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Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: 

Nuclear Disarmament Commentary Index




Published by The Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, New York


June/July 1999 Volume 1, Number 3


Nuclear Disarmament Faces

A Most Critical Year

By William Epstein



Deadlock on Nuclear Disarmament

During the first half of 1999, the deadlock on nuclear disarmament has hardened. The Conference on Disarmament (CD) at both its first and second 1999 sessions again failed to agree on a program of work. The UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC) also again failed to agree at its April session on convening a Fourth Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD IV) because the nuclear powers could not agree with the other members on the SSOD’s agenda or objectives.

The 50th Anniversary Summit Meeting of NATO adopted three documents on 24 April, one of which was a short formal statement, but the other two were detailed lengthy documents. A "new" Alliance Strategic Concept was in large part a repetition of NATO’s Cold War strategic concepts. Its nuclear forces were described as "essential to preserve peace" and as the "supreme guarantee" of the security of the alliance. It stated that subategic nuclear weapons would remain in Europe as an "essential link with strategic nuclear forces". NATO’s defence posture would continue to be improved through "work on missile defences". The Summit Communique on An Alliance for the 21st Century pledged to further expand NATO’s membership by nine additional East European countries and perhaps more.

On 29 April, the Russian Security Council also approved three documents on nuclear weapons policy at a secret session, which a number of observers believe were intended as the Russian response to the NATO Summit Meeting. They were reported to provide that nuclear weapons would remain "a key element" of Russia’s national security and military power. Three presidential decrees provided for "the development of the nuclear weapons complex" and for "developing and using nonategic nuclear weapons". A number of commentators feared that the results of the American and Russian meetings, and strong Russian objections to US efforts to develop theatre and national defence systems, could lead to a resumption of the nuclear arms race by the two major nuclear powers.

The third and final session of the Preparatory Committee (Prep Com) for the 2000 Review Conference of the NPT was held in May. The Prep Com agreed to a number of procedural matters (e.g. that the Review Conference would be held in New York from 24 April to 19 May 2000, with Mr. Jacob Selebi of South Africa as its President). As was expected, it failed to agree on any substantive recommendations to the Review Conference. Once again, the failure was due to the basic disagreement on implementing nuclear disarmament between the nuclear powers and the non-nuclear parties to the NPT.

The hardening of the deadlock was made very clear at the Prep Com’s final session. With the possible exception of China (which supports policies of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and the speedy elimination of all nuclear weapons) and of the United Kingdom (which has de-alerted all its nuclear weapons), the other nuclear powers refused to agree to begin any negotiations in the CD or elsewhere on the elimination of nuclear weapons, with or without a fixed time period, contrary to the unanimous finding of the International Court of Justice. They also refused to agree to no-first-use of nuclear weapons, or even to such safety measure as taking them off their current hair-trigger alert. Nor do they agree even to make an "unequivocal" commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons or to agree to the establishment of an ad hoc committee of the CD to negotiate any aspect of nuclear disarmament.

The nuclear powers, however, are ready to negotiate a ban on the future production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, but many non-nuclear states regard this as a measure for nuclear non-proliferation and not for nuclear disarmament.

There are also no negotiations being conducted by the five recognized nuclear powers among themselves on any measures of nuclear disarmament; and even between the two principal nuclear powers, Russia and the United States, there are no bilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Nor has either of them ratified the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Thus, there is a failure or absence of leadership by the two nuclear superpowers. Without their active leadership, no really important progress can be made on nuclear disarmament. And as time goes by without such progress, the credibility and integrity of the NPT and the nuclear non-proliferation regime are undermined.

Throughout the entire 54 years of existence of the UN, which are also the years of existence of the nuclear age, the relationship between the Soviet Union (now Russia) and the United States was the key determinant of progress. During periods of improving relations and détente, when the two superpowers approached problems in a cooperative rather than confrontational way, important agreements and treaties were achieved even during the Cold War, such as the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, the 1968 NPT and the 1972 SALT I agreements. But during periods of competitive political and military rivalry and confrontation, the world community had to survive years of disagreement and deadlock.

During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s a number of important treaties and agreements were achieved. But unfortunately, during the last few years there has been a marked worsening of relations between the two nuclear superpowers. (See issues 1 and 2 of Nuclear Disarmament Commentary). Unless the current trend is halted and reversed, the outlook for nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation is bleak indeed.

Gleams of Light

Despite the increasing gloom during the first half of 1999, there were some gleams of light that have helped to keep hopes alive for a change for the better. Among the lengthy documents adopted by the NATO 50th Anniversary Summit, there was one paragraph of An Alliance for the 21st Century which stated that the NATO Council will propose a process to Ministers in December to consider "options for confidence and security building measures, verification, non-proliferation and arms control and disarmament" and that "the responsible NATO bodies would accomplish this."

The rather tentative and vague language of this single paragraph, as compared to the firm tone and definitive language setting forth the basic concepts and policies for NATO in the 21st century, would seem to hold out little hope for any drastic changes for the better. Nevertheless, if a sufficient number of NATO members are determined to press for a serious review process, there is no telling what might occur or result. Hence it does provide some gleam of light.

