Breakthrough on nuclear treaty

British arsenal faces cuts as UN conference backs drive for disarmament

Britain and the other nuclear states have agreed to further enshrine their commitment to nuclear disarmament, a move that may have consequences for Britain's nuclear arsenal.

Yesterday diplomats in New York hoped a decision to extend the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) indefinitely may be taken as early as today, without the need for an official vote. It would be accompanied, however, by two new documents designed to reinforce the obligation on the five declared nuclear states, already explicit in the original treaty, to work towards the elimination of nuclear arms.

A declaration of principles, based on proposals tabled at the NPT conference by South Africa, reaffirms the "determined pursuit by the nuclear-weapon states of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons". The text is also expected to make a call for a "programme of action" to achieve that goal.

The provisions are less important for Russia and the United States, which have already started making reductions. But they could become significant for Britain and France, which have smaller arsenals and which have so far been kept apart from the disarmament talks.

"We may live to regret this. It may gives us quite a headache in years to come," a Western diplomat said. "We will be under great pressure all the time to do more if we are committing ourselves in this way.''

The concession would, however, be hailed as a significant victory by anti-nuclear activists. "If they adopt this, then the world will really have set about nuclear disarmament," Dan Plesch, of the British American Security Information Council, said.

"This would be a critical decision far in advance of what was seen in the original treaty".

Throughout the four-week negotiations the nuclear states have been under pressure to offer concessions to reassure others at the conference that they are serious about living up to the NPT's provisions on eventual elimination of all weapons.

Also on offer in the declaration of principles is a commitment to conclude negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear test ban by the end of next year and fast progress on agreeing to suspend manufacture of all fissile nuclear- weapon materials.

Provisions may also be added to force nuclear states to offer more information on the size of their arsenals, with the prospect of eventually setting up a United Nations register of nuclear arms.

Though the extension of the treaty will be legally binding, the two appended documents will have no legal force. Diplomats noted, however, that for the NPT to retain its strength and the support of as many countries as possible, the nuclear states would ignore the content of the declarations at their peril.

If the decision to extend the NPT is taken without a vote, it will be a big achievement that a few weeks ago seemed impossible. But, while it will amount to approval of the extension by consensus, explicit reference to consensus will probably not be made in deference to Iran, the country least enthusiastic about indefinite extension. Iran's mood worsened during the course of the conference as the US continued to accuse it of seeking nuclear capability and imposed a trade embargo.

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