The State of the World

As we move toward the 2005 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, the world is experiencing increased extremism and instability. The extremism has manifested in the form of significant attacks by clandestine international terrorist organizations, such as those on 9/11, and acts of retaliation by powerful states that may or may not be directly related to the initial assaults. Neither the terrorists nor the state leaders involved have demonstrated reasonable regard for established rules of international law.

In the background of this clash between extremist organizations and governments lurks the ever present danger of the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The possibility of course exists that groups like al Qaeda could somehow acquire nuclear weapons from a sympathetic state or from criminal elements. Should such a group attain nuclear weapons it is unlikely they could be deterred from using them, particularly since they have no fixed location that could be threatened with retaliation in accord with the theory of deterrence.

At the same time, the United States has put in place policies that appear to lower the barriers to the use of nuclear weapons. The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review calls for contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against seven countries, including at least four that are non-nuclear weapons states. It is also declared US policy to use nuclear weapons against chemical or biological weapon stores or in retaliation for the use of these weapons.

With its doctrine of preventive war, the US administration is undermining the system of international law set in place after the Second World War “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” It has chosen a path of unilateralism and “coalitions of the willing” over multilateral approaches in accord with international law. The US government is further undermining international law by its failure to support many existing treaties and by its active opposition to the creation of an International Criminal Court (ICC) to hold leaders accountable for the most egregious crimes under international law.

The Role of the NPT

The NPT was established primarily to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to states other than the first five nuclear weapon states. The treaty was the brainchild of the US, UK and Russia, who believed that the world would be a safer place if they, along with France and China, controlled the world’s store of nuclear weapons. It was largely a self-serving proposition, not one that offered much inducement for other countries to sign off on nuclear weapons. The NPT bargain contained two elements that presumably benefited the countries that agreed to give up their right to develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons. First, the treaty promised them assistance in developing the “peaceful” uses of nuclear energy, going so far as to describe nuclear power as an “inalienable right.” Second, the treaty had provisions that the nuclear weapons states would engage in “good faith” negotiations for nuclear disarmament and called for a cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date.

The NPT was put forward in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. The non-nuclear weapons states are undoubtedly wondering when the “good faith” negotiations by the nuclear weapons states will begin and why the United States in particular still seems intent on developing new nuclear weapons, such as mini-nukes and “bunker busters.”

At the 2000 NPT Review Conference the parties to the treaty adopted by consensus a Final Document that contained 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament. These steps included the ratification of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), negotiations on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, the preservation and strengthening of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and called for the nuclear weapons states to take unilateral as well as multilateral steps to achieve nuclear disarmament. It also called for greater transparency with regard to nuclear arsenals and for making irreversibility a principle of nuclear weapons reductions. On virtually every one of these commitments, the US, under the Bush administration, has shown bad faith. It is demonstrating that US commitments are not likely to be honored and that the most powerful country in the world finds nuclear weapons useful and is attempting to make them more usable.

Iraq, Iran and North Korea

In his 2001 State of the Union Address, President Bush described Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an Axis of Evil. In 2002 he began mobilizing US troops in the Middle East and threatening Iraq. In March 2003 he initiated a preventive war against Iraq, which his administration justified on the grounds that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that posed an imminent threat to the US. In the aftermath of the initial combat phase in Iraq, despite extensive searching, no weapons of mass destruction have been located in Iraq.

Observing the US threats and attacks against Iraq might well have led Iran and North Korea to pursue nuclear weapons programs aimed at deterring US aggression. At this point, North Korea has withdrawn from the NPT, as is its legal right, and Iran is cooperating with inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Six nation talks (US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia) have been going on to try to resolve the impasse over North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT and its declared intention to develop a nuclear arsenal. The CIA estimates that North Korea may currently have one or two nuclear weapons and the materials to make another six or so weapons in the short-term. North Korea is asking for the US to provide it with a non-aggression pact as the price for giving up its nuclear ambitions. It is a small price. The US has vacillated on whether to do this, but recently has indicated its willingness to give informal assurances. It remains unclear whether such assurances will be sufficient to bring North Korea back into the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.

