UNITED NATIONS – When world powers adopted a treaty to stop the spread of nuclear weapons some 35 years ago, many hoped it would pave the way for total disarmament. Instead, nations, including some that created the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), have stockpiled thousands of nuclear weapons and even now are making new ones.
"The present crisis is the worst," said Douglas Roche, a former Canadian diplomat and lawmaker who once led the United Nations’ disarmament committee. "It’s very, very serious. It’s an immense threat to humanity."
Roche, who followed the NPT for about 20 years, said he sees the United States and other established nuclear powers as being responsible for the proliferation crisis now facing the international community.
"The nuclear countries are setting up a two-class system in the world," he said. "This is unacceptable to the non-nuclear countries."
Washington has made cuts in nuclear arsenals in recent years but continues to build a new generation of nuclear weapons. When spending on delivery systems and command and control is included, U.S. appropriations for nuclear forces amount to about $40 billion a year, according to the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, a New York-based disarmament advocacy group.
On Monday, Roche joined colleagues from civil society groups at UN headquarters, where government leaders from 188 countries began negotiations over what more can be done to strengthen the treaty. Held every five years, the NPT review conference runs through May 27.
Disarmament advocates said they are working through "middle power" governments to encourage and educate nuclear weapons states to take immediate practical steps that reduce nuclear danger, and to start talks to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Middle power countries are politically and economically significant, internationally respected countries that have renounced the nuclear arms race, a standing that disarmament advocates and diplomats alike have said gives them political credibility.
Last December, the middle powers including Brazil, Egypt, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden introduced a General Assembly resolution urging disarmament. The measure was adopted by a vote of 151-6, with 24 abstentions. The United States opposed the move.
The resolution called upon nations to fully comply with their commitments on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation and "not to act in any way that may be detrimental to nuclear disbarment or nonproliferation, or that may lead to a new nuclear arms race."
Observers note that the middle powers, also known as the New Agenda Coalition, are getting wider support from other nations, including traditional U.S. allies.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members Belgium, Canada, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey voted for the General Assembly resolution. Also, it was the first time since 2000 that staunch U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea endorsed the resolution.
The argument in support of the initiative to eliminate nuclear weapons also stems from a 1996 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which stressed the need for negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in "all its aspects under strict and effective international control."
"The illegality of nuclear weapons is apparent," said Christopher Weeramantry, a former vice president of the ICJ. "The NPT was made to avoid the law of jungle."
While peace advocates like Roche try to push the disarmament agenda forward by means of lobbying diplomats from the sidelines of the NPT review conference here, a coalition of anti-nuclear groups took their case to the public.
On Sunday, the day before the NPT review conference opened here, thousands of people staged a demonstration in front of UN headquarters in New York to demand the complete abolition of nuclear weapons.
"No war, no nukes," roared the crowds as they marched past Times Square, a tourism and entertainment hub.
The demonstrators included more than 1,000 Japanese peace activists including the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two cities destroyed by U.S. nuclear bombing in 1945, toward the end of World War II.
"No more Hiroshimas, no more Nagasakis," read a large banner held up by a Japanese protester.
A day later, their voices seemed to be echoed from within the UN’s corridors.
"The only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used is for our world to be free of such weapons," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told conference delegates. "If we are truly committed to a nuclear weapon-free world, we must move beyond rhetorical flourish and political posturing, and start to think seriously how to get there."
In a recent report, a high-level panel commissioned by Annan urged "prompt negotiations of a fissile material cutoff treaty for all states." The panel of experts also recommended a moratorium on testing and an early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It further urged nuclear powers to "de-alert" their existing weapons, meaning to separate warheads from delivery systems.
Diplomats familiar with NPT negotiations said they saw no major breakthrough at the end of this month’s conference.
A senior UN official said this was because the treaty simply needed strengthening, not a major overhaul.
Roche, however, said the outcome likely would be inconclusive because of a lack of political will to make significant progress toward nonproliferation
"The U.S. role is the core of the problem," he said. "We are appealing to the U.S. to adopt a positive attitude. You just can’t turn your back on these promises."
Annan, in his speech to delegates, called upon former Cold War rivals Russia and the United States to significantly reduce their nuclear arsenals.