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Executive Summary

Acronym Report No.13

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which now has 187 States Parties, will hold its Sixth Review Conference in New York, April 24 to May 19, 2000. The purpose of the NPT, which entered into force in 1970, was to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. The Treaty enshrined two central agreements: in return for foregoing the option of acquiring nuclear weapons for themselves, non-nuclear weapon states were promised progress on nuclear disarmament and unimpeded access to nuclear energy for non-military uses. Only four countries now remain outside the NPT: Cuba, which has no nuclear programme, India, Israel and Pakistan.

Five years ago, the NPT was indefinitely extended, a decision taken together with agreements for strengthening its review process and a set of Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, to serve as a yardstick against which to measure the progressive implementation of the Treaty. At the same time, NPT parties adopted a Resolution on the Middle East, which called for a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. The 2000 Review Conference will need to consider how well these objectives have been met and what more needs to be done.

The 2000 Review Conference will be the first opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the new review process and the prospects for maintaining a strong and credible regime to reduce nuclear dangers and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. But the prognosis is profoundly worrying, with the real risk that the Conference will become bitterly divided. At a time when nuclear weapons appear to be gaining importance again in military doctrines and political calculations, the first three meetings of the new review process have thrown up more questions than they have answered. After the late withdrawal last year of South Africa from the Presidency, the newly-appointed President of the 2000 Review Conference, Ambassador Abdallah Baali of Algeria, will face a very tough challenge as he seeks to obtain agreement on the successes and failures of the past five years and how best to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and implement the NPT's obligations.

In particular, there is likely to be strong pressure for addressing nuclear disarmament and the proliferation threat posed by India, Pakistan and Israel, especially in the wake of the South Asian nuclear tests conducted in 1998 and the more open development of nuclear doctrines and arsenals. Two issues crystallised disagreement and near-failure in 1995 and during the review process: the Middle East, specifically Arab concerns about Israel's nuclear capabilities, and nuclear disarmament. In 2000, the critical issues may additionally include US plans to deploy ballistic missile defences (BMD), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and whether the nuclear powers are prepared to make an unequivocal commitment to nuclear disarmament and discuss practical steps towards meeting their Article VI obligations.

The positive early progress in nuclear arms reductions after 1990 has given way to a marked deterioration in relations between key states, especially the United States and Russia over NATO expansion, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (which Russia wants to keep intact and the United States wants to change) and the wars in Yugoslavia and Chechnya; and between the United States and China over missile defence and accusations of Chinese nuclear espionage.

In order to place the challenges and choices for the 2000 Review Conference in context, ACRONYM 13 provides a short briefing on the history of the NPT and its review conferences from 1970 to 1990, followed by a more detailed analysis of the ground-breaking decisions taken in 1995 on extending and strengthening the Treaty and its review process. After considering the conduct of the three preparatory committee (PrepCom) meetings from 1997-1999, ACRONYM 13 analyses the difficult procedural and substantive issues that will confront NPT parties when they meet in New York.

International political relations are the context within which the Treaty must operate. If the review process has not worked properly so far, that is due to deeper conflicts of interpretation and interests, principally between the nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states. Most NPT parties want to make it function more effectively, but the nuclear powers tend towards a minimalist approach, with France and Russia preferring the pre-1995 pattern, while more of the non-nuclear parties want to give practical application to the Treaty's aspirations, with a view to strengthening the non-proliferation regime by developing better mechanisms to facilitate full implementation and greater accountability.

Making the NPT Review Process Work

Following the confusions and disagreements which have characterised the first five years of the new review process, the 2000 Review Conference urgently needs to clarify the powers, limits, tasks and objectives of the review process and its various bodies and meetings.

ACRONYM 13 concludes that in addition to reviewing the Treaty, each Review Conference should aim to negotiate a set of Principles and Objectives as a yardstick for the next five years. These should build onto but not amend earlier Principles and Objectives, which would continue to stand until they are fulfilled. The Principles and Objectives would be agenda-setting and action-oriented and will need to be agreed by consensus, whereas it may be more fruitful to have the review document reflect different views on certain issues, as was successfully done in 1985.

