Nuclear treaty isn't perfect, but it's all we've got - The bomb wasn't banned

The UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty hasn't prevented India, Pakistan, Israel - and potentially Iran and North Korea - from acquiring nuclear capability. But imagine a world where it hadn't been adopted by so many other states

by Olivier Zajec -

The idea of a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was first proposed in the 1950s when the US, Russia and Britain had nuclear weapons, and France and China were developing them. (France exploded its first nuclear bomb in 1960, China in 1964.) Since the US was in the lead, it had the greatest interest in limiting the arms race, so from the beginning of the 1950s it pushed for nuclear containment. President Dwight Eisenhower proposed to the UN General Assembly on 8 December 1953 that an agency be set up to control the use of nuclear material (1).

For the sake of world peace and maintaining their status, the other nuclear powers, and those about to become so, assessed the situation: a mechanism that recognised their progress while halting the spread of a powerful weapon would be in their interest. The project had no shortage of allies of convenience.

Eisenhower's idea gained ground, although for a long time it was hostage to the power struggle between the US and Russia. In October 1956, after many stormy debates, the UN created the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA. Article 3.5 of its charter defines its mission as "to establish and administer safeguards designed to ensure that special fissionable and other materials, services, equipment, facilities, and information made available by the Agency or at its request or under its supervision or control are not used in such a way as to further any military purpose?. In return, Article 3.1 explains, the IAEA offers "to encourage and assist research on, and development and practical application of, atomic energy for peaceful uses throughout the world."

Stick and carrot

The order of priorities is therefore the wrong way round in the text: in view of the balance of power at that time, paragraph 1 of Article 3 should follow on from paragraph 5, not the other way around. The IAEA's primary role is to safeguard, and only then to assist. Article 3.5 also had an important implication: the agency could not be a guardian without legal power; if it was not to remain a weak, marginal, advisory body, it had to have powers of enforcement.

That power came with the NPT, signed on 1 July 1968 by 43 states, including North Korea. Ratified on 5 March 1970, for a period of 25 years, it has been one of the world's most successful and universal treaties: only Israel, India and Pakistan have never signed it. Its introductory statement sets out the objective of universal access to atomic energy for civilian purposes but also (as is often forgotten) describes the ideal of a world without nuclear weapons. The signatories desired 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 all 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?. When Barack Obama gave his speech last year in Prague about a "world without nuclear weapons?, he might as well have read out the NPT (2).

Until that vision becomes reality, the NPT tries to contain nuclear weapons technology, through 10 articles, some flexible, some strict. Articles 8 and 10 say a signatory can propose amendments to the treaty, or withdraw "if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardised the supreme interests of its country?. But Articles 2 and 3, the heart of the text, deal with the undertaking by Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) not to acquire nuclear weapons, and describe the IAEA inspection regime they will undergo in exchange for civilian nuclear technology, guaranteed by Nuclear Weapons States (NWS)  (3).

Therein lies the ambiguity of the Treaty: if NNWS are to be compensated for their sacrifice, NWS must gradually reduce their nuclear arsenals (4), while freely sharing their nuclear technology with NWS and adopting restrictive doctrines on its use, so that the NNWS will not feel threatened. While none of these three things has ever been done to the full satisfaction of NNWS, the NPT has, after many arguments (5), gained legitimacy, and in 1995 it was reaffirmed and extended indefinitely. An additional protocol in 1998 guaranteed complete freedom of movement for IAEA inspectors (6).

Three fundamental problems weaken the treaty: the increasing overlap between civilian and military nuclear technology; self-declaration of compliance (states tell the IAEA which facilities to visit, and may therefore hide some) and the lack of a clear definition of what constitutes evidence of non-compliance; and the fact that NNWS can, in the course of the long process of signature, ratification and application of the treaty (7), manoeuvre to become "threshold states? or even nuclear states.

Despite the treaty's attempts to safeguard against proliferation, there have been many failures, but it is worth examining whether these can be attributed to the NPT. The worst may be India and Pakistan, which became nuclear powers in 1974 and 1985, and are not signatories to the NPT.

First the US (until 1965), then the Soviet Union, knowingly helped India develop weapons in the context of the cold war and geopolitical balance. This began before the NPT was ratified in 1970. By the time India detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1974, the die was already cast (8).

Several countries, including France, transferred civilian nuclear know-how to Pakistan in the belief it would sign the NPT. When it did not and those countries withdrew their help, China stepped in, until Pakistan achieved nuclear capability in 1985. China did not join the NPT until 1992.

Israel is the other major failure. Israel officially denies possessing nuclear weapons. The US knows everything there is to know about Israel's supposed non-possession, but still backs it up.

Among the signatories, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have all become "threshold states?. Technically Taiwan cannot violate the NPT since it is no longer recognised by the UN and so cannot be a signatory in its own right. The US blocked its plans to produce nuclear weapons anyway. South Korea and Japan (late signatories, in 1975 and 1976), both technologically advanced countries, are under the protection of the US nuclear umbrella.

Iran seems more straightforward: as a signatory to the treaty, it would be in violation if it were trying to produce nuclear weapons. No country, not even China or Russia, can claim to have enough influence over Iran to secure guarantees. North Korea is another serious case, since unlike Iran it has withdrawn from the Treaty (in 2003). North Korea's progress towards nuclear armament has been slow, but has for a long time benefited from the benevolent attitude of China. Nonetheless, China appears to have stopped helping it directly since ratifying the NPT.

Things could be worse

The picture is not rosy. But it can be looked at another way: with the exception of North Korea, no state has withdrawn from the treaty. At present no non-nuclear signatory has the bomb. Since the birth of the NPT, the world has not known nuclear war, or an escalation comparable to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The number of denuclearised zones (provided for in Article 7 of the Treaty (9)) has increased: Antarctica in 1959 (before the NPT), South Pacific in 1985, Latin America in 1995. Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus have dismantled their nuclear arsenals, as have South Africa and Sweden. Brazil and Argentina have given up their nuclear research programmes.

The NPT cannot take all the credit, but it did provide the legal and moral backdrop for the negotiations that led to these breakthroughs. The fact the treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995 shows the importance accorded to it. (It could have been extended for just another 25 years.)

How do we evaluate the effectiveness of the NPT? The world is far from the nuclear-free ideal, and non-proliferation remains largely dependent on dissuasion by NWS. But imagine what the world would be like without an NPT. It is easier to list what it has not managed to prevent than to imagine what it has managed to avoid. So while the controversy over Iran's nuclear programme rages, let us concede to the treaty's detractors that as a shield to protect us against the threat of proliferation, it is full of holes. But it is a shield, and what can be glimpsed through those holes prevents us from casting it aside.

(1) Speech entitled "Atoms for Peace?.

(2) See Selig S Harrison, "article 1877?, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, April 2010.

(3) Each state is expected to sign the guarantee agreement with the IAEA 180 days after joining the Treaty.

(4) Which they agree to do under article 6.

(5) The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), 118 countries, regularly calls for the NWS to share their civilian nuclear technology more openly, and for Israel to ratify the treaty.

(6) Around 60 of the 189 signatories applied the additional protocol.

(7) France only ratified the NPT in 1992.

(8) Much more serious is the nuclear cooperation agreement signed between Washington and Delhi in 2006, which appears to reward India for circumventing the NPT.

(9) "Nothing in this Treaty affects the right of any group of states to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories.?