NPT Conference Shadowed by Defiance of Article VI
by John Burroughs and Jim Wurst


When the 187 states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) begin their month-long Review Conference in New York on April 24, they will be facing an international disarmament scene which is - against all reason - in worse shape than it was when the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995.

At the NPT Conference the United States and Russia will tout the START process. However, while the Duma has approved START II, its implementation is dependent upon highly uncertain US Senate approval of 1997 agreements concerning what tests may be conducted under the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Completion of START III negotiations will depend upon equally uncertain resolution of disputes over US missile defense plans. Russia also is stating that US abrogation or infringement of the ABM Treaty is grounds for Russia’s withdrawal from START II. If START II and START III as currently envisaged are implemented, Russia and the United States a decade from now likely each will retain on the order of 2000 deployed strategic warheads plus thousands of additional tactical, spare, and reserve warheads.

Beyond the numbers, the policies of the United States, Russia, and other nuclear weapon states publicly announced in national settings are wholly inconsistent with the Article VI obligation, as authoritatively interpreted by the International Court of Justice, to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations on complete nuclear disarmament. The United States has made abundantly clear that "for the foreseeable future" it remains fully committed to the policy of nuclear deterrence, including a declared policy of massive retaliation against nuclear attack (with an unstated option of a preemptive strike against enemy nuclear forces), and a declared option of first use against an overwhelming conventional attack or threat or use of biological or chemical weapons. The United States regards reductions under the START process as consistent with this posture.

According to the 2000 Annual Report of the US Secretary of Defense: "The U.S. nuclear posture also contributes substantially to the ability to deter aggression … [N]uclear weapons remain important as one of a range of responses available to deal with threats or use of NBC [nuclear, chemical, and biological] weapons… U.S. nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO … permit widespread European participation in all aspects of the Alliance's nuclear role. Thus, for the foreseeable future, the United States will retain a robust triad of sufficient nuclear forces… The Department believes these goals can be achieved at lower force levels…" (; emphasis supplied)

For its part, Russia recently demonstrated the depth of its commitment to deterrence instead of disarmament by adopting a "national security concept" which permits use of nuclear weapons to "repulse armed aggression, if all other means of resolving the crisis have been exhausted." This is a less restrictive formulation than the previous reference to a "threat to the existence" of Russia.

France’s attachment to its nuclear forces is illustrated by its astounding plan to ratify the Statute of the International Criminal Court on the understanding that the Statute’s general war crimes provisions do not apply to use of nuclear weapons! This is a wholly insupportable position, not likely to be shared by any other state and effectively rejected by the International Court of Justice, which affirmed that humanitarian law indeed does apply to nuclear weapons as it does to all other weapons.

The British Strategic Defense Review "reaffirmed the government’s commitment to nuclear deterrence," envisioned maintaining Trident warheads "in service for the next 20-30 years," and announced (as has the United States) "the retention of the capability to design a new warhead if required." (1998 Hunting-BRAE Annual Report)

Other Obstacles

Continued bedrock commitments to deterrence doctrines and nuclear forces underwriting those doctrines deserve more attention and challenge, because true nuclear disarmament will require a rejection of deterrence. Other developments undermining disarmament and non-proliferation are well known. The US Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and did so in a mockery of a debate which turned on whether the CTBT would contribute to the maintenance of a US nuclear advantage over the long term. The nuclear tests and subsequent moves towards establishment of deterrence postures by India and Pakistan are warning shots across the global bow that nuclear proliferation is increasingly seen as a viable option. India’s claim that going nuclear is the only way to gain respect is tragic given India’s history of advocating disarmament but fits the rules of the game as established by the great powers.

The US plan for deploying a national missile defense that requires modification or abrogation of the ABM Treaty is anti-disarmament. Russia and China have warned that the whole framework of arms control is in jeopardy if the US goes ahead; European allies are unhappy with the vision of "two-tier" defense against attack; scientists and other experts - including some working on the missile project - warn that the technology simply does not work. NMD likely would cause China to increase its nuclear forces, which in turn could trigger responses by India and the United States, and would also increase pressure on Japan. This plan, which seems better designed to destroy arms control than incoming missiles, will shadow the Review Conference.

A Disarmament Agenda

The Review Conference must establish a strong disarmament agenda for next five years. There must be an unequivocal commitment to fulfill Article VI quickly and to refrain from any actions in the meantime that would undermine that commitment, including resuming nuclear tests, developing and deploying new or modified weapons, producing fissile material usable in weapons, and abrogating the ABM Treaty. The Conference should also devise institutional means, such as the NPT-based consultations proposed by Malaysia, of addressing the accelerated nuclearization of South Asia as well as Israel’s continued reliance on nuclear arms. It is not enough simply to say, "join the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states," and to leave any initiatives up to the United States.

Other measures that should be part of the agenda include the following:

  • commencement of multilateral negotiations leading towards the early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention;
  • global dealerting and disabling of nuclear forces under multilateral monitoring;
  • continuous US-Russian negotiations and initiatives that address all warheads, tactical, spare, and reserve as well as strategic;
  • talks on transparency, accounting, verification, de-alerting, and reductions among all states possessing nuclear forces; and
  • the rejection of deterrence and commitments to non-use.

The Review Conference should also seek to set in place procedural arrangements that enable the execution and monitoring of the disarmament agenda. Possibilities include an NPT governing body; an intersessional NPT working group; a committee on nuclear disarmament in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva; and a special conference on nuclear disarmament organized by NPT states parties, the General Assembly, or interested states.

In fact, there is no shortage of ideas combining both practicality and vision coming from all quarters, including the Non-Aligned Movement, the New Agenda Coalition, and many civil society groups including the Middle Powers Initiative and the Abolition 2000 Global Network. If the Review Conference fails, it will not be for lack of imagination on the part of civil society and others. The blame will belong to a handful of people who have the power to do better, but lack the courage to do so.


Previous Article

Back to Contents

Next Article