Later this week, the Nuclear Suppliers Group will reconvene to decide whether to lift a 34 year embargo on the transfer of nuclear material to India. In the interests of non-proliferation it is profoundly to be hoped that it does not.
One of the ways in which the international community has tried over decades to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons is through global controls on nuclear technology. The cornerstone of this process has been the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970. All signatories to the NPT are allowed access to civilian nuclear technology and nuclear fuel via the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). In exchange they agree not to develop nuclear weapons and to comply with the international inspections regime.
But India has never signed the NPT, in 1974 tested a nuclear device and in the 1990s developed a nuclear arsenal. All this is outside any international regulatory framework. This behaviour by India (also pursued by Pakistan and Israel) is widely – and rightly – condemned by the international community.
The United States has been an outspoken opponent of nuclear proliferation, notably with regard to Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Nevertheless, it is the US which has for two years been explicitly championing India’s exemption from the ban. If agreed by the NSG, the India-US nuclear cooperation agreement would allow the US full civil nuclear cooperation with India, in exchange for IAEA safeguards on its civil programme.
But what about India’s nuclear weapons programme? This would not be touched – it would not come under any kind of international control. And no pressure is being put on India to disarm its nuclear weapons. This is understood in many quarters to be the US condoning India’s nuclear weapons programme. It is also described as hypocrisy and double standards.
How is it possible to oppose nuclear proliferation if powerful states reward their friends for that very offence? The US-India deal will drive a coach and horses through global anti-proliferation principles and safeguards. Fortunately some members of the NSG – including Austria and New Zealand – have had the courage to stand up to sustained pressure and lobbying from the US. Let us hope that when the NSG reconvenes they will stand firm and prevent this disastrous step taking place.