The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is based on three myths: first, that nuclear weapons are an entitlement bestowed upon only a handful of countries that had tested a nuclear weapon before the treaty entered into force in 1970. Second, that the security of most of the world’s nations—indeed world order itself—is based on the possession of or protection by nuclear weapons. Third, that nuclear weapons cannot be banned and nuclear disarmament was only possible as part of a process of “general and complete disarmament”, implying that nuclear weapons might be the last to be disarmed.
These myths have been effectively challenged by the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons or the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty (NPT), as it is being popularly called, which was voted into existence at the UN on 7 July. Of the 125-odd non-nuclear weapon states that participated in the negotiations, 122 voted in favour of the new NPT and only one state, the Netherlands—the sole North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) representative which lives under a nuclear umbrella—voted against. Indeed, had the Netherlands not called for a vote, the treaty would have been approved by consensus. This move was a comic case of Dutch courage—a valiant but vacuous gesture.
The new NPT challenges the old NPT’s myth of entitlement by holding states that after 7 July “owned, possessed or controlled nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” responsible for “verifying the irreversible elimination of its nuclear-weapon programme” if they become parties to the treaty. In doing so, nuclear weapons have been devalued and are reduced to a liability rather than being treated as an asset.
Similarly, the fact that the majority of the 193 UN members voted for the treaty, including nearly a third of the Group of Twenty, nearly three-fourths of the Non-Aligned, and old NPT members, reflects that most countries do not depend on nuclear weapons for their security. In fact, the entire southern hemisphere is free of nuclear weapons.
Only around 40-odd countries look to nuclear weapons for their security. Even if these countries had been present and had voted against the treaty, it would have passed—though they might have been able to influence the negotiations to their advantage.
Moreover, the new NPT corrects one of the strangest anomalies in international security: acquiescing the possession and use of the deadliest weapons ever invented by mankind. Until this treaty, nuclear weapons (unlike chemical and biological weapons) had never been banned. The new NPT commits state parties not to “develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”. Additionally, the treaty also bans the transfer, stationing, installation or deployment of nuclear weapons in other countries as well as the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.
Finally, while the old NPT is weakest on disarmament and considers it a near impossibility without “general and complete disarmament”, the new NPT is strongest in this aspect. While it makes a passing reference to both the NPT and “general and complete disarmament” in the preamble, it delineates three pathways by which states possessing or being protected by nuclear weapons can disarm and join the treaty in the future.
The first is the “disarm and join” route, where countries first destroy their arsenals, dismantle their nuclear weapon facilities and then join the treaty as non-nuclear weapon states. This is the approach that was adopted in the case of South Africa, which first declared and destroyed its nuclear bombs and facilities and then joined the old NPT.
The second is the “join and disarm” pathway where the country first joins the treaty, declares its nuclear stockpile and enters into an agreement with a “competent international authority” to dismantle its arsenal and related facilities as per the timetable agreed upon. This approach is akin to the one followed by the Chemical Weapons Convention, where countries declared their stockpiles at the time of joining and worked out a plan to dismantle their arsenals in a fixed time frame.
Unlike the first two paths, which are aimed at states that possess nuclear weapons, a third approach is offered to states that have nuclear weapons “in its territory or in any place under its jurisdiction or control that are owned, possessed or controlled by another state”. These states should ensure the prompt removal of these nuclear weapons as part of their agreement to join the treaty and submit a declaration that they have fulfilled their obligations. This approach is designed to accommodate countries such as the Netherlands, Japan, Australia and others that presently live under a nuclear umbrella but might want to leave that protection and join the treaty.
While the new NPT is far from perfect and weak in some aspects, it is likely to enter into force in due course. Although some sceptics have dismissed its implementation as difficult if not impossible, the new NPT can do no worse than the old one.
Irrespective of its future prospects, the passing of the new NPT has already challenged the very basis of nuclear deterrence and the nuclear order based on the old NPT. India and other nuclear weapon states would do well to track its progress—the future of their nuclear arsenals might depend on it.