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UN: Nuclear Powers Face Challenge At Review Conference

  • Robert McMahon

Nearly all the world's states are parties to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT), but only a handful possess such weapons. At the NPT review conference, which started yesterday, non-nuclear states and non-governmental organizations are expected to raise questions about whether the nuclear powers are complying with the treaty. Officials from the leading nuclear states, for their part, have reiterated their support for the treaty. UN correspondent Robert McMahon looks at the issues to be discussed in the four-week review conference.

United Nations, 25 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The five-year review of the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons got underway at UN headquarters yesterday amid great unease about the nuclear powers' commitment to the process.

The 1995 conference ended with states agreeing on the indefinite extension of the treaty and the need for strengthening the review process. But several developments since then have prompted concern in many quarters, from treaty members, non-governmental organizations to the media.

Non-proliferation suffered a major setback in 1998 when India and Pakistan -- longtime adversaries -- conducted nuclear tests. India and Pakistan as well as Israel and Cuba are the only states that have not signed the NPT.

Also causing concern by non-nuclear states was the U.S. announcement of plans to set up a national missile defense system. Such a system, which could be approved this summer, would require amendments to the anti-ballistic missile treaty. The non-nuclear states are also worried by the reiteration of military doctrines by NATO and Russia that stress the importance of nuclear weapons in defense.

The UN's undersecretary-general for disarmament affairs, Jayantha Dhanapala, told reporters last week that a number of treaty states are questioning whether the pledge to follow a strengthened review process has really been kept.

"There is a widespread feeling amongst non-nuclear weapons states that the record as far as nuclear disarmament is concerned required much more progress than has in fact been recorded."

Dhanapala says there will be special attention paid during this review conference to the issue of nuclear weapons and NATO. He says the non-aligned movement is expected to raise concern about NATO's policy that allows for the stationing of nuclear weapons owned by one member of the alliance on the territory of an ally that is a non-nuclear weapons state. Dhanapala says this practice is regarded as contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the NPT.

Article One of the treaty states the nuclear powers shall not transfer nuclear weapons or control of such weapons to non-nuclear weapons states.

Dhanapala says he also expects debate about NATO's 30-year-old policy of "flexible response," which allows the alliance to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into a conflict, including in reply to an attack with conventional weapons. Russia, too, has also reasserted the importance of nuclear weapons in national defense. The Russian Security Council on Friday approved a military doctrine which states that Russia can no longer ward off a mass conventional attack without using nuclear weapons.

Non-governmental organizations are reacting with alarm to such developments and plan to be active during the NPT review conference. One NGO that will be raising consciousness about nuclear proliferation is the British-American Security Information Council (BASIC).

At a briefing for UN correspondents last week, BASIC Director Daniel Plesch said Washington and Moscow have failed to take the lead on nuclear non-proliferation.

Plesch: "There has been an enormous opportunity to rid the world of the nuclear threat since the end of the Cold War and that opportunity has been squandered by President (Boris) Yeltsin and by President (Bill) Clinton."

Plesch noted the importance of the Russian Duma's recent ratification of the START-II Treaty, but said the world's two nuclear superpowers were still moving too slowly on arms reduction. START-II will reduce nuclear warheads from 6,000 to no more than 3,500 on each side by 2007.

The two sides have begun discussions over a START-III round of negotiations that would lead to deeper cuts. The United States has proposed cutting arsenals to 2,000 to 2,500 warheads and Russia has proposed going as low as 1,500 warheads.

Russia also does not want the United States to deploy a national missile defense system, which it sees as upsetting the strategic balance.

Plesch, from the group BASIC, is critical of the United States for initiating plans for a missile defense system. He says the United States has exaggerated the threat of nuclear attack from rogue states and is needlessly fueling nuclear tensions in both Russia and China.

Plesch: "If we do not see sense in this area and we press ahead with this missile defense, anti-missile missile program, then we can easily see a new arms race in East Asia because the Chinese regard this as a direct threat to their security.

U.S. officials acknowledge the deep concerns of China about the proposed missile defense system. But they say it is unrealistic to expect the superpowers to rapidly dispose of their nuclear weapons. And they say there has been progress. President Clinton's Senior Advisor for Arms Control, Non-Proliferation and Security Affairs, John Holum, said earlier this month that more than 13,000 U.S. warheads have been destroyed and that both the United States and Russia are ahead of their timetable under the first Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START-I).

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters last week that the United States remains committed to NPT and views it as an "indispensable tool" in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. He anticipated that this week's conference would lead to further calls for the United States to disarm.

Rubin: "Every time there is a review conference, there are some countries who have the quite unrealistic notion that disarmament is something that happens overnight and that the United States and Russia have too many nuclear weapons, and they regularly make those points. And I don't expect their points to be much different than they usually are."

But the non-nuclear states and NGOs are expected to make the case that the treaty is threatened and that its Article Six -- which calls for complete disarmament -- remains a remote prospect 30 years after the NPT went into force.

UN Undersecretary-General Dhanapala said there was more at stake at the 1995 NPT conference because the extension of the treaty was up for debate. But he says the integrity of the treaty is now under great scrutiny.

"The strengthened review process is going to be put to the test. And so there is an interest in the conference and I have seen that the extensive consultations that are going on indicates there is a strong interest."

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov are among the ministers due to speak at the opening of the conference this week. In all, foreign ministers from 20 countries are due to speak, including those from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Lithuania, Slovakia, Macedonia, and Uzbekistan.