New life for the NPT?

By Derek Paul | 1995-03-01 12:00:00

March 1995 marks the 25th anniversary of the date the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons came into force and marks the Treaty's expiry unless it is renewed. Renewal could be for one or more five-year terms, or it could be indefinite. Some months ago, the Canadian Government had made up its mind to support indefinite renewal, the position of the five major nuclear-weapons powers.

Canadians might very well sit up and take note, because few treaties have been criticized as strongly or as justifiably as this one. It is therefore worth taking a look at what it says, how it has worked, and what it was intended to do.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a diplomatic instrument intended to help stem the spread of nuclear weapons and to reduce and finally eliminate such weapons altogether. The Treaty in its idealistic wording goes beyond nuclear disarmament. In the preamble we find:

Desiring to further the easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States in order to facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery pursuant to a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."

In this statement the Treaty parallels the ideal already embodies in the McCloy-Zorin agreement of 1961(f.1) and the U.N. Charter itself.

Major efforts have been made, with considerable success, to ban and eliminate other principal weapons of mass destruction--chemical and biological--so that the elimination of nuclear weapons remains a prime goal in the struggle for peace. Thus the NPT is prominent as an agreement to this end; but is it adequate?

The Treaty contains six substantive Articles (I through VI) and five others that govern diplomatic procedures, rights to withdraw, and so on. The first six Articles are arranged as follows:

Article I defines the responsibility of nuclear-weapon States not to transfer nuclear weapons or the control of such weapons, or any relevant technology to non-nuclear-weapon States.

Article II is its inverse, prohibiting non-nuclear States from participating in the activities proscribed in Article I.

Article III demands that non-nuclear weapon States accept safeguards as implemented through inspections by the International Atomic energy Agency (IAEA). The nuclear-weapon States are exempted from this in Article III but must not provide "source or special fissionable material" or various types of equipment to States that are not signatories to the NPT. It obliges non-nuclear weapon States to enter into agreement with the IAEA, for NPT purposes.

Article IV proclaims the right of all Parties to the NPT to develop, research, and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Its second paragraph declares: "All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy..."

Article V provides that "...under appropriate international observation and through appropriate international procedures, potential benefits from any peaceful applications of nuclear explosions will be made available to non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty...."

Article VI, in full, states: "Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the 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."

It is not difficult to see why the Treaty comes under so much criticism. According to Article III the nuclear-weapon States are not obliged to be subject to IAEA inspections. Article IV is premised upon nuclear energy for peaceful purposes being a blessing. Since the NPT came into force much has changed in the field of appropriate energy technology, so that a quite different first paragraph is called for. Furthermore, the Article fails to recognize the link between nuclear power capability and nuclear weapon capability, long recognized in the peace movement. The second paragraph impels States Party to the Treaty to help others develop nuclear power, regardless of the wisdom of doing this. There is also no balance in the question of choice of technology in this paragraph; that is to say, nuclear power is promoted instead of conservation and appropriate technology. Article V is completely obsolete, and could well and easily be struck when the Parties meet later this year to discuss renewal.

Article VI is the favorite for finger pointers, as it provides the perfect fuel for criticism. In spite of several nuclear arms-control agreements, the five nuclear-weapons powers have more nuclear weapons today than they had when the Treaty came into force. A treaty on general and complete disarmament is nowhere in sight, despite stalwart efforts over a period of years by the late Mexican Nobel Peace Laureate Garcia Robles, and others. It is the failure of the nuclear-weapons powers to dismantle their nuclear arsenals, or even to show that they really mean to do so, which rubs salt into the wound of discrimination, for discriminatory the Treaty surely is. The discrimination does not end at Article VI, but continues in Article VIII on Treaty amendment processes, in which paragraph 2 allows an amendment to pass by simple majority vote, except that all the nuclear-weapon States Party must agree to any amendment. Even if they do, any one of them can hold up the amendment from coming into force indefinitely by simply delaying deposition of its "instrument of ratification."

Lastly, the Treaty sets no limits on the qualitative development of nuclear weapons; that is to say the continued technological development of such weapons. This omission adds further to the discriminatory aspects of the NPT especially as the nuclear-weapon States continued the qualitative nuclear arms race during the 25 years of the Treaty, in violation of its spirit and in opposition to its central purpose.

So what of renewal? Despite all the criticism of the Treaty--not all listed here--there is a remaining feeling, strong in diplomatic circles, that the Treaty has worked to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons to nations that still don't have them. How much of that feeling is purely subjective is not part of this discussion, but one might say that there are high costs to the possession of such weapons and maybe some States, such as Argentina which could have performed nuclear tests long ago, thought better of it for other reasons. But let us for a moment agree with our diplomats that the Treaty really helped reduce the spread to new nuclear powers. Does that matter if we can all be obliterated by the existing stockpiles, or if large areas of the Earth can be contaminated incidentally?

The Canadian official policy would have us sign the Treaty into perpetuity and have our diplomats work with others behind the scenes on the further steps to a true regime of nuclear nonproliferation afterwards. They are good at this, and some progress might be made eventually. But is it worth the risk of failure, and the likelihood of dividing the world even more squarely into the camps of nuclear haves, with rich nation support, and have-nots largely from the Third World?(f.2) Canada is not a world power, and its interests are not furthered by the continuance of a dominant group of nuclear-weapons powers who at any time may set up an arms race against each other. The NPT needs modifying, and a five-year renewal would provide time for thought; it would enable the non-nuclear weapon States to make their demands clear while giving the nuclear-weapon States time to adjust to the emerging climate of world opinion. As a start, the obsolete Article V could be removed, since nobody still believes that peaceful nuclear explosions are of any value; besides, they would violate a comprehensive test ban. Another practical modification would be the rewriting of Article IV, to bring it into a modern perspective, discouraging the development of nuclear power and encouraging energy choices to be made in the light of the widest possible survey of the alternatives. The third requirement of a new or amended Treaty will be the equality of all Parties under Article III; and finally, a timetable must be sought for the measures promised under Article VI. This last, most difficult question is the prime reason the Treaty should not be renewed indefinitely this year. Regardless of what our diplomats say, the pressure to conform with the requirements of Article VI will be removed once the Treaty in its present form is set in concrete forever.

What the nations should ask for in 1995 is a time-limited renewal together with the following amendments: the removal of Article V and the rewriting and balancing of Article IV. Along with this there should be an understanding reached on Article VI about the progress to be made by the end of the Treaty's next term, whatever its duration. With these relatively easy changes, the Treaty might very well move in the direction intended by its authors 25 years ago.


(f.1) The McCloy-Zorin agreement, between the U.S. and the USSR, outlined how these two countries, locked in a deadly arms race, intended to progress toward a disarmed world.
(f.2) Recent General Assembly voting on a motion to refer the legality of use of nuclear weapons to the World Court had the unfortunate pattern of grouping agreat many European nations and the U.S. against such a move, while support for the motion came very largely from Third World countries.

Derek Paul is a professor of physics at the University of Toronto and a former president of Science for Peace.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1995

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1995, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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