When the ninth review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commences in New York on Monday, a question will hang over the mega-event: will participants squarely face the complex nuclear reality that confronts the world – or, as they have for the last five decades, do the familiar ostrich act?

On the face of it, the NPT, which came into force in March 1970, aims to ensure nuclear non-proliferation and facilitate the peaceful use of nuclear energy and nuclear disarmament. In reality, it works to maintain nuclear hegemony.

The core of the NPT was the consensus between the US and the former USSR in 1967 that their security interests would be best served by ensuring that nuclear weapons remained with a select group of five nations. The exclusive N5 club had the same members as the United Nations Security Council: the USA, USSR, the UK, France and China. All other countries, irrespective of their security concerns and strategic considerations, would have to eternally renounce their right to acquire this capability.

The NPT is deemed to be an international treaty with near-global membership (only four nations, including India, have not signed it). However, it has no legal sanctity and is more in the nature of a self-created club by the US and the former USSR to maintain their strategic exclusivity.

Unjust pact

The NPT sought regulate the inexorable techno-commercial rhythms of the nuclear domain – albeit unsuccessfully. The initial objective of ensuring that the Axis powers – Germany, Japan and Italy – renounced nuclear weapons was realised. But many nations chafed at this imposition.

For India, the NPT’s inherently discriminatory core – the division of the world into the nuclear haves and the have-nots – was unacceptable. India opposed the NPT and dwelt on the invidious US-led intent of seeking to “disarm the unarmed”. Over the years, when Washington mounted pressure on Delhi, India refused to accept what it termed as nuclear apartheid.

The regional context for India was distinctive and unsettling. China acquired the nuclear bomb in October 1964 – two years after the Sino-Indian border war. To prevent further nuclear horizontal proliferation, the US and the former USSR closed ranks despite their bitter Cold War rivalry and framed the iniquitous NPT.

India carried out its own “peaceful nuclear explosion” in May 1974 but did not weaponize this capability – and remained suspended in a strategic twilight zone. Over the years, South Africa, Israel and Pakistan acquired covert nuclear weapon capability with the assistance of the N5 powers. North Korea chose to opt out of the NPT though it had signed it as a non-nuclear weapon state. Countries like Iran and Libya maintained an opaque status and were accused of pursuing clandestine weapon programmes. Vertical nuclear proliferation was rampant – from 1970 to 1990 and the US-Soviet nuclear arsenal climbed to over 60,000 nuclear warheads.

Bitter contestations

Review conferences of the NPT have been held since 1975 amidst bitter contestations among the members. Israeli nuclear capability, for example, generated dissent in the Arab block but to no avail.  At the 1995 RevCon – 25 years after the treaty came into force among its signatories – the US-led global coalition voted for an indefinite extension of the NPT.  However, the Holy Grail of global disarmament remains even more elusive.

The NPT RevCons of 2000, 2005 and 2010 have been inconclusive and in the interim, the global nuclear situation has become more tangled. The maze includes the network established by Pakistan’s AQ Khan and what it symbolizes – a state-enabled non-state nuclear proliferation racket and the linkages to terror groups; the loss of US moral credibility  over the 2003 Iraq war and the dubious accusations it made that Baghdad was on the brink of building a bomb;  the flaring-up of regional nuclear tensions in places like North Korea, and the brittle bilateral growling (Russia-US, Pakistan-India). Iran and its nuclear status is the current challenge.

The Rev Con that opens in New York on Monday has the option of either squarely facing the many contradictions that have been swept under the carpet, or engaging in business-as-usual posturing – as it has since 1975. The second option seems more likely. It may be appropriate to officially declare the ostrich the symbol of the flawed NPT.