NPT: a destructive agreement

What has the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty done for world peace lately? Absolutely nothing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

North Korea’s shock decision to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on 10 January 2003 caused a severe bout of handwringing in the West.

‘It is a matter of serious concern’, said a statement from the White House, as Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer warned the North Koreans that they had ‘isolated’ themselves from a ‘united world’ (1).

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – which is charged with inspecting nation states’ nuclear energy sites to ensure that none is secretly making weapons – accused North Korea of using ‘nuclear blackmail’ against the world (2). According to one foreign correspondent, as the NPT is a ‘treaty of peace’, North Korea’s withdrawal is ‘effectively a declaration of war’.

It is noticeable that North Korea is getting the brush-off when states that actually own nuclear weapons are not. North Korea’s statement gave the assurance that ‘we have no intention to produce nuclear weapons’ (3), but Bush officials still chastised the state for cutting itself off from ‘rules’ about The Bomb. ‘The treaty forbids the construction of nuclear weapons’, said one official, ‘so what are we to make of North Korea’s withdrawal?’ (4)

Yet 18 months earlier, President Bush had welcomed India and Pakistan back into the international fold, nuclear weapons and all. In September 2001, between the terrorist attacks on America and the launching of the Afghan War, Bush lifted the sanctions imposed on the South Asian states for owning nuclear weapons, in order to ‘shore up support in key nations for the war against terrorism’ (5). It would appear to be a state’s usefulness to broader geopolitical concerns that determines its fate, rather than whether it has The Bomb or not.

In response to North Korea’s withdrawal, the IAEA was indignant, pointing out that ‘nuclear threats should not be used as a means of conducting diplomacy’ (6). Yet in March 2002, President Bush issued a barely concealed nuclear threat to the world and the IAEA didn’t say a word. ‘I view our nuclear arsenal as a deterrent’, said Bush, ‘as a way to say to people who would harm America – don’t do it’ (7).

What’s going on? Why is North Korea isolated from the ‘entire international community’ while Bomb-owning states are brought back in? Why are ‘nuclear threats’ unacceptable when they come from North Korea but okay when issued by Bush? This is the nuclear divide created by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. For all the claims that the NPT is a ‘treaty of peace’, in fact it divides the world along nuclear lines – concentrating nuclear weapons in the hands of powerful states while subjecting third world nations to intrusive inspections.

The NPT came into force in 1970, and has since been signed by the leaders of 187 states. According to the United Nations, the NPT’s aim is to ‘prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament’ (8). That all sounds very laudable, but the reality is a different ballgame.

The NPT forbids any state from building or seeking to build nuclear weapons, except the five states that had nuclear bombs before the treaty came into force in 1970. They are the USA, Britain, France, China and Russia – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the states that make the final decisions on war. While the NPT makes it illegal for any other signatory state to build nuclear weapons, it only ‘encourages’ the Big Five to get rid of their nuclear weapons in their own time.

The first Article of the treaty focuses, not on getting rid of those nuclear weapons that already exist, but on ensuring that no more are built by ‘non-nuclear weapon’ states. Article 1 says: ‘Each nuclear-weapon state party to the treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices…and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear weapon state to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.’ (9)

It might seem odd that a treaty aimed at ‘achieving nuclear disarmament’ should focus its opening Article on keeping weapons away from certain states, instead of on those states that already have them. But that is what the NPT is about: not so much putting an end to nuclear weapons capability, but determining who can have it and who cannot.

In case you missed the point, Article 2 reinforces it: ‘Each non-nuclear weapon state undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices…and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.’ (10) Got that? The NPT disallows any state, apart from America, Britain, France, China and Russia, from even thinking about building The Bomb.

In the real world, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have turned a blind eye to friendly states’ attempts to acquire nuclear weapons – or have surreptitiously helped them. During the Cold War years, Israel and South Africa managed to get hold of nuclear weapons capability without incurring the wrath of American or British administrations – reflecting those states’ roles in stabilising volatile parts of the world on the West’s behalf.

The NPT’s killer clause comes in Article 3, which opens the world up to intrusive inspections in the name of ‘nuclear transparency’. ‘Each non-nuclear weapon state undertakes to accept safeguards, as set forth in an agreement to be negotiated and concluded with the IAEA…for the exclusive purpose of verification of the fulfilment of its obligations assumed under this treaty with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons.’ (11)

In short, all signatory states, except America, Britain, France, China and Russia, shall willingly subject themselves to inspections to ensure that nuclear energy is being used for the right reasons. The IAEA has extraordinary powers of intervention. Once a state signs up to the NPT, the IAEA can inspect any of its weapons factories or nuclear energy plants. The IAEA demands ‘unfettered access’ to a states’ potential weapons sites, and, if necessary, ‘without [having to give] prior notice to the state’ (12). It can turn up anywhere, anytime and demand to be shown around.

