Center for Strategic Decision Research



Nuclear Non-Proliferation: Our Obligation To Future Generations

Under-Secretary-General Nobuaki Tanaka
United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs


I would like to focus on one of the most pressing issues of today, that is, nuclear non-proliferation. I believe this issue will have a strong impact on the next generation and what we do about it now will truly determine the future.

Let us first look back. At two major international meetings in 2005, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference and the World Summit at the U.N., agreement was not reached on the twin issues of disarmament and non-proliferation. In addition, efforts even to begin negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) have been hopelessly deadlocked. For almost a decade, ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty has been stalled and the treaty is unlikely to come into force any time in the immediate future. Taken together with the ongoing and highly publicized Iranian issue in the U.N. Security Council and the apparent lack of progress on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it is commonplace to argue that the international nuclear non-proliferation regime is in crisis.


It is worth recalling that the change in international mood and outlook has been very rapid. The optimism and expectations that followed the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and the Final Document adopted at the 2000 Review Conference have now almost entirely dissipated. The direction of factors outside the treaty may have influenced this change, but just which developments over the last 10 years have brought about such a radical shift in thinking? A short list of external factors would have to include the following as the most salient examples of the fracturing of the non-proliferation landscape: First, in the Korean peninsula, North Korea (DPRK) was caught pursuing a clandestine enrichment program and responded to international pressure by restarting its plutonium production facilities, expelling IAEA inspectors, and withdrawing from the NPT, claiming possession of a nuclear bomb.

Second, Iran acknowledged that it has developed a uranium enrichment program, ostensibly for civilian purposes, but the country is strongly suspected of having nuclear weapon breakout capability.

Third, nuclear tests by Pakistan and India in 1998 shook the entire NPT architecture. Together with Israel, the two countries continue to this day to stand outside the regime, and their adherence to the NPT remains a distant aspiration, a prospect made even more distant by the long-term ramifications of the proposed U.S./India nuclear deal. This could also have significant repercussions on the thinking of some countries that have thus far agreed to be bound by the bargain at the heart of the NPT itself, which is that in order to obtain benefit, you have to give up nuclear weapons.

Fourth, a clandestine supply network was uncovered that is known to have provided sensitive enrichment technology to the DPRK, Libya, and Iran, substantially assisting their nuclear ambitions. The globalization of the flows of knowledge, goods, and people has advanced so much that the control of such flows seems almost impossible.

Fifth, a new post-September 11 threat has emerged posed by non-state actors such as international terrorist organizations and criminal groups, potentially taking the form of nuclear terrorism. This highlights the awful possibility of nuclear terrorism, which benefits from ease of access to information via the Internet. It has also caused the great expansion of monitoring of nuclear materials lest those materials be used in radioactive dispersal devices, so-called dirty bombs.

Sixth but most important, the stakeholders of the NPT regime, the five nuclear powers, have failed to meet their disarmament obligations. This is evident and resented, particularly at the United Nations, where there is wide representation of countries that have foresworn the most significant option of acquiring nuclear weapons and accepted the discriminatory system in return for the higher moral values of nuclear disarmament and peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Seventh, on top of all this, we have witnessed an increasing tendency toward so-called unilateralism, which averts time-consuming consensus building in this very diverse community of nations. This has alienated smaller nations and put them on the defensive more than necessary, fueling resentment and confrontation.


But what overarching trend can be detected from these apparently disparate but inextricably linked issues? There are two ways to interpret the current state of nuclear non-proliferation:

The first, perhaps more reassuring, trend is that proliferation remains associated with a small group of countries such as Iran and North Korea and that the political and technical factors supporting the nuclear non-proliferation regime remain valid for the majority of NPT state parties.

Another viewpoint is that we are in fact entering a new era of nuclear proliferation and that a wave of explosive proliferation may be about to take place. Some go so far as to argue that this could extend beyond the acquisition of nuclear capabilities and bring pressure to bear on other WMD treaties covering biological and even chemical weapons.

The two interpretations are of course not mutually exclusive, but whichever is correct, it is clear that an important threshold has been crossed in the evolution of nuclear proliferation. The proof of this was the black market supply network that developed during the 1990s, which I believe emphasizes both the seriousness of the current situation and the high price of failure if the international community does not act successfully in its handling of both Iran and North Korea and in stemming the activities of the network, with its possibilities for nuclear terrorism.

