Nuclear Suppliers Group and its Selective Membership Criteria

Ideally, a state should ring the United Nation’s or the International Atomic Energy Agency’s doorbell if it desires access to peaceful nuclear technology. These bodies have universal or near-universal membership and could respond to these requests with uniform criteria. Instead, a cartel of 48 countries is in charge of regulating the export of these sensitive technologies, and it provides access only to like-minded countries, even if they might not fit the bill of the already subjective criteria.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a voluntary association of states that aims to ensure that nuclear trade for peaceful purposes does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The group first met in November 1975 in response to India’s first nuclear test, which used fuel illegally diverted from a nuclear reactor that was supplied to India for peaceful uses.  The group operates through the principle of consensus and its guidelines are implemented by each participant in accordance with its national laws.

The guidelines regulate the transfer of dual-use equipment, material, and technology that could contribute to unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle or nuclear explosive activities. Membership criteria include the ability to supply items specified in the guidelines, adherence to the guidelines, and enforcement of a domestic export control regime.  Additionally, members must be in full compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or another international nonproliferation agreement.

However, membership criteria have been selectively enforced to suit the goals of the existing NSG members. In 2008, as part of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, India was given permission to conduct trade with NSG members after receiving a waiver, despite not being a member of the NPT or allowing IAEA inspections. It is difficult to comprehend how an organization that was created in reaction to India’s proliferation record can bend its so-called principles and allow trade with India.

In exchange for the 2008 waiver, the United States made India agree to work toward the early negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), in a bid to make India commit to stronger nonproliferation norms. However, India still continues to produce fissile material at a very fast rate in its strategic weapons program and is now enriching uranium under the pretense of producing nuclear fuel for a reactor in Rattehali for India’s nuclear submarine program. There are no safeguards on its enrichment program that verify that the material it produces for this reactor is not diverted for the production of strategic weapons. Furthermore, the United States recently agreed to India’s demand that India no longer be obligated to allow tracking of nuclear supplies. This case is another example of how geopolitical aims of great powers can undermine the nonproliferation regime through the selective application of rules.

In order for the nuclear nonproliferation regime to work, it must aim to universalize norms and to enforce them equally. To achieve this, the NSG should build criteria for states that possess nuclear weapons and are not members of the NPT.  The new criteria should seek to establish guidelines for domestic export control laws, and grant membership to countries if their domestic export regimes meet established guidelines, regardless of NPT membership.  Incorporating these outlier countries would ensure uniform application of the criteria, which would strengthen the efficacy of the regime.

If NPT outliers are made part of regimes like the NSG based on updated criteria – criteria based on a country’s harmonization of domestic export control laws with established guidelines of the NSG and other regimes – such a measure would not only guarantee a uniform application of criteria, but would also help reinforce norms that currently face setbacks because of those outlier countries. The case for India’s membership of the multilateral export control regimes can here serve as an opportunity.

Pakistan is another outlier who would qualify for membership under the new criteria, and has been seeking a criteria-based approach for NSG membership. Pakistan’s control lists and export control practices take NSG guidelines into account. In the recently concluded session of the Pakistan-U.S. strategic dialogue’s Working Group on Security, Strategic Stability, and Nonproliferation, the United States “Pakistan’s efforts to harmonize its strategic trade controls with those of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other multilateral export control regimes” and “emphasized the desirability of continued outreach to integrate Pakistan into the international nonproliferation regime.” This is a welcome step.

More inclusive NSG criteria would encourage outliers to seek membership.  Many of these outliers are interested in participating in nonproliferation regimes, as New Delhi’s recent application for Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) membership indicates. However, a status-conscious country like India would not apply for  MTCR membership or another arrangement unless it had an assurance that it would not be embarrassed by rejection – this application may therefore indicate that the United States has once again been successful in advocating the Indian case.

Developing new criteria to incorporate outliers into the NSG would bode positively for the universalization of nonproliferation norms, and would also help shape the attitude of outliers regarding nonproliferation norms. History has been witness to the fact that the geopolitical and economic interests of great powers often take precedence over uniform enforcement of criteria.   The selective enforcement of membership criteria seriously undermines the efficacy of the nonproliferation regime. If signatories of the NPT and the stalwarts of nonproliferation continue to sideline norms for their own economic and geopolitical interests, the unraveling of the nonproliferation regime is inevitable.


Image: Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Flickr


Posted in , Cooperation, India, Nonproliferation, NPT, NSG, Nuclear, Pakistan

Saima Aman Sial

Saima Aman Sial is a Senior Research Officer and expert in strategic issues at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad. She is a Nonproliferation Fellow from Nuclear Nonproliferation Education and Research Center (NEREC) South Korea, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Sandia National Laboratories, USA. She has previously worked as Research Coordinator in the Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies, Senior Research Associate in Strategic Technology Resources and with Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division as an Assistant Director – Research in its Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs Directorate for some years. Saima has an M.Phil. in Strategic Studies from National Defence University, Islamabad. She was an SAV Visiting Fellow in January 2017.

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14 thoughts on “Nuclear Suppliers Group and its Selective Membership Criteria

  1. Saima: Very well argued. I don’t see possibility of India’s membership of NSG in the near future. I think NSG members, primarily USA and its allies, very skillfully lured India for latest civilian nuclear technologies to make huge bucks. They will continue ‘Indian membership bandwagon’ till the time India continues to buy their civil nuclear products. In principle, I support your position that there should be criteria-based approach for NSG membership.