Such is the IAEA’s power of intervention that a clause was added to the NPT allowing states to withdraw from the treaty if they felt their sovereignty was under threat. Article 10 says that ‘each party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the treaty if it decides that extraordinary events have jeopardised the supreme interests of its country’ (13). But when North Korea withdrew, citing sovereignty reasons, the world was not impressed – especially the IAEA, which is not used to being expelled from upstart states like North Korea.

It is not until Article 6, having warned other states to keep their hands of nuclear weapons technology, that the NPT finally gets round to addressing the Big Five’s already-existing Bombs. And unlike the other Articles, this one is non-committal. ‘Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament….’ (14)

America, Britain, France, China and Russia have destroyed some of their nuclear weapons – only to replace them with more modern versions. During the Cold War, British and American governments made great play of decommissioning nuclear weapons in keeping with the NPT. But in the mid-1990s, Britain replaced its decommissioned stock with new nuclear Trident submarines – and around the same time, US governments built nuclear weapons with an increased range of 4000 miles, compared with the 2000 miles of old.

The NPT creates a division, between those who are seen as trustworthy and civilised enough to own The Bomb, and those who must be intrusively inspected to make sure they aren’t trying to get their greasy mitts on nuclear weapons. It generates an assumption that some states are morally fit to hold nuclear weapons, while others are not. In the past, particularly during the Second World War and in the run-up to the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, this divide between the nuclear trustworthy West and the untrustworthy rest was presented in racial terms, in arguments that non-white states could not be trusted with such powerful weaponry.

More recently, the case for stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been posed in moral language. We are told that weapons of mass destruction must be kept away from morally corrupt states and from nuclear-hungry terrorists. In his speech to the Trades Union Congress in September 2002, UK prime minister Tony Blair said that, while weapons of mass destruction are proliferating, ‘uniquely Saddam Hussein has used these weapons’. Blair failed to point out that, uniquely, the USA is the only state to have ever dropped nuclear bombs on people, with Britain’s backing.

Still the NPT nurtures a moral separation of the nuclear-weapon states from the non-nuclear weapons states. And it is this that allows the international community to harangue North Korea for daring to suggest that it has the ‘right’ to own nuclear weapons or for kickstarting its nuclear energy programme without allowing the IAEA to look over its shoulder.

This divisive view of civilised states versus uncivilised states is often reinforced by anti-war campaigners. According to an American peace group, it is incumbent on Western states to wind down their nuclear weapons programmes because ‘the existence of these weapons creates further potential for proliferation’. So America and Britain’s Bombs are dangerous in the sense that others might learn from them.

In today’s UK Guardian, environment correspondent Paul Brown calls on the British government to stop blowing up the threat of biological attacks and instead focus on the ‘danger’ of its own nuclear plants – because ‘nuclear installations in Britain are easy to attack…and once damaged could cause an uncontrollable nuclear chain reaction’ (15). Even Britain’s nuclear capability at home only seems to become a big threat if attacked by terrorists from abroad.

The NPT monopolises nuclear weapons in the hands of powerful states (and friends), while subjecting third world states to inspections that show no regard for sovereignty or democracy. It creates a world where a handful of nations can dictate to the rest, telling them what they can and cannot use nuclear energy for.

All of which, in my books, makes the NPT a far bigger threat to world peace than some rusting factory in North Korea.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) White House: North Korea’s withdrawal from NPT of ‘serious concern’, US Department of State, White House, 10 January 2003

(2) IAEA chief denounces North Korea’s ‘nuclear blackmail’, ABC Online, 17 January 2003

(3) Text of North Korea’s Statement on NPT Withdrawal, Monterey Institute of International Affairs, 10 January 2003

(4) ‘North Korea and brinkmanship’, Syndey Morning Herald, 13 January 2003

(5) Bush lifts sanctions on India, Pakistan, Associated Press, 23 September 2001

(6) IAEA chief denounces North Korea’s ‘nuclear blackmail’, ABC Online, 17 January 2003

(7) Bush: Democrats standing in the way of justice, Fox News, 14 March 2002

(8) Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons section of the United Nations website

(9) See the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

(10) See the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

(11) See the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

(12) See Factual report on the implementation by Iraq of its obligations, Global Security, March 2002

(13) See the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

(14) See the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

(15) The threat that’s bigger than ricin, Paul Brown, Guardian, 17 January 2003

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Topics Politics


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