[npt review conference]

Today is the start of the 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As happens every five years, representatives of the States Parties to the treaty — which at this point means every country on the planet except India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea — gather to discuss non-proliferation and disarmament and to consider ways to strengthen the NPT regime to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

The conference in 2000 was only the second after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it was the first in decades to conclude with an agreed set of recommendations. Not only that, but it affirmed that the former Soviet states had renounced their nuclear weapons and become NPT members as non-nuclear weapon states.

The mood then was positive, but the last five years have been difficult. The good news is that Libya has given up its weapons. The bad news is that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and withdrawn from the treaty, Iran is moving toward doing the same, disarmament has stalled completely (the treaty calls not just for limiting the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states, but also for nuclear weapon states — China, France, Russia, the UK and the US — to reduce their stockpiles toward zero), the US is threatening to develop and test new weapons, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has stalled, and the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan has shown how easily nuclear materials might be diverted to terrorists.

All is not well.

One of the biggest issues on the table is how to limit trade in weapons-grade nuclear fuel. Under the NPT, compliant states have the right to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes including energy. The problem is that it’s very easy to convert such technologies, especially those for reprocessing spent fuel or enriching uranium, into weapons programs. There is now talk of banning such reprocessing and enrichment outright, limiting it to a small number of nuclear suppliers under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency. For countries like South Korea that rely on nuclear energy, this may ask too much: can they really be expected to put their national security in the hands of a suppliers group that could, at least theoretically, jack up prices or cut off supplies for political reasons?

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes of this conference. The UN News Centre has an article on Kofi Annan’s opening statements. I’ll post more as things develop.