NPT parties did not engage in the numbers game for START objectives, much was made of the UN Secretary-General's assessment that over 35,000 nuclear weapons remain in the arsenals. In addition to support for the START process, two of the pledges in the 'practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI" of the NPT related to weapons reductions -

Further efforts by the nuclear-weapon states to reduce their nuclear arsenals unilaterally

Britain, France, Russia and the United States have taken important steps in unilateral nuclear disarmament, cutting tactical and obsolete nuclear systems. Unilateral efforts can be very important when bilateral or multilateral negotiations are stalled, and act as a useful complement to disarmament agreements.

In his statement on "New Leadership on National Security", the Republican candidate for the US Presidency, George W. Bush, noted that "When it comes to nuclear weapons, the world has changed faster than US policy". Proposing a thoroughgoing assessment and referring to the 1991 Bush-Gorbachev initiatives, Bush-the-Younger argued for US unilateral reductions - leadership by example - to reduce arsenals to the "lowest possible number consistent with [US] national security" and to "remove as many weapons as possible from high alert, hair trigger status". On the basis that the United States should not keep weapons the military planners did not need, Bush eschewed "years and years of detailed arms control negotiations" and said he would invite the Russians to do likewise.2 While an interesting challenge for Bush to make at this point in the US election process, his comments must be seen in the context of his determined support for US unilateral action to develop and deploy national missile defence in the teeth of Russian and Chinese anxieties and with scant regard for the ABM regime, which Russia has said is indispensable for future bilateral or multilateral negotiations on nuclear arms control.

There is nevertheless an important role that unilateral reductions could play in reducing nuclear dangers arising from poorly guarded weapons or 'loose nukes' and in freeing up resources for dismantlement and verification. China has not undertaken any unilateral reductions since the end of the Cold War. Britain and France, for their part, unilaterally reduced their arsenals qualitatively and quantitatively during the early 1990s and feel that they have pared down to 'minimum deterrence'. Nevertheless, with anti-nuclear pressure growing, especially in Britain, they should not expect to be exempted from this paragraph supporting further unilateral reductions.

The further reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons, based on unilateral initiatives and as an integral part of the nuclear arms reduction and disarmament process

This is the first time that the NPT parties have addressed non-strategic/tactical nuclear weapons. In the 1991 joint Bush-Gorbachev initiatives, Russia and the United States made unilateral declarations that they would reduce, redeploy and in some cases eliminate the major part of their tactical nuclear forces. Russia withdrew its weapons from all the Soviet republics, and the United States removed tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) from surface ships and attack submarines. But there is uncertainty over the implementation of the 1991 declarations, and growing pressure to address TNW more systematically.

Russia continues to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in large numbers, estimated at between 3,800-5,700. The United States has removed most from active deployment but retains significant numbers in its arsenals, including some 100-150 tactical bombs based in seven NATO countries in Europe. Following a March 2000 seminar on TNW held at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR),3 a number of possible approaches were identified for addressing the issue. Ranging from increased transparency, via reductions and increased physical security, right through to proposals for negotiating a treaty on the prohibition and elimination of TNW, some of these proposals would be complementary or reinforcing, while others offer alternative approaches. It was particularly recognised that it is important to build up awareness of the dangers associated with the continued reliance of some of the weapon states on TNW. Increasing the pressure from the international community and NGOs would play an important part in tackling the problem of tactical nuclear weapons. Getting the issue into the NPT plan of action on disarmament was a valuable first step and the ideas published by UNIDIR provide a useful starting point for deciding what next to do. In summary, these suggestions were:

Research & Transparency

  • Conduct a study on all aspects of TNW and develop specific definitions for distinguishing between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, as there is lack of clarity over whether to base distinctions on range or function.
  • Increase transparency with regard to the existing deployed and undeployed (stored) TNW, including data exchange on their numbers and location, potentially leading to the creation of a tactical nuclear weapons register. Although it would be desirable for this to be an internationally accessible register, it could start as a confidence-building measure among the weapon states.
Strengthening the 1991 Bush-Gorbachev Initiatives
  1. Reaffirm the commitment of the present United States and Russian governments to the Bush-Gorbachev undertakings.
  2. Enhance the 1991 informal regime with negotiated, bilateral transparency and verification measures (perhaps utilising START, INF and CFE verification approaches).
  3. Revise the coverage of the 1991 regime.
  4. Formalise and extend the 1991 agreements with further withdrawal and elimination of deployed tactical nuclear weapons, potentially leading to a legally binding treaty.
Broader Approaches including Multilateral Initiatives
  1. Freeze deployments of TNW and institute further verified reductions.
  2. Prohibit the deployment of TNW on new territories, such as new NATO members, Belarus and Kalingrad Oblast.
  3. Withdraw TNW to country of origin and prohibit deployment outside the territory of the owning NWS (i.e. withdrawal of US nuclear bombs from Belgium, Britain, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey).
  4. Prohibit the production and deployment of new types of TNW.
  5. Completely eliminate TNW that are no longer produced, such as nuclear landmines or artillery shells.
In the longer term, the objective should be a universally applicable treaty banning and eliminating tactical nuclear weapons, with a robust verification regime and possibly an organisation or overseer to facilitate and ensure implementation.

Increased transparency by the nuclear weapon states with regard to the nuclear weapon capabilities and the implementation of agreements pursuant to Article VI and as a voluntary confidence-building measure to support further progress on nuclear disarmament

This commitment was particularly hard-fought by China, which resisted earlier language calling for transparency regarding nuclear arsenals. Russia and the United States have already moved some way towards greater transparency in their bilateral relations. Britain took a big step in 1998 when it published details on its nuclear arsenal and fissile material holdings as part of the UK Strategic Defence Review, but France and China have not wanted to reveal nuclear-related information.

Transparency is an essential first step towards accountability and effective verification. Any attempts to take warhead numbers to significantly lower levels will require more effective arrangements for warhead and fissile material accounting. Given Chinese resistance in particular, it will be difficult to make progress on this but necessary to keep up the pressure for open information and accounting. China's argument is that for a smaller weapon state transparency would lead to vulnerability and would be inconsistent with deterrence. This is a spurious argument: intelligence capabilities mean that technically developed adversaries have had access to sufficiently accurate information for years without launching an attack. Beijing's real objection centres on preserving the culture of military secrecy. Growing Chinese interest in theories of asymmetric and 'unrestricted' warfare, which rely on ambiguity and unexpected response configurations, might also be a factor.

Some of the weapon states have begun giving fuller accounts of their nuclear inventories and steps taken to comply with the NPT, especially Article VI. This needs to be encouraged, with detailed reports delivered and discussed as a regular part of each PrepCom and Review Conference. The non-nuclear weapon states need to make clear their future expectations regarding such reports and discussions.

The concept of a nuclear arms register put forward by Germany's Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, in December 1993 was quickly dropped in the face of vehement opposition from the French and lack of support from other weapon states. Robin Cook, Britain's current Foreign Secretary, expressed support for a nuclear arms register in an article written in 1995, when he was Shadow spokesperson for foreign affairs, but he has made no discernible attempt since then to revive the idea. Nevertheless, the proposal now needs to be revisited. If Joschka Fischer and the Schröder government are unwilling, then others must take the lead. Countries such as Canada, Australia, Japan and the Netherlands, known to be strong advocates of the UN's conventional arms register, could consider a joint initiative to explore the idea. There would be the added bonus of reinforcing their credibility with regard to the conventional arms register where the weapon states and their allies are presently vulnerable to accusations that they refuse for themselves the openness they insist on for the rest of the world.

Concrete agreed measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapon systems

The non-aligned states and New Agenda Coalition had been pressing for nuclear weapons to be taken off alert, de-activated and for the warheads to be separated from their delivery vehicles. In their statement of May 1, the five nuclear powers had for the first time stated that none of their nuclear weapons remain targetted. They have now promised to go further, but there is little indication of what they intend to do.

Since the ground-breaking Scientific American article on launch-on-warning and de-alerting by Bruce Blair, Harold Feiveson and Frank von Hippel in November 1997, the issue began to be discussed among analysts and sections of the policy community in all the weapon states.4 President Clinton commissioned a study into accidental or unauthorised nuclear weapon use, but concluded that other measures would address such a threat as well. Deliberately missing the point, it seemed, the United States went for solutions such as beefing up programmes to increase command and control in Russia and, of course, national missile defences to destroy an incoming 'rogue' missile.

