The international nuclear non-proliferation regime is built around the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Treaty despite has been successful to an extent in controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the terrible urge of many nations to acquire nuclear weapons. It has been less successful in fulfilling its vision of complete disarmament under Article VI of the Treaty. Clearly, the basic flaw is divergence in point of views among member states. Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) insist that Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) should under no circumstances acquire nuclear weapons, while they do not go beyond expressing the pious sentiment of disarming in ‘good faith.’ No timeline has been fixed for the elusive goal of disarmament.

The Review Conference (Revcon) 2015 ended in disarray because of a number of reasons inter alia the absence of any agreement on holding a meeting to decide the issue of the Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (ME NWFZ). Article VI has simply fallen prey to vested interests of the nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ This paper posits that to make the NPT a potent instrument to serve the cause of non-proliferation and disarmament in the times to come, there is a need to be more vigorous and genuine in moving towards eliminating all weapons, whether they be nuclear or conventional. Idealistic as it may sound, without a sincere involvement of the NWS, Article VI would suffer at the altar of their agenda to maintain their nuclear pre-eminence.  

Keywords: Nuclear Non Proliferation, Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

*The author is the associate dean of the Centre for International Peace & Stability (CIPS), National University of Sciences & Technology (NUST). The author was ably assisted by Majid Mahmood, Research Associate Centre for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad in putting this paper together.

Overview of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

The international nuclear nonproliferation regime is built around a number of treaties and initiatives both governmental and non-governmental. Principal among these are the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards system; export control arrangements, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); UN Security Council Resolutions (UNCRs); multilateral and bilateral initiatives, including the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI); and bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements between supplier and purchaser states.[1] A number of UN institutions such as the UN office for disarmament affairs (UNODA), first committee of the UNGA deals with disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace, conference on disarmament that are part of this overall structure of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Informal non-proliferation and disarmament initiatives include Green Peace movement, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Mayors for Peace, Global Zero (GZ), International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and Nuclear Age Peace Foundation etc.

Before moving on to the formal edifice of the international non-proliferation regime it would be illuminating to have a look at a non-official initiative for nuclear disarmament such as the Global Zero (GZ) Movement.

Global Zero (GZ) Movement and Nuclear Disarmament

 The GZ is an international non-partisan group of 300 world leaders dedicated to achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons. The initiative, launched in December 2008, promotes a phased withdrawal and verification for the destruction of all devices held by official and unofficial members of the nuclear club.[2]

The GZ works toward building an international consensus through the sustained efforts of globally acknowledged leaders and eminent citizens to eliminate nuclear weapons. Its goals include the initiation of US-Russia bilateral negotiations for reductions to 1,000 total warheads each and commitments from the other key nuclear weapons countries to participate in multilateral negotiations for phased reductions of nuclear arsenals.[3]

GZ wants to expand the diplomatic dialogue with key governments and to develop policy proposals on the critical issues related to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The strategy calls for phased, verified elimination of all nuclear weapons suggests reaching an accord over 14 years (2010–2023) and to complete the dismantlement of all remaining nuclear warheads over the following seven years (2024–2030) as follows:[4]

  • Phase 1 (2010–2013) following the conclusion of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) replacement accord, negotiate a bilateral accord for the US and Russia to reduce to 1,000 total warheads each.
    • Phase 2 (2014–2018) in a multilateral framework, the US and Russia reach agreement to reduce to 500 total warheads each (to be implemented by 2021) as long as all other nuclear weapons countries agree to freeze their stockpiles until 2018, followed by proportional reductions until 2021. Establish a comprehensive verification and enforcement system, and strengthen safeguards on the civilian nuclear fuel cycle to prevent diversion of materials to build weapons.
    • Phase 3 (2019–2023) negotiate a GZ accord, signed by all nuclear capable countries, for the phased, verified, proportional reduction of all nuclear arsenals to zero total warheads by 2030.
    • Phase 4 (2024–2030) complete the phased, verified, proportional reduction of all nuclear arsenals to zero total warheads by 2030 and continue the verification and enforcement system.

In releasing this ambitious plan, the GZ commission noted that over the past twenty years (1989–2009), the US and Russia had retired and destroyed twice as many nuclear warheads (40,000+) as this action plan had proposed over the twenty years between 2009–2030.[5]

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

 NPT forms the bedrock of the international non-proliferation regime. It owes its origins to the growing unease among the superpowers during the Cold War era of the inherent risks involved in uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons and states possessing them. After several years of negotiations, the NPT formally opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. Most importantly the Treaty recognized five original nuclear weapon powers – the US, the Soviet Union (Russia), the UK, France, and China – as Nuclear Weapon States (NWS). These countries, who also happen to be the veto wielding permanent five members of the UN Security Council, have arrogated themselves the right to develop, acquire and possess nuclear weapons. Others have been relegated to the status of Non Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) and have been expressly forbidden ever to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. Three states – India, Israel, and Pakistan – did not sign the NPT because they considered nuclear weapons vital to their national security interests. One signatory i.e. North Korea opted out of the NPT under the withdrawal clause in 2003, and conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. 

