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The NPT Review: Is Progress Possible ?
by Rene Wadlow
2010-05-25 07:12:56
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Peace is a path that is chosen consciously. It is not an aimless wandering but a step-by-step journey. It means compassion without concession, and peace without bowing to injustice.  Loving kindness is the only way to peace.” 

                                   Tun Channareth, Cambodian activist and landmine victim



On the eve of the month-long Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) at the United Nations in New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed the hopes of many: “Everyone recognizes the catastrophic danger of nuclear weapons.   Just as clearly, we know the threat will last as long as these weapons exist.  The Earth’s very future leaves us no alternative but to pursue disarmament. And there is little prospect of that without global cooperation…Momentum is building around the world. Governments and civil society groups, often at odds, have begun working in the common cause.  All this work reflects the priorities of our member states, shaped in turn by public opinion.  Those who stand with us share the vision of a nuclear-free world.  If ever there were a time for the world’s people to demand change, to demand action beyond the cautious half measures of the past, it is now.”


There are signs that there is a shift in thinking about the need to eliminate the threat posed by nuclear weapons.  A Thorough rethinking of nuclear policy is needed in order to develop a comprehensive plan for achieving a nuclear weapon-free future.


There has always been an ebb and flow of popular interest in eliminating nuclear weapons from the world, and currently, there seems to be a rising tide of activity.(1) Men who did little to curb nuclear weapons when they were in power are now saying that something should be done; ‘The only sure way to prevent nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war is to rid the world of nuclear weapons’. Thus Henry A. Kissinger wrote “The basic dilemma of the nuclear age has been with us since Hiroshima: how to bring the destructiveness of modern weapons into some moral or political relationship with the objectives that are being pursued…Proliferation of nuclear weapons has become an overarching strategic problem for the contemporary period.  Any future spread of nuclear weapons multiplies the possibilities of nuclear confrontation; it magnifies the danger of diversion, deliberate or unauthorized…The danger posed by nuclear weapons is unprecedented.  They should not be integrated into strategy as simply another more efficient explosive.  We thus return to our original challenge: Our age has stolen the fire from the gods; can we confine it to peaceful purposes before it consumes us? (2)


It is likely that there is as yet little agreement among governments as to the next possible steps toward nuclear disarmament.  There are calls from individual European States, led by Germany, for the USA to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. Tactical nuclear weapons are not covered by the US-Russia SALT agreement. However, on a global level, the governments are only starting to build a momentum for action. One can expect only a renewal of earlier recommendations such as the universal ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) so that it can enter into force.


There may be more possibility of advances on nuclear energy use and also promoting renewable energy technology in place of nuclear power.  A critical issue will be to place the national fuel cycle of material produced by the peaceful uses of nuclear energy under international control.  Is the International Atomic Energy Agency capable of designing a system which places the enrichment and reprocessing under international control and in locations that do not threaten nuclear proliferation? This issue is at the heart of the negotiations with Iran.


When the NPT was being negotiated during the 1960s, there were widely held hopes that nuclear energy would be “the wave of the future” and become the energy supply for the many countries without oil.  Thus Article IV of the NPT recognizes the “inalienable right” of the Parties to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination. However in the period since the 1960s, there has been growing concern about the nature of nuclear power, the safety of plants, the stocking of nuclear waste, and the possibility of use of material for weapon production. There is an increasing interest in the use of renewable energy sources.  Thus we can hope to see some promises to help fund the use of alternate sustainable energy forms rather than nuclear energy, although there will be no weakening of Article IV.


The NPT Review Conferences raise crucial issues which concern all countries.  In many ways, the conferences set out agendas for action. The unfortunate reality is that after setting out the agenda, there is no follow up.  Thus every five years, there is a renewed call for action.  The 1995 Review set out guidelines for a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone which probably will be repeated this year. The 2000 Review set out “Thirteen Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament” that included “an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI”.


Thus there is less a need for new ideas than there is for a new momentum which will probably have to come from a renewed popular movement.


(1)     See Lawrence S. Wittner The Struggle Against the Bomb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press) Three Volumes

(2)     Herny Kissinger “Containing the fire of the gods” International Herald Tribune, 7-8 February, 2009



*Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens


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