Last week, when the potentates of the world gathered for the UN’s General Assembly in New York to talk about global issues, they might have paid heed to the words of Swiss philosopher, diplomat, and legal expert, Emmerich de Vattel, who in his 1758 opus The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law declared that “nature has established a perfect equality of independent nations.” It is not a principle that has always gone down well with the rich and powerful countries. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, which sought to craft a new world order out of the ruins of the 1st World War, Japan introduced the following clause on racial equality to be written into the covenant of the League of Nations:
“The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord, as soon as possible, to all alien nationals of States members of the League equal and just treatment in every respect, making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.”
The West was aghast. Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes was mortified about the future of “White Australia” if the clause was accepted. The British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour declared that while he found the notion that all men were created equal an interesting one, he did not believe it. “You could scarcely say that a man in Central Africa was equal to a European.” US President Woodrow Wilson was worried that, even with a watered down version of the clause (that simply asked for “the principle of equality of nations and just treatment of their nationals,”) the League of Nations Covenant would not get the support of US senators from the western states if it included the racial equality provision and, when majority of the delegates voted for the Japanese amendment, announced that the amendment could not carry because there were strong objections to it. In any event, the US Senate never ratified the League of Nations Covenant, thus dealing the first attempt to form a global society of nations a fatal blow.
What does this have to do with the General Assembly? Well many of the issues discussed had a great bearing on the principle of equality. Addressing the gathering US President Barack Obama declared that “no world order which elevates one nation above others” could succeed in tackling global issues. Speaking immediately after him, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, in a long (he spoke for over 90 minutes instead of the allotted 15 minutes), rambling, and sometimes incoherent address, put Obama’s remarks in stark relief. Clutching a copy of the UN Charter he moaned: “It says nations are equal whether they are big or small –are we equal in the permanent seats? … Do we have the rights of the veto?” Answering his own questions he said: “No, we are not equal.”
Now, whatever one may make of the man, that statement is undeniably true. We are not equal. And not just in the current UN power structure. Take the challenge of nuclear proliferation, one of “four pillars” outlined by US President which encapsulate the challenges facing the world. The global effort towards a nuclear-free world continues to be characterized by rampant discrimination and inequality between the nuclear haves and have-nots. For example, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the US loves to quote in relation to the nuclear activities of North Korea and Iran also states in Article VI:
"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, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."
On Thursday, Obama chaired a meeting of the UN Security Council as part of the process of drawing up a replacement for the NPT and designed to stop countries developing these weapons. In a unanimous vote, the UNSC adopted a resolution calling for the full implementation of Article VI but with emphasis on the “negotiations in good faith” part. There was absolutely no mention of a deadline by which the nuclear weapon states would disarm and the resolution is also silent on the continuing development of new nukes as well as delivery systems by these states. Given that Obama has already declared that disarmament will not happen in his lifetime, the fact that the UK has already ruled out giving up its nukes (a statement on Tuesday from Downing Street made it clear that the UK's nuclear deterrent was "non-negotiable"), and that Russia and China have both announced upgrades to their nuclear arsenals, it is obvious that the UN resolution is just an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. It is not the first time this has happened.
When, in the closing years of the last century, India called attention to the requirement for complete nuclear disarmament by all under this provision, the Clinton Administration said its implementation was "unrealistic" though the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade earlier had ended the nuclear arms race. The US (and all other nuclear powers) therefore is also in breach of its "international obligations" in this regard and has little moral authority to demand that others comply with the NPT. Sadly, this is far from an isolated incidence of non-compliance. The NPT has been repeatedly violated by the nuclear states in pursuit of narrow political interests.
According to a report by John Burroughs, Executive Director Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy, the 2000 NPT Review Conference came up with an "unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapons States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament, to which all states are committed under Article VI." Don't hold your breath though. The report states that "during the Conference, diplomatic talking points released by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists revealed that US negotiators advised Russia that keeping its nuclear forces on alert is a good idea". Why? "Under 'any possible future arms control agreement,' the talking points say, Russia, could maintain on 'constant' alert a 'large, diversified, viable arsenal', sufficient to mount an 'annihilating counterattack' in response to a US first strike, regardless of any 'limited' US national missile defense system." Of course, the US could then use the same argument to justify its arsenal's continued existence. We thus have here the nuclear powers colluding to eliminate the possibility of their ever having to comply with their "unequivocal undertaking". In fact, in a speech in Prague earlier in the year, Obama declared that the US would never give up its arsenal so long as nuclear weapons were held by other countries.
