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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 14, April 1997

Using the NPT Review Process to Advance Nuclear Disarmament
By Jonathan Dean


The April 1997 meeting of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) applied for the first time the enhanced review procedures agreed at the April-May 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. Although this first PrepCom session was in fact limited in its substantive achievements, the new NPT review procedure can still be developed into a powerful dynamic for nuclear disarmament.

This can happen if hitherto competing elements among non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS) can join in a common program which would include both proposals for complete elimination of nuclear weapons and proposals for incremental steps that nuclear-weapon States (NWS) could be expected to take in moving toward complete nuclear disarmament.

Ideally, a group of interested NNWS would identify a program of measures which NWS governments might agree to at the year 2000 Review Conference and, seeking support from other NNWS, would promote those measures with the broadest support in each successive PrepCom and at the Review Conference itself, requesting specific reactions from the NWS on each occasion and addressing these comments in subsequent meetings.

The First PrepCom Meeting

The first meeting, from 7-18 April at the UN, was a solid success as regards procedures. But, not unexpectedly, it brought only modest movement on substance. Reflecting greater interest in the improvements in the review process agreed in Spring 1995, the PrepCom was attended by 148 States Parties (and by about 135 non-governmental organizations (NGOs)), double the average number which attended the PrepComs for the 1995 Conference. Procedures were agreed without great friction, and about 85% of Conference time was spent on substance. A workable way of communicating the results of discussion to later PrepComs was found in the form of the Chairman's report, which contained the operative portions of substantive proposals made during this PrepCom.

It is less clear in what form the results of the final PrepCom will be passed to the year 2000 Review Conference, because a strong effort will probably be made at the final PrepCom to obtain agreement on recommendations to the Review Conference - and these recommendations will continue, despite a few proposals for majority voting, to be made by consensus. The consensus procedure continues to give the NWS and other groups of countries a practical veto on the product of the PrepComs and Review Conferences. Unavoidably, this procedure is a recipe for slow movement as countries are gradually convinced of the need to adopt positions many of them rejected at the outset. However, the procedure also reflects the political reality of the fact that the NWS will not act until they become convinced that it is in their interest to do so.

Dynamics of the PrepCom process

As a consequence of the consensus rule, it is already clear that the basic dynamic of the review process consists of efforts by NNWS to persuade NWS to undertake specific actions moving toward nuclear disarmament. These efforts have not been broadly coordinated in recent years. They should become more so. For their part, the NWS often attempt to gain the cooperation of NNWS for tighter measures against proliferation.

The main business of the NPT is the elimination of nuclear weapons, and this should bed the main business of the review process. However, in the PrepComs and in the Review Conference itself, there is an objective requirement that all aspects of the NPT be examined as well as disarmament, especially as regards non-proliferation, universality of participation, and promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

As in the past, in the April 1997 PrepCom the NWS urged this "balance" or comprehensiveness of approach on all Treaty parties. In doing this, the motives of the NWS are mixed. Partly, they arise from genuine interest in the subject matter, an interest shared by most of the Treaty parties. Partly, the NWS are motivated by a desire to prevent discussion in the review process from focusing on their Article VI obligations to eliminate nuclear weapons, and to dissipate efforts to achieve this focus.

In this year's PrepCom, in addition to urging a comprehensive approach, the NWS, especially the US and Russia, pointed to recent bilateral agreements as evidence of their good faith to comply with obligations of the Treaty. They cited completion of negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and its signature by many States, and also the agreements reached at the 21 March 1997 Helsinki Summit meeting between Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton to move to a level of 2,500-2,000 warheads each in a START III Treaty, plus agreement at Helsinki (and earlier) on transparency and warhead dismantling. These agreements are very welcome, although, unfortunately, there is room for doubt whether Russia will carry them out soon. In the PrepCom, the other three declared NWS, as in the past, indicated their readiness to undertake specific disarmament actions of their own only when the United States and Russia have reduced their arsenals far below the 2,000 warhead level. All five NWS avoided expressing interest in any specific future action.

Again as in the past, one large group of NNWS, the non-aligned countries, focused on efforts to bring the NWS to commit themselves by a specific date to eliminate their nuclear weapons, or at least commit themselves by a specific date to begin negotiations on a convention to eliminate nuclear weapons. Other NNWS, especially the allies of the United States, sought to test, with a wide range of questions and suggestions, whether the NWS may be prepared at some future time to go further than they have toward disarmament. The results once again showed that the NNWS, who, if they acted together would form a very powerful force for disarmament, remain divided into several factions, seriously dissipating their potential influence.