Another unexpected gleam of light emerged during the final hours of the third Prep Com meeting in May. The Chairman of the Prep Com, Ambassador Carmilo Reyes Rodriguez, who presided over the Committee with great skill, produced a remarkable Chairman’s Revised Working Paper. The Revised Working Paper presented in a comprehensive and balanced way the main substantive recommendations to the Review Conference made by the delegations, many of which reflected the resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly. Because of the basic disagreement in approach between the nuclear powers and the large majority of non-nuclear parties to the NPT, however, it was clear that at the Prep Com no consensus was achievable on the Revised Working Paper. Nevertheless, because it included the broad range of substantive recommendations the Revised Working Paper received such wide support that it, or some text close to it, is likely to become the basic document for consideration at the Review Conference.

Eliminate Consensus Practice

It has become customary for the NPT Review Conferences to work by consensus, but it is not mandatory that they do so. Unlike the Conference on Disarmament which, both by decision of SSOD I in 1978 and by its own Rules of Procedure, is bound to work by consensus, the NPT Review Conference can take decisions on substantive matters by a two-thirds majority vote. Rule 28 of the Draft Rules of Procedure provides that "every effort should be made to reach agreement on substantive matters by means of consensus". If a matter of substance does come up for voting, the President "shall defer the vote for forty-eight hours". If no agreement is reached during the period of deferment, "decisions shall be taken by a two-thirds majority of the representatives present and voting, providing that such majority shall include at least a majority of the States participating in the Conference." Thus the rules of procedure of the Review Conferences, not only permit voting on decisions, they spell out how the voting is to take place.

The 1985 NPT Review Conference provides an excellent example of a proposal to take a decision by voting, and of how it can help to produce a consensus. At that conference, where the division between the nuclear powers and the non-nuclear states also made a consensus impossible, Ambassador Alfonso Garcia Robles of Mexico proposed three draft resolutions calling for (1) the resumption by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States of their negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, (2) a moratorium on all nuclear testing, and (3) a freeze on the testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons. The voting was to proceed as provided for in the rules of procedure.

Since the three resolutions were supported by the non-aligned states, their adoption by the conference was assured. This led to something like consternation on the part of the nuclear powers, who quickly entered into negotiations for a compromise solution. The nuclear powers then agreed to a number of concessions that made a consensus possible on a final declaration.

The 1985 Review Conference may well become a precedent for the 2000 Review Conference. If the states of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), or any group of non-nuclear parties to the NPT, should decide to take the Chairman’s Revised Working Paper as the basis for a final declaration, or propose one or more relevant resolutions for adoption by vote, it seems quite likely that they will succeed by the required two-thirds majority. Or, if the nuclear powers are prepared to make the necessary concessions for a compromise consensus final declaration, that course may succeed. In either case, the procedure is likely to avoid another deadlock and lead to a result that constitutes progress towards the interlinked goals of nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. Since the purpose of the Review Conference is to assure that "the purposes of the Preamble and the provisions of the Treaty are being realized", the utilization of the voting procedure may be the only way to ensure a successful outcome for the conference.

U.S. - Russian Joint Statement


The Joint Statement may provide the last chance for the two Presidents to put the relations of their two countries back on  the right track.

The third and perhaps most important gleam of light was the Joint Statement Between the United States and Russian Federation Concerning Strategic Offensive and Defensive Arms and Further Strengthening of Stability. The Joint Statement was made by Presidents William Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in Cologne, Germany on 20 June 1999, after the conclusion of the successful G-8 meeting on Kosovo.

In the Joint Statement, the two leaders stressed the importance of further reductions of strategic offensive arms, and also of the ABM Treaty for strengthening strategic stability and international security, and declared their determination to achieve meaningful results in these areas. They pledged to facilitate the successful completion of the START II ratification in both countries. They also reaffirmed their commitment to the ABM Treaty, "which is a cornerstone of strategic stability", and to continue efforts to strengthen the Treaty. They also announced that "discussions on START III and the ABM Treaty will begin later this summer".

The Joint Statement, which is the most positive and constructive document issued by the two leaders in many months, may represent a much needed turning point for the better in their relations. It will not be easy for them to persuade the Russian Duma and the U.S. Congress to support their efforts, but it is of great importance that they succeed in doing so. This may be the last chance for the two Presidents to put the relations of their two countries back on the right track.

The Joint Statement also appears to be a deliberate attempt by both Presidents to reverse the direction of the worsening relations of the two nuclear superpowers. Without such an improvement in their relationship, no progress towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation will be possible. If they succeed in their efforts to resume the START talks and continue to drastically reduce their nuclear arsenals, and also to avert the dangers of a missile defence race with a resultant nuclear arms race, then the way will be opened to negotiate the problem of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, if they fail in their efforts, the world community may be faced with the danger of a nuclear disaster. That is why this coming year and the beginning of the millenium may be the most critical year of the nuclear age.


Publisher of Nuclear Disarmament Commentary:

The Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy

211 East 43rd Street, No. 1204, New York, NY 10017

Tel: 212 818 1861, Fax:212 818 1857,


Editor: William Epstein,

400 East 58th Street, New York, NY 10022

Tel: 212 758 3320, Fax: 212 963 1121




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