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Q&A: Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime Has Triple Standards

Thalif Deen interviews JOHN BURROUGHS of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - The abolition of nuclear weapons – and a halt to the spread of the deadly armaments – will be a major talking point at the month-long Review Conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), scheduled to take place at the United Nations beginning next week.

John Burroughs Credit: Courtesy of John Burroughs

John Burroughs Credit: Courtesy of John Burroughs

The conference, held every five years, comes at a time when the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged the near-impossible: ushering in a “world without nuclear weapons”.

The promise may fall short of reality since the world’s declared and undeclared nuclear powers have given no indication of either abandoning their weapons or agreeing to jettison them – at least without any preconditions.

John Burroughs, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, says civil society has mobilised on a scale not seen since the 1980s, gathering over 10 million signatures on petitions calling for negotiations on a global nuclear abolition agreement.

But he warns that the NPT Review Conference, due to take place May 3 through May 28, “will not be the place where the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme is resolved, or North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is reversed”.

In an interview with IPS U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, Burroughs said the ingredients for a good outcome at the Review Conference do exist.

“There is determination on the part of most countries to reverse the decade-long slide toward disintegration of the NPT,” he said.

He said President Obama has eloquently explained nuclear dangers, articulated a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, and set in motion what he says are steps toward that goal.

And most notably, the United States and Russia signed a treaty Apr. 8 that would again apply verification to reductions of long-range nuclear weapons, Burroughs pointed out, “although the reductions themselves are quite modest, leaving in place society-destroying capabilities, while the United States in the meantime is increasing spending on weapons production facilities”.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What are your expectations of the month-long conference? And what would you consider the benchmark for measuring success? A: I would consider the conference a success if the key past commitments were affirmed, concrete steps were agreed on multilateralisation of reduction and elimination of nuclear arsenals, and support was expressed for strengthening controls on non-proliferation like the Additional Protocol (where each non-weapons state would agree to provide more access and transparency of its nuclear activities).

But negotiations will be intense and difficult in three main contested areas. One concerns an action plan for nuclear disarmament. It probably won’t be that hard to affirm updated versions of past commitments made at NPT conferences in 1995 and 2000, including bringing the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty into force; starting negotiations to ban production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons; applying the principle of irreversibility to reductions of arsenals; and diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in security policies.

Q: What are the other stumbling blocks to a successful conference? A: A second contested area will concern strengthening of measures on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, including: enhancing the IAEA’s (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspection powers through adoption of the Additional Protocol, multilateral controls on the production and supply of fuel for nuclear reactors, adding restrictions on withdrawal.

Many non-nuclear weapon states resist such measures, contending that they have already paid for disarmament by joining and complying with the NPT. But it is possible that agreement could be reached on weaker commitments, for example encouraging states to adopt the Additional Protocol.

A third contested area will concern advancing the achievement of a zone free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the Middle East, as promised by a resolution adopted by the 1995 NPT conference. This is vital to Arab states and it could also be helpful in resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme. Here the signals are promising. It appears that agreement may be reached on convening an international conference in the next one or two years.

Q: Do you anticipate any other barriers during negotiations? A: Also complicated will be negotiations concerning a commitment to multilateralisation of reductions of nuclear arsenals, bringing states with nuclear arsenals beyond the United States and Russia into the process. The Obama administration has endorsed this approach in principle, but offered no concrete near-term mechanisms. Something may be possible along these lines.

Q: Will the conference succeed in adopting a final document – considering the fact that the 2005 Review Conference ended without any substantive agreement? A: Whether the Review Conference can adopt a final document by consensus will depend not only on reaching agreement in the contested areas, but also on whether certain states want to disrupt the outcome for their own purposes. If consensus is not possible, ways other than a final document could be found to signal broad agreement.

Q: Why is there a perception of hypocrisy and double standards by the United States and other Western powers trying to penalise Iran for nuclear weapons it does not possess when they have a different set of rules for the three undeclared nuclear states: India, Pakistan and Israel? A: The non-proliferation regime has a fundamental problem of double, indeed, triple standards. The NPT itself is a two-tier system, with some states acknowledged to have nuclear weapons but obligated to negotiate their elimination, and others subject to a verified obligation of non-acquisition. Then there are the states with nuclear arsenals outside the NPT: India, Pakistan, and Israel, and recently North Korea.

This puts considerable strain on some states inside the NPT required not to obtain nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Suppliers Group exemption for India pushed by the United States exacerbates the uneven application of standards. It permits nuclear commerce with a state that has not even formally accepted the disarmament obligations and commitments undertaken by the nuclear weapon states within the NPT.

Meanwhile, a non-nuclear weapon state in the NPT, Iran, is scrutinised and penalised due to a programme suspected of aiming at making it capable of producing nuclear weapons. There is only one solution to the problem of triple standards: the creation of a global system with one rule applying to all states, non-possession of nuclear weapons.

While there are many different views on how and when to achieve this, the basic point is increasingly accepted in many quarters, elite and popular, North and South, peace activists and national security experts.

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