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Monday, May 29, 2000

A brief reprieve for the nuclear club


Special to The Japan Times

NEW DELHI -- The five original nuclear powers have won a much-needed reprieve at the first review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty since its indefinite extension five years ago. That reprieve, however, could serve as the lull before the storm.

Despite the adept juggling of the wordsmiths that helped conclude the four-week review conference at the United Nations with a consensus document last weekend, the treaty's future appears shaky. Despite its membership having grown to encompass all nations except Cuba, India, Israel and Pakistan, the NPT regime has come under greater pressure.

The treaty's growing weaknesses, some flowing from its successes, are beginning to haunt its future. Designed 32 years ago primarily as an instrument against horizontal proliferation, the pact has been overtaken by events.

First, it has outlived its utility as a horizontal proliferation tool, with all nations with potential nuclear ambitions having either forsworn their aspirations and joined the treaty as nonnuclear states, or gone nuclear, as in the case of India, Israel and Pakistan. The nonnuclear states are now locked into a permanent legal instrument.

Second, two sets of nuclear powers have emerged: members of the treaty, and those that are not and cannot be accommodated within the pact's antiquated framework. This contradiction bodes ill for the treaty's future.

Third, vertical proliferation through continuing modernization has become the exclusive, unfettered right of nuclear powers, whether members or nonmembers of the treaty.

The consensus document, replete with "reaffirms," "urges," "recognizes," "notes" and "underlines," reflects the last-minute compromises arrived at to save the conference. But saving the treaty calls for a much bigger effort, especially the demonstration of political will by its nuclear members to fulfill their commitments.

The treaty's present troubles flow from the success in 1995 in permanently extending it on the basis of 20 agreed "principles and objectives" that included the key goal of "systematic and progressive efforts" to reduce nuclear weapons. But no sooner was the treaty extended than the consensus aims were forgotten.

Officials of the major nuclear powers have already described the latest consensus plan as representing only a declaration of principles and not a shift in policy on their part.

The much-hyped "unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament" is no breakthrough. That obligation is central to the treaty. But three full decades after the pact took effect, nuclear powers are acknowledging their unfulfilled commitment.

The nuclear arsenals of the original atomic powers today are many times bigger than when the treaty was concluded on the basis of a disarmament bargain. Enshrined in NPT's Article VI, the bargain calls for accomplishment of complete disarmament.

Since the treaty was perpetually extended, however, its nuclear members have lost all incentive to work for arms control and disarmament, a process now in a state of "deplorable stagnation," according to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Russia's belated ratification of the START-II treaty, and the recent accession of some additional states to the nuclear test ban treaty, do not change this picture. The test ban treaty remains in limbo, thanks to its rejection by the U.S. Senate, while START-II, already delayed by seven years, has still to cross other implementation hurdles.

The latest acknowledgment of the Article VI obligation comes with the qualification that steps toward disarmament need to promote "international stability" and be "based on the principle of undiminished security for all." But the International Court of Justice unanimously declared in 1996 that nuclear powers have a twofold legal obligation: to hold negotiations in good faith and achieve total disarmament. So far, negotiations have not even begun.

The increasingly restless nonnuclear states are clamoring for concrete disarmament steps, not the reengineering of arsenals to get rid of redundant or obsolescent weapons as more modern and less vulnerable arms are built.

Some of the objectives outlined by the conference are laudable: unilateral cuts in arsenals, increased transparency, reduction of tactical or battlefield weapons, "a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies," and measures to reduce the weapons' "operational status." But these aims come without a blueprint or timetable and some are so vague that they are open to different interpretations.

Decades later, nonnuclear states are still seeking to protect themselves from becoming targets through legally binding measures "against the use of nuclear weapons by nuclear-weapons possessors."

The state of disarmament is best exemplified by the conference's call for the "necessity" of establishing at the U.N.'s disarmament forum in Geneva "an appropriate subsidiary body with a mandate to deal with nuclear disarmament." The disarmament forum so far has not dealt with disarmament!

It is remarkable that an openly discriminatory pact that seeks to perpetuate a divide between the world's nuclear "haves" and "have-nots" has survived for so long, especially when the other types of mass-destruction weapons (biological and chemical) have been outlawed. But the treaty's further survival depends on its nuclear members agreeing to work toward genuine disarmament.

The conference's main message is that nuclear disarmament has emerged as a powerful international demand that no longer can be ignored. Both the impediments and solutions to disarmament lie in the capitals of the very powers which have the highest stake in the continued credibility and existence of the present nonproliferation regime.

If genuine disarmament is to take off, nuclear powers must accept that nuclear modernization constitutes proliferation and needs to be halted.

Brahma Chellaney, a well-known commentator and columnist, is a professor of security studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.


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