Tue, 23 May 2000

Nuclear accord -- but where's the vision?

LONDON: The decision by the five permanent members of the United Nations security council to strengthen their commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons is, on the face of it, a welcome step.

Britain joined the United States, Russia, China and France in making an "unequivocal undertaking" to accomplish the destruction of its nuclear arsenal.

This marks a move forward from the nuclear powers' previous position, namely that abolition of such weapons was an "ultimate goal". And for the first time in 15 years, all 187 countries attending the month-long review conference in New York of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) agreed a disarmament agenda for the next five years.

The agenda will include efforts to cut the number of warheads which are actively deployed, reduce states' reliance on nuclear weapons in their overall defense strategies, and increase the information which is publicly available about existing nuclear stockpiles.

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, was typically enthusiastic, calling the outcome of the meeting "a significant step forward in humanity's pursuit of a more peaceful world".

More pragmatically, many countries which have the capability and the technical expertise to acquire nuclear weapons but have so far forsworn them, including Brazil, Egypt, and South Africa, will come away from the review conference with renewed confidence that the acknowledged nuclear states appear serious about disarmament.

Beyond the conference's headline achievements, however, many worrying concerns remain, and there will be disappointment that tougher and more imaginative measures were not adopted.

The meeting was forced to skirt round the United States' continuing refusal to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty, which sets an appalling example to others like India and Pakistan (which have refused to sign the NPT).

Likewise, the impact on non-proliferation efforts of U.S. attempts to renegotiate its anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia is likely to be very negative.

China is among several countries which have warned that America's linked development of a national missile defense (NMD) system, designed to intercept nuclear missiles, is potentially deeply destabilizing.

China knows this better than most since it is currently the most active manufacturer of long-range, nuclear-capable missiles. If Beijing concludes that NMD will significantly reduce its offensive capability, it is likely to build even more nukes.

Although Russia recently ratified the Start II arms reduction accord with the United States, President Vladimir Putin has increased, rather than reduced, the importance of nuclear weapons in his country's defense planning.

And while the meeting, under Arab pressure, singled out nuclear-armed Israel -- another NPT refusenik which rejects international inspections -- for direct criticism, its strictures carry no actual force and are unlikely to bring changes in Israeli policy without much tougher external pressure.

Indeed, the fundamental drawback of the new NPT agenda is that while it enunciates objectives more clearly, it remains vague about the (purely voluntary) means of achieving them, setting out no timetables or penalties.

A more visionary, more persuasive approach would be for all the known nuclear powers, including Britain, to launch, right now, an unconditional, multilateral arms reduction process.

Such exemplary action would do much to halt the spread of these evil weapons to developing countries and "rogue" states alike. The Big Five all say they are willing, in theory. They should get on with it.

-- Guardian News Service