U.S. Pursues Penalty for Renouncing NPT

Daniel Horner

The U.S. government is “cautiously optimistic” that the parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will be able to reach agreement at the treaty’s 2015 review conference on “a meaningful way” to respond to countries that withdraw from the pact, a senior U.S. official said June 18.

Speaking at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said the treaty parties are “very near consensus” that the issue should be addressed.

A key issue, as Countryman framed it, is that a country that joins the NPT can take advantage of the opportunity to receive peaceful nuclear assistance under the terms of the treaty but then withdraw and “apply those technologies for nuclear weapons purposes.”

Article X of the treaty says that a party has the right to withdraw on three months’ notice “if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of [the NPT], have jeopardized [its] supreme interests.” The issue gained importance after North Korea announced its withdrawal from the treaty in 2003, an action that NPT members have not officially recognized.

Since the 2003 announcement, the United States has “aggressively” pursued the issue of how to respond to a party’s withdrawal, Countryman said. In the preparatory meetings for the 2015 conference, the United States is seeking to foster agreement that “withdrawal cannot be without consequences,” he said. “But there are so many ideas about how you deter and how you respond to a threat of withdrawal, that I think we have more work to do in the next two years,” he said.

At the most recent NPT preparatory meeting, held April 22-May 3 in Geneva, the parties discussed the issue of withdrawal, according to a summary by the meeting chairman, Cornel Feruta of Romania. The summary said that some countries “stressed” that a withdrawing country “remained responsible under international law for violations committed” while it was a party to the treaty, a point that often comes up in discussions of North Korea’s actions.

But the summary cited some parties as “affirm[ing] that they did not support efforts to reinterpret or restrict the sovereign right of withdrawal” and “emphasis[ing] the importance of encouraging” countries to remain parties to the treaty, in part by “addressing the root causes that might lead [them] to withdraw.”

At the June 18 event, Countryman said he would include the United States among the countries that “do not wish to amend Article X.” He decried the “deliberate misunderstanding on the part of some to imply that we are trying to tinker with an important right that is contained within the treaty and to abrogate that right.” The U.S. goal, he said, is “a series of measures that would be an appropriate reaction to blatant, deliberate abuse of the treaty.” When the issue is framed that way, fewer states oppose it, he said.