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The Rediff Special/ The Economist
No dash to the dustbin
Is the battle to bolster the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty being won or lost? There was little of the predicted fisticuffs at the five-yearly review of the NPT's workings, which ended on Friday, though the meeting has kept scores of diplomats and lobbyists closeted in New York for the past month. Differences were not as wide as first thought, suggested NPT optimists. Pessimists thought them too difficult or too dangerous for grandstanding. To a realist, these are indeed critical times: no one is threatening to pull out of the NPT, but pressures are growing that could fatally weaken it.
The treaty is valued for its near-universality: it has been signed by all but four countries, India, Pakistan, Israel and Cuba (though Cuba has joined Latin America's regional non-proliferation club). But its greatest value is the non-proliferation bargain on which it rests: nuclear have-nots promise not to build nuclear weapons in return for help with civilian nuclear power, and the five official nuclear-haves -- America, Russia, Britain, France and China -- commit themselves to work towards nuclear disarmament as part of a process of general disarmament.
Both sides of the bargain are looking shaky. In 1995, when the treaty was extended indefinitely, the nuclear powers agreed to negotiate a test ban, devise a treaty to end the production of fissile materials, such as plutonium and highly-enriched uranium, and take bolder steps to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Patience is wearing thin.
A test ban treaty was agreed, in 1996, but it is yet to enter into force, and was rejected last year by America's Senate, even though the Clinton administration continues to observe the ban. Nuclear-armed Israel remains beyond NPT limits, to Arab anger. And in 1998 India and Pakistan both tested their nuclear weapons and are now demanding a place alongside the five in the nuclear club (the NPT reviewers said no).
A ban on producing more fissile material would be the next logical step in disarmament, but is being blocked by China, which wants equal prominence at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, where such treaties are worked out, for a ban on the military use of space. This is its way of opposing plans by America to try to strike a deal with Russia to loosen the limits on missile defences in the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. And though Russia belatedly ratified the Start-2 strategic-arms-cutting treaty with America (and the test ban) last month, deeper arms cuts will now have to wait until the ABM row is settled.
In New York a "new agenda coalition" of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden demanded an "unequivocal" commitment to nuclear disarmament. Their demands included: no-first-use pledges, legally binding assurances that non-nuclear states will not be attacked with nuclear weapons, taking weapons off alert and separating their warheads from the means to deliver them, and a new international conference on nuclear disarmament. The official nuclear five came up with reassuring-sounding words -- but failed to satisfy determined disarmers.
They also pointed to their own disarming efforts. All but China have been cutting weapons since the Cold War ended, and America has put up some $ 5 billion to help a chaotic Russia prevent the loss of nuclear secrets and materials to countries -- North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya -- thought to be in the market to build their own bombs.
Indeed, the other challenge to the NPT comes from the weaknesses in the international safeguards against proliferation. Although all NPT members are supposed to have safeguards deals with the International Atomic Energy Agency, some still do not. Of those that do, only nine have so far agreed in full to the toughened safeguards, brought in after it was seen how easily Iraq had hoodwinked inspectors about its illicit nuclear programme. Hardly a sound basis from which to start preparing to police a nuclear-free world.
Reproduced from the May 20-May 26 issue of The Economist, with the magazine's kind permission.
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