Almost every week for the last few months, a star-studded international conference has been organized to garner support for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The venue of the conference may change (New York, Helsinki, Amman, Vienna or Beijing) but the message is the same: the NPT is needed to prevent an apocalyptic nuclear nightmare. The reason for this flurry of activity is simple. In May 2010, the NPT will be reviewed by its nearly 190 members, and there is growing apprehension within the NPT-approved nuclear-weapon states (N-5) that a revolt is waiting to happen. After 40 years of submitting themselves to the double standards, bad faith, arm-twisting and even humiliation by the United States of America, Russia, the United Kingdom and, more recently, France and China, a critical section of the non-nuclear weapon states may finally have had enough. And even the charisma of President Barack Obama and his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons may not be enough to save the treaty.
But the plot is getting more curious. Late last month, at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, the American secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivered the second Dean Acheson Memorial lecture sponsored by the US Institute of Peace. Much of the lecture on nuclear non-proliferation was predictable, but it was towards the end of the programme — during the question and answer — that she threw the audience of largely non-proliferation ninjas off balance. She declared that President Obama’s administration was looking forward to working with India to come up with a 21st-century version of the NPT. Whether Clinton had carefully thought over this idea or had merely let her passion for India take over, the reality is that the secretary of state had underlined a significant reality.
The NPT, as it stands today, is an illegitimate entity born of a secret liaison between Moscow and Washington. The NPT is out of tune with world realities and has failed its own charter, and any attempt to resuscitate it will only further erode the objectives of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. It is time to think of a new nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament architecture and it is critical that India takes the lead in this venture.
The NPT was, in essence, created in a rare moment during the Cold War when the Soviet Union and the US got together to prevent those outside the N-5 from acquiring nuclear weapons. They presented a fait accompli to the Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament (the designated multilateral negotiating forum on arms control, and a precursor to the Conference on Disarmament) and put into force a treaty that reflected their interests and their view of global stability. The NPT divided the world, almost permanently, between nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.
The NPT rested on three pillars, and all three are on the point of collapsing.
The first pillar is non-proliferation. Nuclear-weapon states, party to the treaty, committed themselves not to supply nuclear-weapon technology to non-nuclear states. And non-nuclear states pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons. This is a farce. China supplied nuclear weapon technology to Pakistan, even after signing the NPT. The US, at the very least, benignly allowed Israel to acquire nuclear weapons. North Korea, a member of the NPT, had a clandestine nuclear weapons programme, and withdrew from the treaty once it was discovered. And Iran is arguably even today moving towards nuclear weaponization even while being a member of the treaty. And, of course, because the NPT refuses to recognize — due to its arbitrary cut-off date — that India, Israel and Pakistan are nuclear weapon states.
The second pillar was civilian nuclear energy. Non-nuclear weapon states had an inalienable right to research, develop, produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Further, the treaty declared that the peaceful applications of nuclear explosions would be made available to non-nuclear-weapon states on a non-discriminatory basis. The treaty has failed even on this count, with non-nuclear weapon states getting virtually no access to the civilian benefits despite the so-called nuclear renaissance. Moreover, because the popular low-cost light nuclear power station uses enriched uranium fuel, states must be able either to enrich uranium or purchase it in the international market. Neither is being allowed. In addition, NPT countries are being virtually coerced to accept additional safeguards.
The third and arguably most important pillar was nuclear disarmament. Each of the parties to the treaty undertook to pursue negotiations in good faith for cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and for nuclear disarmament. Despite considerable cuts in Russian and US nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War, and Obama’s desire to move towards a nuclear-free world, the fact is that there seems to be no real commitment on part of the N-5 to truly move towards a Global Zero, to use a term popularized by a nuclear disarmament campaign. It is believed that the nuclear posture review being conducted by the US scientific and defence establishment will ensure that nuclear weapons remain an integral part of American security plans.
What, however, has inflamed many of the NPT members, including those in Latin America and the Middle East, is the impunity with which assurances, decisions and resolutions arrived at in previous review conferences have been disregarded. The NPT initially entered into force for 25 years in 1970. It was reviewed and extended indefinitely in 1995 only after a series of commitments were given, including on negative security assurances and especially explicit assurances over the Middle East. None of these commitments has been kept. In 2000, a series of 13 steps was agreed upon, but progress on many of these steps has been tardy. In 2005, there was uproar at the review conference, but not a rebellion. In 2010, however, as said earlier, a revolt is waiting to happen.
Not surprisingly, at a recent meeting in Beijing, all three chairmen of the NPT review conferences in the past, the ambassadors Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, Serge Duarte of Brazil and Muhammad Shakhar of Egypt, felt betrayed by the manner in which the treaty was undermined, primarily by the US and other nuclear-weapon countries. The time has come now to push the treaty to where it rightly belongs: the dustbin of history. The time is also ripe for New Delhi to take the lead in suggesting a new nuclear architecture that will accommodate the nuclear realities of the world, create a better balance of rights and obligations between nuclear and non-nuclear states and address the most dangerous possibility of non-state actors getting access to nuclear technology and weapons. This framework should, of course, be founded on a larger credible plan for nuclear disarmament which builds on the action plan for nuclear disarmament put forward by the former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1988.
(The Telegraph, 2/12/09)