By Sergio Duarte*
“How can we—the non-nuclear-weapon States—be expected to enter into an interminable obligation to remain non-nuclear if the nuclear-weapon States are engaged in an interminable nuclear escalation?” (Alva Myrdal, Head of the Swedish delegation at the ENDC – Final verbatim record of the 363rd Meeting of the Conference of the 18-Nation Disarmament Committee, February 1968. ENDC/PV.363, 4-12)
“My country believes that the permanent viability of this treaty will depend in large measure on our success in the further negotiations contemplated by Article VI. Following the conclusion of this treaty, my government will, in the spirit of Article VI […] pursue further disarmament negotiations with redoubled zeal and hope and with promptness.” (Arthur Goldberg, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, April 26 1968. Quoted by Jonathan R. Hunt, Into the Bargain, https://www.chinhnghia.com/, pp. 388-389)
The two quotations above are from remarks made in connection with the drafting and the adoption of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), over fifty years ago. During the first three months of 1968, the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) held intense debates on a draft treaty intended to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, introduced jointly by the delegations of the United States and the Soviet Union. In the preceding couple of years, the two superpowers had been busy negotiating between themselves the features of the proposed instrument, particularly its articles I and II.
Those provisions set forth the main prohibitions aimed at preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons while also preserving and legitimizing the existing nuclear status quo. States that had exploded a nuclear device by January 1 of 1967 would thereby commit not to transfer nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices to any recipient, as well as not to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or such explosive devices. For their part, non-possessors would renounce receiving the transfer of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices as well as manufacturing or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons or other explosive devices.
The inherently discriminatory nature of such arrangement explains to a large extent the refusal of several members of the ENDC to agree with the final draft as compiled and presented by its two co-Chairs—the representatives of the Soviet Union and the United States. Non-nuclear states argued, inter alia, that it was not in conformity with General Assembly Resolution 2028 (XX) that had established the principles on which a future nuclear non-proliferation treaty should be based. Among such principles were a balance of rights and obligations between nuclear and non-nuclear states and the need for the instrument to be a step toward nuclear disarmament. Accordingly, those States contended that the treaty should contain clear, legally binding provisions on the elimination of atomic arsenals.
Many of the amendments proposed at the debates intended to strengthen the commitment of the nuclear armed States to effective measures of disarmament. The two co-Chairs decided to include what is now Article VI of the NPT—a convoluted undertaking by all Parties “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. In the absence of consensus, the co-Chairs sent the text on their own authority to the General Assembly “on behalf of the Committee”.
50 years have passed but no such negotiations have taken place. All attempts to start negotiating on concrete nuclear disarmament measures in multilateral bodies have been thwarted.
The Charter of the United Nations had already divided the world into two categories of nations: five were awarded permanent seats and right of veto at the Security Council while the rest enjoyed no such status. The NPT reinforced that same hierarchical structure by designating those five countries as nuclear-weapon States. In 1995 an NPT Review and Extension Conference found that a majority existed in favour of its indefinite extension. Consequently, the existence of these two inalterable categories under the treaty was also indefinitely extended.
Considering themselves free from any constraint on the size and composition of their nuclear forces the five recognized possessors went on to increase their own nuclear capabilities. Four other states that never joined or later left the treaty also developed nuclear arsenals. At the height of the Cold War, the estimated total amount of nuclear weapons was about 70.000. In the second decade of the 21st century the two most heavily armed states—the United States and Russia—did achieve significant reductions of their nuclear forces through a bilateral agreement conducted outside of the NPT framework. That agreement was recently renewed for the next five years and it is hoped that it will facilitate further reductions in the future. The total world inventory of nuclear weapons today is believed to be about 14.000, roughly 95% of which belong to those two states. Over the years some nuclear-weapon states adopted unilateral, voluntary limitations on their nuclear forces. Nevertheless, just a couple of weeks ago one of them, the United Kingdom, reversed that posture by deciding to increase its total warhead ceiling from 180 to up to 260 submarine-based nuclear missiles.
