A Crucial Conference on Peace

MARCH 5 marked the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In less than three weeks, representatives of the NPT signatory states will gather in New York to decide the future of this critical agreement.

We urge all parties to vote to make the NPT permanent.

From the NPT's inception in 1970, it has constituted the single most important component of the international effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and the foundation upon which to build the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

In ratifying the NPT, the five declared nuclear weapons states pledged to end the nuclear arms race, to undertake measures toward nuclear disarmament, and not in any way to assist nonnuclear states in gaining nuclear weapons. The nonnuclear parties to the treaty pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons and to accept a system of safeguards to verify compliance.

Thus, in joining the NPT, states transformed the acquisition of nuclear weapons from an act of national pride to a violation of international law.

Those who negotiated the NPT never expected that the treaty would end the global nuclear proliferation threat. The treaty's ''safeguards'' system does not claim to make bomb-usable materials either ''safe'' or ''guarded,'' and treaty membership is never a guarantee of compliance. Yet when backed by strong national policies, the NPT advances the security interests of all countries: It has helped keep the number of declared nuclear weapons states and ''threshold'' states at five and three respectively.

The NPT has provided the overarching structure to end the nuclear arms race. Indeed, with the ratification of START I and the probable ratification of START II, the race now is to bring down the number of nuclear weapons as quickly and securely as possible.

Another indicator of the treaty's success has been the steady increase in its membership. Today, with more than 170 parties, the NPT has the widest adherence of any arms control agreement in history.

When backed by strong nonproliferation policies and verification measures including international safeguards, the NPT helps to curb actions based on inclinations countries may have to believe they need the bomb for their safety. Thus, it advances the security interests of all nations.

Unfortunately, it is also the only significant arms control treaty created with a limited life span.

The treaty provides that 25 years after its entrance into force, a conference of the parties will be convened to decide whether the NPT will remain in force indefinitely, for one fixed period of time, or for a series of fixed periods. The treaty further provides that the decision of extension will be made by the majority of parties to the treaty, and the result will be legally binding for all parties.

We believe that indefinite extension is essential. The NPT must be made permanent if we are to contain the terrible threat posed to all nations by the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In the aftermath of the cold war, the decisions we make today about global security will dramatically affect the lives of generations to come.

Some of the countries opposing the US position say that indefinite and unconditional extension of the NPT should be made contingent on the ratification of a comprehensive test-ban treaty or an agreement to cap the amount of material available for nuclear explosives. Others seek universal membership in the NPT or a timetable for complete nuclear disarmament.

By holding the NPT's future hostage to such laudable goals, these countries undermine the likelihood of the treaty's indefinite extension. What they do not seem to realize, ironically, is that in doing so, they also jeopardize the very framework critical to the achievement of their own goals.

Indefinite extension of the NPT does not preclude adjustments to the nuclear nonproliferation regime. In fact, it would make permanent the climate of trust conducive to more-restrictive controls over weapons-grade nuclear materials and related technologies and activities.

Given the narrow focus of the conference next month, the only question treaty parties should ask is whether the world is a safer place with the treaty in force. Indefinite and unconditional extension is the only choice that makes sense.

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