On July 1 the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) marks the 50th anniversary of its signing. Readied for signature in 1968, it took effect in 1970. Extended indefinitely in 1995, the NPT has become the most universal international agreement, aside from the United Nations Charter, with 191 signatories to this milestone treaty. North Korea withdrew in 2003, and four countries — India, Pakistan. Israel and South Sudan — never agreed to its terms.
The document is reviewed every five years at the Review Conferences of the Parties to the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Geneva will host the next one in 2020. One hundred eighty-five countries have remained non-nuclear. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov cited expert estimates, which conclude that as many as fifty countries might have eventually acquired nuclear weapons were it not for this treaty. South Africa, which actually had produced some nuclear munitions, Brazil, Argentina, and some other states have all turned away from their military nuclear programs.
The Antarctic, Latin America, the South Pacific, Southern Asia, Africa, and Central Asia are nuclear-weapon-free zones and these areas encompass about 120 nations. The entire Southern Hemisphere has remained free of nukes.
In about 30 years, the combined nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States have been reduced by 80-83% in comparison with their peak during the Cold War. To a much lesser extent, France and the UK have reduced their nuclear offensive weapons as well. That’s the good news.
The failure to prevent more nations going nuclear has been the bad news. Pyongyang’s withdrawal was possible because the treaty does list any repercussions for pulling out in order to then proliferate. North Korea’s pullout was quite legal pursuant to Article X, item1 of the NPT.
Many states have not ratified the 1997 Additional Protocol to the IAEA, which significantly strengthens nuclear safeguards in non-nuclear-weapon states, granting expanded rights of access to information and locations. The NPT does not say anything about punitive measures that would be taken against those who violate the treaty.
The conference on the establishment of a zone in the Middle East that would be free of weapons of mass destruction that was agreed to at the 2010 Nuclear Summit has never materialized. Deadlocked for many years, the prospects look bleak for the talks on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, as US-Russian cooperation on the safety and security of nuclear sites and materials ended in 2014.
The US and Russia are the only powers to be part of an arms-control regime. Third nuclear-weapon states have not agreed to legally binding nuclear-weapon limitations.
The NPT is an agreement between non-nuclear-weapon states not to go nuclear in exchange for assistance in developing peaceful atomic energy. There’s real hope that the problem of North Korea can be solved now, but some countries might follow its example and use peaceful nuclear-energy projects to acquire either nuclear weapons or the technology to develop them. The example of Libya, which had canceled its nuclear program, only to be attacked by NATO in 2011, may provoke some nations into being more clandestine in their efforts to acquire a nuclear deterrent “just to be on the safe side.”
The treaty does not restrict either the development of dual-use technologies nor the accumulation of nuclear materials for peaceful purposes allowed under Article IV, item 2. Nor does it provide a clear definition of what exactly constitutes a violation and when a state can be accused of trespassing that threshold. Nuclear tests, for example? Israel has acquired nuclear capability without them. India was recognized as a nuclear power only in 1998 although it conducted its first test in 1974.
Expanding the capability to enrich uranium and increasing one’s low-enriched stockpile, openly or secretly in sites hidden underground, are activities not explicitly banned by the treaty. Adding definitions to clarify what is, could significantly improve the document. The introduction of a standard clause to compel states to return all dual-use nuclear technologies and materials acquired within the framework of the treaty, in the event that they decide to withdraw from it, would be a step in the right direction.
One more weak point — the treaty does not provide security guarantees to non-nuclear-weapon states.
Nevertheless, the NPT has played an instrumental role in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons (NW) and their technology, remaining a bedrock of the non-proliferation regime. NW are still stationed in North America, Europe, South Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East.
In his speech to the UN Assembly in 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, proposed to eliminate all nuclear weapons in a phased program to be implemented by 2000. That was no surprise, as back then he was the leader of the country that had been a founding nation that was actively involved in preparing the NPT for consideration by the international community. Comprehensive disarmament might have been achievable if the US had joined the effort. But it did not, rejecting the idea of radical nuclear disarmament through the NPT.
The ratification by the US of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) would have been a significant contribution to the non-proliferation process, but that has not happened.
Another major contribution to the effectiveness of the NPT that the US could make would be to bring home all its tactical nuclear weapons that are based in other countries. No other nuclear-weapon state has its weapons deployed outside its national borders. Keeping nukes in other countries is proliferation.
The US plans to integrate its modernized B61-12 guided nuclear bombs with stealth F-35 bombers. About half of the munitions are earmarked for delivery by the national aircraft of its NATO allies, once their crews undergo special training. This constitutes a violation. The treaty prohibits nuclear-weapon states from transferring nukes to other recipients (Article I) as well as from receiving NW (Article II).
The US unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has dealt a severe blow to the NPT. The IAEA has stated that Iran is complying with the agreement’s provisions. Now any state ready to meet the NPT terms will know that its efforts may be for naught, because the fate of international agreements depends on the whims of the US.
The United States could do much more to make the global non-proliferation regime more effective. Hopefully, the issue will be addressed in a constructive way at the US-Russia summit in Helsinki scheduled for July 16. Other states could also contribute to making the 2020 Review Conference more productive than the previous ones.
Nobody can do it alone. Only cooperation between major global powers and alliances, coupled with effective action, can reverse the current negative trends and stop the spread of dangerous materials, and know-how. The 50th anniversary of the NPT is the appropriate moment to reflect on the future and consider ways to make the global non-proliferation regime more effective.