The role and mandate of the NPT is enshrined in several articles. Under Article I of the Treaty, the NWS accepted the responsibility of neither transferring nuclear weapons to any recipient, nor assisting, directly or indirectly, in the development of nuclear weapons by others.[6] The NNWS agreed vide Article II not to acquire nuclear weapons or seek their manufacture.[7] Each NNWS further agreed in Article III to accept safeguards, via a separate agreement with the IAEA, to verify the fulfillment of its nonproliferation obligations.[8] Article IV contained provisions on peaceful nuclear energy. It referred to an “inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.”[9] In Article VI, each party to the Treaty, irrespective of its status agreed to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”[10] The NPT also contains a withdrawal provision, in Article X, by which a party to the treaty may withdraw with three months’ notice.[11]

Prima facie, the forum of the NPT remains primarily engaged with the prospect of non-proliferation and doesn’t actually move beyond to the more substantial issue of complete disarmament. The NWS basically see it as a framework that ensures that the NNWS keep their pledge of solemnly shunning the temptation of ever developing or acquiring nuclear weapons. In exchange the NWS very condescendingly agree “to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology” and hold out a vague promise “to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”[12]

NPT Review Conference (Revcon) 2010 and 2015 and Issue of Nuclear Disarmament: The NPT had an original shelf life of 25 years but was given an unlimited and unconditional lease of life during the 1995 Review Conference (Revcon). The extension, notwithstanding, the Treaty still comes under review every five years. Depending on the prevailing environment and the mood of the participants, the results of the Revcons vary from meeting to meeting.

The Revcon of 2010 was able to produce an action plan comprising 22 concrete nuclear disarmament actions for the implementation of article VI measurable against a set of clear benchmarks:

  • It declared for the first time, a world free of nuclear weapons as the goal of nuclear disarmament.[13]
  • It contained recommitments to previous undertakings on nuclear disarmament and concrete steps on security assurances, nuclear testing, fissile material production, transparency, and other measures.[14]
  • It underscored that article VI was a collective responsibility of all NPT states parties – NNWS as well as NWS[15]
  • Action 1 commits all states-parties “to pursue policies that are fully compatible with the treaty and the objective of achieving a world without nuclear weapons”[16]
  • The plan called on the NWS to report on their undertakings at next year’s NPT preparatory committee meeting, the third and last such meeting before the 2015 Revcon was to take stock and consider the next steps for the full implementation of article VI.

The action plan provided a tool for the NPT community to measure progress on nuclear disarmament. In an interpretation widely shared among NNWS, implementation of the action plan required, in addition to further reductions in stockpiles, progress on the following key indicators:[17]

  • Changes in nuclear doctrines to diminish the role of nuclear weapons.
    • Reduction of the operational readiness and lowering of the alert status of nuclear weapons.
    • Increases in the level of transparency.
    • Tangible progress toward entry into force of the CTBT.
    • Overcoming the paralysis of the UN disarmament machinery, especially the CD.

The month-long NPT Revcon 2015 ended in disarray after governments represented at the conference were unable to reach agreement on the wording of a final document outlining the conference’s conclusions. A key point of contention at the conference was a proposal by Egypt, backed by other middle eastern nations, for the UN secretary general to convene a conference on a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (MENWFZ) by no later than March 2016. The US vetoed the proposal on the bidding of Israel.

Disarmament as a Pillar of NPT:  Article VI of the NPT represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon States. The NPT’s preamble contains language affirming the desire of treaty signatories to ease international tension and strengthen international trust so as to create someday the conditions for a halt to the production of nuclear weapons, and treaty on general and complete disarmament that liquidates, in particular, nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles from national arsenals.

