NPT Review Conference Provides Forum For Peace by Member States

By Metta Spencer | 1985-06-01 12:00:00

DURING SEPTEMBER, THE Third Review Conference of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) will assemble in Geneva, giving delegates from the 124 countries which have signed the NPT a chance to discuss its failings and pass resolutions for its future. This conference should be of great importance to the disarmament movement, since the US, the USSR, and the UK have promised (in Article VI of the treaty and in the Preamble) to pursue a Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB). Many of the other 121 signatories -- perhaps even including Canada -- will be reminding these nuclear weapons states of that promise and their failure to keep it, to say the least.

For the nuclear weapons states, the focus of the conference -- and of general concern -- is on controlling the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that don't have them.

Five nations admit to owning nuclear weapons: United States, the Soviet Union, France, Britain, and China. India tested a "peaceful nuclear explosive" in 1974, while several others (e.g. Israel, South Africa and Pakistan) are thought to possess them or to have done all the necessary work to develop such a bomb.

Weapons proliferation is of two types -- 'horizontal' (the acquiring of nuclear bombs by more and more countries or potentially even by terrorist organizations) and 'vertical' (the expansion of stockpiles by the nations that already have them). The nuclear nations are keen to restrain horizontal proliferation, even while they are actively pursuing vertical proliferation. Most of the rest of the world wants to curtail both types of proliferation, and have even been willing to trade away the right to develop such weaponry in exchange for the nuclear powers' commitment to reduce their existing arsenals.

Such accommodation did not come automatically. During the decades following World War II, the projected spread of nuclear technology was recognized as alarming. On the other hand, it was then still possible to believe that nuclear energy would be a great boon to humankind, provided that its uses be restricted to peaceful purposes.

The spread of this knowledge would be worrisome, but perhaps not tragic, since even the most sophisticated scientists could not build atomic weapons without plutonium or highly enriched uranium -- and these substances could be guarded and monitored.

Hence, in 1954, the United Nations General Assembly adopted President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" plan, and undertook to create the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose purpose is primarily to promote the spread of civilian nuclear technologies and secondarily to prevent their misuse for weapons. This agency still sends international inspection teams out to inspect reactors and other places where nuclear materials are used. Nations that want nuclear power have come to accept the necessity for such monitoring and to receive the inspection teams with relatively good grace.

And so far, so good. Far less horizontal proliferation has occurred than was expected twenty years ago. Rarely have attempts been made by the non-nuclear nations to divert fissile materials for unauthorized uses.

Back in the late 1960s, when nations began to confer and plan for the NPT, it became clear that the nuclear powers and the non-nuclear weapon states had quite different objectives. For the nuclear powers the point was to prevent other countries from gaining atomic weaponry. The first draft of the treaty, which was proposed jointly by the Soviets and the Americans, made no mention of freezing or disarming their own arsenals. Their suggestions instead mainly centered on methods of monitoring and safeguarding access to nuclear plants, equipment, designs, documents, radioactive sub stances, and the like.

The non-nuclear states recognized the necessity for such restrictions, but they worried less about the potential weapons on the planet than about the actual ones that the nuclear states already possessed. A treaty would be discriminatory if it permitted the 'Haves' to keep or develop new weapons while requiring the 'Have-nots' to remain forever unarmed.

Not surprisingly, the non-nuclear nations demanded a treaty that would also enforce moves toward disarmament by any nuclear power that might sign it.

The nuclear nations declined to surrender their monopoly of nuclear weaponry and, when the showdown came, only a few of the non-nuclear countries were prepared to stand their ground on this issue. Consequently, a split developed within the ranks of the non-nuclear nations, with the majority prepared to accept stringent controls against horizontal proliferation, but only vague, unenforceable pledges against vertical proliferation.