Current Problems with the NPT

In addition to North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty, there are other problems. First, its promotion of nuclear energy and nuclear research create the ever-present possibility of countries using the nuclear materials to develop clandestine nuclear weapons programs. Second, it lacks universality and the countries that have refused to join (India, Pakistan and Israel) have all developed nuclear arsenals and have thus, in a sense, been “rewarded” for not joining. Third, there are many unfulfilled commitments, particularly the nuclear disarmament commitments by the nuclear weapons states, which give the appearance that these countries are just making empty promises that they have no intention of keeping.

There has been virtually no progress on any of the 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. It is difficult for the non-nuclear weapon states to view this in any way other than as a sign of bad faith on the part of the nuclear weapons states.

The Role of NGOs

Given the state of the world and the current problems with the NPT, it seems appropriate for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the disarmament area to question the value of the treaty. What good is a treaty in which the most powerful states do not fulfill their obligations or keep their promises? There is no doubt that the behavior of the nuclear weapon states, and particularly the US, have undermined the value of the NPT and raised serious questions about it in the minds of many observers.

The New Agenda Coalition (NAC) states have made a diligent effort to get the NPT back on track with their resolutions in the United Nations, but they have been stonewalled by the US and most of its allies. The Middle Powers Initiative, a coalition of eight international non-governmental organizations, has attempted to support and promote the positions of the NAC throughout the world. Through these efforts, they achieved a slight crack in the stone wall when Canada, a NATO member, voted in support of the NAC resolution in the First Committee of the United Nations in November 2003.

NGOs will likely continue to support and promote the efforts to make the parties to the NPT live up to their obligations, but at the same time are undoubtedly disheartened by the ongoing failure of the nuclear weapon states to meet their obligations or even show minimal good faith. In the years since the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995 and despite the end of the Cold War, there has been no substantial progress toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

NGOs must choose the points of greatest importance and leverage, and stress these in their activities.

First, it is long past time for the nuclear weapon states to provide legally binding security assurances to the non-nuclear weapon states.

Second, there should be no regression on the moratorium on nuclear testing.

Third, there should be far tighter controls of nuclear materials in all states, including the nuclear weapon states.

In a November 3, 2003 statement to the UN General Assembly, Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the IAEA, called for “limiting the processing of weapon-usable material (separated plutonium and high enriched uranium) in civilian nuclear programmes – as well as the production of new material through reprocessing and enrichment – by agreeing to restrict these operations exclusively to facilities under international control.” In light of the increasing dangers of proliferation, it is amazing that such a proposal was not implemented long ago. It is a minimum acceptable standard for what must take place immediately if proliferation to both other states and terrorists is to be prevented. NGOs should certainly support this proposal.

NGOs should also press for nuclear weapon free zones in the Middle East, Northeast Asia and South Asia. These are dangerous hotspots where the development of nuclear weapons has threatened regional stability and security. To achieve these goals will require concessions by the nuclear weapons states and faster movement toward fulfilling their disarmament obligations under the NPT. A primary activity of NGOs should be to expose the hypocrisy of the nuclear weapon states and try to develop stronger anti-nuclear sentiments among the populations of these countries and translate such sentiments into political power.

At the moment there are not many hopeful signs, but one that stands out is 2020 Vision: An Emergency Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons by the World Conference of Mayors for Peace. This innovative campaign, spearheaded by the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, calls for the 2005 NPT Review Conference to launch “a negotiating process committed to adopting a comprehensive program for progressive and systematic elimination of nuclear weapons by the next NPT Review Conference in 2010,” and then actually eliminating these weapons over the following decade. It is time-bound program that picks up the baton from Abolition 2000.

I would encourage NGOs to help promote the effort of the World Conference of Mayors for Peace. NGOs must not give up because, in effect, this would be giving up on humanity’s future. That is what is at stake and that is why our work to support the NPT promise of the total elimination of nuclear weapons is so essential.

David Krieger is the president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( This speech was given on November 23, 2003 at the 2nd Nagasaki Global Citizens’ Assembly for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.