15 January 2001
Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: The Road Ahead
by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei
For over five decades since the summer of 1945, strategies of national and international security have been intertwined with the concept of nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrent. In my view, the achievement of a nuclear weapon free world will crucially depend on a fundamental change in that concept of "security."
While certainly the most formidable threat in the world’s arsenal, nuclear weapons were not the first weapons of mass destruction. Chemical weapons during World War I were responsible for an estimated 1 million casualties and more than 90 000 deaths. The approach to this class of weapons initially focused on a ban on their use — as well as the use of biological weapons — through the Geneva Protocol of 1925, and later a ban not only on their use but also on their acquisition, through the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.
The approach to containing the proliferation of — and eventually eliminating — nuclear weapons has been rather different. Instead of an outright ban on their use or acquisition, a gradual approach was adopted under the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Different commitments were undertaken by two distinct groups of States: for the five nuclear weapon States — that is, States that had manufactured and detonated a nuclear weapon before 1 January 1967 — a commitment to divest themselves of those weapons through "good faith" negotiations; and for all other States, a commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons, and to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification of all their peaceful nuclear activities, in return for assured access to peaceful nuclear technology through the technology holders.
International verification was supplemented by an export control regime to ensure, through the Zangger rules established since 1971, that all nuclear material and relevant equipment would be subject to IAEA verification, and through the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), set up in 1974 after India’s "peaceful" nuclear explosion, that restraint would be exercised in the export of sensitive technologies.
The preparedness of non-nuclear weapon States to agree to "abstinence" has rested on different assumptions: for some, that their security could be assured just as well by sheltering beneath a nuclear "umbrella" as part of a strategic alliance (particularly, NATO and the former Warsaw Pact); and for many others — despite the nuclear threat felt by some of them — that the asymmetry of rights and obligations in the NPT was to be accepted as only a temporary imbalance and a better alternative than the further spread of nuclear weapon capabilities.
For the last three decades, a variety of diplomatic and political strategies have been pursued to advance the twin goals of non-proliferation and disarmament. Non-proliferation strategies have included: encouragement of broad adherence to the NPT; creation of nuclear weapon free zones; strengthening of international verification; restraint in the supply of sensitive technologies; and the development of measures for the physical protection of nuclear material and equipment.
The NPT remains the most notable accomplishment of multilateral nuclear arms control. With 187 States party to the treaty, the NPT is the most adhered to international agreement after the United Nations Charter, but with the notable absence of three nuclear weapons capable States: India, Pakistan and — by many accounts — Israel. Four nuclear weapon free zones have successfully been established — in Latin America and the Caribbean, in the South Pacific, in Southeast Asia and in Africa — to bolster and supplement, in a regional context, the non-proliferation commitments made under the NPT. And another such zone, in Central Asia, is currently being negotiated.
The discoveries in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War — as well as later revelations involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) — shattered the assumption that the threats to the nuclear non-proliferation regime lay only outside its ranks. But, more importantly, they made it clear that the IAEA verification system rooted in the NPT, with its focus on declared nuclear activities and its limited rights of access to information and sites, was neither sufficiently robust nor comprehensive. This new reality prompted the international community to adopt a number of measures to strengthen the system, and to provide the IAEA with the tools necessary to provide comprehensive and credible assurance. The most important measures were those incorporated into a protocol additional to safeguards agreements, which was approved in 1997 by the IAEA Board of Governors.
The Additional Protocol greatly enhances the IAEA’s verification capability by endowing it with expanded rights of access to information and to sites. For States with both a safeguards agreement and an Additional Protocol in force, the Agency will now be able to provide credible assurance not only about the diversion of declared nuclear material but also about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities. Regrettably, as of the end of 2000, 51 non-nuclear-weapon States party to the NPT had not fulfilled their legal obligation to conclude the required safeguards agreement, and since 1997, when the Model Additional Protocol was adopted, only 57 Additional Protocols had been approved.
