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Obama and the NPT

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

This treaty establishes a bargain between states with nuclear weapons and those without. The treaty very clearly says that states without nuclear weapons agree not to acquire nuclear weapons. In rather vague terms, the treaty says that states that already have nuclear weapons (at the time of signing the US, USSR, Britain, France and China) agree to work on getting rid of them. All parties to the treaty share “the inalienable right … to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”.

The NPT came into force in 1970 and 189 countries have signed it. There are only four countries that are not parties to the treaty: India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea. The treaty is credited with greatly slowing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

There are two aspects to a NPT meeting – governmental and nongovernmental. Countries send official representatives to give statements and negotiate. At the same time, NGOs working on nuclear issues gather to fulfill their UN-sanctioned role which is “to provide credible analysis, views, and perspectives on the global nuclear regime, support progressive measures towards disarmament and non-proliferation, and bring media and public attention to these important issues.” (from “Information for non-government organizations” at

United Nations Department of Public Information

About 1,500 NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] with strong information programmes on issues of concern to the UN are associated with the Department of Public Information (DPI), giving the UN valuable links to people around the world. DPI helps these NGOs gain access to and disseminate information about the issues in which the United Nations is involved so that the public can better understand the aims and objectives of the world organization and support its work.

From “NGOs and the United Nations Department of Public Information: Some Questions and Answers” at

Last May I spent three days at the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) at the United Nations in New York. I attended as a representative of the group Seriously, Time to Stop, but as the alternate Department of Public Information representative of Science for Peace, I am happy to share reflections on this meeting.

The NPT PrepCom began less than a month after US President Obama declared his intention to work toward a world without nuclear weapons in Prague. Initially, many of NGOs were deeply suspicious of his commitment. The suspicion seemed to soften over the time I was there. Certainly it helped to hear the Mayor of Hiroshima tell us that, as a politician intent on the elimination of nuclear weapons, he fully supported Obama and believed his approach was sound.

Obama said in his Prague speech that the US “will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a basis for cooperation.” The commitment of the nuclear weapons states to disarmament in the NPT is weak but, nevertheless, valuable. It’s a bird in the hand.

The purpose of the PrepCom is to lay the groundwork for the NPT Review Conference (RevCon) which is held every five years. The good news from this PrepCom was that everyone agreed on an agenda for the RevCon this year! That may not sound too exciting but it was a breakthrough. At the last RevCon, delegates were still arguing over the agenda two weeks into the meeting.

This agreement seemed to confirm that the “decade of deadlock” caused by the Bush administration’s disdain for multilateral agreements was over. Cause for celebration indeed.

Of course, over the past eight or ten years governments have shifted resources, especially people, away from disarmament. The deadlock is over but it will take time to recover. And the task ahead is enormous – it’s not as if everyone was ready to disarm and George Bush just got in the way.

Canada, unfortunately, is not poised to be particularly helpful. Some of the representatives from Canadian NGOs arranged a meeting in New York with Marius Grinius, Canada’s Permanent Representative and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Office of the United Nations and to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament. The meeting was off the record and no remarks can be attributed to anyone but I will tell you that Canada values the security that NATO offers above all else. NATO maintains that nuclear weapons are essential for security.

The PrepCom ultimately ended without accomplishing its second task, agreement on a list of recommendations for discussion at the RevCon, but I am hopeful that this year’s meeting will see substantial progress.

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