In 1998, first Britain and then France announced operational changes resulting in reduced notice to fire for their nuclear submarines, which is construed by some analysts as a soft form of de-alerting. They have so far rejected calls to go further as impractical, raising the spectre of a destabilising 're-alerting race' in times of international tension. China's forces are generally held for technical reasons to be de-alerted, with warheads kept separate from delivery vehicles, but as solid-fuel replaces liquid-fuel propellants in China's missiles this position could change. Moreover, in statements raising concerns about US NMD plans, Chinese diplomats have warned the United States that Beijing's response would likely include modernising and increasing its forces and modifying its nuclear doctrine from deterrence based on second strike capabilities to a first strike deterrence. This would mean a nuclear posture shift to high alert and launch on warning.

In 1998, in a bid for the moral high ground after its nuclear tests in May, India for the first time put forward a resolution to the UN General Assembly on 'Reducing Nuclear Danger', which raised the risks of hair trigger alert and called for a review of nuclear doctrines and "immediate and urgent steps to reduce the risks of unintentional and accidental use of nuclear weapons". India's challenge to the weapon states to de-alert was largely a response to the UN Security Council, which had called on India and Pakistan not to weaponise their nuclear capabilities. Despite considerable cynicism about India's motives for putting the resolution forward, it garnered 104 votes in favour with 43 against and 14 abstentions in 1999.5

Concerned that the United States and others may be considering providing assistance to India and Pakistan to improve their nuclear command and control systems as a way of reducing nuclear dangers, non-nuclear countries are quick to point out that across-the-board de-alerting and progressive de-activation and de-weaponisation would offer a less inflammatory and more secure solution to command and control risks. Many who support the call to refrain from weaponising South Asian nuclear capabilities, as contained in UN Security Council resolution 1172, believe that efforts by the weapon states to de-alert their own nuclear forces would go some way to enabling the Indian government to undertake measures that might otherwise be rejected because of a popular sensitivity to attitudes perceived as discriminatory or colonialist.

Though the Clinton Administration has seemed to back away from de-alerting, Governor Bush stated that he wanted the United States to remove as many weapons as possible from hair trigger status.6 De-alerting can take several forms, from the operational changes of standing down launch-on-warning, to removing guidance systems, to placing physical barriers between warheads and delivery mechanisms, on up to the actual removal and separate storage of warheads. The first step, standing down launch on warning and hair trigger alert postures could be implemented on a unilateral reciprocal basis among all the weapon states, somewhat akin to their mutual unilateral declarations on detargetting. Further studies are probably needed to show ways in which longer term de-alerting could be instituted and verified, especially for submarines. Governments and non-governmental experts need to work in partnership to develop the analytical and technical information needed to convince the weapon states of the feasibility of going beyond mutual declarations of detargetting.

A diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimise the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination

A concern raised over and over again by the non-nuclear countries during the NPT Conference was the retention by NATO and Russia of deterrence policies based on the potential first use of nuclear weapons and an extended role for nuclear weapons in countering the threat or use of biological or chemical weapons. The ICJ advisory opinion of July 8, 1996 ruled that the use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to humanitarian law, but the Court was divided over whether nuclear weapon use in circumstances where a state's survival was at stake would be permissible or not. The April 1999 Washington Summit of NATO heads of state initiated a review of arms control policy in response to pressure from Germany and Canada in December 1998 for a debate on first use. However, to date little has emerged from this review.

A pledge of no first use, though declaratory in the first instance, would increase confidence-building and could be backed up by verified steps in de-alerting. Such a pledge could be initiated in negotiations with China, which has made this a central tenet of its nuclear and non-proliferation platforms, as a way of engaging Beijing on other measures, including the fissban/FMCT and transparency. The alternative is for some countries - now joined by Pakistan - to continue to claim that the threat to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in any conflict is essential for their national security, while denying others the right even to develop nuclear weapons.

Deterrence based on threatened first use is a relic of the Cold War. The 2000 Review Conference is the first time that this issue has made it into an NPT final document, albeit in coded language. This must be taken as a signal that the international community regards it as high time for the dominant states to set the example of restraint and make a no-first-use undertaking.

