Page last updated at 02:43 GMT, Saturday, 28 May 2005 03:43 UK

Viewpoint: A lost nuclear opportunity

The month-long Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent nuclear weapons from spreading has ended. Jon B Wolfsthal from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gives his view on why little progress was made.

Delegates during one UN session
Delegates found many of the sessions frustrating
When opportunity knocks, it's best to answer. Yet the US and other countries seeking to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons may have just missed their last best chance to prevent the most destructive weapons ever invented from falling into additional hands.

This chance came in the form of the Review Conference for the NPT, held in New York. Given the world's intense concern over proliferation, it should have been relatively easy for the treaty members to use the conference to strengthen the pact. Instead, the conference has produced only acrimony and recriminations, and no consensus statement or document.

The NPT is built on three pillars. It commits non-nuclear weapon states not to acquire nuclear weapons, pledges the five nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US) to pursue nuclear disarmament, and guarantees all states access to peaceful nuclear technology under safeguards.

'Tipping point'

Historically, the US has led international efforts to reinforce the treaty. It was the US which led efforts to negotiate the NPT in 1970 and to convert the NPT from a temporary pact into a permanent agreement in 1995.

Failure leaves international non-proliferation efforts adrift at a time of great peril
Jon Wolfsthal
Washington also championed the development of the NPT's system of nuclear inspections, and has traditionally worked to balance the constraints placed on non-nuclear states by accepting constraints on its own nuclear developments.

Thus, at what many see as a global nuclear tipping point where the ranks of nuclear weapons states could grow significantly in the coming decades, it is all the more surprising that the US appears responsible for the failure of the Review Conference to produce a meaningful, constructive outcome.

This failure leaves international non-proliferation efforts adrift at a time of great peril. US officials say that the treaty conference was a success - they used it to warn the world of the dangers posed by North Korea and Iran.

Improved inspections

Yet, the US position rings hollow among many states that see Washington as ignoring the other pillars of the NPT, especially those related to disarmament.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan urged world leaders to reinforce their commitment
Over the past year, there has been broad agreement among many states that the NPT is in need of repair.

Many capitals hoped that the conference could adopt a consensus statement endorsing a new set of improved inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In addition, many considered adopting steps to make it harder for states like North Korea to withdraw from the agreement after cheating on its terms an achievable goal.

Many also hoped that the conference would launch a new effort to see whether all states should be free to develop all manner of nuclear technologies - especially those that can produce nuclear materials directly usable in nuclear weapons - without eroding the very protection the NPT is designed to provide.

The US endorsed many of these efforts, but had fought any attempt to refer to past US commitments to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force, pursue a verifiable ban on the production of fissile material, and unequivocally pursue nuclear disarmament, arguing they had been endorsed by a previous administration in 2000.

The Bush administration opposes the CTBT, verification for a material production ban and wants to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Many leave New York wondering if the NPT and the concept of non-proliferation has much of a future
Jon Wolfsthal
The first 10 days of the month-long conference were consumed by the US's objection to any reference to the 2000 conference's documents, including those that dealt with the CTBT.

In the end, no consensus document was produced, and the opportunity to strengthen the treaty's inspection requirements and its withdrawal provisions and clarify its terms to prevent states from pursuing nuclear weapon programmes under the NPT's protection was lost.

It is true that the 1980 and 1990 conferences also failed to produce such documents, but only after mammoth US efforts to achieve results. In this case, the manner of failure was so discouraging for many states that they see the effort to improve the NPT and preserve the non-proliferation system as dead in the water.

What future?

There is growing concern among delegates that more conservative elements in the Bush administration - including John Bolton, President Bush's nominee to be US ambassador to the UN and architect of the US policy toward the NPT review conference - will use the conference outcome to argue even more forcefully that the US cannot base its security on legal agreements than cannot even produce basic documents.

Many delegates to the conference suspect this was the secret US agenda - suspicions that shake their confidence that the NPT will provide for their security either.

Thus, many leave New York wondering if the NPT and the concept of non-proliferation has much of a future. These doubts might lead some states to actively reconsider their own decisions to stay non-nuclear. This is the very thing the Bush administration says it is trying to prevent.

Jon Wolfsthal is the Co-Author of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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