How to strengthen the NPT framework

Despite a long era of efforts, four nuclear powers still remain outside the NPT framework — India, Pakistan and Israel never joined the NPT and North Korea withdrew in 2003

Concerns about the spread of nuclear weapons started surfacing following the onset of the nuclear era. At the end of World War II, the US was the only country to possess nuclear weapons. The US realised that it could not maintain its monopoly forever and called for efforts to implement the control of nuclear technology to the extent necessary to eliminate any possibility of its use for military purposes. On the larger nonproliferation canvas, five major initiatives have been taken thus far to curb the spread of nuclear technology. The first such attempt was the Baruch Plan of 1946, which aimed for the establishment of international ownership of all nuclear activities and materials. The Soviets rejected this plan because they wanted the US to eliminate its nuclear weapons prior to the establishment of an international system of ‘controls and inspections’. With the failure of this plan, the US and the USSR embarked on a dangerous nuclear arms race.
The second practical step towards a multinational non-proliferation regime was the Atoms for Peace Plan, which proposed sharing developed nuclear technology with other nations in order to secure effective safeguards over this technology. The plan, originally conceived by US President Dwight D Eisenhower in 1953, envisioned the creation of an international agency that would dispose of a stock of nuclear material hitherto earmarked for military purposes on the one hand and promoting its use exclusively for peaceful ends on the other. Opening up civilian research to countries that had not previously possessed nuclear technology, the Atoms for Peace programme created the ideological background for the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The third initiative in this regard was the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has attempted to prevent non-weapon states from acquiring strategic weapons and has also laid down a framework to further the goal of ‘complete’ disarmament. The NPT more adequately addresses horizontal proliferation than it does vertical proliferation. The fourth major effort was the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which was established in 1987 and specifically aimed to deny weapons of mass destruction technologies to proliferators. The last effort was the Counter Proliferation Initiative, which was launched by the Clinton administration in 1993 to neutralise proliferation and provide ‘usable’ options where non-proliferation fails.
Among these initiatives spanning more than five decades, the NPT has proven to be the most effective nonproliferation tool and after its indefinite extension in 1995, it has become the core of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. The treaty is based on three mutually reinforcing pillars: nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy but lack of universality is one of the most critical challenges to the credibility of the NPT regime. Despite a long era of efforts, four nuclear powers still remain outside the NPT framework — India, Pakistan and Israel never joined the NPT and North Korea withdrew in 2003. At the same time, uranium enrichment facilities were discovered in Iran, which had been concealed from the IAEA in violation of the NPT obligations. Furthermore, some NPT members have fundamentally conflicting views on the interpretation of article VI of the treaty and the way forward for achieving the vision enshrined in the treaty. Article V1 commits all states-parties “to pursue negotiations in good faith to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
States — parties to the NPT — conduct formal reviews every five years to assess implementation regarding the treaty provisions and, based on those findings, recommend specific steps to strengthen implementation. The imbalance between the obligations and commitments of Non-nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) parties and Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) parties has been a key point of contention since 1975. In order to achieve the vision of the NPT, world leaders need to adopt a phased approach, concentrating first on easier steps that could lead to more difficult steps. The 2010 NPT Review Conference was viewed as a success because it achieved a consensus on 22 concrete nuclear disarmament actions, making the implementation of article VI of the NPT measureable against a set of clear benchmarks.
There is almost a year to go before the 2015 NPT Review Conference. The review conference faces a number of challenges to attain a positive outcome that could strengthen the NPT and advance its agenda. These challenges include unresolved issues of treaty compliance, the role of NPT parties and the review process in addressing them, and the inability to evolve a process of engaging the non-NPT NWS and bringing them into the nuclear disarmament process. The participants at the conference must appreciate the fact that implementation of article VI is a collective responsibility of all non-nuclear weapon states as well as nuclear weapon states. The 2015 conference will also offer an opportunity to think about the long-debated question of institutionalising the NPT. A number of experts have already come up with the idea that, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the NPT should also have an organisational framework and executive council as well.
The idea of institutional infrastructure for the NPT was premised on the thinking that it would serve as a guardian organisation, charged with serving the objectives of all treaty parties in pursuing non-proliferation and disarmament. The NPT should be able to send a strong signal to non-compliant countries that the latter will have to face international isolation and containment, should they choose to go against the treaty obligations. So far, the NPT lacks an institutional mechanism that could function as ombudsman to receive complaints about non-compliance or any other difficulties experienced by the states parties.
In today’s world, the fears of runaway proliferation are rapidly growing primarily due to the reluctance of major powers to implement article VI of the NPT in true letter and spirit. Experts have cautioned that, given the insurmountable difficulties of the amendment process, the new institutional framework for the NPT should be designed in a way that it requires no amendment to the treaty. The new framework could greatly help in fulfilling the NPT’s goals by providing a permanent ‘institutional memory’ to coordinate further nonproliferation initiatives.

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