The engagement as soon as appropriate of all the nuclear weapon states in the process leading to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons

At present Britain, China and France are on the sidelines waiting for the United States and Russia to make much deeper cuts in the numbers of their nuclear weapons before they get involved in strategic arms reduction and elimination. Britain and France weakened the original demand for five power disarmament talks by inserting "as soon as appropriate", a qualitative judgment that if left solely up to the weapon powers to determine could mean 'not for the foreseeable future' or 'never in my lifetime'.

As the CD increasingly demonstrates its inability to get negotiations on a fissban underway, perhaps the first task for five-power talks should be to negotiate the groundwork for a verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile materials. This would at least get the process started. If China balked, as many expect, it would risk losing the international support it needs to rally against NMD. Political self interest combined with leverage by the international community for all the weapon states to fulfil the 1995 NPT priorities would make it difficult for China to pull out if the other four were serious about going ahead. Five-power fissban talks would also lessen the incentive for India, Pakistan or Israel to block CD negotiations; if talks were going ahead regardless, it would be in their better interests to participate. Thus, opening five-power fissban talks could potentially provide an incentive for some of the key states to lift or resolve the obstacles placed in the CD, as many would prefer the wider international involvement and accountability associated with negotiating the treaty multilaterally in the CD. If and when the CD shows itself ready to negotiate, the fruits of the five's preparatory and technical negotiations could be transferred into the multilateral forum, although it would be very likely that N-5 sidebar talks would continue in parallel, as during the CTBT negotiations.

In its 'food for thought' paper, Britain argued that the five nuclear powers should make efforts to keep their forces at minimum levels and accept that in due course they would need to join the larger nuclear powers in disarmament negotiations.7 In the interim, Britain considered that the five could usefully take steps to: minimise the risk of accidental, unauthorised or mistaken use of nuclear weapons; address and increase transparency on their nuclear weapons holdings; deal with fissile material issues, including being more transparent about stocks and placing surpluses under safeguards; and further consider the issue of security assurances to non-nuclear weapon states - a topic which was rather a non-issue at the 2000 NPT Conference. While not going far enough, the fact that Britain shows a willingness to think constructively about the collective responsibilities and steps that could be taken by the N-5 is very welcome and could be built on further.


Politics shaped the 2000 outcome. No-one wanted to be blamed for the conference collapsing because they did not want to risk discrediting or weakening the non-proliferation regime. International and economic relations, and particularly the fate of NMD and changing relations among the major powers, will likely determine how much of the ambitious plan is achieved between now and 2005. But civil society and the rest of the world are not passive bystanders in the process. Each issue in the plan needs its strategy for implementation and public campaign to create the necessary political will to make it happen. That is the task before us.

Notes and References

1. Paragraph 4 (c) of Decision 2 on Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, adopted by the NPT Review and Extension Conference, May 11, 1995.

2. George W. Bush, 'New leadership on national security,' Washington, May 23, 2000; for full statement, see Governor Bush's Presidential campaign website, http://www.georgewbush.com/News.asp?FormMode=SP. For excerpts and comments to the press, see Disarmament Diplomacy No. 46.

3. The figures and the following recommendations derive from UNIDIR's draft report, issued at the NPT Conference: Tactical Nuclear Weapons: preliminary research findings, UNIDIR, April 2000.

4. Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson, and Frank N. von Hippel, 'Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert', Scientific American, November 1997.

5. UNGA res. 54/54K (104:43:14).

6. Bush, op. cit.

7. 'Systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally: a food for thought paper,' United Kingdom, NPT/CONF.2000/23, May 4, 2000.

Rebecca Johnson is Executive Director of the Acronym Institute.

Invitation: The Acronym Institute would like your ideas, arguments and proposals for how the 2000 disarmament pledges could be implemented, looking either at the whole framework or one or more steps that might be linked or tackled separately. What political conditions need to be developed? What strategies and tactics should be adopted by governments, non-nuclear-weapon states and coalitions, NGOs, parliamentarians or others? In generating what we hope will become an interesting forum for discussion, we welcome short comments or articles, critiques and counter-arguments, while challenging writers to move beyond saying 'that won't work' to offering their own suggestions for constructive approaches that could be tried.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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