The wording of the Article VI arguably imposes only a vague obligation on all NPT signatories to move in the general direction of nuclear and total disarmament. It calls upon “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.”[18] Under this interpretation, Article VI does not strictly require all signatories to actually conclude a disarmament treaty. Rather, it only requires them “to negotiate in good faith.”[19]

On the other hand, some governments, especially NNWS belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) interpret Article VI’s language as being clear and unambiguous. In their view, Article VI constitutes a formal and specific obligation on the NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states to disarm themselves of nuclear weapons, and argue that these states have failed to meet their obligation. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), in its advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, issued 8 July 1996, unanimously interprets the text of Article VI as implying that “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”[20] The ICJ opinion notes that this obligation involves all NPT parties (not just the NWS) and does not suggest a specific time frame for nuclear disarmament.[21]

Critics of the NPT, argue that the NPT recognized NWS i.e. the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK have consistently failed to divest themselves of nuclear weapons, especially in the post Cold War era. Naturally most NNWS, looking forward to see a nuclear weapon free world, were disappointed with the reluctance of the NWS to part from their nuclear weapons.[22]

That the application of the NPT is done selectively, is quite evident in that the NWS have been most stringent in non-proliferation issues such as forcing Iran to bring to a halt its uranium enrichment program that could have ultimately have led to the production of nuclear weapons. They have been similarly harsh on North Korea but they have been quite ambivalent about their own disarmament programs. In fact there appears to be considerable interest in improving the quality and lethality their own nuclear arsenals. The elimination of thousands of obsolete weapons and delivery systems, the NWS has actually worked towards making a smaller but more effective arsenal. One US official and NPT expert had warned in 2007:

[T]hat as the number of nuclear weapons decreases, the ‘marginal utility’ of a nuclear weapon as an instrument of military power increases. At the extreme, which it is precisely disarmament’s hope to create, the strategic utility of even one or two nuclear weapons would be huge.[23]

Alexander Kmentt director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation in the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs prudently argued in his piece on Arms Control Today:

The rhetoric in public statements and international forums would indicate a broadly shared view about the objective of nuclear disarmament and a world without nuclear weapons. In reality, there is a serious disconnect between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states on the issue.

NWS declarations on disarmament focus on nuclear weapons reductions by bilateral agreements, such as between Russia and the US, or through unilateral steps. Yet, these statements still posit the deterrence value of nuclear weapons and continue to rely on those weapons as ultimate guarantors of security. Modernization programs are in place, and long-term investments in nuclear weapons and their infrastructure are being made or are foreseen in all nuclear-weapon states. Consequently, NWS consider nuclear disarmament and the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons to be a long-term objective at best. Thus, pending the achievement of perceived global preconditions for nuclear disarmament, these countries are prepared to take only limited and gradual disarmament steps without fundamentally reassessing the role of nuclear weapons or altering the nuclear strategic balance. At the same time, the NWS focus on the prevention of further proliferation of nuclear weapons, which they see as the only real challenge to the integrity of the NPT. This is not only their clear priority, but they argue it is a necessary precondition for more-substantial nuclear disarmament steps.

The perspectives of most NNWS regarding the urgency of nuclear disarmament are quite different. Among these countries, nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence are widely seen as a high-risk approach to national and international security. According to this view, humanity escaped unharmed during the Cold War period and thereafter as much by luck as by design. Moreover, the concepts of nuclear deterrence and the necessity of nuclear strategic stability, which were merely transferred to the 21st century with little change, look increasingly anachronistic 20 years after the end of the Cold War. This lack of adaptation to new realities might be seen not only as a missed opportunity but also as a serious misjudgment and a key driver and incentive for proliferation. Arguably, there is a direct relation between the continued reliance on nuclear weapons by NWS and the quest for these weapons by other states. This link can only be broken by a collective and sincere move away from nuclear weapons.

Most NNWS outside the “nuclear sharing arrangements” or “nuclear umbrellas” consider nuclear weapons to be highly dangerous and a threat to humanity. They view retention of and reliance on nuclear weapons as an outdated concept, while seeing disarmament as an essential element of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The mere existence of nuclear weapons results in a permanent risk of devastating consequences for the entire planet. Such an existential threat to all humankind should no longer be handled by a few states as a national security matter to the detriment of the security interests of the vast majority of states.[24]


Clearly, the disarmament issue has become prey to the divergent attitudes of the NWS and the NNWS on Article VI. The issues at hand are being neglected and the spotlight is being diverted on issues such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). India has been given exceptional waivers outside the NPT without actually being an NWS and thereby making the international non-proliferation regime more anemic. Unless the basic divergence of opinion on Article VI is removed, the cause of non-proliferation and complete disarmament would wither on the vine.

The instrument of the NPT should not merely be used to establish a nuclear hierarchy to perpetuate an unequal world and thereby make the option of pursuing nuclear weapons more attractive because all those who possess nuclear weapons continue to cling on to them.[25] Achieving an NPT in the first place took a great deal of diplomatic effort, and sensitivity to the political predicament of NNWS. Maintaining it beyond its 50th anniversary, in five years’ time, will depend entirely on how the powers that be treat the issue of complete disarmament in the larger interest of world peace.


