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The great nuclear divide

Saturday 21 May 2005, by PRASHAD*Vijay

in New York

The seventh NPT review conference convenes at the United Nations in New York at a time when the gulf between the interests of the nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear states is stark. While the former put greater emphasis on proliferation, the latter campaign for nuclear disarmament.

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Mayor Akiba of Hiroshima (far right) and Mayor Itoh of Nagasaki (second right) march past the U.N. headquarters in New York on May 1 along with survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima in a rally calling for nuclear disarmament.

ON the eve of the seventh review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), 40,000 people marched across New York city carrying banners with a simple slogan, "No Nukes, No War". The slogan linked the opposition of the protesters the ongoing wars across the planet to the dangers of nuclear annihilation. Among those who walked past the United Nations buildings to Central Park were a group of hibakusha, survivors from the U.S. atomic bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They already knew the horrors of war, in general and nuclear war in particular. Sunao Tsuboi, who was 20 years old when "Little Boy" fell on Hiroshima, recounted the devastation. "That’s why we call the atomic bomb the absolute evil," he said. While these marchers came to bear witness to the danger of nuclear annihilation, they mainly came to remind the delegates to the NPT conference that they should not take their charge lightly.

The NPT review conference began on May 2. On the first day, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke in terms that echoed the concerns of the marchers of the day before. Kofi Annan warned a half-empty General Assembly Hall that all the fruits of development and progress would be squandered "by a nuclear catastrophe in one of our great cities". Such an assault would not only kill a large number of people, but also create chaos in the world. Kofi Annan must have sensed the lackadaisical attitude of the delegates, for his speech directly asked them to take responsibility for a potential nuclear tragedy. What would the delegates do in the event of such an attack? Would they ask, "How did it come to this? Is my conscience clear? Could I have done more to reduce the risk by strengthening the regime designed to do so?"

The conference convened with a very low expectation of success. Annan knew well that there were several positions already carved out by certain parties and that they would be loath to challenge their assumptions. "I have no doubt," Annan noted, "that we will hear many truths about this conference," and indeed the challenge would be "to recognise all these truths". Of these truths, Annan noted three: total nuclear disarmament of the nuclear weapons states, non-proliferation to the non-nuclear weapons states, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Annan called on the delegates not to emphasise one of these elements over another, not to allow the NPT review to be "held hostage to the politics of the past".

In the first few days, the president of the conference, Brazil’s Sergio de Queiroz Duarte, had a hard time with the construction of the agenda. The NPT went into effect in 1970, with the proviso that it would be reviewed every five years. Of the six previous reviews, consensus on the final declaration was reached only three times (1975, 1985 and 2000) with the main point of conflict being over Article VI of the treaty. The article directly addresses the nuclear weapons states, asking them "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 controls". The gulf between the interests of the nuclear weapons states (who also hold permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council) and that of the non-nuclear states is stark: while the former put greater emphasis on the proliferation of nuclear weapons to those outside their club, the latter articulate a vision of a world with fewer and fewer weapons of mass annihilation. This divide is sharp, and it is this that magnifies the other smaller disagreements that have foiled the operation of the NPT. The history of distrust and manipulation made the construction of the agenda immensely difficult.

Annan’s expectations of the multiple truths were quickly satisfied. The U.S. delegate (and representatives of the other nuclear powers) emphasised the issue of proliferation, while the non-nuclear states underscored disarmament. The lines were drawn by the first afternoon, and it seems unlikely that anything will change before the conference ends on May 27. Rumours began to filter into the hall that North Korea planned to test a nuclear weapon during the NPT review. If this were to occur it would put the entire proceedings into disarray.

The U.S. delegate to the conference has tried to shape the agenda towards a consideration of North Korea’s putative withdrawal from the NPT and of Iran’s dispute over its nuclear programme with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In his opening statement, Stephen Rademaker, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, described the NPT as "a treaty for mutual security," where the "security of all member-states depends on unstinting adherence to the Treaty’s non-proliferation norms by all other parties". Rademaker’s emphasis on non-proliferation allowed him to spend most of his statement on North Korea, Iran and terrorism, and make only a brief statement on Article VI. If North Korea tests its nuclear weapon, it will not only destabilise North-East Asia but also provide fuel to the fire being stoked by the U.S. within the U.N.

If Rademaker took pride in the reductions in nuclear warheads because of the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) and the Moscow Treaty of 2002, this was insufficient for those who emphasised the total size of the nuclear arsenal. The New Agenda Coalition (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, South Africa, Sweden and New Zealand) directly confronted the U.S. on this issue. Marion Hobbs, New Zealand’s Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, who spoke for the New Agenda Coalition, pointed out that "the number of existing nuclear warheads today amount to upwards of 30,000. This is a figure that is almost as high as the estimated number of warheads that existed when the Treaty entered into force in 1970." For the Coalition, "nuclear disarmament and nuclear proliferation are mutually reinforcing processes", so one could not be emphasised over the other, and if the Coalition was "greatly disappointed" by disarmament, it would be moot whether North Korea or Iran can be blamed for the instability.

