A month-long U.N. conference on halting the spread of nuclear weapons neared the end of its first week Friday deadlocked over how to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The meeting opened Monday without a set agenda. Diplomats warned it could end in four weeks without a final statement even as U.N. officials and disarmament advocates warned that nuclear weapons were spreading and could spin regional conflicts out of control or get into terrorist hands.
"In five years since the last NPT review conference in 2000, the world has changed. Our fears of a deadly nuclear detonation, whatever the cause, have been reawakened," U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei told the conference at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Nuclear disarmament is at a crossroads, said William Peden, a disarmament specialist at the environmental group Greenpeace International.
"If the 2005 conference fails to reach consensus, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will exist in name only," Peden said. This would leave the world faced with a potential catastrophic arms race in highly sensitive regions like the Middle East and northeast Asia, he added.
Government representatives from 188 countries that signed the 1970 NPT are taking part in the U.N. talks, held every five years and scheduled to run through May 27.
Under the treaty, nuclear weapons states promised to disarm and those without nuclear arms were promised peaceful atomic technology. Yet, 35 years later, the world’s nuclear powers the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China have stockpiled thousands of nuclear weapons and continue to make new ones.
Other countries possessing nuclear weapons but not party to the NPT include Israel, India, and Pakistan. North Korea broke the treaty and now is making nuclear weapons.
Washington has made some cuts in nuclear arsenals in recent years but is developing new weapons and pursuing policies seen by diplomats and disarmament advocates alike as fueling a new arms race.
"The U.S. maintains enough nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert to destroy the world hundreds of times over and is now researching new, more usable tactical nuclear weapons and adopting a military posture that allows the use of nuclear weapons in preemptive attacks," said Alice Slater, director of the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE).
Joseph Gerson, peace and economic security program director at the Quaker group American Friends Service Committee, said foreign governments saw Washington’s posture as hypocritical and cause for concern about their own security.
"Few in the U.S. are aware of the world’s growing anger over U.S. double standards and Washington’s hypocrisy," Gerson said.
At the last NPT review conference in 2000, under pressure from non-nuclear nations, the nuclear powers agreed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), strengthen the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, reduce their nuclear arsenals, and halt production of weapons-grade nuclear materials, he said.
"The U.S. has since refused to ratify the CTBT, abrogated the ABM treaty, and continues to develop new nuclear weapons," Gerson added.
Washington also has balked at opening itself to inspections even as it has pressed other countries to allow U.N. and U.S. nuclear watchdogs to sniff around their programs and facilities.
"The U.S. is showing no flexibility about arms control steps like negotiation of a verifiable treaty banning production of fissile materials plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. That is a treaty under which international inspectors would monitor U.S. facilities, a prospect not attractive to the Bush administration," said John Burroughs, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy.
"In turn, non-nuclear countries are resisting non-proliferation measures like IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) director Mohamed ElBaradei’s proposal for multilateral controls on the spread of technology to produce fissile materials for use in nuclear reactors but also potentially in nuclear weapons," Burroughs added.
At this week’s talks, U.S. and other diplomats sought to keep the focus on Iran’s nuclear program.
"Statements by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker, on his government’s intentions to pursue Iran over their uranium enrichment activities, together with Iran’s past resistance to transparency, are fueling an atmosphere of saber rattling that has potentially dangerous consequences for millions of people," said Greenpeace’s Peden.
Slater, at GRACE, said Washington could strengthen its position by demonstrating a commitment to disarmament.
"Technically, Iran is not yet in violation of any terms of the (non-proliferation) treaty while the U.S. continues to violate it on a daily basis. If the U.S. demonstrated a commitment to genuine disarmament, it would surely then have the moral authority to close the loopholes in the treaty that allow nuclear power programs to be used covertly to develop nuclear weapons."
Some 30-40 countries have nuclear weapons capabilities that could be converted into nuclear weapons within months, Peden said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a speech to delegates, called upon former Cold War rivals Russia and the United States to significantly reduce their nuclear arsenals.