In his speech to the General Assembly, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown proposed a "grand global bargain between nuclear weapon and non nuclear weapons states” in which “all nuclear weapons states must reciprocally play their part in reducing nuclear weapons as part of an agreement by non nuclear states to renounce them.” This, he declared was “exactly what the Non-Proliferation Treaty intended”. Then came the rope-a-dope. “In line with maintaining our nuclear deterrent I have asked our national security committee to report to me on the potential future reduction of our nuclear weapon submarines from four to three.” What Brown is asking us to believe is that by reducing their nuclear arsenals, the nuclear weapon states are disarming as required by Article VI. This, of course, is nonsense. When the Kenyan government is asked to disarm militias, the clear suggestion is not that the militias be allowed to keep some of their machetes.
According Professor Ron Smith, a defence economist at Birkbeck College, going from four to three nuclear submarines would probably have little effect on Britain's nuclear capability. This is because the fourth sub is essentially a spare. Similarly, the Moscow Treaty between the US and Russia, which sets a goal of reducing deployed nuclear weapons to between 1700-2200 by 2012, only covers weapons that are “deployed,” meaning those that are in missile silos, in submarines, or ready to be loaded onto Air Force bombers. The treaty does not cover weapons held in reserve by either country. In fact, there is no intention among nuclear weapons powers to disarm, Obama’s rosy rhetoric notwithstanding.
Under Article I of the NPT "each nuclear-weapon State also undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices."
Thursday’s UNSC resolution is however not so unambiguous. It declares that the Security Council, which will determine if any particular situation of non-compliance “constitutes a threat to international peace and security.” So some instances of non-compliance, it seems, are acceptable and others are not. Why would the UNSC introduce such ambiguity in the resolution’s wording? Perhaps it is an attempt to retroactively cover their collective behinds.
In 1976, a US Senate committee uncovered secret US heavy water exports to India which paved the way for India's nuclear weapons programme. In March 2006 The UK's Foreign Office admitted that in the 1950s and 1960s, Britain made hundreds of secret shipments of restricted materials- including samples of fissile material (uranium-235 in 1959 and plutonium in 1966) as well as highly enriched lithium-6 which is used to boost fission bombs and fuel hydrogen bombs- to Israel. A BBC Newsnight investigation also showed that Britain shipped 20 tons of heavy water directly to Israel in 1959 and 1960 to start up the Dimona reactor, constructed with French help in 1956.
Under the NATO concept of “Nuclear Sharing”, the US still deploys up to 200 nuclear weapons in non-nuclear Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. A significant proportion of these weapons are intended for delivery on aircraft belonging to non-nuclear NATO members in the event of war. This is in direct violation of the obligation “not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons” and another telling example of Nuclear Power deception.
The key document on the US interpretation of Articles I and II of the NPT is entitled Questions on the Draft Non-Proliferation Treaty asked by US Allies together with Answers given by the United States. In it the US declares that once a general war has begun, it would no longer feel bound by the NPT creating a loophole by which it could withdraw from the Treaty without the three month notice period required by NPT article X. It further states that the NPT does not deal with arrangements for deployment of nuclear weapons within allied territory as these do not involve any transfer of nuclear weapons or control over them. This interpretation was thereby made public on 9 July 1968, eight days after the NPT signing ceremony at which the first 56 nations had signed the Treaty. Research by the Berlin Information-centre for TransAtlantic Security (BITS) concluded that many countries were unaware of the NATO countries’ unilateral interpretation of the NPT and its meaning when they signed the Treaty; that there was no evidence that the details of NATO nuclear sharing arrangements or the interpretation had been made available to all NPT parties prior to joining the Treaty; and that neither the US nor NATO ever lived up to then US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s 1966 promise "to make every effort to explain both our non-proliferation and our NATO nuclear sharing policies and to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt, that there is no conflict between them." One may suppose that an unintended consequence of the US position is that in the event of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran could immediately withdraw from the NPT citing the Questions and Answers. However, even in this, discrimination reigns. The US tries to preclude this possibility by stating that it would withdraw only in times of "general war" and that "the other extreme would be a limited, local conflict, not involving a nuclear weapon-state. In this case the treaty would remain in force".
The conduct of the nuclear powers simply proves that the NPT is a byword for global domination; a scheme to keep such weapons, and the political power they convey, in their hands and in the hands of their friends. They never intended it to "facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons." The UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband last week noted that Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world which he announced in Prague, “is a very long-term goal which may outlive his children, not just himself.” He added that the nuclear powers "reject unilateral nuclear disarmament … precisely because the world cannot end up in a situation where responsible powers get rid of their weapons, but the danger of nuclear proliferation by other powers remains." But, one might very well ask, who determines which countries are “responsible powers”?
