Nuclear weapons and international non-proliferation efforts emerged almost simultaneously in the mid-twentieth century, highlighting a tension towards two different approaches of advancing and reversing the nuclear proliferation that continues until today. The central dangers to international security related to nuclear technology are vertical proliferation, horizontal proliferation, non- government proliferation, nuclear terrorism, etc. Although these quandaries cannot be addressed overnight, grounds for hope exist because of institutional structures and processes which are in place to check the proliferation of sensitive materials and technologies. The international cooperation towards formulating and implementing various elements of the nuclear non-proliferation regime has had limited success.

Since the unbridled proliferation of nuclear weapons technology is considered dangerous for the global peace, a successful solution for nuclear proliferation requires a multilateral approach towards international security. The nuclear non-proliferation regime along with counter-proliferation have been envisaged to contain horizontal and non-state proliferation through international institutions and processes. It is basically a set of rules, norms,and institutions which haltingly – and albeit imperfectly – have dispirited the proliferation of nuclear weapons capability.

The non-proliferation regime (despite its pitfall)s is successful because only nine (9) states have acquired nuclear weapons to date, both de-jure and de-facto (P-5, D-3 and North Korea), with a limited number of further aspirants on the horizon, e.g. Iran.  Japan, Germany, and South Korea have the technological ability to quickly acquire them but they are not considered potential challengers of the non-proliferation regime.


Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The NPT is considered to be the regime’s backbone because it is a nearly-universal treaty. It has 190 member states excluding the four non-member nuclear weapon states (India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea). The treaty, however, is considered  by many to be discriminatory and a segregator among nuclear haves and have-nots. There are protracted international debates over the Treaty and issues of nuclear weapons proliferation— particularly with regard to the unfairness of the regime and the NPT.

The states parties to the treaty are obliged to follow the obligations of the non-proliferation regime while remaining non-NPT states are not legally accountable to the NPT it. In the same vein, the NNWS and civil society exert pressure on the NWS to halt both horizontal and vertical proliferation and pursue progress towards nuclear disarmament, but unfortunately, no fruitful results have been produced so far.

Many of the Treaty’s articles have not been adhered to in their true spirit by the founding states themselves, e.g., the deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe and a few other NATO member states are a violation of Article I and II of the treaty. According to Article I of the Treaty, the five NWS are not supposed to transfer or assist whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices to non-nuclear weapon state or any recipient. Likewise, the NWS’s commitments under Article VI of the NPT (to work for total disarmament) have turned out to be inadequate and ineffectual. Ironically, if unified, the P-5 has over 22,000 warheads.

Article VIII of the NPT provides that the Treaty be reviewed every five years. The primary objectives of Review Conferences (RevCon) are to assess developments since the previous conference, to address current challenges, and to identify areas for further progress.

As a result of these mandatory RevCons, the ‘64 Point Action Plan’ was adopted by the 2010 NPT RevCon as a successor of ‘13 Practical Steps’ from 2000. The 64 Point Action Plan includes obscure commitments that demonstrate intricate arrangements to determine its progress. The discrepancies in interpretation of the NPT remain unresolved in this Action Plan with considerable difference of opinion on what the actions specifically require. The 2010 NPT RevCon failed to reach  consensus, neither on the US efforts to build out pragmatic steps nor to make the Additional Protocol mandatory. Progress on implementing the Action Plan’s disarmament section remains very limited. Thus, the Treaty-envisaged objectives like pursuing complete disarmament and controlling nuclear proliferation remain unfulfilled. The two PrepComs held in 2012 and 2013 unsurprisingly failed to lay the ground for the 2015 NPT Review Conference.


International Atomic Energy Agency        

The IAEA is neither the Secretariat of the NPT nor empowered to request states to adhere to it. The IAEA’s monitoring role is particularly restricted to a different set of bilateral treaties with a focus on Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements (CSAs). There are more than 140 such bilateral CSA agreements whereby the IAEA monitors and accounts for the fissile material in various countries.  In that sense, it is not the prerogative of the IAEA to enforce the multilateral NPT.

It does, however, have formal responsibility in the context of implementing Article III and Article IV of the Treaty. At the broadest level, the IAEA provides two service functions under the NPT. First, the IAEA facilitates and provides a channel for endeavors aimed at “the further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world” (Article IV). Its second major function is to administer international nuclear safeguards in accordance with Article III of the Treaty, to verify fulfillment of the non-proliferation obligations of both NWS and NNWS party to the Treaty.

The IAEA is to keep an eye on dual-use technology and to maintain safeguards on peaceful nuclear programs via comprehensive safeguards. Through application of IAEA safeguards, conformity and compliance with the non-proliferation treaty is conferred. The agency assists the NNWS in developing civilian expertise and checks for diversion of civilian technology by accounting for nuclear material.

Even though the mandate and scope of the IAEA and the NPT are fairly broad, there are still gaps that need a pragmatic elucidation which would ultimately lead to the accomplishment of their objectives. One of the cardinal rules of nuclear non-proliferation is the agreement among supplier nations not to engage in nuclear commerce with states that have not signed full-scope safeguards with the IAEA.


Nuclear Export Control Institutions  

Apart from the NPT, there are other multilateral institutions that play a role in the execution and enforcement of non-proliferation policies, particularly the nuclear export control cartels. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is one such organization, formed in 1974 in response to the Indian nuclear test. It is an association of 48 nations that endeavor to coordinate their export control laws governing transfers of civilian nuclear material, equipment, and technology to non-nuclear-weapon states. However, some member states have been able to pursue civilian nuclear projects with non-NPT members outside of NSG membership – e.g. the US-India Civil Nuclear Deal. Pakistan’s attempts to reach a similar agreement have been rebuffed by the US and other NSG members.

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is aimed at the non-proliferation of unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering WMD through the implementation of certain export control guidelines. Additionally, Australia Group (AG) participants coordinate national export management measures to help satisfy their obligations vis-à-vis the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The 38-member Zangger Committee (ZC) serves as the “faithful interpreter”  of the NPT’s Article III in order to harmonize the interpretation of nuclear export control policies under the concept of “especially designed or prepared equipment or material for the processing, use or production of special fissionable material”  for NPT states.

Although these institutions have facilitated setting international standards for export of dual-use and sensitive technologies, the voluntary and nonbinding nature of these regimes does not necessarily coerce states to keep to their non-proliferation commitments.

The nuclear non-proliferation regime is based on and anchored in international law and norms, as well as incorporated into international mechanisms. The NPT is fundamental, but the broader regime is a complex system of multilateral and bilateral agreements, arrangements, and mechanisms intended to promote and achieve a world without nuclear weapons, sooner rather than later. This was valid during the Cold War and remains valid today. At the same time, the regime is intended to provide a framework to enable the world to make effective use of nuclear capability for peaceful purposes.


The writer is a Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center and is Research Associate at Strategic Vision Institute. 


Image: U.S. Department of State, Flickr

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