Principle, or Pragmatism? India wants international rules bent to allow it access to nuclear materials

Tasneem Jamal Asia, Nuclear Weapons

Ernie Regehr

Published by the Waterloo Region Record

When the international Nuclear Suppliers Group meets later this week in Vienna, India will be looking for an end to its 34-year exclusion from international nuclear co-operation and trade.

India wants unfettered access to the global civilian nuclear market, notably to import badly needed uranium from places like Canada, notwithstanding its nuclear weapons program and its refusal to join the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The United States will be there to support India, in the hope of winning a new friend and ally out of the deal.

The chosen route to these respective strategic destinations runs directly through a core nuclear non-proliferation principle – namely that civilian nuclear co-operation is to be confined to states that adhere to full-scope safeguards administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) — meaning full inspections of all of a country’s nuclear facilities.

This fundamental rule has guided, at least until now, the regulatory efforts of the 45 member states in the suppliers group, including Canada, to prevent the spread of nuclear material and technology beyond verifiably legitimate civilian users.

Indeed, in 1995 this rule became a global norm when the 189 states in the NPT adopted and expanded the principle in a decision that said “acceptance of the agency’s full-scope safeguards and internationally legally binding commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons” is “a necessary precondition” for civilian nuclear co-operation.

This decision was central to winning support for making the NPT a permanent treaty and ought to lead nuclear supply group states to at least question whether they on their own have the authority to grant selective exceptions to decisions made jointly by all NPT states. But on Aug. 21 the suppliers group will begin considering a U.S. proposal to do just that — a move that U.S. President George W. Bush has portrayed as a means of “bringing India into the international non-proliferation mainstream.”

Others are understandably unclear how exempting India from a central non-proliferation principle will bring it into the non-proliferation mainstream. Under the proposed deal India would place more of its civilian facilities under IAEA safeguards, but only some, and only those of India’s own choosing. Beyond that, India is offering no specific non-proliferation commitments. So while exempting India from the basic full-scope safeguards rule would clearly serve particular interests of India and some nuclear suppliers, a strengthened non-proliferation regime would not be among its benefits.

Even so, the pressure on supply group states such as Canada to go along with this selective fiddling with non-proliferation standards will not be easily resisted. There is not an abundance of states eager to offend either the U.S. or India.

One reason some are open to shifting the rules is that the non-proliferation regime is, unfortunately, not gaining strength under the status quo. Even though civilian nuclear cooperation with India, Israel, and Pakistan — the three states with nuclear weapons that are outside the NPT — has long been prohibited, all three have nevertheless acquired nuclear weapons and continue to build up their arsenals. Simply continuing current policy is not going to induce any of them to give up those arsenals and seems to serve neither principle nor pragmatism.

So that raises the legitimate question of whether co-operation on civilian and safeguarded programs could be made attractive enough to persuade these three states outside the nonproliferation regime to undertake some clear, even if partial, non-proliferation commitments in return.

The question has certainly been explored, and the disarmament community generally points to three key commitments from India that could warrant special treatment.

Exemption from the full-scope safeguards rule while retaining its existing nuclear arsenal could be considered if India would: a) commit to an end to testing and to seal that commitment with the signing and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); b) commit to a verifiable moratorium on producing fissile materials for weapons purposes, pending the negotiation and entry into force of a fissile materials treaty; and c) declare that it fully accepts the disarmament obligations of Article VI of the NPT and the related decisions of NPT review conferences.

In the short run, the domestic politics of India would lead it to reject such a compromise, and the proposal now being put before the supplier states by Washington calls for the exemption without any non-proliferation conditions attached.

But it is far from a done deal. Recent reports have unnamed diplomats letting it be known that the supply group states, which reach decisions by consensus, are unlikely to acquiesce to an exemption without at least linking it to an end to testing and to Indian support for the test ban treaty – broadly recognized as one the most important and urgent disarmament imperatives.

In the longer run, the offer of an exemption to the full-scope safeguards rule with key conditions attached could become more attractive to India as its search for fuel for its civilian power reactors becomes more and more difficult. And in the meantime, a firm stance by the supplier states now would preserve the principle, critically important to non-nuclear weapon state signatories to the NPT, that the trade in civilian nuclear materials and technology can never be allowed without specific and lasting non-proliferation payoffs.

© Copyright 2008 Metroland Media Group Ltd.

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