On 24 September, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the exclusive club that India desperately wants to join, made history of sorts when it passed resolution 1887, perhaps the most comprehensive decree on disarmament and non-proliferation in recent times if not the entire history of the UNSC.
The atmospherics of this special meeting of the UNSC, chaired by US President Barack Obama, could not have been more impressive: sitting around the famous horse-shoe table were the heads of state of 14 of the 15 security council members (only Libyan President Muhammed Gaddafi was missing) and they all unanimously endorsed resolution 1887; a rare consensus on a divisive issue.
The proceedings of the UNSC presidential summit took place under the approving gaze of the so-called four horsemen—Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, Bill Perry, and George Shultz—the elderly US statesmen who penned their vision of a “World Free of Nuclear weapons” in two prominent Wall Street Journal op-eds in 2007 and 2008. Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon were present.
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The highlights of this notable resolution, primarily based on a text drafted by the US, include: the first ever reference to article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) which calls for general and complete disarmament and holds the original five nuclear weapon states accountable to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear arms reduction and disarmament”; the “inalienable right” of NPT members to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination”; support for nuclear-weapon-free zones; and a reaffirmation of the pledge of the five original nuclear weapon states not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states of the NPT.
Of these, the explicit acknowledgement of the original nuclear weapon states of their article VI commitment and obligations, something that they have shied away from in the past, as well as the intrinsic link between nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are perhaps the most noteworthy. Equally noteworthy are the issues that the resolution does not mention.
For instance, there is no reference to UNSC resolution 687 (which was responsible for the disarmament of Iraq’s weapon of mass destruction capabilities) or 1172 (which relates to the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998). The latter is particularly significant as it indicates a tacit acceptance of the Indian (and Pakistani) nuclear status.
Pessimists have argued that this resolution is a last-ditch effort to salvage the NPT regime. They assert that it is narrowly designed to ensure a modicum of success for the much-beleaguered NPT review conference in May 2010 and has a sell-by date of only a few months. They note that the unprecedented reference to article VI and a brief reference to disarmament was the only price that the unelected nuclear members of the UNSC were willing to pay.
They also point out that only about one-third of the operative paragraphs address disarmament while the rest focus on non-proliferation. This is borne out by the fact that only one of the original nuclear weapon states—the UK—made explicit commitments to decreasing its nuclear arsenal. The pessimistic view is also evident from the absence of any reference to the Middle East nuclear weapons free zone, which has become an article of faith for many of the non-nuclear NPT members.
Finally, there is serious concern that the UNSC has empowered itself through resolution 1887 to determine “non-compliance with non-proliferation obligations”, which is seen by many non-nuclear NPT members as contradictory to the Treaty, especially as many of them consider the original five nuclear weapon states as proliferators who are not in compliance with their own non-proliferation obligations.
Optimists on the other hand, while acknowledging these omissions and commissions, nonetheless look to the resolution as an important first step in bridging the gap between non-proliferation and disarmament. In addition, they also welcome the resolution’s efforts to highlight the clear and present danger posed by non-state actors seeking weapons of mass destruction.
They also note that the resolution has not only put disarmament back on the UN agenda but has brought the major powers and the original five nuclear weapons states back to the UN to discuss this crucial issue.
Irrespective of the differing views on the resolution, 1887 gives an opportunity to those who are serious about disarmament to use it as a way to ensure that the momentum is not lost even after the conclusion of the NPT review conference next year. India, which has rejected the call in resolution 1887 to join the NPT, could still use the resolution to start serious negotiations with other nuclear weapon states on several critical issues of strategic interest. In 1998, India used resolution 1172 and subsequent negotiations, particularly with the US, to ensure its own nuclear armament. It remains to be seen whether New Delhi will now use resolution 1887 to further the cause of nuclear disarmament.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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