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27th July 2004

Nuclear Proliferation

A key defence treaty between Britain and America breaks international law according to lawyers at Matrix Chambers. Today reporter Nicola Stanbridge looked into the legal arguments.

The Mutual Defence Agreement promotes cross-atlantic co-operation on nuclear weapons and is due to be extended for another 10 years this summer. However new legal advice warns that renewing this agreement would effectively break the non-proliferation treaty.

The Ministry of Defence disagrees with this argument. They claim the Mutual Defence Agreement falls within the guidelines set out in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Some politicians have questioned the position of the MoD and have called for a debate in parliament.

The Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA)

The MDA enables the US and Britain to ‘exchange’ information and ‘transfer materials and equipment’ with the objective of improving each other’s nuclear weapons ‘design, development and fabrication capability’. It covers development of nuclear doctrines and ‘delivery systems’ (e.g. submarines and missiles), intelligence sharing, information on nuclear research reactors, transfers of nuclear submarine technologies and fuels, and nuclear materials such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Information is exchanged via joint working groups and through a range of visits and exchanges between nuclear weapons laboratory personnel.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

The NPT is a landmark international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament. The Treaty represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon States.

Opened for signature in 1968, a total of 187 parties have joined the Treaty, including the five nuclear-weapon States. More countries have ratified the NPT than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement, a testament to the Treaty's significance. To further the goal of non-proliferation and as a confidence-building measure between States parties, the Treaty establishes a safeguards system under the responsibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Safeguards are used to verify compliance through inspections conducted by the IAEA. The Treaty promotes co-operation in the field of peaceful nuclear technology and equal access to this technology for all States parties, while safeguards prevent the diversion of fissile material for weapons use.

The provisions of the Treaty, particularly article VIII, paragraph 3, envisage a review of the operation of the Treaty every five years, a provision which was reaffirmed by the States parties at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. The last Review Conference, in 2000, took place at the United Nations in New York from 24 April to 19 May 2000.

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