Currently, the Agency is safeguarding over 900 facilities in 70 countries on a safeguards budget of approximately US $80 million per year. Despite the Agency’s growing responsibilities in this crucial field, the safeguards budget, as well as the rest of the Agency’s budget, has been frozen for over a decade as the result of a blanket zero real growth policy imposed on all United Nations system organizations, irrespective of their responsibilities or priorities. This policy has led the Agency to rely on "voluntary" funding to finance almost one-fifth of its safeguards activities. This is clearly an unacceptable situation which, if it continues, will inevitably undermine the Agency’s ability to conduct credible verification.
The role of the United Nations Security Council in ensuring compliance with non-proliferation obligations cannot be overestimated and, since the end of the Cold War, the Council has been better placed to exercise this vital role. In this regard, it is essential that a consistent response be adopted towards all attempts to circumvent the non-proliferation regime. In the cases of Iraq and DPRK, the Security Council has chosen, maybe rightly, to pursue different methods, but while the method can be different, it is important that the response remains the same. Uniformity of approach is key to monitoring compliance through the IAEA, as well as enforcing compliance through the Security Council.
The Nuclear Suppliers Group now comprises the majority of nuclear supplier States — with the notable exception of China — and although the group has become more conscious of the need for export controls to ensure that nuclear related items will not be misused, it recently has been divided in its views on supply policies to countries both inside and outside the NPT regime — notably the Islamic Republic of Iran, India and Pakistan.
The post Cold War world, although in some respects safer, has also become considerably more complex — in part due to the realization, since the early 1990s, that smuggling of nuclear material has become a real and dangerous phenomenon. Although the international community — through the Agency and through bilateral assistance — has stepped up its efforts to assist vulnerable States in protecting nuclear material and other radioactive sources against illicit activity, the fact that our database contains some 346 confirmed cases of illicit trafficking — including the seizure in April 2000 of nearly one kilogram of high enriched uranium — demonstrates the need to strengthen the relevant national and international frameworks.
Nuclear Disarmament Strategies
On the nuclear disarmament front, strategies have focused on the negotiation of bilateral nuclear arms control agreements — between the holders of the two largest nuclear arsenals — and a number of multilateral agreements designed to curb the quantitative and qualitative development of nuclear weapons. Good progress was made in the early and mid 1990s, with the end of the Cold War as an impetus, but the process unfortunately slowed down in the later part of the decade. While the START I Treaty, which entered into force in 1994, made significant cuts in the level of deployed strategic weapons, its second stage, START II, which was signed in 1993, has yet to enter into force. Efforts to end nuclear weapons development achieved an important milestone with the conclusion of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in September 1996, but the delay in the ratification of the Treaty by a number of important States, together with the continuing debate on the validity of the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABM Treaty), has put a damper on the hopes for further progress, and has led to stagnation of the disarmament process. The inability of the Conference on Disarmament for the last two years to agree even on a programme of work is symptomatic of that stagnation. This has been cause for increasing disquiet and resentment in the international community — as evidenced by the deliberations at the 2000 NPT Review Conference.
In addition to the above, three States — Israel, India and Pakistan — have decided, for their own perceived security reasons, to retain the nuclear weapons option. The 1998 tests by India and Pakistan have shattered, de facto, the goal of the NPT to freeze the number of nuclear weapon capable States pending the elimination of nuclear weapons.
I do not propose, in this brief address, to discuss all of the above issues; however, it is fair to say that progress towards a nuclear weapon free world will continue to be difficult as long as certain political and security realities and perspectives persist. These include: the continuing prestige given to nuclear weapon status; a continued reliance on nuclear deterrence; and a lack of agreed commitment on the objectives and modalities of non-proliferation and disarmament. If we are to achieve a solid non-proliferation regime and make steady progress towards nuclear disarmament, we must re-examine existing policies and, where necessary, develop new strategies.
Re-evaluate Nuclear Weapon State Status
The most basic re-evaluation concerns the elevated status associated with being a nuclear weapon State. This status is reinforced by the continuing global reliance on nuclear weapons as an ultimate deterrent — as well as by the one-for-one correlation between nuclear weapon States and the permanent members of the Security Council. Unless we foresee, as U.S. President Kennedy did, a world with scores of nuclear weapon States, we must find ways to bridge the security divide between the "haves and have-nots." The present situation, as the Canberra Commission stated, "cannot be sustained, [since] the possession of nuclear weapons by any State is a constant stimulus to other States to acquire them." I find it encouraging that, in the developing architecture of the European Union, status as a nuclear weapon State is not a factor in determining relative importance.
