Cracks in the system
Instead of talking about nuclear non-proliferation, the world should start acting on nuclear disarmament, writes Hassan Nafaa*
People talk at length of the perils of nuclear proliferation, but many often forget that non-proliferation is essentially a temporary system and was not supposed to turn into a lasting one. Non-proliferation focuses on curbing the nuclear arms race and preventing the emergence of new nuclear powers. In other words, non-proliferation aims at freezing the world at a certain point in time, so that no further damage is done to world peace.
The UN Charter, signed in San Francisco on 26 June 1945, makes no mention of non-proliferation -- only disarmament in general. The charter defines certain mechanisms through which the newly formed international body may proceed to create an acceptable system of armament. Back then the world was yet to learn of nuclear weapons. The US already had a secret nuclear programme but it hadn't yet used any of its products. Had the US used atomic bombs before that day, the world may have had to address the disarmament issue in a different manner.
The international community is aware that to freeze the nuclear status quo at any point of time is to divide the world into two parts: those who are entitled to have nuclear weapons and those who aren't. Such a situation is ultimately unacceptable. Therefore, non- proliferation remains by its very nature a temporary system; a transient phase that was supposed to pave the way to lasting nuclear disarmament. Had non- proliferation been designed as a permanent system, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would have had clauses defining which type of country would be permitted to have nuclear arms and which type wouldn't. It would have also been necessary to constitute a body that would decide which country was qualified and which wasn't. This didn't happen for an obvious reason: the system was temporary.
The current non-proliferation system -- just as the collective security system -- has been deformed and distorted beyond recognition. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the system has turned into a tool of bullying and intimidation. To prove this point, let me provide you with a list of facts:
Fact 1: The US was the first country to produce nuclear arms and the only one that ever used them. The US used atomic bombs twice, against Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and against Nagasaki three days later. The US knew the extent of damage this horrible weapon can cause, and yet it dropped the bomb twice, and at a time when Japan was already about to surrender. Therefore, any claim that democratic countries are more qualified to have the bomb is groundless.
Fact 2: US monopoly of nuclear arms didn't last for more than a few years. The Soviet Union went nuclear in 1949, the UK and France following not long after. And yet, international concern over proliferation didn't start until China joined the nuclear club in the mid-1960s. Once China acquired the bomb, the international community seemed willing, on a temporary basis, to differentiate between those countries entitled to have nuclear arms and those not. The agreement was of a preliminary nature, for the international community needed time to come up with a nuclear disarmament programme. This may not make total sense, in hindsight, but the fact that the UN Security Council permanent members had a responsibility to maintain international peace and order gave non-proliferation some credibility.
Even back then, the idea of differentiating among nations was already enshrined in the UN Charter, which gave five countries permanent UN Security Council seats and the right of veto. It seemed morally and politically justified to extend the differentiation to the non-proliferation system. And yet, it was necessary to reach an acceptable deal with nuclear and non-nuclear countries. The world needed to convince a sufficient number of countries to join the NPT, eventually signed in 1968. For a while at least, the NPT introduced a sense of equitability and reciprocity, for it spelled out the rights and obligations of both nuclear and non-nuclear countries.
According to the NPT, non-nuclear countries promise to refrain from developing nuclear arms and agree to subject peaceful nuclear research programmes to international inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, nuclear countries promise not to provide any assistance in nuclear research to countries refusing to join the NPT, while providing such assistance to signatories. This was intended as an incentive for non-nuclear countries to join the NPT and thus benefit from the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The NPT seemed sensible and even- handed at the time, but its efficacy depended on two things: first, that member countries, nuclear as well as non-nuclear, honour their commitments in good faith; second, that the system of monitoring and inspection, supervised by the IAEA, is effective and unbiased.
Given that the international community did not, in general, agree to be henceforth divided into nuclear and non-nuclear countries, the ultimate success of the non-proliferation system depended the willingness of nuclear countries to press ahead with nuclear disarmament negotiations. The ultimate goal was to rid the world of atomic weapons. Unfortunately, this never happened. It should have been clear from the start that the non-proliferation system would run into obstacles if major countries insisted on holding onto their nuclear arms. As it turned out, other countries managed to join the nuclear club. Some did so publicly, such as India and Pakistan, and North Korea to some extent. Others -- Israel being an obvious example -- joined the club in secret and never admitted to their ownership of nuclear weapons.
The non-proliferation system has failed on more than one level. Some countries refused to join the NPT and maintained secret nuclear programmes. This meant that the world was divided into three categories of nations: nuclear countries legally allowed to own atomic weapons; non-nuclear countries agreeing to inspection; and non-nuclear countries refusing to join the NPT and therefore legally not subject to inspection. Sometimes, countries that hadn't joined the NPT seemed to have an advantage over countries that had.
Further, NPT signatories -- nuclear as well as non- nuclear -- often failed to remain committed to the NPT. It is widely believed, for example, that nuclear countries, especially the US, have helped other countries, chiefly Israel, in their nuclear programmes. We also know that certain NPT signatories used nuclear research assistance to develop secret nuclear programmes in an obvious breach of their NPT commitments. When confronted, such countries simply withdrew from the NPT. That's what North Korea did recently, to give one example.
The non-proliferation system also has several loopholes. For example, some countries were subject to more vigorous monitoring than others. In general, the system focused more on countries seeking nuclear technology than on countries that owned and dispensed of such technology. The non-proliferation system is not being enforced by a supra-national authority acting in an even- handed manner. Under pressure from the two superpowers, and later on from the US, the UN's role eroded. As of now, the system is without a credible moderator.
As a result of such flaws in the non-proliferation system the current Iranian crisis may escalate out of control. The problem is not in Iran attempting to produce a banned weapon -- one that other states already acquired through illegal means. The problem is in the structural imbalance of a system that was not supposed to be permanent and that has been applied in a selective manner. The US, rather than the international community, has become the final arbiter of who is to obtain nuclear arms and who isn't. This is not what the non-proliferation system was intended for. A world that is really concerned about nuclear arms must start addressing disarmament.
* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.