Alleging the need to counter moves by perceived adversaries, all nine current possessors of nuclear weapons have for some time now been engaged in an effort to “modernize” their arsenals. This means implementing technological advances aimed at increasing the speed, accuracy and destructive power of their armament. A few of them have been augmenting the numbers of their nuclear weapons and adding new related capabilities.
There is mounting concern about the current trend of deterioration of bilateral and regional agreements in the field of arms control, as well as about the abandonment of political commitments achieved over several past decades since the advent of nuclear weapons. A new round of the armaments race seems to be on the way. The credibility of the NPT itself—widely considered “the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime”—has suffered considerably from the effects of this situation.
A growing sense of frustration coupled with a heightened awareness of the catastrophic effects of nuclear detonations led a number of non-nuclear-weapon states in 2015 to push for the negotiation of a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons—which entered into force on January 22, 2021. The treaty opens a new path toward nuclear disarmament measures, without prejudice to any of the NPT obligations. This development, however, was met with hostility by the nuclear-weapon states and some of their allies, which considered the move to be “premature” and even “counterproductive”. This narrative apparently contributed to the general indifference with which the new treaty was met by most of the mainstream press.
The Parties to the NPT are tentatively scheduled to meet in August 2021 for their Tenth Review Conference. It has now been fifty years after NPT’s entry into force and twenty-five after its indefinite extension. Rivalry, competition and suspicion continue to plague the relationship among the major powers and to provide alleged reasons for the continuation of the arms race, as well as for the postponement of meaningful, bona fide action to negotiate effective disarmament agreements. This situation in turn contributes to the further deterioration of international relations and to the pervasive deficit of credibility of current instruments in the field of arms control.
In his thorough and thought-provoking description and analysis of the process that led to the decision on the indefinite extension of the NPT, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, President of the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, remarked: “Ultimately, the best guarantee against complacency is to be found in the level of confidence among the states parties in the basic legitimacy or fairness of the treaty—and here I have some concerns, for there is a persisting, widespread perception amongst many states parties that the fundamental NPT bargain is in fact discriminatory after all, as many of its critics have long maintained. So how can the states parties best prevent their hard-fought “bargain” from deteriorating into a swindle?”
The pertinence of that question has not waned over the years—and the latest British decision only emphasizes its timeliness. The NPT is to a large extent responsible for the fact that relatively few countries beyond those recognized by it decided to obtain nuclear weapons. However, the continuing lack of implementation of disarmament obligations contained therein fuels mistrust and dissatisfaction. This failure contributes to a vexing decrease of confidence in the Treaty’s ability to meet the security challenges of the current age and in particular the threat represented by the very existence of nuclear weapons.
In order to avoid a further decline of its credibility, the international community must act with determination and foresight in a collective nuclear disarmament effort which calls for full compliance with Article VI of the NPT and for the fulfilment of the pledges made to ensure the adoption and the extension of the Treaty. Future acquisition of even a fledgeling nuclear capability by new nations certainly continues to be a dangerous possibility that must be averted, yet the indefinite existence and renewed expansion of nuclear arsenals that can obliterate human civilization remain the clearest and most present threat and a frightening possibility.
Humankind must prevent the Doomsday Clock from striking midnight. The only way to achieve this longstanding goal is to eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all – and thus realize the full promise of the NPT.
*The writer is Ambassador, former High Representative of the United Nations for Disarmament Affairs and current President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs
 Resolution 2028 (XX) had been adopted on November 19 1965 by 93 votes in favour, none against and five abstentions. Among the possessors of nuclear weapons recognized by the NPT the United States, USSR, China and the United Kingdom voted in favour and France abstained.
 A/2072 and rev.1.
 https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt1995/. The late Ambassador João Augusto de Araújo Castro, former Foreign Minister of Brazil, remarked that the composition of the UNSC and the designation of the same five states as nuclear-weapon states by the NPT represented the “freezing of world power”. He was no longer with us in 1995, but would probably add that the indefinite extension do TNP had the effect of making the freeze perpetual.
 The 2009 New START treaty between the United States and Russia established limits on warheads and carriers. Today the U.S. possesses approximately 5.800 warheads and Russia 6.350 .
 Jayantha Dhanapala: Multilateral Diplomacy and the NPT – An Insider’s Account, p. 116.