The New Agenda approach found an ally in the Malaysian representative, Syed Hamid Albar, who also spoke for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). While NAM wanted to credit the nuclear powers for their reductions, it put on record its "deep concern over the slow pace of progress". While the nuclear powers made some cuts in their arsenals, Albar noted, they "continue to develop and modernise their nuclear arsenal, threatening international peace and security. We must call for an end to this madness and seek the elimination and ban on all forms of nuclear weapons and testing as well as the rejection of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence." Like Hobbs, the NAM delegate put the onus on the nuclear powers for their lack of leadership in disarmament and for setting a poor example. Mohammed El Baradei, the Director-General of the IAEA, noted on this score that "as long as some countries place strategic reliance on nuclear weapons as a deterrent, other countries will emulate them... . We cannot delude ourselves into thinking otherwise."

Although it is the most important pillar of the global disarmament regime, the NPT suffers from a severe credibility problem. The majority of the world’s states negotiated and adopted the NPT at a time when NAM had a robust energy and when it had been able to place the demand for total disarmament into the core of the NPT. Institutional weaknesses within the regime, contempt or inaction by the main nuclear powers and disarray among the non-aligned states have led to the erosion of confidence in the NPT. Chun Yung-Woo, the South Korean delegate, raised this problem in the first few minutes of his address. "The integrity and credibility of the Treaty have suffered an irreparable blow," he pointed out, "as a result of North Korea’s complete disregard for and defiance of all nuclear non-proliferation norms." Because the NPT could not do anything in response, it demonstrated the "inherent limitations" in the regime. For the South Koreans, the NPT had been tarnished by its inability to act against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Dr. Kamal Kharrazi, Iranian delegate and Minister of Foreign Affairs, also pointed out that "the credibility of the NPT is at stake," but not because of proliferation. For him, the regime had been compromised by its inability to move against nuclear weapons states and their enhanced nuclear capacity. Furthermore, research into new, smart nukes, enunciation of new nuclear doctrines (with first-strike warnings) and creation of national missile shields had received little challenge from the NPT. If the NPT conference would not "consolidate the foundations of this Treaty", it would lose its integrity, he warned.

PERHAPS the most significant reason for the dampened mood in the hall in the early days of the conference should be sought in the long-running feud between the U.S. and the U.N. As Rademaker took his seat in the General Assembly Hall, the U.S. Congress continued to dispute the accession of John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and a U.S. Senator pursued his investigation of Kofi Annan’s role in the `oil for food’ fiasco in Iraq. The Bush coalition within the U.S. is programmatically opposed to the U.N., and to multilateral treaties. To accept the leadership of the U.N. would be to compromise the sovereignty of the U.S., although the U.S. Constitution itself asks the Congress to be guided by international treaties to which it is a party. In the May/June 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs, Kofi Annan published an article entitled "In Larger Freedom: Decision Time at the U.N." Annan took the opportunity to address institutional reform within the U.N. (including the question of the expansion of the Security Council), but he also emphasised the urgent "need to breathe new life into our multilateral frameworks," such as the NPT. The fundamental divide between the U.N.’s insistence on multilateralism guided by the General Assembly and the U.S.’s persistence on multilateralism guided by the Bush administration provides little expectation of forward motion on the NPT.

On the day that the conference opened, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter published a provocative editorial in the International Herald Tribune. In it, Carter lashed out at his own country. "The United States is the major culprit in this erosion of the NPT," he wrote. The U.S. points its finger at Iran and North Korea, Carter noted, at the same time as it has "abandoned existing treaty restraint" and has moved to "test and develop new weapons, including anti-ballistic missiles, the earth-penetrating `bunker buster’ and perhaps some new `small bombs’. They also have abandoned past pledges and now threaten first-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states." Carter hoped that the U.S. government would abandon this road, and instead cut back on nuclear weapons, renounce its aggressive nuclear weapons doctrine, demilitarise Europe, honour the test ban treaty and support a fissile-materials ban. If this did not happen, "the nuclear threat increases, not decreases."

Drawing from the Irish proposal in 2000, the Canadian representative, Assistant Deputy Minister Jim Wright, asked that the NPT review create some standing body that could meet each year for a week to review the progress on NPT as well as meet in an emergency fashion should any crisis break out. Apart from this deliberative aspect, the standing body should have some means to work with the IAEA and the U.N. Security Council to convey "the strongest possible messages on behalf of the Treaty members". It seems unlikely that this suggestion will get any more hearing now than it did five years ago. However, this might not be the problem at all. The nuclear club already has unimaginable destructive capacity, as do the declared nuclear powers (many of whom are not members of the NPT, such as India and Pakistan, as well as the non-declared power, Israel). The NPT can do little to sanction them. If North Korea conducts a test in the next few weeks, this will put pressure on a seated NPT board to act. Whether they will be able to create a pathway between the nuclear club and the non-nuclear critics (particularly the New Agenda and NAM) is to be seen.

"International regimes do not fail because of one breach, however serious or unacceptable," Kofi Annan noted in his opening charge. "They fail when many breaches pile one on top of the other, to the point where the gap between promise and performance becomes unbridgeable." The task of the NPT review, he emphasised, "is to narrow that gap". The worry is that events during this month will only increase it.

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 11, May 21 - Jun. 03, 2005

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