Efforts to bring these groups together have been made before, but a renewed effort is needed among the NNWS before the April 1998 PrepCom to try to create a common platform, a common program that would include both proposals for complete elimination of nuclear weapons and proposals for specific incremental steps that NWS would be urged to take in moving toward complete nuclear disarmament.

Pressures for time-bound commitments are an essential way of bringing NWS governments to take their commitments seriously. They must be continued. However, it is probable that, on their own, such pressures will take a long time to be effective. They need to be supplemented both by promotion of a specific set of disarmament steps that should be taken by NWS governments, and by intensive discussion with the NWS of the circumstances in which they will be willing to move to zero weapons. By combining pressure for ultimate action with advocacy of specific steps, especially a program of measures that all five NWS could reasonably undertake, NNWS can engage NWS governments in more serious dialogue and move the entire process forward more rapidly.

If it can be done, this platform should be supported by the whole NNWS spectrum, including the industrialised States, the European Union (EU) members and Japan, as well as the non-aligned countries. If the same proposals for nuclear disarmament can be advanced repeatedly in each successive PrepCom and at the Review Conference, and be given energetic support by a very broad coalition of Treaty parties, these proposals will be heard and studied by governments. They will be taken up into the active disarmament program of the wider arms control community, including NGOs, and, finally, they will be heeded by the NWS themselves.

In practice, this means development of some formula on the timing of nuclear disarmament that can be subscribed to by the industrialized States as well as the non-aligned. The adoption by the European Parliament, though not yet by EU governments, of a motion supporting a convention to prohibit nuclear weapons indicates that positions on this subject are coming closer. Developing a program that can be supported by all NNWS does not mean that that groups like the non-aligned would have to give up their present pressure for time-bound commitments. These proposals should continue to be presented parallel to a comprehensive program supported by a maximum number of NNWS.

Specific Measures

To illustrate, some individual measures, which could form part of such a broadly supported comprehensive disarmament program, are described here:

  1. A No-Increase Commitment

    All five NWS should be urged to undertake a commitment not to increase the number of their operationally-deployed nuclear weapons. Implementation by each NWS could be checked by existing national technical means of other NWS. This is an obvious step, but one of more than symbolic importance. If it could be achieved, it would be a watershed event on the road to nuclear disarmament.

  2. De-alerting of Nuclear Weapons

    The operational deployment of large numbers of nuclear weapons on alert status creates a considerable risk of large-scale rapid launch triggered by faulty warning, accidental launch, or unauthorized launch. The result could be catastrophe. These forces should be "de-alerted." This is a key recommendation of the Canberra Commission. However, it is easier to call for de-alerting than to devise mutually acceptable, verifiable ways of carrying it out. Many potential methods require bringing together delivery systems for an extended time, increasing their vulnerability, and would also take considerable time to restore the delivery systems to operational capability if there is a major emergency.

    NWS governments continue to worry about issues of this kind. But the NWS themselves have the knowledge to devise methods of de-alerting that can cope with these difficulties. They should be asked by the next PrepCom to consult among themselves to develop mutually acceptable means of de-alerting operationally deployed nuclear forces and to report on their progress later in the NPT review process. The United States and Russia should take the lead in this process.

  3. Exchange of Information on Nuclear Forces

    The US and Russia should be asked to accelerate their bilateral exchange of information on holdings of warheads and fissile materials for weapons and, having developed a system for doing so, to approach the remaining three declared NWS and engage them in a mutual exchange of information, reporting their progress on this project to the NPT review process. Such a data exchange is essential for serious disarmament.

    Action by the US and Russia on warhead dismantling and on the transfer of fissile material to monitored storage, and on information exchange, could meet the desires of some governments that have blocked progress on a fissile cut-off. This step should thus facilitate agreement on a cut-off treaty, which remains necessary and cannot be postponed to a later stage.

  4. Rapid Immobilization

    Once data has been exchanged and checked, there is a more far-reaching action that could simplify the complicated task of negotiating deep cuts: agreement to immobilize the entire operational nuclear forces of all five NWS. To do this, all five NWS would agree to separate warheads from delivery systems and to place both in secure storage under international monitoring. The owner States could still withdraw their weapons from storage if threatened by unexpected emergency, but not without giving warning.

    Carrying out this step would rapidly diminish the dangers from nuclear weapons. Then, further talks could deal with dismantling and how far to go with it. After the NWS have acted, it may also be possible to obtain the agreement of the threshold States to store their nuclear materials under international monitoring (1).

