Big five strive to keep nuclear peace

Michael Sheridan, Diplomatic Correspondent, looks at the battle to renew Non-Proliferation Treaty

Britain joins forces in New York today with Russia, France and the United States in a battle to extend the key international treaty that stops the spread of nuclear weapons.

More than 170 countries have signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970 and must be renewed. A clear majority vote by its signatories is all that is needed. But the treaty has attracted political controversy. Some countries have refused to sign it, leading critics to allege that it is ineffectual. Many developing nations complain that it discriminates against them and one, India, has refused to attend the NPT conference, opening today at the United Nations.

Pressure groups, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Greenpeace, say the nuclear powers themselves are in breach of the treaty's Article 6, which calls for progress towards disarmament. Some strategic experts believe an opportunity has been lost to secure a tighter regime, to prevent rogue nations from getting the bomb.

At the heart of the matter is the treaty's proposition that only five states - Britain, France, the US, Russia and China - are recognised nuclear powers. Other signatory nations pledge not to acquire nuclear weapons, and in return, receive the right to peaceful nuclear technology.

All the nuclear powers except China are agreed on their strategy at the conference. They want the treaty renewed for an indefinite period. China is thought to favour a "smooth extension" of the treaty.

The system, British officials say, has worked well. "The need is to renew the treaty unconditionally and indefinitely by a compelling majority," one said. "Without it, there would exist no international legal framework for the control of nuclear arms." John Holum, director of the US State Department's Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, said the NPT is "the cornerstone" of efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.

"Approximately 40 countries would have the technical and material capability to build nuclear weapons if they wanted to do that," he said. The treaty had prevented them doing so. Many non-aligned countries have indicated they would prefer to renew the treaty for a fixed period of five, 10, 15 or 25 years.

That would provide leverage over the nuclear powers to fulfil their part of the bargain: disarmament and technology transfer.

British and American diplomats believe they will win a majority for indefinite renewal. But a vote may not be taken until early next month. Renewal by only a small majority would not grant the NPT the moral force Britain feels it deserves.

NPT supporters point to its successes. The treaty provisions compelled Iraq to accept the dismantling of its clandestine nuclear-weapons programme. South Africa destroyed its warheads and became a signatory. Argentina gave up plans to go down the nuclear road. North Korea has been constrained, if not prevented, from fulfilling all its nuclear ambitions by the censure of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Mr Holum pointed out that without the NPT, there would have been no way to pressure North Korea.

A similar argument could be advanced over Iran, the focus of a dispute between Russia, which wants to sell nuclear reactors to Tehran, and Washington, which wants to prevent the sale. Western intelligence agencies believe Iran is operating a covert weapons programme and some believe that allowing the transfer of peaceful technology could allow the IAEA to enforce its regime of inspection and verification more thoroughly. Short of military intervention, they argue, there is little else that can be done.

Greater problems arise over the three "threshold states" that have not signed the NPT. Israel has accumulated an arsenal, estimated at more than 200 warheads, making it the only nuclear power in the Middle East. Arab countries, led by Egypt and Syria, say they should not be forced to sign a treaty extension while their powerful neighbour has not signed at all. The issue has entangled the NPT in the disputes of the Middle East and could lead to votes against indefinite renewal.

India and Pakistan, the other two "threshold states," are thought to be capable of making nuclear weapons. Their regional rivalry has brought the security dimension of south Asia into the argument. Neither has signed the NPT. India detonated a "peaceful" device in 1974 and Pakistan maintains a clandestine weapons programme. India professes to be concerned about China.

The five nuclear powers have sought to soothe their critics, by extending a new set of security guarantees to signatory states. These undertake not to employ nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers and promise unspecified action, through the UN Security Council, to help any signatory that is under nuclear threat. A non-nuclear Egypt, for example, would be protected against Israel.

But non-aligned diplomats doubt the value of these assurances, noting that any of the nuclear powers could use its veto in the Security Council to block collective action. The 111 members of the Non-aligned Movement are to discuss their position in Jakarta on 26 April.

Whatever the outcome of the NPT conference, it will generate momentum for further strategic arms reductions by the nuclear powers. The US and Russia are likely to discuss new cuts in their arsenals at the Moscow summit next month.

A new negotiating process could soon pose a dilemma for Britain, whose four-vessel Trident nuclear submarine programme is said by ministers to constitute a "minimum deterrent".

Britain and France until now have kept their much smaller nuclear forces out of the strategic-arms negotiations.

But if a renewed NPT results in the greater emphasis on the commitment to disarm contained in Article 6, neither country may expect to remain immune indefinitely.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back