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The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: We Have More Work to Do

24/04/2013 15:29 BST | Updated 24/06/2013 10:12 BST

North Korea's bellicose nuclear rhetoric has put sharply into the focus how some states are able to put world peace and security at risk and, as a result of their recent actions, this issue has moved to the top of the international agenda. The international community has been united and clear in its response. The situation reminds us of the importance of our non-proliferation efforts, and the need to pursue these with renewed vigour. Only then might we achieve our long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

The Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has been the cornerstone of international efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons since the Cold War era. With some 189 states parties, it has more signatories than any other treaty of its kind; only India, Israel and Pakistan have chosen to remain outside the NPT.

But the threats we face today are very different from those we faced during the Cold War, and they will continue to change in the future.

Signatories to the treaty recognised this at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, where they agreed a five-year action plan to address each of the three so-called 'pillars' of the NPT - progress on disarmament by existing nuclear weapon states, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to others and supporting the peaceful use of nuclear energy. With just two years left before the deadline we set ourselves, there is still much work to be done.

The backdrop for last year's NPT Preparatory Committee, or PrepCom, was continued concern over Iran's nuclear programme and, of course, North Korea's failed satellite launches using ballistic missile technology. Since then, the attention on nuclear weapons has only increased. Iran continues to develop its nuclear programme and remains unwilling to respond to international concerns. But more pronounced still have been North Korea's recent actions.

Following its third nuclear test in February, the North Korean government has announced its intention to re-open its Yongbyon nuclear facility and has threatened nuclear war. The international community has had no option but to take these threats seriously.

Such events underline the importance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But they also underline the need for the treaty to evolve and adapt. It must be responsive to the challenges posed by countries like North Korea and Iran, whose activities are an increasing threat to regional and international security, and to the non-proliferation framework we have worked so hard to create.

These are some of the issues that will be discussed at this year's PrepCom in Geneva.

The UK's priorities for PrepCom are simple. We want to encourage action to deter non-compliance of the NPT. We want to continue our push for a Treaty that is universal. We want to reiterate our commitment to work with other countries to achieve our long-term goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. And we want to do all of this whilst underlining that we should continue to support the responsible global expansion of civil nuclear industries.

We in Britain have a strong story to tell.

We have built on the UK's strong disarmament record, announcing further reductions to our operationally available warheads and to our overall stockpile in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. However, unilateral actions by any one country will not lead to a world without nuclear weapons. If we are to achieve this long term goal, we must move forward together with other nations through greater trust and balanced and reciprocal disarmament.

That is why the UK instigated the P5 Conference process in 2009, aimed at building the mutual understanding between NPT Nuclear Weapons states needed to help us take forward our shared disarmament commitments. It is why we have worked hard to make progress on the international building blocks that will create the conditions for further action on disarmament - not least through our active pursuit of the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the beginning of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

We expect the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone to be an important theme at the NPT PrepCom, which runs from 22 April to 3 May. An idea first put forward by Egypt in 1990, the WMD Free Zone was given prominence in the 1995 NPT Review Conference, which called for "the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems".

The UK fully supports the objective of a Middle East WMD Free Zone, which would help to strengthen the global non-proliferation architecture; and we are committed to our role - alongside the United States, Russia and the UN - to convene a regional conference to discuss the issue. The Conference Facilitator, Finnish Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava, is working hard to build consensus and agree Conference arrangements "freely arrived at by the states of the region". We fully endorse this work and hope that a conference will take place soon.

I said in an article before last year's PrepCom that I thought the Non-Proliferation Treaty offered the best chance we have of getting the balance right between achieving our long-term goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and allowing the peaceful use of nuclear energy. My view hasn't changed. But I think that it's clear there is more work for the international community to do here. The NPT Preparatory Committee meeting currently underway gives us all an opportunity to consider what progress we have made in the past year towards this most crucial of goals.