A few other factors further complicate this picture because they contribute to the difficulty of resolving the non-proliferation conundrum:

We all know that the war against terrorism has become a priority item, threatening the security of even nuclear weapon states. These states, however, have not only privileges but obligations for disarmament. If they tend to forget this “noblesse oblige,” then we will continue to see revolts, if not revolution, in the world.

There is also a paradox. The nuclear weapon states perceive the nuclear deterrent as the most important element of their security. Why should others not wish to emulate them? At the same time, nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the only possible means of standing up to the superpower or actively opposing its policy objectives. From this tension stems a great deal of the current international instability.

What is to be feared is not so much the imminent collapse of the non-proliferation regime but rather a wider and more gradual erosion of its strength, which will happen unless the entire international society resolutely takes remedial measures. Of course, if there were to be a second withdrawal, for example, by Iran—and such threats have certainly been made by them in recent weeks—then many believe there is a good chance that by 2015 we might have no fewer that 10 new nuclear or quasi-nuclear nations. This would most definitely be a profound crisis of multilateral diplomacy. But reports of the NPT’s demise are premature: the treaty continues to command wider adherence than any other arms control treaty of its kind because the nations believe that, after all, there is no other alternative than NPT.


We should not be complacent. There is an urgent need to take more drastic steps and demonstrate the political will to restore the credibility of the treaty, especially as there is widespread international concern about an imminent proliferation risk. Although the world leaders failed to address the serious concerns about nuclear proliferation at the September 2005 World Summit, I strongly believe that there is an urgent need to address the following issues:

  • Reaffirmation of the commitment to nuclear disarmament under Article 6 of the NPT and to demonstrable steps in that direction.
  • A commitment to upholding the moratorium on nuclear test explosions pending the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, whose universality we should vigorously pursue.
  • Agreement to start negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty and to bring them to an early conclusion. The U.S. just made a new proposal for an FMCT, which is a welcome sign that the U.S. will remain multilateral, but the U.S. has also warned that if the proposal is not accepted, it will withdraw from the Conference on Disarmament. I earnestly hope this will reactivate the debate in this forum, leading to a successful package.
  • Adoption of the Additional Protocol as the global standard for verifying compliance with the NPT. Perhaps this is the single most important means for restoring the credibility of the regime of non-proliferation.
  • Exploration of multilateral options for improved controls over the sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle consistent with the NPT principles of the right to peaceful uses and the obligations for non-proliferation.
  • Because the two most salient long-term challenges are North Korea and Iran, it is of the utmost importance to lend full support to the respective diplomatic initiatives that are aiming to resolve both crises. In both cases, time is a crucial issue because a delay in agreements may mean an advance in acquiring technology and its products.
  • Strengthening of the measures to curb proliferation of WMD. In this sense, full implementation of the work led by the 1540 Committee on the Non-Proliferation of WMD is important. Many measures remain to be taken to establish domestic laws and regulations to criminalize activities concerning the proliferation of WMD by non-state actors and to establish and tighten export and border controls. In addition, the Proliferation Security Initiative and export control regimes such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which play an important role, should also be strengthened.
  • IAEA remains the preeminent forum for discussion and investigation of NPT implementation. The agency’s proposal on multilateral nuclear approaches to controlling proliferation of sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle while preserving assurances of supply and services for peaceful nuclear energy exploitation would serve as a useful basis for discussion. The link between IAEA and the Security Council should be strengthened. There should not be any hesitation in bringing matters of nuclear proliferation to the attention of the Security Council.


I believe it is important to draw the correct lessons from the setbacks suffered in nuclear non-proliferation thus far. We should uphold the NPT regime. We should not undermine the treaty principles, which would be tantamount to opening Pandora’s box. Nevertheless, I must stress that the essential bargain of the NPT is under increasing strain and that the nuclear weapon states in particular ignore it at their peril, with consequences for long-term global security.

The current political climate for strengthening the regime is not necessarily a receptive one. However, moments of deep crisis in international relations are also moments of great opportunity. In a major disarmament speech in Tokyo on May 18, the Secretary General said the following: “We owe it to future generations to breathe new life into all the forums dealing with disarmament and non-proliferation. No one wants to live in a world of permanent and fearful instability where nuclear weapons are the commonplace currency of international relations. Alternative paths that can bring peace, stability, and prosperity are within our reach. All members of the international community must show the necessary spirit of compromise and imagination to grasp those solutions before it is too late.”


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