2 May 2005

Background Release

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at UN 2-27 May, as Tense Global Events Prompt Warning of Agreement’s Erosion

NEW YORK, 28 April (UN Headquarters) -- The Review Conference for the international treaty aimed at controlling nuclear-weapon proliferation opens at Headquarters on Monday, with a United Nations report having warned that a lack of compliance with commitments, withdrawals, a changing international security environment and diffusion of technology could soon make erosion of the non-proliferation regime “irreversible”.

The report, the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change released last December, says that the danger has two aspects.  First, some countries could, under cover of the current treaty, covertly develop full-scale weapons programmes, or acquire the material and expertise and withdraw from the treaty when ready to proceed.  The second danger is the possible collapse of the whole non-proliferation regime, with some 40 countries possessing the ability to build nuclear weapons in a relatively short period of time if the treaty’s constraints no longer apply.

“Both concerns are now very real”, the Panel states, and nuclear proliferation by States increases the availability of the material and technology necessary for a “nightmare” scenario -- nuclear terrorism.  Scientists have repeatedly warned of the ease with which terrorists could assemble a simple nuclear device with as little as 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium -- enough to fill about half-a-dozen milk cartons.  Some 1,300 kilograms now exist in research reactors in 27 countries, the total volume of stockpiles is far greater, and many storage sites are inadequately secured.  Twenty cases of nuclear material diversion and more than 200 incidents involving illicit trafficking in nuclear materials have been documented in the last decade.

A landmark agreement, the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology, foster the peaceful use of nuclear energy and further the goal of general and complete disarmament.  It has been called “indispensable” by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, having not only diminished nuclear peril, but also demonstrating the value of multilateral agreements in safeguarding peace and security.  All but three United Nations Member States are party to it -- India, Israel and Pakistan.  The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea declared its withdrawal from the Treaty in January 2003.

By the Treaty’s terms, the five acknowledged nuclear-weapon States -- United States, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, France, China -- committed not to transfer nuclear weapons, other nuclear explosive devices, or their technology to any non-nuclear-weapon State.  Non-nuclear-weapon States parties undertook not to acquire or produce nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices.  They were also required to accept safeguards to detect diversions of nuclear materials from peaceful activities to the production of nuclear weapons.

Currently, 153 States have safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which seeks to ensure that nuclear technology serves only peaceful activities.  The Agency has in place a system designed to detect diversion of significant quantities of nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities to the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and to deter such diversion by the risk of early detection.  Those aims cannot be fulfilled, however, without the conclusion of comprehensive safeguards agreements.

With recent events having placed the NPT and the regime supporting it “under unprecedented stress”, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei recently proposed seven steps for consideration by States parties to strengthen the NPT regime and, with it, global security.  Among them:  a five-year moratorium on building new facilities for uranium enrichment and plutonium separation; accelerate efforts to convert research reactors operating with highly enriched uranium to use low enriched uranium; and establish the Additional Protocol as the verification norm.

The Additional Protocol, adopted in 1997, is a legal document granting the IAEA complementary inspection authority to that of the underlying safeguards agreements.  A principal aim is to enable the IAEA inspectorate to provide assurance about both declared and possible undeclared activities.  Under the Protocol, the IAEA is granted expanded rights of access to information and sites, as well as additional authority to use the most advanced technologies during the verification process.  Additional protocols are in force in 65 States.

The IAEA Director General also recommends:  calling on the Security Council to act “swiftly and decisively” in the case of withdrawal from the Treaty; calling on all States to act on the Council’s resolution 1540 (2004), which aims at national measures to prevent non-State actors from acquiring mass destruction weapons; and calling on all five nuclear-weapon States parties to accelerate implementation of their “unequivocal commitment” to nuclear disarmament and negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear arms.

Further, Mr. ElBaradei would have Treaty parties acknowledge the volatility of long-standing tensions that gave rise to proliferation -- in regions like the Middle East and the Korean peninsula -- and to take action to resolve existing security deficits and, where needed, provide security assurances.

The IAEA remains unable to verify nuclear material subjected to safeguards in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and divergent views persist with regard to the country’s NPT status after its declared withdrawal in 2003.  The United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs says that the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea poses a serious challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, as the IAEA has not been allowed to verify the completeness and correctness of the country’s initial 1992 declaration.  Since December 2002, the Agency has not been permitted to perform any verification activities in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and, therefore, cannot provide any level of assurance of the non-diversion of nuclear material.

Meanwhile, the Agency has devoted considerable attention to implementation of Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreements.  It has been working to understand the nature of the past programme, specifically whether there has been, or is, a military component to it.  Among the concerns is Iran’s declared capability of enrichment.  On 15 November 2004, Iran and France, Germany and the United Kingdom issued an agreement indicating Iran’s decision to extend its suspension of enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.  The IAEA’s Board of Governors has underlined that the full and sustained suspension, to be verified by the Agency, is essential to addressing outstanding issues.

Conferences to review the Treaty’s operation have been held every five years since the Treaty became operational in 1970.  Each conference has sought agreement on a final declaration that assessed implementation and made recommendations on measures to further strengthen it.  A consensus declaration was reached in 1975, 1985 and 2000, but could not be achieved in 1980, 1990 and 1995.  Differences centred on whether or not the nuclear-weapon States had sufficiently fulfilled the requirements of article VI (nuclear disarmament), as well as on issues of nuclear testing, qualitative nuclear weapon development, security assurances for non-nuclear-weapon States, and cooperation in nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

The 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, although unable to agree on a consensus review of the Treaty’s implementation, adopted without a vote a package of decisions, which:  strengthened the review process; laid down principles and objectives for nuclear-non-proliferation and disarmament; and extended the Treaty indefinitely.  It also contained a resolution on the Middle East.  The 2000 Review Conference agreed on a Final Document reaffirming the NPT’s role in ongoing global efforts to strengthen nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.  Under a set of practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement article VI, the nuclear-weapon States agreed to undertake equivocally to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals, leading to nuclear disarmament.

Despite those major achievements, the UN’s Disarmament Affairs Department says that the Final Document was the result of a compromise between divergent views, and that sensitive issues were put aside for the sake of the Conference and the Treaty.

Before the Review Conference are the following reports: Final report of the Preparatory Committee (document NPT/CONF.2005/1); Establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, submitted by Iran (document NPT/CONF.2005/5); Implementation of article VI and paragraph 4 (c) of the 1995 Decision on “Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament”, submitted by Ukraine (document NPT/CONF.2005/8); and an information note (document NPT/CONF.2005/INF.1).

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