The NPT, just like many other relics of the post-WW2 and Cold War era, has outlived its usefulness. These were agreements designed to keep the peace in an age dominated by big military powers, when just the threat of war was sufficient to intimidate most into towing the line. Today, when 19 men with box-cutters can strike terror into a nation of 300 million and 10,000 Hizbullah guerillas can fight the largest and best equipped military in the Middle East to a standstill, such agreements seem obsolete. Created, in Paul Leventhal's words "for a world of thousands of nuclear power plants and of multi-billion-dollar deals (French plans to export reprocessing plants to Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan; Germany's pact to supply reactors, enrichment and reprocessing plants to Brazil; U.S. and European plans to provide the Shah of Iran with all the reactors and reprocessing plants he wanted; and Japan's plan to achieve energy independence by acquiring more plutonium than contained in the arsenals of the superpowers)" the NPT- with its seamless arrangement of assured nuclear supply built upon pledges from the non-weapon states not to produce nuclear weapons and from the weapon states to negotiate in good faith to get rid of theirs -was supposed to take care of all problems. That world has not materialised.
However nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented and are here to stay. The world needs a new treaty that acknowledges this reality and one that avoids a situation where a few countries are allowed to continue to develop, possess and threaten the rest with these weapons. Any new treaty must take the following realities into account.
First, state-held nuclear weapons do not necessarily threaten the peace. As Newsweek’s Jonathan Tepperman notes, nuclear weapons were largely responsible for the fact that the Cold War never heated up; they made the idea of war between the US and the USSR unthinkable. In fact, not only did they militate against nuclear holocaust, but they also prevented conventional war between nuclear states. The latest skirmishes between India and Pakistan did not degenerate in full blown war largely due to the fact that both countries were nuclear powers. Far from destabilizing the region, an Iranian bomb (and, I hasten to add, no one has demonstrated that they want one) might actually bring some semblance of normalcy to Lebanon by obviating the need for Iran to arm Hizbullah as a deterrent to a feared US or Israeli military assault on Iran. Just as the prospect of mutual nuclear annihilation has mellowed the attitudes on the Indian sub-continent, so it may pour some much needed cold water on the famously hot tempers of the Middle East.
Which brings me to my second point. That the nuclear umbrella effectively protects the citizens of nuclear weapon states goes without saying. The rest of us, however, are not so lucky. While Thursday’s resolution “recalls the statements by each of the five nuclear-weapon States…in which they give security assurances against the use of nuclear weapons to nonnuclear-weapon State Parties to the NPT”, it is obvious that such assurances are of little meaning considering the US position that it would not be bound by the treaty in the event of a “general war”. Also, during the Cold War, Third world countries became the arena where big power rivalries were settled, their citizens bearing the terrible consequences. And, of course, nuclear weapons did not mellow the behavior of big powers towards their less endowed neighbours. The Soviets invaded and occupied Eastern Europe and Afghanistan; the Americans beat up on a host of countries including Vietnam, Grenada, Panama and, more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. Any treaty on non-proliferation needs to temper big power belligerence as well as ensure that non-nuclear countries have the same protection from both nuclear and conventional warfare.
Finally, the real threat of nuclear proliferation is that it increases the risk of WMD falling into the hands of terrorists. A global nuclear arms race is a terrorist's dream come true. At the moment, it is exceedingly difficult and expensive to manufacture a nuclear weapon, even a crude one. Many terrorist groups thus look to nuclear weapon states to provide them with the necessary material and technology. The more the nuclear states, the higher the chances of that happening. A frightening example of what could happen was provided by the father of Pakistan’s bomb, Dr. Prof. Abdul Qadeer Khan. In early February 2004, the Government of Pakistan announced that Khan had signed a confession indicating that he had provided Iran, Libya, and North Korea with designs and technology to aid in nuclear weapons programs in return for millions of dollars. It is not a great leap from that to selling the technology to terrorists.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed El Baradei, recently warned that more than 30 countries could soon have the technological know-how to produce nuclear weapons. It seems that going nuclear is becoming fashionable on the international stage. Many states are developing nuclear technology that is designed for peaceful energy production. The problem is that these programs could quickly and easily be modified to develop nuclear weapons. Iran and Brazil are actively working on uranium enrichment capability, and other countries, including Australia, Argentina, and South Africa are seriously considering programs of their own. Thirteen more states either have the ability to produce weapons grade uranium, could build the technology to do so, or could use nuclear waste for weapons: Japan, South Korea, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Taiwan, Spain, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Lithuania. Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia recently announced they were initiating nuclear programs. Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh, Ghana, Indonesia, Jordan, Namibia, Moldova, Nigeria, Poland, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam, and Yemen have expressed an interest in doing so, either for energy production or in response to regional realities. The potential for global nuclear proliferation has never been greater, and the possibility of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of radicals determined to employ them has never been more real. Any new treaty has to deal with it.
On June 26, 1946, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, soon to be India's first Prime Minister, declared: "As long as the world is constituted as it is, every country will have to devise and use the latest devices for its protection." The challenge before the UN is how to re-constitute the world and to breathe meaning into the language of equality so all nations can have a share in the advantages and responsibilities of technological progress. This is necessary if we are to achieve the goal of securing the globe for the sake of its current and future residents. It is, as Obama put it, “the bargain that makes this work.”