Saving Ourselves From Destruction

12 February 2004

Nuclear proliferation is on the rise. Equipment, material and training were once largely inaccessible. Today, however, there is a sophisticated worldwide network that can deliver systems for producing material usable in weapons. The demand clearly exists: countries remain interested in the illicit acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

If we sit idly by, this trend will continue. Countries that perceive themselves to be vulnerable can be expected to try to redress that vulnerability — and in some cases they will pursue clandestine weapons programs. The supply network will grow, making it easier to acquire nuclear weapon expertise and materials. Eventually, inevitably, terrorists will gain access to such materials and technology, if not actual weapons.

If the world does not change course, we risk self-destruction.

Common sense and recent experience make clear that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has served us well since 1970, must be tailored to fit 21st-century realities. Without threatening national sovereignty, we can toughen the nonproliferation regime.

The first step is to tighten controls over the export of nuclear material, a priority President Bush identified yesterday in his speech on nuclear nonproliferation. The current system relies on a gentlemen's agreement that is not only nonbinding, but also limited in its membership: it does not include many countries with growing industrial capacity. And even some members fail to control the exports of companies unaffiliated with government enterprise.

We must universalize the export control system, remove these loopholes, and enact binding, treaty-based controls — while preserving the rights of all states to peaceful nuclear technology. We should also criminalize the acts of people who seek to assist others in proliferation.

In parallel, inspectors must be empowered. Much effort was recently expended — and rightly so — in persuading Iran and Libya to give the International Atomic Energy Agency much broader rights of inspection. But the agency should have the right to conduct such inspections in all countries. Verification of nonproliferation treaty obligations requires more stringent measures, but to date, fewer than 20 percent of the 191 United Nations members have approved a protocol allowing broader inspection rights. Again, as President Bush suggested yesterday, it should be in force for all countries.

In addition, no country should be allowed to withdraw from the treaty. The treaty now allows any member to do so with three months' notice. Any nation invoking this escape clause is almost certainly a threat to international peace and security.

This provision of the treaty should be curtailed. At a minimum, withdrawal should prompt an automatic review by the United Nations Security Council.

The international community must do a better job of controlling the risks of nuclear proliferation. Sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle — the production of new fuel, the processing of weapon-usable material, the disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste — would be less vulnerable to proliferation if brought under multinational control. Appropriate checks and balances could be used to preserve commercial competitiveness and assure a supply of nuclear material to legitimate would-be users.

Toward this end, negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty must be revived. The treaty, which would put an end to the production of fissionable material for weapons, has been stalled in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva for nearly eight years. For the material that already exists, including in some countries of the former Soviet Union, security measures must be strengthened.

Of course, a fundamental part of the nonproliferation bargain is the commitment of the five nuclear states recognized under the nonproliferation treaty — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — to move toward disarmament. Recent agreements between Russia and the United States are commendable, but they should be verifiable and irreversible. A clear road map for nuclear disarmament should be established — starting with a major reduction in the 30,000 nuclear warheads still in existence, and bringing into force the long-awaited Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

If the global community is serious about bringing nuclear proliferation to a halt, these measures and others should be considered at the nonproliferation treaty review conference next year.

We must also begin to address the root causes of insecurity. In areas of longstanding conflict like the Middle East, South Asia and the Korean Peninsula, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction — while never justified — can be expected as long as we fail to introduce alternatives that redress the security deficit. We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for security — and indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use.

Similarly, we must abandon the traditional approach of defining security in terms of boundaries — city walls, border patrols, racial and religious groupings. The global community has become irreversibly interdependent, with the constant movement of people, ideas, goods and resources. In such a world, we must combat terrorism with an infectious security culture that crosses borders — an inclusive approach to security based on solidarity and the value of human life. In such a world, weapons of mass destruction have no place.

Mohamed ElBaradei was director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He and the IAEA were jointly awarded the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

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