Three nuclear powers -- the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain -- were keen to obtain a treaty and they apparently cared less about winning universal adherence to it than about keeping the edge over the rest of the world in nuclear weaponry. At any rate, before the non-nuclear nations could hold a scheduled conference to reunite in support of the strong demands for disarmament, the superpowers quickly accepted the weaker proposals, which were certain to be rejected by some of the non-nuclear countries.

However poor a thing it may be, the NPT was ratified by 70 nations at the outset (and to date by 124) on the grounds, presumably, that something is better than nothing at all.

Not everyone agrees: Among the nuclear nations, China and France have steadfastly refused to sign. Other holdouts include India and Argentina, which had called for a treaty enforcing disarmament as well as horizontal non-proliferation. Having failed to carry the day during the negotiations, they and several other countries began research toward the development of independent nuclear capability.

In 1974, India exploded a nuclear device, using fissile material from a Canadian-built nuclear reactor. It was the first big shock indicating that the world's non-proliferation regime might not hold up.

As the dangers of "melt-downs," radiation leakage, nuclear wastes and other hazards to public health and safety became apparent, public opinion has shifted against nuclear reactors. And as nuclear power proved to be unaffordable, demand for reactors has virtually vanished. But under the terms of the NPT, all signatory countries are obliged to share peaceful nuclear technology in the fullest way possible with less developed countries, following the specified IAEA safeguards. Canada, for example, is pledged to supply uranium, reactors, technical advice and other technological help to recipient countries, including Libya. Iraq and Egypt.

The nuclear industry is in the doldrums; far fewer plants are going to be built than anyone expected twenty years ago. But this dropoff has resulted from the costliness and danger of the reactors, and not because the NPT has significantly limited the trade. Nuclear salesmen still travel the world, making a deal wherever they can.

However, the supplier nations, worried about India's demonstrated ability to gain nuclear capability without signing the treaty, have collectively tightened up the safeguards they impose when exporting fissionable substances and equipment. These apply to all their clients, whether or not they have signed the NPT. This action by the suppliers has probably restrained some countries from developing bombs who would have tried to do so, since they did not sign the NPT.

The United States is explicit in overlooking the NPT restrictions by selling to any country it considers to be 'friendly' -- whether or not it is a party to the treaty. In contrast, the Soviet Union has been much more guarded about sharing its nuclear secrets and gadgetry.

Still, despite all its weaknesses, even most critics of the NPT consider it better than nothing, and if its members should start dropping out the superpowers in particular would worry. Herein lies the NPT's major potential: The nuclear nations, even while lightly disregarding its terms themselves, want the treaty to restrain other countries and, if pressed by other signatories, may even make concessions to keep it alive. One cannot say so with certainty because, until now, they have come up against no pressure worth mentioning. This year may be the time for that.

The IAEA, charged with monitoring the 'peaceful' nuclear installations around the world, meets every year to consider evidence about suspected violations. It is the forum for laying charges of horizontal weapons proliferation. However, under the terms of the NPT, allegations of vertical proliferation can only be officially raised at the NPT Review Conference, which takes place every five years. The nuclear nations invariably try to focus the discussion in such conferences on the problems of controlling horizontal proliferation, not their own dangerous activities. However, they cannot absolutely deflect criticism, since by signing the treaty they agreed to Article VI -- which obliges them to pursue negotiations in good faith to end the nuclear arms race, and achieve nuclear disarmament under international control. The treaty's preamble also specifically mentions the importance of reaching a comprehensive ban on the testing of nuclear weapons. While the NPT is a weak, toothless document when it comes to enforcing compliance with these agreements, the signatory nations can at least confront the nuclear weapon states with their obvious failure to live up to them.

The Comprehensive Test Ban, for example, is openly blocked by the US Government, on grounds that convince virtually no other nations -- that tests could be carried out in secret and that no ban could be verified. Today, however, seismologists can detect explosions as small as one kiloton. The Soviet Union is willing to enter into a CTB, but the US refuses because it frankly wants to go on testing new weapons-- including the X-ray laser, which would use nuclear explosions in outer space as part of the Star Wars system.

