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Nuclear Apartheid: Trouble Brewing amongst Non-Nuclear States

The credibility of the nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake as the treaty risks collapsing under structural fissures created by its very birth.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, which began last Monday in New York and will continue until 28 May, will seek to address flaws in the Treaty and the grievances of its signatories – and there are many of both.

Apart from the UN charter itself, the NPT is the most subscribed to treaty in the world, with 189 countries signed up. But it is an asymmetric treaty - avowedly so.

The Treaty is based on the premise that five countries can have nuclear weapons; the rest cannot. The only justification for this is Darwinian: When the Treaty came into force on 5 March 1970, the US, the USSR, France, China and the UK were the five sanctioned ‘Nuclear Weapons States’ (NWS) – only because they had already acquired weapons, and would be allowed to keep them. The goal was to prevent any further proliferation.

Three pillars form the basis of the Treaty: non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to peaceful nuclear technology. These illustrate the bargain that was struck: that the NNWS would agree not to seek nuclear weapons; in return the NWS would supply them with the technology for civilian nuclear programs; and promise to disarm.

This last promise, under Article VI, was drafted in ominously careful language. They undertook 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, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament."

Thirty years later, this is still the major source of tension between the two sides. The ‘have nots’ argue they have fulfilled their side of the bargain (by not proliferating), but the NWS have failed to fulfil theirs. This issue has dominated every Review since they began in 1975.

While there are those that argue Article VI contains no promise to disarm (a viewpoint prevalent within the Bush administration) there is a general acceptance among the NWS - at least rhetorically - of the need for disarmament. US President Barack Obama in particular understands this; the recent deal with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev could not have been better timed to neutralize the inevitable clash in New York.

But there is larger problem. The ‘have nots,’ many of whom are modernizing states, feel they are being denied nuclear technology by the West under the guise of preventing proliferation - in contravention of the Treaty’s third pillar. They believe they are the victims of ‘technological apartheid’ - the new colonialism enshrined by the NPT itself.

That the five NPT Weapons States are also the UN P5 further adds to this notion of the strong oppressing the weak. This is why Iran justifies intransigence as standing up to ‘imperialism.’

Unless the NNWS’ concerns are addressed, a treaty that many consider moribund may die. This sobering thought must be uppermost in Obama’s mind.

By. David Patrikarakos


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