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The NPT Review Conference: Redo the Regime

Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 13, 2005

    The immediate challenge ahead for the state parties to the NPT in the ongoing Review Conference, May 2-27, 2005 in New York, is how to salvage the tarnished image of the treaty. The efficacy of the treaty is under scrutiny primarily on three issues— disarmament, nonproliferation, and universality of compliance. The unraveling facts of over the last two years, related to various kinds of breaches of the NPT commitments by Libya, Iran and North Korea, add to further suspicion over the credibility of the treaty. While the critics believe that NPT has remained flawed ever since it came into force in 1970, the advocates of the NPT insist that it is still the most reliable tool to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons. In addition, there is a sharp division between the NWS and NNWS within the NPT on issues such as the right of the NNWS to use nuclear technology for energy purposes, and growing role of nuclear weapons in the future security policies of nuclear weapon states.

    It would be interesting to see how the ongoing RevCom would address the critical concerns as expressed in the Report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel, December 2, 2004, which says: “we are approaching a point at which the erosion of the nonproliferation regime could become irreversible.” The Director General of the IAEA has already talked about the need for amendment and reinforcement of the treaty. While advocating the raising of ‘the bar for inspection standards by establishing the additional protocol as the norm for verifying compliance’, he called on all the countries within and outside the NPT to ‘put a five-year hold on additional facilities for uranium enrichment and plutonium separation.’

    Underplaying the fact that the NPT lacks universal acceptance, two historical decisions were taken at the NPT Review Conference in 1995— first, to extend the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty indefinitely, and second, the general agreement to reinforce the objectives to ensure universal adherence. In strategic parlance, the extension of the treaty successfully guaranteed and legitimised the nuclear weapons status of the P-5 states. The subsequent Review Conference of year 2000 was significant in that it agreed to a ‘13-point Action Plan’ in which there was ‘an unequivocal undertaking by nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their arsenals’.

    Before, speculating over the outcome of the ongoing RevCom, it is important to re-examine as to why despite repeated claims by its members to strengthen the treaty’s effectiveness, failures are more glaring than success. In reality, there remains a huge gap between the commitments made by the NPT signatory states and their actual willingness to execute the obligations. This gap can be referred to as ‘symptomatic non-compliance’, causing the inherent weaknesses of the NPT regime.

    ‘Symptomatic non-compliance’ can be analysed primarily in three different ways. First, the continuing pursuit of advancement and sophistication of nuclear arsenals by countries like America and China hardly augur well for any attempt at future comprehensive global nuclear disarmament. Second, the then super powers, U.S.A and former Soviet Union, themselves had either tacitly helped or overseen transfer of nuclear weapons technology to some countries during the Cold War for strategic and security reasons. The most glaring trajectory of permissive proliferation was witnessed in the China-Pakistan nuclear and missile collaborations. Third, the NPT signatories like Libya, Iran and North Korea manipulated the loopholes in the NPT. The larger picture emerging out of the disclosures from within the NPT states is the legacy of selective proliferation as perpetuated by major state actors of the world.

    Article VI of the NPT provides that “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”. But this provision does not prescribe any time frame. The nuclear policy approach in the existing nonproliferation regime is more related to the political and security leverage as attached by the P-5 states to the nuclear status of a state than to the real concern of them for global disarmament. The American abrogation of 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), and its pursuit for Nuclear Posture Review— neither of these two indicate the elimination of nuclear weapons in near future. Under the 13-point Action Plan of 2000 Review Conference, it is worth recalling that the U.S.A as a party to the NPT had committed to preserve and strengthen the ABM Treaty as the cornerstone of international strategic stability. But later on the Bush administration called the ABM treaty irrelevant for its national security interest in the new international security dynamics. There is no guarantee that potential nuclear policy strategies of the US will not be at odds with its commitment to NPT.

    Russia is also working on refinement of delivery systems including the submarine launched ballistic missiles. The Russian President has recently been quoted as saying that “We (Russia) will continue to consistently and successively build up the armed forces in general and its nuclear component.” He explained it further by saying: “I am sure that in the near future weapons will appear ... which other nuclear powers do not and will not possess.” (“Putin says Russia working on new nuclear systems”, Reuters, November 17, 2004). The Chinese drive for modernizing its force capabilities may also seriously undermine its role towards nuclear disarmament. Like China, the UK and France have shown little interest in joining any international arms reduction dialogue.

    The P-5 states have not only failed to give a time-bound treaty commitment for complete nuclear disarmament, they have also not taken appropriate steps to tame the proliferators. A.Q. Khan himself has admitted: “Many suppliers approached us with the details of the machinery and with figures and numbers of instruments and materials ... In the true sense of the word, they begged us to purchase their goods. ….. We purchased whatever we required.” (“Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan— The Father of the Islamic Bomb”, The Risk Report, Vol.1, No.6, July-August, 1995, Page. 5

    Khan has also explained that his long stay in Europe and intimate knowledge of various countries and their manufacturing firms was an asset for his country. Subsequently, according to his own admission, middlemen, exporters, and businessmen from France, Holland and Germany flocked to Pakistan to offer price lists for high-technology goods and to learn what Pakistan needed. (William J Broad, David E. Sanger & Raymond Bonner, “A Tale of Proliferation: How Dr. AQ Khan Created His Nuclear Network”, South Asia Tribune, Issue No 79, February 15-21, 2004). It is evident from Khan’s own admission as to how he was used by Pakistan to work through European intermediaries to obtain crucial nuclear weapons related supplies. The connections that Khan developed during that period were subsequently used for the long running nuclear black bazaar.

