Nuclear Weapons

World gathers for major conference on Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Monday marks the official start of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, where representatives from around the world and concerned citizens will converge at the United Nations in New York. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a cornerstone nuclear weapons treaty that dates back to 1970. With more than 180 countries signed on to it, it’s also one of the most universally accepted treaties.

To stop the spread of nuclear weapons, the NPT has a basic bargain. It requires non-nuclear weapons states to promise not to try to acquire nuclear weapons. In return, the five recognized nuclear weapons states (the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK) were required to pursue negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons. Additionally, countries signed on to the treaty are allowed to pursue nuclear energy programs. Today, 4 other countries have joined the nuclear club: Israel, India, and Pakistan have not signed the NPT, while North Korea dropped out of the treaty. However, the treaty has helped slow the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries. President John F. Kennedy stated in a presidential debate that he feared nuclear proliferation would be much worse:

There are indications because of new inventions, that 10, 15, or 20 nations will have a nuclear capacity…. by 1964. This is extremely serious. . . I think the fate not only of our own civilization, but I think the fate of world and the future of the human race, is involved in preventing a nuclear war.

Every five years, countries gather to discuss how to strengthen the treaty. The non-nuclear weapons states would like to see countries like the US and Russia, which hold 95% of the world’s more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, make more concrete progress toward reducing their nuclear arsenals. The US will likely want to emphasize nuclear non-proliferation, and raise questions about Iran’s nuclear energy program.

The New START treaty between the US and Russia will be pointed to as a sign of progress since it requires reductions in both countries’ nuclear stockpiles. However, merely signing the treaty is not enough. The US Senate must ratify New START for it to enter into force. A two-thirds majority of the Senate, or 67 senators, must support ratification. The Obama administration is expected to hand the treaty over to the Senate sometime in May to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator Kerry. This committee will hold hearings about the treaty, and has already begun with a hearing on the history of arms control between the US and Russia. As the Boston Globe notes:

No arms control treaty with Russia or the former Soviet Union has garnered fewer than 84 votes in the Senate but that is likely to change, Kerry said. He expressed confidence that he will be able to get at least the minimum 67 votes for passage, but perhaps not nearly as many as for previous treaties.

“I could argue that 68 is 84 in 2010,’’ Kerry said. “My goal is to pass it. If it is 68 votes it is 68 votes. So be it. That is a lot of senators these days.’’

While support in the Senate is less certain, recent polls have shown that large majorities of the US public recognize reducing the nuclear threat and our arsenals is in our best interest. This weekend, before the NPT Review Conference kicks off, thousands of people from around the world will gather in New York to march and rally, demanding action to eliminate nuclear weapons. An international petition effort, which thousands of Peace Action West supporters took part in, has gathered more than 4 million signatures and will be delivered at the conference.