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Issue Date:  May 13, 2005

Catholic peacemakers work to rescue troubled nuclear treaty


A single agreement between the nations of the world holds at bay the most powerful man-made destructive forces on earth. The future of that agreement -- the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons -- is under debate at the United Nations this month.

Some fear the treaty is in trouble; it doesn’t work because its provisions are too easy to circumvent or just plain ignore.

For the nations assembled at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan May 2 sketched an ominous portrait of the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe, then said:

“I firmly believe that our generation can build a world of ever-expanding development, security and human rights -- a world ‘in larger freedom.’ But I am equally aware that such a world could be put irrevocably beyond our reach by a nuclear catastrophe.

“The plain fact is that the [treaty’s] regime has not kept pace with the march of technology and globalization, and developments of many kinds in recent years have placed it under great stress.

“International regimes do not fail because of one breach, however serious or unacceptable. They fail when many breaches pile one on top of the other, to the point where the gap between promise and performance becomes unbridgeable.”

The international community’s challenge, its “urgent task,” Annan said, “is to narrow that gap.”

Monitoring the debates of the U.N. member nations at the month-long meeting are more than a thousand nongovernmental organizations. Among these are Catholic peace groups that hope to influence the process with their traditions of peacemaking and nonviolence.

Two basic agreements

The Non-Proliferation Treaty has been described as “a grand bargain” between those states that had nuclear weapons when treaty negotiations began in 1968 and those countries that did not have nuclear weapons. The treaty comprises two basic, essential agreements: Countries with no nuclear weapons promised not to obtain them, for which they would receive the right to research and develop nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes, chiefly power generation, and the countries that have the weapons would work steadily to reduce their arsenals and eventually destroy them.

There are five official weapons states: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, China and France. Three states are acknowledged to have nuclear weapons, Israel, India and Pakistan, but they are not parties to the treaty. Furthermore, North Korea announced on the eve of the conference that it has nuclear weapons, but it left the treaty in 2003. Nonnuclear weapons states that have signed the treaty number 188.

At its most basic level, the treaty hasn’t worked in 35 years, according to Dave Robinson, the executive director of Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace and justice movement.

“Nobody held the feet of the nuclear weapons states to the fire. Most of the proliferation among the nuclear weapons states, the vertical proliferation and the accumulation of thousands and thousands of warheads happened after the treaty went into effect in 1970,” said Robinson, who is at the United Nations for the May conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The original Non-Proliferation Treaty had a 25-year lifespan, which ended in 1995. At that time the parties to the treaty agreed to extend it indefinitely and review it every five years.

Groups like Pax Christi and Franciscans International, the latter an organization with U.N. consultative status, found hope in the 1995 meeting that extended the treaty. The signers agreed to about a dozen commitments that could be used as benchmarks to measure progress.

They were further encouraged when shortly after the 1995 U.N. conference, the World Court ruled that under the nonproliferation treaty, the nuclear weapons states have an obligation to eliminate their nuclear weapons and to enter into good faith negotiations to eliminate those weapons.

The optimism was short-lived.

“The nuclear weapons states went along with the agreement but not in good faith,” Robinson said. “What we have seen since then, in the case of the United States, is the biggest reinvestment in the nuclear weapons complex since the Manhattan project.”

“It was during that period and shortly after, that the Clinton administration reinvested $60 billion in the nuclear weapons complex,” he said. “And the Russians made similar moves. The Chinese made similar moves. Huge programs. Multimillion dollar programs to evade the restrictions that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was about to put on.”

The U.N. general assembly adopted the test ban treaty in 1996. It will go into force when the 44 nations the treaty names as “essential” ratify it. Russia, Britain and France have signed and ratified the treaty. China and the United States have signed but not ratified it.

President Bush has revealed plans to restart full-scale underground nuclear tests, and despite an agreement reached with Russia to substantially reduce nuclear arsenals by 2012, his administration has said it wants to develop smaller, more portable nuclear warheads, a new generation of missiles and the so-called “bunker buster” nuclear warheads.

Nuclear capability clearly remains central to U.S. defense strategy, Robinson said. This “is simply sending the rest of the world the message that you can’t be a viable state without nuclear weapons. You can’t be a power unless you have nuclear weapons,” he said.

“Over the last 10 years there has been a kind of a sense develop in the international community that proliferation is the big evil of our time,” Robinson said. “But it is a consensus that is driven by the top, the nuclear weapons states.”

He added, “So of course proliferation is a big concern, but when that claim is coming from the very states that have and maintain and refuse to give up their nuclear weapons, it rings hollow.” It also deflects attention from their obligations to eliminate their arsenals, he said.

Teetering on the brink

Robinson says the Non-Proliferation Treaty “is teetering on the brink of collapse. I think what we are facing is a spiral of proliferation in this world where we could have two dozen or three dozen nuclear weapons states within in five or 10 years.”

“It is on the verge of failure because parties to the treaty know that nuclear weapons states are not giving up their weapons,” he said.

Maria Karapetyan, the advocacy officer following disarmament issues for Franciscans International, agrees with this assessment. “As one of the speakers [at the conference] said, nonproliferation divides countries into haves and have nots … but the ultimate goal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is the total elimination of nuclear weapons, so disarmament is part of it. And many states and nongovernmental organizations believe that nonproliferation and disarmament go hand in hand. One is not possible without the other.”

The foreign ministers of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden wrote a joint opinion piece for the May 2 issue of the International Herald Tribune, in which they quoted Kofi Annan:

“The unique status of the nuclear-weapon states also entails a unique responsibility, and they must do more, including but not limited to further reductions in their arsenals and pursuing arms control agreements that entail not just dismantlement but irreversibility.”

The foreign ministers, whose nations formed the New Agenda Coalition in 1998 to push for nuclear disarmament, then wrote, “We call on these states, which are also permanent members of the Security Council, to seize this opportunity for leadership to help strengthen the treaty as the cornerstone of international security.”

It is this mood that Pax Christi and Franciscans International are trying to capitalize on.

Karapetyan said, “Our efforts are to promote the culture of peace and expose the dangers of fake security that comes from weapons possession.”

Through its networking among delegates and joint strategies with other nongovernmental organizations, Karapetyan said Franciscans International is advocating strong, binding agreements for the nuclear weapons states to ratify and enforce the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, sign a no-first use agreement; and cease the production of weapons-grade fissionable material.

Robinson said, “What I would like to see is some strong language from the middle power leaders [like the New Agenda Coalition] that hold the nuclear weapons states accountable for their recalcitrance in not moving forward with their own obligations.”

Strong language from nonnuclear weapons states that are allies of the United States, France and Britain, Robinson said, would put pressure on the five nuclear weapons states to make some real movements such as:

  • A binding commitment to start negotiations on nuclear disarmament in the Conference for Disarmament, the U.N. body where all disarmament treaties begin.
  • Binding commitments to begin a treaty on weapons-grade fissionable material in the Conference on Disarmament that would include the development of an inventory and a verification regime for the stockpiles of fissionable materials.
  • Quick ratification and implementation of the test ban treaty.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005

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