Nearly a half-century ago, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), today the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation regime, was opened for signature. It entered into force in 1970 and the central covenant was this: states without nuclear weapons will not seek to acquire them and states with nuclear weapons will pursue disarmament.
More specifically, under Article VI of the NPT, each party 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. Later, in a 1996 Advisory Opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons, the International Court of Justice interpreted Article VI as not only an obligation to pursue negotiations, but an obligation to achieve a precise result - nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.The commitment in the NPT is to achieve elimination of nuclear weapons, which effectively means that all parties will eventually become non-nuclear-weapon states. Thus all NPT parties have accepted the commitment to work for a nuclear weapon ban, the only issue is how to achieve this – or how to get from here to there.
A discussion to this end was underway at the United Nations last week – but key players were absent. The five nuclear-weapon states recognised by the NPT, some 30 non-nuclear-weapon states supporting them, and the four non-NPT nuclear-armed states are boycotting the negotiations. In the case of the nuclear-weapon states and their supporters who are party to the NPT, the question arises: Is their boycott of these negotiations a violation of their NPT commitments?