    In the background of today’s debate over the complexity of nuclear proliferation network, one can hardly believe the acts of past proliferation as handiwork of mere middlemen or intermediaries. Expressing concern over the details emerging out of the allegedly erring NPT signatory states like Libya and Iran and their connections to the Khan-led network, Mohammed El Baradei, the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has admitted that Khan had commercial contacts with at least 20 different countries and large companies.

    Of course, Pakistan can be seen as a proliferation threat but as a non-member state is not bound by the NPT regime, the legal charges are largely nullified. However, Pakistan cannot be absolved for its past omissions and commissions. It is a well known fact now that for both state and non-state actors, Pakistan was the source of nuclear technology, material and expertise worldwide, until the nuclear exposé in 2003.

    It is a secret, now being swept under the carpet, that European firms have recklessly supported the A.Q. Khan-led nuclear trade market to proliferate nuclear weapons equipments and know-how in different parts of the world. Whistleblowers raised an alarm when the Pakistani Commerce Ministry published a full-page newspaper advertisement with an application form in year 2000 to sell nuclear materials and equipments. Even, a nuclear sale pamphlet from KRL (Khan Research Laboratories) was found doing the rounds outside Pakistan. It is only since February 2004, after Khan’s confessions, links are now being investigated of his network with the nuclear programmes of North Korea, Iran and Libya.

    But has adequate attention been paid to the role of European suppliers in the now-known- but-long-running nuclear proliferation network? Despite much praise by many for NPT and NSG, proliferation links in Europe apparently prospered well along the Khan’s international nuclear black bazaar.

    Without rectifying the deficiencies carried from the past, the advocacy of old nonproliferation regimes, like the NPT, would lack strength, coherence and universality. The international community in fact requires the review of past proliferation records with of various states and non-state actors from an intra-systemic perspective. In fact, change is inexorable in any environment. If the international security system requires structural changes at institutional and policy levels, then the world community should also work towards evolving universally acceptable nonproliferation mechanisms. But that is also not easy in the current political environment.

    Nuclear proliferation as an issue of international threat and challenge has also been endorsed in the Report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (‘A more secured world: Our shared responsibility’, December 2, 2004). It expresses the concern that some countries under the cover of the current NPT are seeking to covertly and illegally develop full-scale weapons programme. A second long-term concern as mentioned in the report is that at least 40 states possess the industrial and scientific infrastructure which would enable them to build nuclear weapons.

    Does the NPT-regime effectively address the present changes in the international security realities? Has the time come to look for new initiatives to replace the older not-so-effective regimes to address the problem of proliferation in the absence of universally consensual mechanisms? The 2005 Review Conference clearly has major challenges before it and if these issues are not addressed meaningfully it could end up performing some rituals without moving forward.

    What then could we expect from the discussions in the ongoing RevCom? The following is a brief list of expectations:

    1. Difference of perceptions between the NWS and NNWS on the progress of ‘Disarmament’ efforts may persist as ever before.
    2. Emphasis may be renewed on earlier ‘declarations’— “Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament” of 1995 and “13 Practical Steps” of 2000 Review Conferences.
    3. Reiteration of call for signing the CTBT.
    4. Reiteration of commitment by NWS towards Article VI of the NPT.
    5. Effectiveness of the NPT would be measured in terms of compliance record of NNWS and the RevCom may call for improving compliance record by the NNWS.
    6. Success of Libya would be lauded, while North Korean experience would be a matter of concern.
    7. Iran would be urged to reconsider alternative routes to fulfill nuclear energy demands than insisting on self-sufficiency in fuel cycle capability.
    8. A proposal may come up to include more explicitly the ‘non-state actors’ as one of the sources of supply under Article II.
    9. Commitment to strengthen verification role of the IAEA, perhaps proposing Additional Protocol to be mandatory for NNWS under Article III of the NPT.
    10. Amendment to Article IV and Article V may be proposed in accordance with the possible changes in Article II and Article III.
    11. The concept of nuclear weapon free zones may be appreciated under Article VII.
    12. Review of Article X may be proposed or at least inclusion of the ‘intent’ to do so in future. (It is a difficult proposition because none of the states would easily agree to surrender the ‘sovereign right’ to come out of any international treaty at any required point of time on national security concerns.)
    13. Some of the key provisions of the UN Resolution 1540 may be included in a final declaration, i.e., calling for more stringent domestic export control laws and mechanisms.