India and the disarmament obligations of nuclear weapon states

The NWS have themselves defined what is required of them to advance the internationally agreed objectives of global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. That is not to say that they have unfailingly complied with their own requirements, but they have in fact left little doubt about their obligations. Three essential agreements that set out NWS commitments and obligations are the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) itself, the 1995 NPT Review Conference agreement on Principles and Objectives for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, and the 2001 NPT Review Conference agreement on “practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement article VI of the NPT.”

NWS are under legal obligation, by virtue of Article VI of the NPT, to disarm. They have in fact, through Review Conference agreements, made unequivocal disarmament commitments – up to and including the elimination of their nuclear arsenals. They have affirmed the central importance of ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which cannot happen before all NWS, as well as other Annex 2 states (i.e. states with civilian nuclear technologies), have ratified it, and have committed to a moratorium on testing until that time.

The NWS have committed to negotiating a fissile material production cut-off treaty (FMCT) and to observing voluntary, unilateral moratoria on the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes pending the entry into force of such a Treaty.

The NWS have undertaken not to threaten or use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon state signatories to the NPT. They have agreed to reduce the operational status of their weapons and to diminish their role in their respective security policies. They have pledged to honour nuclear weapon-free zones (NWFZ). The NWS have agreed to place nuclear materials and facilities which are surplus to their security needs under permanent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. They are under legal obligation (again by virtue of the NPT) not to assist non-nuclear weapon states in the acquisition of nuclear weapons. They have agreed to regular reporting on their nuclear arsenals and on their progress in meeting their acknowledged disarmament objectives.

India describes itself as, and aspires to be recognized as, a NWS. Such formal recognition should not and will not be forthcoming, but there is certainly a movement toward treating India as if it were a NWS – essentially a de facto nuclear weapon state (DNWS).

Such a recognition would have seriously negative non-proliferation implications (an issue for another time), but the focus this time is the additional important question of the extent to which India as a DNWS is prepared to meet NWS disarmament commitments and obligations. There is certainly no non-proliferation advantage to treating India as if it were a NWS only to have it then proceed to mimic the intransigence of the current NWS. The nonproliferation regime is not in need of more states following the model of the current NWS – that is, being occasionally generous with the rhetorical commitments; but always intensely guarded in the implementation.

Thus, before the nuclear supplier group (NSG) acts on any Indian exceptions to nonproliferation regulations, the international community would do well to seek from India, at a minimum, a clear indication of how it intends to meet the commitments and obligations of the NWS and, indeed, how it intends to engage the NWS and DNWS in developing practical measures to implement the disarmament agenda and to move toward India’s stated goal of universal, nondiscriminatory disarmament.

So how is India doing with regard to its disarmament commitments?

1. Disarmament

India ‘s rhetorical commitment to total nuclear disarmament is unambiguous. Support for disarmament within a specified time frame separates India positively from the postures of the NWS. At the same time, India’s prominent insistence that disarmament must be “nondiscriminatory” and pursued “on the basis of equality” links India’s commitment directly to the behavior of NWS – a fairly reliable assurance that its rhetoric is not about to be put to the test. Unlike the NWS, India is not a signatory to the NPT and thus is not under a Treaty obligation to disarm, although its declared commitment to disarmament reflects its recognition of the global norm against any long-term retention of nuclear weapons.


India’s unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing was made a bilateral political commitment in the July 18/05 joint statement with the United States, with US legislation (related to the joint statement) making it clear that the agreement would end in the event of further testing. India continues to reject the CTBT, but implies that in “a positive environment” it would sign on, suggesting that ratification of the CTBT should be a minimal condition for support for the deal in the NSG.


India supports negotiations toward an FMCT but refuses to join a moratorium on the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes. US legislation includes a (non-binding) policy statement to pursue a moratorium on Indian production of fissile materials for weapons purposes, but links it to a similar moratorium in Pakistan and India. Given the NWS moratorium and India’s insistence on being treated on an equal basis, it would be reasonable to insist that an Indian exemption to NSG guidelines be contingent on India joining that moratorium.

4. NSA’s

India currently stands by a qualified, unilateral NSA declaration, and supports legally-binding NSAs. Its NSA declaration is qualified because it reserves the right to respond to chemical or biological threats/attacks with a nuclear threat/attack, thus its commitment falls short of the 1995 and 2000 commitments made by the NWS.

5. Reduced operational status

Indian nuclear forces appear to be on a substantially reduced readiness status, meaning India is currently in essential compliance with the NWS commitment.

6. Diminished role for nuclear weapons

It would be hard to argue that India is on trajectory of diminishing importance of nuclear weapons in its national security calculus.

7. NWFZs

India is supportive of NWFZs and has expressed its willingness to sign protocols giving such zones security assurances against threats from NWS, however, inasmuch as such a formal signature would implicitly recognize India as a NWS, any security assurances given by India to NWFZs will have to come through unilateral declarations.

8. Safeguarding surplus fissile materials

India does not regard itself to be in position to declare any fissile materials for weapons purposes to be surplus to its military needs.

9. Trade and Assistance

India appears to be in full compliance with the obligations of NWS in Article I of the NPT, and also adheres to MTCR and NSG guidelines and has reported on its compliance with Resolution 1540 (a 2004 Security Council resolution requiring states to strengthen or enact legislation to and regulatory mechanisms for controlling weapons of mass destruction and related materials to ensure that they do not fall into the hands of non-state actors). In the 2005 joint statement with the US, India goes further and agrees with the US not to transfer enrichment and reprocessing technologies to states that do not already have them.

10. Reporting

India is highly wary of transparency in matters related to its nuclear arsenal. Transparency in civilian programs is a declared objective of the US-India deal, but India links transparency in military nuclear programs to agreement on transparency measures with “all States.”

In summary, India can be said to be meeting, or willing to meet, NWS standards in terms of declared commitments with regard to reduced operational status of weapons systems, nuclear-weapon-free zones, and trade and assistance regulations. On disarmament broadly India has accepted the obligation to disarm, though is not party to any legally-binding agreement to that end. On the CTBT, FMCT, NSAs, a diminished role for nuclear weapons, safeguarding surplus materials, and reporting, India’s declared commitments fall short of the formal commitments and obligations (as distinct from behavior) of NWS.

This summary is elaborated in a paper prepared for a forthcoming consultation on the implications of the US-India nuclear cooperation deal hosted by the Simons Centre of UBC’s Liu Institute.

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