Using the review process to generate a rolling text of recommendations has not worked. Viewing the Principles and Objectives as a yardstick and building on Canada's proposal for the PrepComs to have the independent function of commenting on contemporaneous events, ACRONYM 13 suggests that the three meetings of the review process should be tasked primarily with overseeing accountability and implementation of the Treaty and decisions taken at the previous review conferences. As 'implementing committees', they could consider the principles and objectives set out by previous review conferences, discuss relevant reports provided by states parties or other bodies, and provide an almost annual 'snapshot' of progress and obstacles, taking into account the international and political environment at the time, which will change year by year. The snapshot could be in the form of a factual report, agreed declaration or a statement from the Chair of the meeting. The purpose would be to provide both a marker against which the following year's progress could be compared and a mechanism for year-by-year accountability of implementation of the previous review conference's decisions and objectives. All three snapshots would become documents of the next conference to assist in its review assessment and identification of objectives for the next five years. Where appropriate, the review conferences and committee meetings could set up subsidiary bodies and/or facilitators for intersessional work on implementing specific tasks or objectives.

Nuclear Disarmament

In 1995, the NPT parties set themselves a programme of action for nuclear disarmament, which identified as key objectives: a CTBT by 1996; negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons; and the determined pursuit of systematic and progressive nuclear disarmament.

The CTBT was opened for signature in 1996, but has huge hurdles to overcome before it can enter into force, which requires the accession of all nuclear capable states. India, Pakistan and North Korea have not yet signed, and the CTBT received a further blow in October 1999, when the US Senate voted against ratification amidst contradictory Republican claims that the CTBT was inadequate and that the United States should not permit any international constraints on its ability to test and modernise its nuclear forces. It will be essential for the NPT parties to underline the importance they attach to the CTBT, without scapegoating any individual countries, as that could be counterproductive to the main purpose of bringing everyone on board. One way could be to convene a special plenary session on the CTBT at the 2000 Conference.

Negotiations on a treaty tackling fissile materials the fissban or 'cut-off treaty' have failed to get off the ground in the Conference on Disarmament. Despite a mandate in 1995, the issue has become mired in arguments over whether the treaty should address existing stockpiles as well as banning future production. China has linked this issue with missile defence, fearing that if the United States is able to deploy a national missile defence system with confidence and share missile defence technology with Japan and Taiwan then China's smaller arsenal could lose its deterrent value. As China's reluctance grows, Israel, India and Pakistan are content to see delays in negotiating a fissban, as they are continuing to produce as much plutonium and/or highly enriched uranium as they can.

The non-nuclear countries are sending ever stronger signals that without nuclear disarmament the non-proliferation norm will become discredited. They cite the stagnation of the strategic arms reduction (START) process, NATO's reaffirmation in April 1999 of the role of nuclear forces in the Alliance's Strategic Concept, Russia's 'Concept of National Security', declared in January 2000, and the strategic implications if the United States pushes ahead with ballistic missile defences, including the risk of a resurgent arms race, possibly extending to outer space.

In the wake of the advisory opinion of the World Court in July 1996, demands are growing for the nuclear powers to agree to an NPT-based mechanism for discussing next steps. A front-runner for action is the proposal from the New Agenda Coalition (launched by a cross-group of key non nuclear countries in June 1998) for the establishment of a subsidiary body to deliberate on practical steps aimed at reducing nuclear dangers and de-emphasising the role of nuclear weapons in security strategies. Possible subjects for such talks might include: greater transparency and controls for nuclear arsenals and stocks of nuclear materials; de-alerting nuclear weapons and removing warheads from delivery vehicles; reducing reliance on tactical nuclear weapons, with a view to ending their deployment; no first use, and legally binding security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon states, pledging not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against them; halting the modernisation of nuclear weapon systems and preventing an arms race from extending into space; strengthening strategic stability by controlling missile proliferation and multilateralising the ABM regime; and assistance in dismantling and disposing of nuclear weapons and materials.