With proper commitment, the non-nuclear weapon states will be able to cause quite a stir at the NPT Review Conference this September. They can demand that the superpowers live up to their commitments by producing some actual progress toward disarmament. Not only can they ask embarrassing questions, but if enough angry signatory nations send delegations, they will have 2/3 of the votes and be able to do something even stronger. One approach may be to pass a resolution that, in effect, censures the nuclear weapon states. Another possibility is not to conclude the conference at all and wait five more years, but to adjourn it for one year, instructing the superpowers to effect a Comprehensive Test Ban during that interval .

During the two previous review conferences, the superpowers collaborated beautifully to claim they were living up to their commitments. They claimed to be hard at work on the SALT treaty, for example. Now they will claim to be toiling hard in Geneva. In 1985, many countries are angry and demand some concrete progress from the nuclear weapons states. Where, in past years, too few of these angry countries turned up to pass any motion by the required two-thirds majority, an effort is being made today to prompt a good turnout.

What is Canada's position in this matter? Prime Minister Mulroney's priorities are to support the NPT, promote a Comprehensive Test Ban, and to get the superpowers back to negotiating. One might expect the government to seize this opportunity with enthusiasm, since a critical, demanding presence at the NPT Review Conference would seem to promote all three of these objectives simultaneously. However, that approach may not be the one that the government will actually adopt. There are divided views within the Government about how vigorously to insist on a Comprehensive Test Ban. Ambassador Douglas Roche's speeches lately have been firm on this matter. The past action of Canada however, has been to refrain from putting pressure on the United States -- instead 'supporting' the NPT merely by trying to cool the criticism of the other signatory countries and keeping them committed to the treaty.

Clearly, the time is overdue for a change. The treaty will expire in 1995 anyway, and nothing has been done to prepare a new, better agreement to take its place. The only way to reassure the states without nuclear weapons will be for the superpowers to stop testing and deploying new nuclear weapons and to freeze and begin disarming the existing ones. A temporary patch-up job, even if it succeeds this time, is expected only to undermine the long-run commitment of the other countries, some of whom are already prepared to opt out of the treaty and begin preparing their own weapon systems.

Naturally, there are differences of opinion about the matter within the peace movement. The Consultative Group was convened by Ambassador Roche in April to discuss Canada's posture in the NPT Review Conference. Some of the participants were ambivalent about the matter.

On the one hand, they recognize that those nations which threaten to quit the treaty are likely to impel the superpowers to begin real disarmament. Mexico, for example, has no intention of building nuclear weapons, but it has been considering dropping out of the treaty, just to jar the superpowers into working for disarmament.

On the other hand, because the NPT is still a useful agreement, some people worry whenever a country talks of quitting, lest the whole treaty begin falling apart.

According to William Epstein, a longtime United Nations expert, at least a dozen nations could put together nuclear weapons within one or two years. Another dozen could do so within five or six years. Another two dozen could do so by the end of the century. There are, he adds, no technological fixes to proliferation. It's a political question. Governments will respond to popular pressure, if it is intense enough.

That is where the peace movement comes in. Peace activists are trying to accomplish the generation of political will. This requires a continuous review of options for the movement's agenda. This summer, stopping Star Wars occupies the top priority.

A second objective on the Canadian movement's agenda may emerge -- to urge the Government not to soothe the non-nuclear states or lull them into accepting the present situation when they assemble in Geneva in September. If it so chooses, Canada can support the non-nuclear signatory states in objecting to the superpowers' vertical proliferation. And, insofar as that proliferation results from continued nuclear weapons testing, the criticism is bound to focus on the one superpower that opposes a Comprehensive Test Ban, Canada's neighbor and ally, the United States.

Peace Magazine June 1985

Peace Magazine June 1985, page 28. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here

Peace Magazine homepage