NPT talks: Why it's so hard for the UN to strengthen the treaty

Updating and strengthening the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) at the UN is a major diplomatic challenge. For one thing, there are no real penalties for ignoring it.

By , Staff writer

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    US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference at United Nations headquarters in New York on Monday.
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When North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, it paid no cost for its move – and then went on to declare itself a nuclear power by testing two nuclear weapons.

Closing that gap is one concrete step the US and some other countries would like to see come out of the nonproliferation discussions under way at the United Nations in New York. They want the 40-year-old NPT’s review conference, which occurs every five years, to create a set of consequences for any country that would resolve its questionable nuclear status by simply pulling out of the NPT.

But getting such a proposal approved – or just about any other concrete action taken – by the 189 signatory states of the NPT won’t be easy.

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Many countries, including those in the nonaligned movement, are suspicious of proposals coming from nuclear powers that are aimed at nonnuclear states. Nuclear powers like the US, Russia, and China, on the other hand, do not like to hear international forums telling them they need to do more in the area of disarmament.

On top of that, the NPT review conferences over the years have settled into a practice of working by consensus – meaning that any one country can stop conference action, which in turn means that little concrete action usually occurs.

“It’s a massive mistake” if states gauge the success of the conference based solely on whether there is a consensus final declaration, says Deepti Choubey, deputy director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. What has become the “consensus” rule means that urgent issues facing the international nuclear regime are often either put off for consideration five years later – or weakly addressed with what she calls a "lowest common denominator document.” [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph has been changed to clarify Ms. Choubey's quote, "It's a massive mistake."]

Strengthening the NPT

But Choubey sees better prospects for measures updating and strengthening the NPT coming out of this year’s conference. She takes as a “good sign” that conference delegates agreed Wednesday to create a subsidiary group to address separately some issues, including some of the thornier ones like member withdrawal.

US officials tie this better atmosphere to President Obama’s focus on nuclear issues and in particular on steps he has taken toward nuclear disarmament.

Obama’s actions “especially over the past six weeks have set the stage for this conference,” said Ellen Tauscher, US undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, in a meeting explaining US policy to conference delegates Wednesday.

She cited the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review that places new limits on any US use of nuclear weapons, Obama’s nuclear security summit in April, and especially the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia.

“It moves us from mutually assured destruction to mutually assured stability,” she said of the new START.

But others say the current international standoff with Iran over its nuclear ambitions clouds the conference’s prospects, not only because Iran alone could foil “consensus” if it chose to, but because many nonaligned countries, including major US partners like Brazil and Turkey, are sympathetic to Iran’s case against what it calls the powers of a dead “world order.”

So what are some of the proposals that countries and regional groups would like to see action on?

In addressing the opening session of the conference Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton listed some of the US goals, including automatic penalties for countries violating agreements on nuclear safeguards (such as a withdrawing country that then goes on to use for ill purposes the know-how or materials it derived from membership).

Automatic penalties

Examples she cited of possible “automatic penalties” include suspending international technical cooperation, and developing financial and legal tools “to disrupt illicit proliferation networks.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, also addressing the conference, called for more nuclear weapons cuts and measures guaranteeing greater transparency in existing nuclear programs. He also called for measures to encourage the three nuclear-armed NPT nonsignatories – India, Israel, and Pakistan – to join the treaty.

Other countries are pressing for action on a 15-year-old project to create a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, with Egypt in particular demanding an international conference toward establishing the zone. And the nonaligned movement of more than half of the NPT membership wants more measures aimed at reducing the arsenals of the world’s declared and undeclared (read Israel) nuclear powers.

Choubey agrees that the Iran standoff won’t make action any easier, but she also raises the possibility that a general interest in moving the NPT forward could end up trumping solidarity by some with Iran.

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Related:

UN conference on nuclear proliferation a big test for Obama

Ahmadinejad: critics of Iran nuclear program 'illegitimate'

NPT: A nuclear weapons free Middle East? Pressure on Israel grows.

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