Some states fear that making any demands for nuclear disarmament steps to be discussed will result in deadlock, as the major nuclear powers will refuse. While expecting full agreement on the topics for debate might be overly ambitious at this stage, the nuclear weapon states are increasingly split among themselves, and fast running out of excuses for refusing to accept an NPT-based mechanism for addressing practical ways forward. If the non-nuclear weapon states gave up trying it would be tantamount to accepting the indefinite possession of nuclear weapons by some countries, a state of affairs incompatible with the aspirations and commitments enshrined in the NPT.

Non-Compliance and Safeguards

International efforts to bring Iraq and North Korea back fully into the non-proliferation regime after both violated their obligations under the NPT have highlighted the weaknesses in non-proliferation verification and compliance mechanisms. Some have been redressed, while others are still far from satisfactory. The IAEA has negotiated Additional Protocols to the safeguards mandated in Article III of the NPT, with wider provisions covering undeclared facilities and more effective inspections. So far, the rate of signature and ratification of the Additional Protocols has been abysmal. Steps will need to be taken to accelerate the uptake of these important measures.

Universality, South Asia and the Middle East

How the NPT parties address the nuclear capabilities in South Asia and the Middle East may determine the future credibility of the regime as far as some significant non-nuclear weapon state parties are concerned. In the present political circumstances, there is no prospect of India, Israel or Pakistan giving up their nuclear capabilities and adhering to the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states. Nor could they become acknowledged as nuclear weapon states without undesirable legal and political consequences. While continuing to make calls for the hold-out countries to accede to the NPT, some governments are increasingly making the pragmatic argument that it is most important to persuade these three de facto nuclear weapon possessors to undertake the obligations in the NPT of not transferring nuclear weapon technology or materials, to persuade them to adhere fully to the CTBT and halt production of fissile materials, and to put in place non-proliferation controls and safer mechanisms for ensuring the reliability of command, communication and control systems. There is a danger, however, that such an approach could slide into acceptance of three more nuclear weapon states, which could be highly destabilising for the Middle East and Asia, and may result in some NPT parties re-evaluating their obligations as non-nuclear weapon states.

The motivations underlying the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the three countries were different, so tailored approaches would be needed to bring all remaining four states on board. While regional approaches, including confidence and peace building arrangements, are necessary for long-term solutions, the NPT could consider what else it can do to diminish the salience and status associated with nuclear weapons and to reinforce the benefits of non-proliferation. Malaysia's proposal for annual high-level consultation meetings could provide a useful mechanism for dialogue and constructive engagement between representatives of the NPT States Parties and the four countries remaining outside the Treaty.

Non-Proliferation in the 21st Century

The NPT is one of the most successful treaties in history, but it could still fall apart if a few countries continue to rely on nuclear weapons as status symbols or ultimate guarantors of security. If a significant number of non-nuclear parties lose confidence that the nuclear weapon states are seeking nuclear disarmament in good faith or that the regime can deal with proliferators and violators, they may begin to hedge their bets. Depending on the issues which come to the fore, a failed review conference may contribute to an erosion of confidence in the regime or it could act as a wake-up call. The point, however, is not whether a particular document is adopted or not, but whether the important issues are being openly addressed, and whether States Parties continue to have confidence in the ability of the non-proliferation regime to provide collective security. The NPT meetings have several legitimate functions: as a sounding board or stage for publicising issues of concern; or for information exchange and agenda setting. Some also like to use the meetings as a bearpit, or a stick with which to beat certain countries, which is rather less productive. Most important, however, is the role envisaged by the 1995 decisions, that of collective accountability, with programmes of action and leverage to reinforce compliance and implementation. Even if it proves impossible to achieve agreement on substantive issues it will be vital for the 2000 Review Conference to ensure that the review process moves forward with clearer terms of reference. It may also now be time to consider setting up an elected Executive Council to act on behalf of NPT parties in between the review conferences and deal with questions of non-compliance and implementation.

The spread of nuclear weapons has long been recognised as one of the most terrible threats faced by the human race. The NPT continues to play a vital part in preventing proliferation, but much of the responsibility now lies in the hands of the nuclear powers. If they persist in their refusal to accept some practical mechanisms for interim steps to create the conditions for more progressive nuclear disarmament, they could see their non-proliferation objectives slipping away from them.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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