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The Right Way to End India's 'Nuclear Apartheid'
The Right Way to End India's 'Nuclear Apartheid'
Wade Huntley
December 20, 2007
Embassy, December 19th, 2007

The Right Way to End India's 'Nuclear Apartheid'

By Wade L. Huntley

Canada's exemplary record as a steadfast advocate of global nuclear disarmament faces a moment of truth.

A new deal to re-open global nuclear co-operation with India is nearing completion. Following the landmark framing agreement between the United States and India in July 2005, the world has watched as those two countries slowly fleshed out the details: in exchange for regaining access to global nuclear fuel and technology, India would separate its military and civilian nuclear programs and place the latter under international safeguards through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Canada will soon be called upon to formally support exempting India from Nuclear Suppliers Group restrictions on nuclear trade with countries lacking "full-scope" IAEA safeguards on all their nuclear facilities.

Recently, nationalistic opposition by India's left-wing parties has obstructed its government from completing its part of the deal. But those parties have now allowed the government to commence negotiations with the IAEA on a formal agreement to monitor India's civilian nuclear sector. When that agreement is finalized, the matter will then go to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a non-treaty body operating on consensus to co-ordinate controls over global trade in nuclear materials. If the NSG grants an exemption for India, one last U.S. Congressional vote would finalize the deal–and open the doors to all countries seeking nuclear sales in India.

Many non-proliferation advocates have opposed this deal from the outset. India has refused to join either the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the more recent Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. India set off its first nuclear explosion in 1974, conducted a series of nuclear tests in 1998 (earning United Nations Security Council condemnation), and has now embraced nuclear deterrence in its security policies. To critics, re-opening nuclear engagement with India de facto legitimizes its nuclear-armed status, betraying the many countries that enjoy nuclear trade only as non-nuclear NPT parties and encouraging the nuclear weapons ambitions of other countries, such as Iran.

Deal proponents contend India is a "responsible" nuclear power: its deterrence policies are defensive, it controls proliferation of its capabilities to other actors, and its rising global political and economic role deserves acknowledgement. Proponents also argue that the consequences for the NPT will be minimal or even salutary: today's proliferation challenges require new techniques and arrangements transcending the inflexible multilateralism that the NPT represents.

Who's right? This is truly a case where the devil is in the details. In a recent publication by the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research, entitled Canadian Policy on Nuclear Cooperation with India, Karthika Sasikumar and I concluded that the right deal with India would be a win-win accomplishment. Enlisting Indian support for bringing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty into force, cutting off global fissile material production and strengthening efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism would do more to advance the cause of full nuclear disarmament than continuing to subject India to "nuclear apartheid."

Unfortunately, that's not the deal on the table. The Bush Administration has made the India accord such a priority that, over the past two years, American negotiators have conceded important disarmament-oriented provisions. With access to global nuclear fuel supplies for its civilian reactors, India will be free to channel its limited domestic supplies wholly to nuclear arms production. When U.S. Congressional legislation to authorize the negotiations included a provision to suspend U.S. nuclear dealings if India again conducts a nuclear test, Bush Administration officials promised to help India secure replacement nuclear fuel sources, rebuking the legislation's intent. In his contribution to Canadian Policy on Nuclear Cooperation with India, Ernie Regehr details how the current deal does not even oblige India to the disarmament commitments of the NPT's five recognized nuclear weapons states–surely a minimal standard for being a "responsible" nuclear power.

Herein resides the broader import of the deal. Today's non-proliferation regime is founded on the principle that the obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons is equally binding on all states. In 1965, the Gilpatric Committee, advising the administration of U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson to pursue what became the NPT, explicitly identified proliferation as a threat transcending the possible short-term benefits of permitting nuclear weapons acquisition by friendly powers. The notion that "responsible" states may more legitimately than others wield nuclear threats for national security purposes overturns that core normative premise. Such is explicitly the point for some architects on both sides of the U.S.-India nuclear deal.

This is why approving the current deal at the NSG would undercut Canada's longstanding reputation for committed pursuit of global nuclear disarmament. If opening nuclear co-operation with India helps legitimize indefinite nuclear arms possession by a small cabal of states, Canada would bear a share of responsibility. Canada should support resuming nuclear dealings with India only on terms that advance rather than impede global disarmament efforts.

Stronger commitments to forswear nuclear testing and end fissile material production would be a hard sell in India. But in pushing for a better deal, Canada needn't stand alone. Other key NSG countries are reluctant to approve the new deal in its current form. U.S. Congressional concerns are rising. All that's lacking is leadership to galvanize the simmering discontent.

Taking that stand will require strength of conviction. The Bush Administration will look unkindly on obstructing one of its final major initiatives. Canada's own nuclear industry and growing commercial ties to India create motivated domestic constituencies. Minority government conditions limit all the parliamentary parties' insulation from such compulsions. Only vocal public insistence that Canada's commitment to nuclear disarmament not be compromised can balance these forces.

In the 1950s, Canadian officials gleaned the risks of providing nuclear power reactors to India, but allowed desires to build ties with the new democracy to supersede these concerns. As a result, Canadian reactors produced the plutonium India used for its first nuclear test. Ironically, the encounter also ended up poisoning India-Canada relations instead of building them. Soon, Ottawa's decision-makers will face a similar choice. Improving Canada's long-cool relations with India is as worthy a goal as ever. The lesson of history is not that abstract principle should supersede tangible interest; it is that keeping faith with principle may also be the better basis for enduring amity.

Wade L. Huntley, Ph.D., is director of the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research at the University of British Columbia's Liu Institute for Global Issues.

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