  5. Security Assurances

    The NWS are taking an ambivalent position on this issue. On the one hand, they refer to the conditional security assurances they extended to the NNWS in April 1995. On the other hand, they speak to domestic audiences about possible use of nuclear weapons to retaliate against attacks with chemical or biological weapons. The dissatisfaction of NNWS over this situation is understandable. It should be resolved by clear commitments not to use nuclear weapons against any NNWS unless that State has used or threatened to use nuclear weapons.

    The way to deal with the threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical and biological - against NWS or others is through an advance UN Security Council commitment to take joint action against States or groups that initiate use of these weapons or threaten to do so. A position of this kind, which would involve a No-First-Use commitment by the NWS, would provide all NPT parties protection. If a resolution of the Security Council is not considered sufficiently effective, the concept could be incorporated in a formal agreement of the NWS themselves to take joint action against countries or groups initiating or threatening use of weapons of mass destruction.

  6. Discussion of Conventional Arms Control

    Especially over the past decade, definite progress has been made on nuclear disarmament even though this progress has been slow and incomplete. Progress in the field of conventional arms control has been far more inadequate. Over 45 million people, most of them civilians, have been killed in conventional conflict since the end of World War II. Many millions more have been maimed for life. The economic loss is incalculable. Thirty major wars are taking place now. Despite best efforts, the international community has not been able to stop the bloodshed. The first step toward improvement is to review the actual status of the issue and to evaluate methods being used to cope with conflict.

    In view of the commitment in Article VI of the NPT to move toward general and complete disarmament, and the probability that progress toward a situation of reduced frequency of conflict will be one condition of the NWS for eliminating their nuclear weapons, NPT parties should agree to make a global review of the status of conventional arms control a standard feature of the NPT review process. This might be done by reviewing one or two regions in each PrepCom and conducting a global review in the Review Conference itself.

    NNWS will be sensitive to possible efforts by NWS governments to use such an examination to reduce pressures on themselves to move toward nuclear disarmament. It should be possible to devise methods of dealing with this possibility, among other things by limiting the amount of time and effort devoted to it in each PrepCom. But the subject is important and deserves a serious hearing.

  7. Discussing the Circumstances for Nuclear Disarmament

    The PrepComs and the Review Conference itself could be used to draw the NWS into increasingly detailed discussion of the specific circumstances in which the NWS will in fact be prepared to undertake definite commitments for complete nuclear disarmament.

    The background for this suggestion is the fact that, although Article VI of the NPT commits the NWS to complete nuclear disarmament, it does not include a specific time limit for carrying out this obligation - or a description of the specific circumstances in which the NWS should be prepared to make their final decision to destroy their remaining weapons. Here, I am not describing legal preconditions for eliminating weapons. The Treaty contains none. Instead, I am referring to the circumstances or the context that might have to prevail before the NWS make their final decisions.

    As already pointed out, efforts are continuing to make good the omission of a specific date from the Treaty. These continuing pressures for time-based commitments are essential; they keep the urgency of the task and the existence of the unfulfilled commitment before world opinion. Well thought out proposals for incremental disarmament moves are also needed. But the question of under what circumstances the NWS will be prepared for definitive action has not been tackled in a detailed, systematic way. After the end of the Cold War, it is time to do so.

    Given the commitments contained in Article VI, the NPT review process is a highly appropriate forum for pursuing this inquiry. In successive PrepComs, NWS governments should be reminded of their NPT obligation to eliminate their nuclear arsenals and asked to describe the specific circumstances under which they will be prepared to carry out this obligation. The answers they present should be discussed and analysed as to whether they have some substance or are excuses for maintaining the status quo. Where NWS answers are shown to be excuses, they can be refuted and the debate over elimination of nuclear weapons will be simplified. If some of the circumstances that NWS cite are found to have objective justification - for example, assured transparency, improved peacekeeping capacity of the UN and of regional security organizations, or improved verification measures - they could become common goals of all NPT member States.


Proposals of the kind described in this article could be discussed among governments in preparing for next year's PrepCom. If they or measures like them can, as a result, receive wide support from NNWS, there are good prospects that the NPT review process can in fact become an effective engine of nuclear disarmament.


1. I saw this general idea for the first time in an article by Arjun Mahkijani and Katherine Yih, "What to Do at Doomsday's End," Washington Post, 29 March 1992. It needs more research by the NWS than it has yet received; the problem, as with some forms of de-alerting, is that once nuclear forces have been deactivated and immobilized in this way, it can take a considerable time to restore them to operational status in case of need. Of course, under this scheme, all the declared NWS and perhaps the threshold States would be in the same boat, and because of the wide geographic dispersal of their arsenals would be relatively impervious to attack by covert proliferators.

Jonathan Dean is Adviser on International Security Issues to the US Union of Concerned Scientists.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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