Zero nuclear weapons still a distant dream

Zero nuclear weapons still a distant dream
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First Published: Wed, Apr 29 2009. 12 56 AM IST

In early May, representatives from 191 countries will assemble in New York to discuss the fate of one of the most popular international treaties: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Only four countries—Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea—will not be present; the first three because they are not parties to the NPT and the last one because it is deemed to have withdrawn from it.
Although the NPT review conference (RevCon) is a year away, given the failure of the previous RevCon in 2005, there is serious concern that the 2010 conference might meet a similar fate and with it, as Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre recently warned: “The NPT as such might sail into the sunset.”
Against this backdrop, the preparatory conference this year and events over the next year will be crucial in determining the success or failure of the conference in 2010.
Despite this onerous responsibility, the mood at next week’s meeting is expected to be one of rare optimism. There are several reasons behind this. First, the 2006 report of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission led by former chairman of the International Atomic Energy Commission Hans Blix and the ongoing joint Australian and Japanese government sponsored International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, which is expected to produce its report before the 2010 RevCon, have kept a public spotlight on the challenges of nuclear proliferation.
Second, an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in January 2007 by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn calling for a world free of nuclear weapons, followed by another one in the same publication in January 2008 further elaborating steps towards a nuclear-free world. Although none of the ideas were particularly new, the articles were considered a paradigm shift given the previous role of the so-called four horsemen in supporting nuclear weapons.
Third, a seminal speech of UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon supporting the cause of a nuclear weapon convention at a high-level international event organized by EastWest Institute and its partners in October. In addition, the Global Zero initiative launched in Paris in December and signed on by several senior Indian military (albeit retired) officials, which calls for the elimination of all nuclear weapons in a fixed time frame.
Finally, the joint statement by US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev not only calling for further reduction in their own arsenals but also linking these reductions to their commitment to Article VI (on disarmament) of the NPT.
Pessimists, however, point to the 2006 North Korean nuclear test and the recent resumption of its weapon programme; the challenges in prosecuting members of the A.Q. Khan network; the growing Iranian nuclear weapon capability coupled with the uncertainty of Tehran’s ultimate intentions; the reluctance of NPT nuclear weapon states to accept the 13 steps agreed upon in the 2000 RevCon; the non-entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); the continued justification of some NPT nuclear weapon states for maintaining their arsenals to counter threats from non-state actors; and the unfulfilled deal over the West Asia nuclear weapon free resolution of 1995 which calls for the disarming of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, and caution that there are several hurdles that could still prevent a successful 2010 NPT RevCon.
To be called successful, the 2010 RevCon will have to show significant progress on at least two fronts. First, a reaffirmation by the NPT nuclear weapon states to their Article VI commitments by significantly and visibly reducing their nuclear arsenals. Second, there would have to be substantial movement on the West Asia resolution, which would satisfy Egypt in particular. The latter is probably a bigger challenge because it might be almost impossible to think what might placate Egypt short of having Israel give up its nuclear arsenal; an impossibility under the present situation.
In addition, both the US and Russia (as the possessors of the two biggest nuclear arsenals) would have to make a strong show of substantial progress in reducing nuclear arsenals to at least around 1,000 (still three times more than the next rung of nuclear weapon states). It would be ideal if the US were also to ratify the CTBT before the 2010 RevCon.
Even if the RevCon were to achieve this minimalist target, the prospect of zeroing down to zero nuclear weapons will still remain a distant dream.
In the first instance, the second tier of nuclear weapon states (the UK, France and China) will have to be brought into the negotiation process, which until now has been confined only to the US and Russia. How will that process be achieved? At what stage and under what auspices would such negotiations take place?
Perhaps the UN Security Council, where all the five NPT nuclear weapon states are permanent members, might be the most appropriate setting to conduct these negotiations. It would also send a powerful signal that world order (as presently represented by the UN Security Council) is no longer dependent on the possession of nuclear weapons.
However, to achieve the goal of absolute zero, countries such as Israel, India and Pakistan, which remain outliers to the NPT in particular and the NPT regime (which included the CTBT and other agreements) in general, will have to be brought into the fold. That, of course, is well beyond the scope of the 2010 RevCon.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Your comments are welcome at
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First Published: Wed, Apr 29 2009. 12 56 AM IST