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UN: NPT Review Begins With Call For More Progress

The five-year review of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) has begun with a reaffirmation of support for the treaty's aims. But the first day of debate found disagreement between the United States and non-nuclear states on the pace of nuclear disarmament. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 25 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A new grouping of non-nuclear states has called on the five leading nuclear states to demonstrate a new commitment to the global elimination of nuclear weapons.

The group, known as the New Agenda Coalition, on Monday urged the nuclear states to speed up the process of disarmament by renouncing the first use of nuclear weapons, separating warheads from missiles and taking missiles off high alert.

The coalition's proposal was made by Foreign Minister Rosario Green of Mexico on the opening day of the four-week conference on reviewing the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT says that the five countries -- the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain -- are the only ones allowed to possess nuclear weapons, with the understanding that they will negotiate in good faith to eliminate them.

But the New Agenda countries are raising concern that the process of disarmament is stalled and that compliance with the NPT is slipping. The Mexican foreign minister and representatives from two other New Agenda countries -- Ireland and South Africa -- on Monday expressed alarm that some developments in the past five years are undermining the spirit of the non-proliferation treaty.

Ireland's Foreign Minister Brian Cowen told delegates that the nuclear countries have not taken proper advantage of opportunities for disarmament since the end of the Cold War. He said the New Agenda Coalition's proposal is based on the need for new dialogue.

"It is premised on a new political undertaking to be made by the five nuclear weapons states to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons and engage in an accelerated process of negotiations and steps leading to nuclear disarmament."

More than 50 nations have so far endorsed the agenda advocated by Mexico, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand, Egypt, Sweden, and Brazil.

A number of non-nuclear countries and non-governmental organizations plan to devote discussions at the conference and parallel events to raising awareness about what they believe are threats to the NPT. Problem areas most often cited are delays in the reduction of strategic nuclear arms by the United States and Russia and the failure to fully ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Also cited are new U.S. plans to erect a national missile-defense system and the military doctrines of Russia and NATO that assert the importance nuclear weapons.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged in his address for deep reductions in nuclear warheads, which still number in the tens of thousands. And he said the U.S. plans for a national missile defense could lead to a new arms race. He said despite achievements already reached in nuclear arms reduction, the threat of a nuclear confrontation remained.

"Nuclear conflict remains a very real and very terrifying possibility at the beginning of the 21st Century. This is the stark reality confronting you today -- a reality that imposes an obligation on all of us to use every instrument at our disposal to pursue the treaty's non-proliferation and disarmament aims with equal and unwavering determination."

Representatives of three of the world's nuclear powers spoke on the conference's first day and sharp differences emerged between two of them -- the United States and China.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reasserted the right of the United States to develop a national missile shield to protect it from rogue nations which may possess nuclear weapons capabilities. Plans for a national missile defense system are expected to be approved by President Bill Clinton this summer. That would require a revision of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty, but Albright says the treaty has proved flexible before.

"The world has changed dramatically in the almost three decades since the ABM Treaty was signed. That treaty has been amended before, and there is no good reason it cannot be amended again to reflect new threats from third countries outside the strategic deterrence regime."

Speaking right after Albright was Chinese Director-General of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament Sha Zukang. Sha referred repeatedly to the U.S. plans for a missile defense system, calling it a form of nuclear armament that would obstruct the international disarmament process.

Sha said the best measures for confidence-building would be for nuclear weapons states to follow China's example by promising not to be the first to use nuclear weapons and to not threaten to use them against non-nuclear states.

British Minister of State Peter Hain told the conference that Britain understood the U.S. security concerns that have prompted plans for the missile defense system. But he said any such initiative must be in compliance with the ABM treaty and must be discussed bilaterally with Russia.

The U.S. and Russian presidents are expected to discuss possible changes to the ABM at a summit meeting in June. Russian officials have said Moscow would not feel bound by previous arms control obligations if the United States pulled out of the ABM treaty to accommodate its missile defense plans.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is due to discuss the issue during his address today (Tuesday). In a commentary in Monday's New York Times, Ivanov said Russia was ready to cooperate with the United States and other countries on missile defenses that would not violate the ABM treaty.