Nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference in historical context

Aug 14, 2022
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The Tenth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is underway at the UN in New York. The record of the treaty is not perfect but it is the major persisting arms control agreement. If peace means a continuing negotiating process with the other, as President Kennedy asserted, we need more of this.

In the first days of 1970 there was apprehension among staff of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. The date was fast approaching by which we must ratify the new Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), before that opportunity was closed and the treaty entered into force. At the last moment we submitted our instrument of ratification. Apprehension had been driven by the forces behind the coalition government in favour of acquisition of nuclear weapons. With a Canadian CANDU reactor planned for Jervis Bay (where now we have the Murrays Beach carpark) we would have a reactor notorious for possible diversion of weapons grade material. American light water reactors use slightly enriched uranium and have to be shut down for months for spent fuel rods to be changed: multiple observable, accountable events. CANDU would use natural uranium and produce plutonium plus heat energy for electric power. For optimal energy production fuel rods should be in the CANDU reactor for a long time, the plutonium adding more and more neutrons and becoming useless for fission weapons. A cunning operator could periodically whip out some fuel rods with plutonium at optimal weapons quality while the rest of the reactor cooked on. The Carter Administration stopped the CANDU reactor projects in South Korea, Pakistan and Iran, as it pulled in the reins on US nuclear adventurism abroad.

We are in a period of history now, not so much with lobby for nuclear weapons of nil sane utility but with demands for more and more defence acquisitions of dubious utility, justified by career habits and enthusiasms and thirst for top gear in the defence force … which our new defence minister says should not only be interoperable, but interchangeable with US forces. The role of civilian government, of parliament, of civil society, is to keep this expensive business proportionate and useful and wise investment compared with what needs to be done to make Australia worth defending. The Minister should know that there is no history of American forces being under foreign command, since 1918, when some US infantry were training with Australian units when the German advance began and Australian general John Monash changed the course of the war. No such thing these days, Australian forces will be simply embedded in American forces under American command… unless we change course.

The NPT offended some because it divided the world into Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) and Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS). The Nuclear Weapon States (US, UK, USSR, France, China) had by then tested weapons and undertook to assist NNWS with peaceful, non-explosive nuclear technology and not to transfer nuclear weapons, weapon technology or control over nuclear weapons to NNWS. The treaty more vaguely committed them to head towards general and complete disarmament. The NNWS were not to acquire nuclear explosive devices or control over them. There are now 191 parties to the treaty. More history at Wikipedia.

Several more countries have acquired nuclear weapons: India and Pakistan, publicly; Israel and apartheid South Africa surreptitiously (South Africa subsequently giving them up, Israel has not); Kazakhstan and Ukraine surrendered for destruction USSR weapons on their territories after the collapse of the USSR. North Korea (DPRK) was a party to the NPT but with the undoing of agreements with the Clinton Administration by the Bush II administration, the DPRK withdrew from the NPT and has subsequently tested nuclear weapons and strategic and tactical missiles. History here; Australia has been involved with naval activities to enforce sanctions on the DPRK. But it’s not really possible to divert this note to a history of the Korean peninsula as would be needed for further comment. Similarly the situation with Iran is complex and needs more space than possible here.

What we can say is that the NPT has been broadly effective… though not towards nuclear or general disarmament. Its effectiveness dependent upon a complex of safeguards agreements managed by the Atomic Energy Agency.

For the first time, this year a Japanese prime minister, Mr Kishida, has addressed this conference, on the anniversary of the first use of a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima in 1945.

There are two new elements this year. In 2017 the UN organised a conference to draft a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) with significant involvement of civil society organisations including from Australia. After due process this treaty entered into force on 22 January 2021. Australia is among western and nuclear weapon states who are not parties to this newest of arms control agreements. This Norwegian site provides valuable information on the TPNW and comparative rates of adherence to arms control treaties. The Australian group of the campaign for the treaty (sharing the Nobel Peace Prize) notes that in opposition the ALP was in favour of joining this treaty.

“The Labor party adopted a resolution in 2018 committing it to sign and ratify the TPNW in government. It was moved by Anthony Albanese, who now serves as prime minister and has been a vocal supporter of the TPNW. He said at the time: “Our commitment to sign and ratify the nuclear weapon ban treaty in government is Labor at its best.” Labor reaffirmed its position in 2021.

Most Labor parliamentarians have also individually pledged to work in support of Australia’s signature and ratification of the TPNW, as have parliamentarians from the Australian Greens and other parties. A cross-party parliamentary friendship group was established in 2020 to promote adherence to the TPNW.”

They need reminding.

The other different issue this year is Ukraine. Early in the 2022 offensive in the Ukraine war that began in 2014, as NATO countries began to pile in military support for Ukraine, President Putin reminded the world that Russia’s territorial defence was backed by nuclear weapons. (I had his words embedded here but they were obliterated by YouTube.) This produced much excited commentary in the West and combined with the obliteration of Russian media from the web it’s hard now to find his exact words. But at the beginning of the current review conference a Russian delegate reminded the conference of Russia’s view that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This language derives from the joint statement of Nuclear Weapon States to the UN Security Council in January 2022, discussed with context is this article from the rock solid Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

President Putin is more than aware of the history of war planning during the cold war. Given the imbalance between NATO and much larger Warsaw Pact forces, NATO plans included use of battlefield and intermediate range nuclear weapons, until the latter were banned and eliminated by treaty on elimination of intermediate and short range missiles in 1987, disowned without effort to improve by Trump in 2019.

Most notorious of nuclear weapons conceived for close warfare was the so-called ‘neutron bomb’, intended to produce radiation to kill life and save buildings, weapons, machines. Putin, in my view, issued a warning about the thin threshold between conventional and nuclear weapons, also discouraging adventures out of Ukraine into Russia.

In a previous essay I referred to President John Kennedy’s speech of June 1963, emphasising that peace was not an object or an objective but an ongoing process of negotiation with the other. The 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, the NPT and strategic arms limitations agreements were the fabric of US-Soviet detente. They rested significantly on ‘national means of verification’, not trust. President Trump, as well as tearing up the agreement with Iran endorsed by the UN Security Council, tore up a 1992 agreement with Russia for overflights to inspect the other side’s weapon systems.

There is no peace in these directions.

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