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Non-proliferation: time for new thinking

Harsh V. Pant

THEY CAME, they talked, and they went — that's how one can essentially sum up the proceedings of the month-long seventh quinquennial review conference of the 35-year old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that was held in New York in May. Though the chairman of the conference declared that "very little has been accomplished," what became clear is how little relevance the NPT holds for the international community today. This is paradoxical given the fact that the threat of nuclear proliferation has never been higher.

The last review conference held in 2000 at least agreed on "thirteen steps" to prevent any further spread of nuclear weapons and to hold the nuclear weapon states to their commitment to eliminate their nuclear arsenals in the long run. The 2005 review conference had no such luck. There were only disagreements to show off in the end and short-term interests of the states were just too divergent to allow for any meaningful debate.

The U.S. wanted to focus the attention of the conference on loopholes in the NPT, which it accused states such as Iran and North Korea of exploiting. But Iran in a pre-emptive move blamed the U.S. and Europe for trying to keep an exclusive hold on technological development and vowed to defy these western double standards. It declared that it would pursue all legal areas of nuclear technology, including enrichment, though it was careful to specify that its pursuit is exclusively for peaceful purposes.

The U.S., on the other hand, made it clear that the impasse between the West and Iran can only be resolved with Iran ceasing its enrichment and reprocessing efforts, as well as dismantling its equipment facilities related to such activities.

There was a broader divide between the nuclear weapon states (NWS) and the rest of the world that affected the negotiations at the conference from the very beginning. Non-nuclear weapon states insisted that the NWS should focus on radically reducing their nuclear armaments, a commitment that they had made in 2000. Concerns were expressed about Bush Administration's plans to modernise the U.S. nuclear force and its nuclear posture that relies less on deterrence and more on pre-emption.

The U.S. countered that it is complying with the requirement of the NPT that nuclear states move towards disarmament by pointing to the reductions in its nuclear stockpile under an agreement with Russia in 2002. Though this failed to assuage the non-nuclear states, the U.S. was successful in blocking any mention of its commitment towards disarmament in the conference's final report.

A number of new ideas were proposed to strengthen the NPT but none of them could gain consensus. There was a proposal for limiting access to dual-use nuclear technology as well as strengthening the inspection of nuclear facilities. There was also a proposal to make withdrawing from the NPT more difficult and penalty-ridden. Both these proposals were in response to Iran and North Korea's nuclear activities but none could find sufficient acceptance that might have led to their adoption.

India has always been dissatisfied with the global non-proliferation and arms control regime because it constrained India's autonomy to make foreign policy decisions as dictated by its national interests. India argued that an inequitable regime that gave only a few countries the permanent right to nuclear weapons, and denied others this right was inherently unstable. There are reasons for India to feel vindicated by its long-held stance on these issues. Today, as the global nuclear non-proliferation regime crumbles under the weight of its own contradictions, India can rightfully claim that it was one of the first states to draw the attention of the world community to these challenges.

The NPT was always a flawed document in many ways and various countries, including India, had pointed to its flaws over the years. The recent global developments make it amply clear that unless a thorough review is undertaken of the NPT, it would soon become a paper tiger, if it has not already. Given the horrors of September 11, 2001, the danger of nuclear terrorism, and the prospect of numerous Irans and North Koreas just a screwdriver away from nuclear weapons, it's time for the international community to promote a bolder nuclear arrangement than the NPT of 1968.

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