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POLITICS: World Leaders to Meet on Nuclear Security

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Apr 9 2010 (IPS) - On Apr. 12 and 13, U.S. President Barack Obama will host over 40 world leaders in Washington to develop a strategy to secure nuclear materials and prevent nuclear terrorism, following up on his announcements this week that that the U.S. would significantly modify its nuclear strategy and reduce the number of nuclear warheads in its stockpile by one-third.

On Wednesday, the White House released the new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which forbids the use of nuclear weapons against signatories in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), forswears the testing of nuclear weapons and development of new nuclear warheads, and commits the administration to seeking Senate ratification and the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Obama followed up on the NPR’s release with the signing of a new a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) on Thursday in Prague. The treaty commits the U.S. and Russia to reduce their nuclear stockpiles by one-third – bringing the total number of warheads possessed by each country down to 1,550.

The White House’s push to strengthen the NPT and reduce the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal began a year ago. In a speech delivered in Prague, Obama announced his administration’s intention to lead a global effort to secure nuclear materials, create international institutions to combat proliferation and nuclear terrorism and build on efforts to break up black markets and disrupt trade in nuclear materials.

While the NPT review conference will take place next month, next week’s nuclear security summit will focus on the prevention of nuclear terrorism, an issue which the NPT was not designed to address.

“There is no international framework agreement on fissile material security and, as a result, no organising force to drive the agenda. One important objective that should be under consideration for the summit is the creation of a framework agreement that identifies the threats to humankind from vulnerable fissile materials, especially the threats posed by terrorists, and lists actions required to mitigate them,” wrote Kenneth N. Luongo of the Arms Control Association.

The emphasis on nuclear security is partly a response to concerns that North Korea might transfer nuclear technology to al Qaeda and that Iran might be pursuing a clandestine nuclear programme. However, the Obama administration’s focus on nuclear policy appears to reflect a broader commitment to bring about a “world free of nuclear weapons”, as Obama pledged last year in Prague.

“There’s a whole web of institutions and agreements which touch on nuclear security policy – the NPT, IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), U.N. Security Council resolutions, etc. – which make binding commitments on countries to take action on nuclear terrorism,” government affairs representative Rob Leonard at the Ploughshares Fund, a major nuclear disarmament group, told IPS.

“You won’t see a piece of paper that addresses all of these issues but we will see a combination of conventions and treaties that form an interconnected web that makes up this new nuclear security agenda,” Leonard continued.

The nuclear security summit next week – the largest gathering of world leaders in the U.S. since the signing of the U.N. charter in 1945 in San Francisco – will call attention to the issue of securing nuclear materials as well as the White House’s unprecedented push for strengthening the NPT and reducing nuclear arsenals.

The White House’s high-profile commitments to the NPT, START, and the upcoming nuclear security summit emphasise the administration’s comprehensive strategy to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in existence and highlights the importance which the administration places on the issue.

Notably absent from the summit will be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced Thursday that he would not attend, citing concerns that the summit might be a venue for Arab states to declare their criticism of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Netanyahu’s decision not to attend the summit highlights the difficult position faced by Israel, a state which has not acknowledged its nuclear weapons programme but is believed to have as many as 200 warheads.

At the same time, Israel, which will send a delegation to the summit, has expressed its strong interest in preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and ensuring that nuclear weapons don’t fall into the hands of terrorists.

Last week’s announcement that Chinese President Hu Jintao would attend the summit put to rest rumours that Beijing would boycott the meet to register its anger with the Obama administration’s decisions to move forward with an arms sale to Taiwan and to meet with the Dalai Lama at the White House.

The Chinese presence at the event is particularly important in light of the international efforts to combat proliferation and concerns that North Korea might export its nuclear technologies.

China is widely seen as the country with the greatest influence over North Korea.

“[The summit] provides an unprecedented opportunity for Obama to talk candidly with Chinese President Hu Jintao about convincing Kim Jong Il that selling a nuclear weapon to al Qaeda could have the same consequences as attacking the United States with a nuclear missile,” wrote Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, in Friday’s Washington Post.

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