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There are nine nuclear powers in the world: the five nuclear weapon states recognised under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the US, Russia, UK, France and China); three de facto nuclear weapon states that have developed a nuclear capability outside of that treaty framework (Israel, Pakistan and India), and North Korea, which despite not being recognised by the international community as a nuclear weapons state, is considered potentially nuclear capable. In addition, there are those states which have been, or are, suspected of harbouring nuclear intentions, most notably Iran and Syria.

In an attempt to reduce the dangers posed by existing nuclear arsenals and prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, the current international nuclear arms control architecture has evolved, broadly speaking, into three main strands. The distinction between these three categories is not entirely clear cut, and a degree of overlap exists between them:

  • Disarmament – the first strand includes treaties, agreements and other mechanisms that seek to bring about the gradual disarmament of the five NPT-recognised nuclear powers.
  • Restrictions on the development of new weaponry – the second strand seeks to restrict the development of new nuclear weapons systems.
  • Non-Proliferation – the third strand seeks to limit or halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology and know-how, by imposing export restrictions on nuclear-related technologies and monitoring civilian nuclear facilities.

Disarmament regimes

Given the overwhelming nuclear superiority of Russia and the United States, the focus has largely been on bilateral treaties between these two countries aimed at reducing the size of their arsenals. The New START agreement, which was concluded in 2010, and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty 1987 remain in force.

In 2007 the five NPT nuclear states also established the P5 Dialogue in order to examine what transparency and confidence building measures they could jointly pursue. The hope was that co-operation between the nuclear weapon states would gradually generate momentum towards disarmament.

At the international level, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 1968 represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the recognised nuclear weapon states.

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) was also established in 1979 as the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community. Its success has been mixed, however, and little has been achieved within the organisation in the last fifteen years.

This general feeling of inertia is one that has been felt throughout the disarmament community over the last few decades. While bilateral efforts between the US and Russia have achieved some progress, those successes have been hard fought and any further progress has now been complicated by the deterioration in diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Progress within the P5 Dialogue has been slow with critics arguing that nothing of any substance has emerged from the process thus far. This frustration has also been evident within the framework of the NPT which failed to reach a consensus agreement at its latest Review Conference in 2015. Many opponents have also pointed to the modernisation plans of the nuclear weapon states as evidence that their disarmament obligations are not being taken seriously.

In addition, advancing the disarmament agenda has also been undermined by the existence of the de facto nuclear states outside of the majority of these fora. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are not part of the NPT nor are they contributors to the P5 Dialogue. While they are all members of the Conference on Disarmament, they have also done little to progress initiatives within that forum. Negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty have, for example, failed thus far because of Pakistan’s ongoing objection to the current wording of the draft text. 

As a result of this perceived stagnation there has been an increasing focus in the last few years by the non-nuclear weapon states, and other stakeholders, on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. Intended to bring new pressure to bear on the disarmament agenda, this renewed focus led to the emergence in 2014 of the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Initiative and in 2015 to the revival of the UN-mandated Open Ended Working Group on Disarmament. Both fora are seeking to achieve progress on some form of legally binding instrument that would outlaw nuclear weapons.

Restrictions on the development of new weaponry

In addition to those treaties and agreements aimed at promoting and implementing nuclear disarmament measures, a number of bilateral and multilateral treaties have also been concluded that seek to inhibit the development of new weaponry. These include bans on the testing of nuclear warheads, a proposed ban on the production of fissile material and restrictions on the deployment of missile defence shields.

However, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has yet to enter into force and efforts to begin negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty have also stalled within the Conference on Disarmament. Efforts to restrict the development of new weaponry were also considered to have been dealt a blow after the US unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, to enable the testing and deployment of a new US missile defence system.

Non-proliferation regimes

The majority of regimes relating to non-proliferation are multilateral agreements or treaties. The most prolific of those, and considered the cornerstone of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, has been the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). However concerns over the incomplete membership of the NPT and emerging loopholes in the international non-proliferation regime in the 1970s led to the formation of two linked groups of nuclear supplier states: the Zangger Committee and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which established guidelines on export controls and the exchange of information.

Other non-proliferation initiatives have also emerged over the last 15 years as states have sought to address what they have increasingly come to regard as one of the greatest threats to security. Those measures have included the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction which was established at the G8 summit in 2002; the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) which was launched by the US in 2003; and UN Security Council Resolution 1540 on nuclear security which was passed in 2004. Nuclear security has also risen up the agenda since 2010 with a series of high-level conferences aimed at addressing concerns over nuclear terrorism and the safeguarding of vulnerable materials.

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