2010 Action Plan, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=NPT/CONF.2010/50%20 (VOL.%20II).

Basu, Jayshree. The Global Zero Campaign: Tour around the Bomb. http://www.universityexpress .co.in/delhiuniversity/2014/08/global-zero-campaign-tour-around-bomb/.

Ford, Christopher. U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation. “Disarmament and Non-Nuclear Stability in Tomorrow’s World.” Conference on Disarmament and Nonproliferation Issues. Nagasaki, Japan. http://merln.ndu.edu /archivepdf/wmd/State/92733.pdf.

Global Zero Action Plan. http://www.globalzero.org/get-the-facts/GZAP.

Graham, Jr., Thomas. “Avoiding the Tipping Point.” Arms Control Today. November 2004, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2004_11/BookReview.

Kmentt, Alexander. How Divergent Views on Nuclear Disarmament Threaten the NPT, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2013_12/How-Divergent-Views-on-Nuclear-Disarmament-Threaten-the-NPT.

Lettow, Paul. Council of Foreign Relations Report No 54, April 2010, Strengthening the Nuclear Non Proliferation Regime. file:///C:/Users/Administrator/Downloads/Nonproliferation _CSR54.pdf.

Ploughshares Fund, Annual Report 2009. http://www.ploughshares.org/sites/default/files /resources/psf_annual _report_09.pdf.

Harries, Matthew. “Disarmament as Politics: Lessons from the Negotiation of NPT Article VI.  International Security (May 2015). http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/20150512 DisarmamentPoliticsNPTHarries.pdf.

Mishra,J . NPT and the Developing Countries (Concept Publishing Company, 2008).

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. http://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2005/npttreaty.html.

The ICJ, “Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons,” http://www.lcnp.org/wcourt /opinion.htm.

[1] Paul Lettow, Council of Foreign Relations Report No 54, April 2010, Strengthening the Nuclear Non Proliferation Regime, file:///C:/Users/Administrator/Downloads/Nonproliferation_CSR54.pdf (accessed July 4, 2015).

[2] Jayshree Basu, The Global Zero Campaign: Tour Around the Bomb, http://www.universityexpress.co.in /delhiuniversity/2014/08/global-zero-campaign-tour-around-bomb/ (accessed July 26, 2015).

[3] Ploughshares Fund, Annual Report 2009, http://www.ploughshares.org/sites/default/files/resources/psf_annual _report_09.pdf (accessed July 4, 2015).

[4] Read Global Zero Action Plan at http://www.globalzero.org/get-the-facts/GZAP.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Read the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Article 1 from http://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2005/npttreaty.html.

[7] Ibid, Article 2.

[8] Ibid, Article 3.

[9] Ibid Article 4.

[10] Ibid, Article 6.

[11] Ibid, Article 10.

[12] Thomas Graham, Jr., “Avoiding the Tipping Point,” Arms Control Association, November 2004, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2004_11/BookReview (accessed July 26, 2015).

[13] Read 2010 action plan here: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=NPT/CONF.2010/50%20(VOL.%20II)

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Alexander Kmentt, How Divergent Views on Nuclear Disarmament Threaten the NPT, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2013_12/How-Divergent-Views-on-Nuclear-Disarmament-Threaten-the-NPT (accessed July 25, 2015).

[18] Read the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Article VI from http://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2005/npttreaty.html

[19] Ibid

[20] The ICJ ,  “Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons,” http://www.lcnp.org/wcourt/opinion.htm    (accessed 26 July 2015).

[21] Ibid.

[22] J. Mishra, NPT and the Developing Countries (Concept Publishing Company, 2008).

[23]  U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation Christopher Ford, “Disarmament and Non-Nuclear Stability in Tomorrow’s World,” remarks to the Conference on Disarmament and Nonproliferation Issues, Nagasaki, Japan, http://merln.ndu.edu/archivepdf/wmd/State/92733.pdf (accessed July 26, 2015).

[24] Alexander Kmentt, “How Divergent Views on Nuclear Disarmament Threaten the NPT,” Arms Control Today, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2013_12/How-Divergent-Views-on-Nuclear-Disarmament-Threaten-the-NPT  (accessed July 25 2015).

[25] Matthew Harries, International Security May 2015, Disarmament as Politics: Lessons From the Negotiation of NPT Article VI,  http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/20150512DisarmamentPoliticsNPTHarries.pdf (accessed 27 July 2015).

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