  2. Saima:
    Well argued.
    I agree that a criteria-based approach to NSG membership makes sense — but only if the criteria strengthen nonproliferation norms more than new membership damages them.

  3. There has to be justice and fair play instead of creating an exception to the rules! The credibility of the NSG and the non-proliferation regime would be in danger if a criteria based approach is not applied.

  4. This is the major dilemma with the international non proliferation norms and policies that the very innovators of the regime seem to be reluctant in following the regime’s rules and norms without implying their economic and geopolitical interests. Thats why non proliferation has been remained unsuccessful in its mission to be accomplished (to some extent). In order to make the non proliferation regime work smoothly and in accordance with the interests of all the members states it is necessary to find out the loopholes in the existing regime, develop strategies, States must develop a working level relationship among other members and operational capacities for carrying out the strategies or implementation of new plans.

  5. In the recent Pak-US joint strategic dialogue, Pakistani officials made a very convincing argument focusing on Pakistan’s right to become member of Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) a 48-nation body established four decades ago to ensure that civilian trade in nuclear materials is not diverted for military purposes. The plea was loud and clear. Pakistan demanded for a civilian nuclear deal similar to the India-US accord that allows India’s access to nuclear technology despite being a non-signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Earlier there was lack of considerable diplomatic support in favor of its inclusion in NSG. Pakistan clearly declared that access to the civil nuclear technology was a socio-economic imperative.

  6. The NSG selectively overturned its policy by conceding an unparalleled country-specific exemption to India from its trade rules in 2008. Though this exemption was built on the pretext of India’s ‘impeccable’ non-proliferation record, it is well established that the US intended to use the NSG to advance its strategic interest to build India as a counter-weight against China.

  7. Very well argued saima….i think and as i mentioned in one of my op-ed that special exception which US is hewing for India’s joining the NSG will cause several implications: first, it will weakened the non-proliferation regime; second, NSG’s credibility and efficacy would be questioned along with its support for non-proliferation regime; third, NSG’s preferential treatment to India would be a dangerous precedent for others like Iran and North Korea as it would solidify the perception of India as de-facto NPT nuclear weapon state and last but not the least is, after becoming member of NSG, India would have a voice in determining new export guidelines which would have a dangerous impact as India is inspired to become a global nuclear supplier.

  8. Whether criteria are introduced or they remain just factors for consideration, the decision to include new members remain subject to consensus. Italy, as alleged, blocked India’s entry into MTCR for an issue not related to the objectives of the regime, when no other member raised an objection. Even if a membership applicant to NSG or MTCR was to meet, say, a proposed set of criteria, a member of these regimes could still block entry if it really wanted to. Unfortunately, other political issues weigh as much as non-proliferation and export control objectives in membership decisions.

  9. Interestingly I stumbled upon this article today ie. almost a year after it was published. Criteria based admission to the NSG is the right thing to do, only if the criteria itself is defined fairly. For instance, why mention the NPT as a criteria within the NSG ? The NPT itself has so many faults which are totally questionable. The NPT recognizes Nuclear Powers as only those countries which conducted nuclear tests before 1967 and only they get to retain their nuclear arms. This has no basis and completely biased towards the other countries of the world which developed industrially after 1967. Whereas the major proliferation of Nuclear technology for military purpose has been chiefly done by these 5 recognized members only. China being the highest proliferator in the world. NPT criteria should be delinked from NSG and the core content of the entry criteria into NSG should be re-worked from scratch, with greater stress on containing what I would call an outward proliferation or export of military nuclear technology irresponsibly.

  10. Your article very easily dodged the fact that India despite being non signatory of Nuclear NPT, followed the spirit of NPT by signing “No First Use” and by not engaging in activities like Pakistani scientist A.Q Khan with North Korea. Hence because of India’s clean record India deserve the NSG membership but Pakistan don’t. Moreover according to your logic of why NSG members should not bend towards India, China also don’t deserve to be Member of NSG as it also never signed NPT and world knows China proliferating its nuclear weapon much more than India.So if you people are saying that joining of India in NSG would lead to weakening of whole NSG regime then you should have said this for China as well when China got NSG membership. Where was your fair attitude then?

  11. Points supporting Indian entry in nsg are many . At present there are many nations in nsg those hadn’t signed npt yet and included in nsg France is one of them. India didn’t have any record of smuggling nuclear weapons as Nations like Pakistan have.
    India is a well established nation and do not have any chance to be controlled by terrorist and did not support terrorism so Indian entry in nsg lessens chances of nuclear material to be transferred to terrorists organizations like isis.
    India is fastest growing large economy and need well established power supply to maintain its growth. So it is need of the hour to include it in nsg . So it can use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
    And finally India don’t need these dual standard treaties. Even if it don’t get entry in the group India is alone capable of doing all these things alone . As India did when it was denied space technology in past and at present there is no competition of space satellite launching . Countries like US Canada Germany and France lobbying to stop Indian PSLV as no space technology can stand against it at present. That will be same if India denied entry.
    There is phrase in India whether knife falls on watermelon or watermelon on knife always the watermelon have to be in pieces.

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