Today, nearly four decades since the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force, there are nine nuclear weapons states in the world and five of these are parties to the NPT. There are not as many nuclear weapons states today as was feared in the 1960s, but there are still nine too many. These nine states appear proud of their nuclear arsenals, when they should be shamed by the nearly unlimited indiscriminate destructive power that these weapons represent. Nuclear weapons of these states put at risk the future of the human species and most life on the planet.

The NPT has a basic bargain. The non-nuclear weapons states agree not to develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons and, in return, the nuclear weapons states agree to pursue “good faith” negotiations for nuclear disarmament. All parties to the treaty agree that there is an “inalienable right” to the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. President Obama has referred to this “basic bargain” of the NPT as “sound.” He has called for establishing a structure capable of ensuring consequences for any country party to the treaty that breaks its rules.

Up to now, however, the rules have only been brought to bear against the non-nuclear weapons states, those without nuclear weapons. It has not been possible, within the structure of the treaty, to enforce its rules against the countries that never signed it (Israel, India and Pakistan) or those that have withdrawn from the treaty (North Korea). There has also been a lack of enforcement of the treaty against the five nuclear weapons states that are parties to the treaty (US, UK, France, Russia and China).

The NPT is the only treaty in which there is a legally binding commitment to nuclear disarmament. It provided the International Court of Justice with the legal basis to conclude: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

President Obama argued in Prague, “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.” But it is not only the spread of nuclear weapons that must be prevented. It is also the research, development, manufacture, possession, threat and use of the weapons that must be prohibited. The attention of the world has largely focused on the proliferators or potential proliferators, such as North Korea or Iran. It is desirable to try to prevent proliferation by new states, but this is no more important than eliminating the arsenals of the existing nuclear weapons states. President Obama has, in fact, provided hope that the US is ready to lead in moving toward a nuclear weapons-free world.

The United States was established because a colonial power sought to impose taxation without representation. How much worse is what is imposed on all humanity by the nuclear weapons states? It is the threat of destruction of cities, countries, civilization and the human species without representation. No one votes on our nuclear future. The best structure we have at the moment for controlling and eliminating nuclear weapons is the NPT, a treaty in which the people of the world deserve a voice.

Representatives of civil society will gather at the United Nations in New York in May 2009 for the Preparatory Committee meeting for the 2010 NPT Review Conference. It is appropriate that they should make their voices heard among the delegates of the governments represented. It is also right that civil society representatives should be critical of measures taken there that fall short of the clear obligation of “nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.”

So let this NPT meeting not focus on seeking sanctions for North Korea and Iran without also seeking unambiguous commitments from the nuclear weapons states to achieve the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Three critical questions face the parties to the NPT. Civil society as well as governments must demand answers to these questions.

First, what is the plan of the NPT nuclear weapons states to move from 25,000 nuclear weapons to zero? Such a plan is overdue. If the nuclear weapons states are not prepared to offer such a plan, they should be requested to engage in the “good faith” negotiations required of them and to present an agreed upon plan next year at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Second, how can the NPT be made universal? This question boils down to how can Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, all non-NPT nuclear weapons states, be brought under its jurisdiction. If it is not possible to obtain the consent of these states to the rules of the NPT, then the United Nations Security Council needs to act to assure that these states will be bound by an agreed upon roadmap to rid the world of nuclear arms.

Third, is it possible to achieve a world without nuclear weapons while at the same time promoting the spread of nuclear energy and, if so, what conditions would be required?

The answers to these questions will have powerful implications for actually achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. As the delegates to the NPT Preparatory Committee meet at the United Nations, let us hope that they will do more than continue to posture and mark time. Nuclear weapons are genocidal, if not omnicidal, weapons. They threaten, but do not protect. Their use or threat of use is illegal under international law. We share a moral responsibility to end the nuclear weapons threat to humanity. Now is the time for boldness.

David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a Councilor of the World Future Council.