Challenge the Doctrine of Nuclear Deterrence
A crucial first step in that direction is to challenge the longstanding military doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which clearly runs contrary to the goal of nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons have been progressively losing their value as a currency of power, due to the political, legal and moral constraints on using them. But, despite the greatly decreasing rationale for possessing them, nuclear weapon States continue to voice their commitment to maintaining and even modernizing their nuclear arsenals.
Develop Alternatives to Nuclear Deterrence
The doctrine of nuclear deterrence could, however, be most seriously challenged if we succeed in developing alternative strategies for international security. One strategy currently emerging involves greater reliance on regional systems of collective security, like the one under development in Europe. How effective these systems will be, and how these regional systems will interact with the United Nations scheme of collective security, remains to be seen. However, in my view, the feasibility of moving towards deep cuts in the current nuclear arsenals depends critically on our ability to develop credible alternative security strategies to nuclear deterrence, strategies that are functional and upon which all States can rely with confidence. To this end, there is an urgent need to energize the security system prescribed in the United Nations Charter through a broader definition of the concept of security to encompass not only its military aspect but, equally important, security aspects that relate to governance, social and economic development, and human rights.
Engage in Constructive Dialogue
As a related point, it might also be prudent to re-visit the current policy towards countries that are outside the non-proliferation regime. Clearly the aim is not to diminish the importance of the NPT, but rather to explore pragmatic ways and means to ensure the universality of the non-proliferation regime and achieve progress in nuclear disarmament. With this goal in mind, I believe that we should not continue to treat the few States that are not parties to the NPT solely as targets, but rather induce them to act as partners in the global efforts to consolidate the non-proliferation regime and make progress toward nuclear disarmament. This means we should not simply focus on a policy of denial, but look also for opportunities for constructive engagement, through, inter alia, discussion of security concerns and application not only of sanctions but equally of incentives. In this regard, I find the recent dialogue that has been initiated between India and the USA quite encouraging.
I would like to conclude by re-emphasizing both the difficulties and the opportunities of the road towards nuclear disarmament. We have been successful in constructing a non-proliferation regime with near-universal participation, and have made some progress towards nuclear disarmament, but several goals must be pursued if we are to maintain and build upon our achievements:
- First, accelerated and tangible progress towards nuclear disarmament. As the United Nations Secretary-General recently stated, "what is needed is a truly two-track approach — one that does not continually ‘save’ disarmament for later, but treats disarmament and non-proliferation as closely related challenges." The "unequivocal commitment" by the nuclear weapons States during the NPT Review Conference to "accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons" is certainly a sign of hope. But this commitment will have to be translated soon into concrete steps to gain credibility. A list of such steps are spelled out in the final document of the Conference and is too long to enumerate here. Important examples of some of these steps include ratification of the Start II Treaty and the conclusion of Start III; universal ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty; and commencement of the long awaited negotiation of a treaty prohibiting the production of fissile material for weapons purposes (the so-called "cut-off" treaty).
- Second, and in parallel, the development of an alternative system of collective security that does not depend on nuclear deterrence. Security through economic and social development, good governance, respect for human rights, and an agreed process for the peaceful settlement of disputes is ultimately the best disincentive to acquiring nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
- Third, universal adherence to the non-proliferation regime, with a credible international verification system that is adequately financed and unequivocally supported by the Security Council.
- Fourth, an effective national and international system for the physical protection of nuclear material and the combating of illicit trafficking.
The traditional view of nuclear weapons as an effective deterrent is a mindset we have lived with for decades, and we will not change that mindset overnight. It would, however, be prudent to begin preparing for the dissolution of the nuclear weapons "club" before its doors are forced further open, with much greater risk of nuclear conflict, intentionally or inadvertently. For the sake of humanity, it is inevitable that we must soon — to quote the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice — "bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects."