With vast regions of the Middle East in flames, many thousands of people dying in executions born of religious intolerance or left to drown at sea by morally repugnant criminal traffickers, it could seem like an odd time to turn attention to the long-range threat of nuclear weapons. On the contrary, say government disarmament officials and leaders of civil society organizations preparing to meet at the United Nations to a review a nearly half-century-old treaty to curb and ultimately eliminate nuclear arms and weapons technology.
The conference that begins on April 27 and runs until May 22 is reviewing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, known commonly as the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, or NPT, which was adopted internationally in 1968 and came into force in 1970. In 1995, the treaty was extended indefinitely by a conference of more than 170 nations that had signed and ratified it — or acceded to it formally by government decision without legislative action — provided that the treaty continued to be reviewed every five years thereafter.
The presiding officer of this year’s review is a woman, Ambassador Taous Feroukhi of Algeria, who has served on the board of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. The UN team will be led by Angela Kane, the UN’s high representative for disarmament affairs, who is leaving the world body at the end of the conference.
All five declared nuclear weapons powers, which are also the five permanent members of the Security Council, are parties to the treaty: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. Three other nations known to have nuclear weapons have not signed the treaty — India, which set off a South Asian nuclear arms race with tests in 1974 and 1998; Pakistan, which wanted to keep up with India and tested a nuclear explosion in 1998; and Israel.
North Korea signed the treaty but withdrew in 2003 and then tested bombs in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
Iran is now in the spotlight, as the administration of President Barack Obama struggles against domestic political critics and concerted opposition from Israel to conclude an agreement with the government in Teheran to forestall Iranian development of a nuclear weapon. But these down-to-the wire-negotiations should not obscure the many other potential dangers in this era of global instability, said William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former US deputy secretary of state, speaking to experts from more than 40 nations meeting at Carnegie’s headquarters in Washington a week before the review conference was to open in New York.
“Amidst the storm and stress of negotiations with Iran,” Burns said, “it is easy to lose sight of the wider implications for the nonproliferation regime. This regime is not self-sustaining. It requires constant renewal and re-examination if it is to continue to serve as the backbone of the global nuclear order in the century unfolding before us.
“The Iran case has exposed a number of potential vulnerabilities in the treaty,” Burns said. “The most significant, in my view, is the absence of a clear definition — a clear firewall — between civil and nuclear weapons programs.” The lack of a firewall, he said, “makes it easier for proliferators to use the cover of nuclear energy programs to pursue nuclear weapons.”
Added to an unsettling international picture is the growing number of civilian nuclear power plants being built amid calls to phase out greenhouse gas emissions because of climate change. In India, which has a severe power shortage, this poses a unique problem. While Indian civilian nuclear plants may be open to international inspections, its military installations are not. Critics of the US decision in the last decade to allow the export of nuclear materials to India, ostensibly for civilian energy development, say there is a possibility that nuclear fuel and technology could be transferred to off-limits military installations.
More broadly, there is concern among nuclear experts and independent disarmament advocates that the global instability now on display in western Asia centered on Afghanistan’s uncertain future, as well as upheaval in the Middle East, North Africa and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, could lead to nuclear material falling into the hands of militants or traffickers on the lookout for new sources of illegal cash.
How much the 2015 review of the nonproliferation treaty will focus strictly on nonproliferation in its narrowest sense will be seen in the coming weeks. A UN background paper on the conference has a lengthy list of key issues for discussion. An important one for many nations is nuclear disarmament, which means calling on the nations with the most weapons — Russia and the US — to move faster in reducing and eliminating their stocks, as the treaty requires. Other issues include strengthening safeguards, advancing the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and safety, creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (aimed mostly at Israel, but including Iran and possibly Saudi Arabia and others) and building stronger ties with nongovernmental organizations globally.
A debate is also expected to occur on a demand for a “humanitarian” approach to banning nuclear weapons that the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based independent advocate for disarmament since 1971 and publisher of the journal Arms Control Today, suggested a year ago would contribute to making this year’s review “highly contentious.” The last review, in 2010, included the humanitarian aspect in its final 67-point action plan.
“The rapidly evolving initiative centered on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons is reshaping the traditional NPT debate, challenging the incremental approach to disarmament,” the association said, adding that disarmament and the Middle East were also promising to emerge as priority issues.
On nuclear disarmament, the association said: “Many non-nuclear-weapon states also do not appreciate being shut out of the discussion on the grounds that nuclear weapons are essential to the security of nuclear-weapon states and that how to proceed on disarmament is up to those states alone. Non-nuclear-weapon states are beginning to reclaim their stake in the issue, most significantly through the focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The 2010 NPT Review Conference expressed its deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”
Since then, many more demands have been made from numerous quarters for nuclear weapons to be declared illegal, as other weapons have been done over the years. Those countries that have nuclear weapons may not take these calls seriously and will argue that this is not a workable idea. But the momentum for more dramatic action has been building in the last year and could play a part in shaping the 2015 review.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.