Thu, 27 Apr 2000

A wasted chance on nuclear arms?

This morning (Tuesday), members of the United Nations begin a month of meetings on nuclear arms. Officially, it is the five- year review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Unofficially, it is the greatest meeting ever held to discuss the state of nuclear arms. It comes at a time of tension and some danger. India and Pakistan are increasingly unfriendly to each other, and to nuclear disarmament of any kind. The United States and Russia are at technical odds over carrying out details of their disarmament agreement known as START II.

No nation has had the temerity to test a nuclear device since India and Pakistan tested each other's nerve. The major nuclear powers have done all their testing in laboratories. That leaves two serious problems for the UN conference to consider. The first is the abject failure of the world to stop the development and stockpiling of fissile materials -- the processed plutonium and enriched uranium that power nuclear weapons. Diplomats call the proposed treaty to stop stockpiling a "fissban". A cut-off treaty is feared by China, whose nuclear arsenal is still relatively small. India and Pakistan are completely silent, frantically building their stores of fissile material against the day they are legally banned from doing so.

The second is the refusal of many countries to consider nuclear disarmament. Many non-nuclear countries -- and India -- openly threaten to discredit efforts at non-proliferation. It is unfair to ban the ownership of nuclear weapons, such nations claim, unless those who already own them agree to start destroying them. In fact, nuclear weapons have been destroyed by the hundreds by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in recent years. But many countries still resent the idea that the big nuclear powers make all the rules on who can own, control and transfer nuclear technology. Such rules, they claim, should come under an international treaty with all nations having a say in how it is implemented.

This is not necessarily a valid point. It is certainly necessary for the nuclear powers to show they are willing to dispose of their terrible weapons. And it is unrealistic for those powerful countries to expect everyone else to follow their rules. But it is enough that the U.S. and Russia destroy their nuclear weapons, and when Britain and France offer to participate in disarmament.

-- The Bangkok Post