In The Media

Canada's nuclear non-proliferation role

by Marius Grinius

April 29, 2015

Next week, 189 states, including Canada, will meet at the United Nations in New York City to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The NPT, in force over the past 45 years, has long been called the “essential cornerstone for the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament." It is a three-pillared bargain between the five nuclear weapon states (the P5, or United States, Great Britain, France, China and Russia) and the non-nuclear weapon states party to the treaty. 

The P5 have committed to eventual disarmament in exchange for non-nuclear weapons states’ commitment to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons. All states party to the treaty have the right to access peaceful nuclear technology, including nuclear energy.

In many respects the NPT has been a success story. Dire predictions that there would be numerous states armed with nuclear weapons have not happened, though some nuclear outliers such as India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel remain.

In 2010 the NPT review conference produced a final consensus document which listed 64 “actions” distributed among the three pillars, to be implemented in due course. While there has been some progress in the non-proliferation and nuclear technology pillars, little has happened in terms of nuclear disarmament. This has not prevented the P5 from giving as positive a spin as possible on their disarmament actions.

When the P5 met in London in early February they noted how the P5 process contributes in developing mutual confidence and transparency. They discussed efforts to achieve entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and reiterated their support for the UN’s disarmament machinery.

The P5 welcomed their ongoing negotiations with Iran and stressed their resolve for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. They expressed their support for efforts to hold a conference to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Finally they looked forward to a “consensual, balanced outcome to the 2015 review Conference, which would do much to enhance the P5’s continuing efforts to strengthen the NPT.”

While the P5 have a collective self-interest in achieving a successful 2015 review conference, their actions elsewhere undercut claims of progress on the disarmament pillar. NATO’s strategic concept continues to uphold the need for nuclear weapons for its collective security. Russia’s military doctrine, updated last December, reiterated its reliance on nuclear weapons.

Similarly, while China has long stated that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, its military doctrine remains opaque. The CTBT will not happen anytime soon. As for UN disarmament machinery, the United Nations Disarmament Committee has not produced any useful study in decades and the Conference on Disarmament has been frozen in procedural wrangling for some 17 years. No break-through is anticipated.

Among the agreed 2010 “action” items was the conference to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East that would start in 2012. This has not happened, nor is there any indication it will anytime soon. Such a negotiation is further complicated because, by definition, weapons of mass destruction also include chemical and biological weapons. Neither Israel nor Egypt adheres to the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention. Wars rage in Syria and Iraq and an Iran/P5 plus Germany final agreement is not guaranteed.

The United States has gone from 31,255 nuclear warheads in 1967 to 4,760 operational warheads in 2014. Russia’s nuclear arsenal has shrunk from 30,000 weapons to about 4,300 operational warheads. Critics argue, however, that current US and Russian levels remain far too high. Furthermore, no treaty covers tactical nuclear weapons whose use would have disastrous global implications. US and Russian plans to modernize all three elements of their nuclear triad (inter-continental ballistic missiles, ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-armed bombers) also challenge the disarmament pillar. China has announced a 10 per cent increase in military spending but the budget allocation for nuclear forces is not clear.

Will the 2015 NPT review conference fail? As always, there will be pressure on the P5 to do more on the disarmament pillar. This time it will include a growing momentum to negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Convention to outlaw nuclear weapons, much like the chemical and biological conventions. With virtually zero prospects for a Middle East conference, a CTBT or reinvigorated UN disarmament machinery, a Nuclear Weapons Convention will demand attention, notwithstanding P5 arguments that negotiation of such a convention would only be a distraction.

Non-nuclear weapon states, including Canada, who are concerned that failure to achieve consensus at the review conference will add to the unravelling of the non-proliferation regime, will be expected to work hard to ensure that the conference muddles through with some veneer of success. The P5 talk about strengthening the NPT. Yet in 2010 they vehemently opposed a modest initiative by Canada, and supported by most states, to establish a small Implementation Support Unit for the NPT and to create a more effective review process. Perhaps in 2015 the P5 will support such an initiative, if only to stave off what otherwise may well be a failed conference and further unravelling of the non-proliferation regime.

A former diplomat, Marius Grinius has served numerous roles, including ambassador to South Korea, and ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He also served as the Canadian head of delegation to the 2010 NPT Review Conference. He is now a fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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