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Consensus is a Delightfully Vague Concept

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Yogesh M Tiwari

There is no case for blocking India’s membership to the NSG. China’s objections should not be binding

The Nuclear Suppliers Gro-up (NSG) was set up as a club of nuclear equipment and fissile material suppliers in the aftermath of India’s 1974 nuclear test.  Members are admitted on the basis of “consensus” and its working and decisions are also taken on the basis of consensus. This group has no international legal basis and operates in the shadow of the formal international arena. Its membership, however, of all the Permanent Five members of the Security Council, all major producers and exporters of nuclear fissile materials, leading technologically advanced European nations, in addition to the US, Japan and Australia, makes it the most powerful group in the entire spectrum of nuclear commerce.

ALL-OUT EFFORT: In his efforts to enlist support of NSG, Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President of Mexico Enrique Peaa Nieto
ALL-OUT EFFORT: In his efforts to enlist support of NSG, Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President of Mexico Enrique Peaa Nieto

Consensus (see box) is a delightfully vague concept, while its raison d’être is unquestioned in any committee-like structures and in international organizations; it has never been confused with unanimity. Unanimity is obviously a very clear concept, not subject to any differing interpretations. Likewise, the concept of a veto is legally and diplomatically unambiguous.  Therefore, a natural question is, why a single member can block the decisions of the remaining overwhelming majority or a minority group of nations.  If this idea is carried to its logical extreme, a single member can theoretically hold up the overwhelming majority’s decisions or consensus.  All work in the international organizations would come to a complete standstill!

India has been trying to enter NSG from 2008 officially and, unofficially, has been desirous of membership from before. India’s position is that it meets the purported objectives of the NSG, i.e. to prevent the proliferations of the nuclear weapons. India has been described as the most perfect non-proliferator.  India’s credentials have never been questioned unlike those of China and Pakistan, to name only two. Pakistan, a technologically backward country, became a nuclear power through theft and subterfuge, in the full knowledge of its theft by the entire P-5, the so-called standard bearers of non-proliferation. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) defines “nuclear weapon states” as those that tested nuclear devices before January 1, 1967.  Hence no new “nuclear weapon state” can come into being—surely a clear case of oligopoly of the P-5.  The vast majority of the members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were coerced into membership, believing or being deceived into believing that the P-5 would undertake measures for universal nuclear disarmament. Such a culmination has not happened in the last four decades. Even the beginnings of universal nuclear disarmament are an ever-receding mirage in the nuclear desert. 

Modi at the House Chamber prior to addressing the US Congress in Washington
Modi at the House Chamber prior to addressing the US Congress in Washington

I was the Permanent Representative of India to the IAEA when India carried out nuclear explosions in May 1998. The P-5 were enraged and introduced and endorsed a strong resolution condemning India (and Pakistan too). I pointed out strongly the “original sin” of the NPT, that it was an unfair treaty, imposing suffocating obligations on the non-nuclear states, without the concomitant obligations undertaken by the P-5.

In fact, using NPT, the US, France and Great Britain had denied even the technology and materials for peaceful uses of nuclear energy to some nations (eg Iran) which was the fundamental objective of the IAEA, founded at the initiative of President Eisen-hower of the US.

 I was expecting a debate to take place, when the P-5 took recourse to a device—guillotine—calling for a vote on their resolution.  Obviously the P-5 could not rebut my arguments. When the text was being deliberated, the South African delegation proposed an amendment (I was taken into confidence by the South African leader of the delegation), asking what steps had been taken by the P-5 towards universal nuclear disarmament. All hell broke loose. The P-5 asked for an ad-journment, which lasted for more than three hours and came out at 2:00 am in the morning, withdrawing their names from sponsorship of the resolution! How could they ask themselves what steps they had taken when they had not taken any steps at all?

ALL-WEATHER FRIENDS? Modi with US President Barack Obama during his recent US visit
ALL-WEATHER FRIENDS? Modi with US President Barack Obama during his recent US visit

Many Indian commentators in the media have described India as a “pariah” state in the nuclear comity of nations and welcomed and vociferously supported the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement of 2005, saying that India’s nuclear isolation would be over.  The fact is that though India was excluded from the memberships of NSG, MTCR, Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group, we were treated with great respect in the IAEA, certainly during my tenure from beginning of 1997 to the end of 2000 and no major decisions were taken without India’s support and approval.  There were a couple of occasions when the US had to withdraw her proposals when I argued against them and once when I had to overcome Russian opposition to an Indian proposal. When we could not reach any consensus, the Russian delegation asked for a vote and they lost by a big margin.

India’s objectives for NSG are clear—we wish access to nuclear materials, nuclear technology and to be in a position to export our technology and assistance to other na-tions for peaceful purposes—obviously.

TROUBLESOME DAYS: India’s nuclear test in Pokhran in 1998 had angered the P-5 group
TROUBLESOME DAYS: India’s nuclear test in Pokhran in 1998 had angered the P-5 group

The US has undertaken to make us a member of the NSG and other nuclear and technological regimes, like MTCR, Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group. I would like to think that they are doing what they can and the current Chinese opposition could not have been predicted in view of Chi-na’s consent to the clean waiver from the NSG in 2008. But what about the reported opposition from Turkey, Austria, New Zea-land, Ireland and others?  Surely they ought to be more amenable to joint pressure from the US and India? While the Chinese make much of not wanting to lose face, this would not be the first time and assuredly not the last time that this has happened to them, like the recent Chinese stand on the UN terrorist designation.

The then Director General of the IAEA Mohamed El Baradei had offered a constructive solution
The then Director General of the IAEA Mohamed El Baradei had offered a constructive solution

The NSG held an extraordinary plenary meeting in Vienna recently, where India made more gains.  The next NSG plenary will take place in Seoul on June 23-24, a fortnight from now. Only time will tell what will happen, though India has reasons to feel cautiously optimistic, and in Prime Minister Modi, we have a bold and courageous, even charismatic leader who would not yield without putting up a tough fight.

To argue that by admitting India to the NSG would be to insult the non-proliferation regime is nonsensical, with China being the biggest proliferator after the coming into being of the NPT, with Pakistan not far behind.


The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has written a letter to the reluctant members of the NSG, reportedly mentioning that India has shown strong support for the objectives of the NSG and the global nuclear non-proliferating regime and is a like-minded state deserving of NSG admission. What is also reported in John Kerry’s letter is that “with respect to other possible new members of the NSG, Indian officials have stated that India would take a merit-based approach to such applications and would not be influenced by extraneous regional issues.”  (Shubhajit Roy —Washington D.C. June 9—in the Indian Express of 10 June 2016).  This should, if true, be able to largely counter China’s arguments for admitting Pakistan.

This would also counter the specious ob-jections of the hold-outs who oppose admitting India, and say that if India is to be admitted, it should be under the criteria that apply equally to all states rather than under a “tailor-made” solution for a US ally  (Indian Express, June 10).  In other words they are arguing that the “exceptions should be made the rule”!  Absurd logic, an oxymoron at best.

PRIVILEGED GROUPING: Being a member of Wassenaar Arrangement might have helped our case for NSG
PRIVILEGED GROUPING: Being a member of Wassenaar Arrangement might have helped our case for NSG

There is no requirement under the NSG that member states should be members of the NPT. An interesting scenario would be of a vast majority expressing support for India’s admission and affirming that “consensus” is not unanimity and no member has a veto, and letting the matter be put to a vote (I’m not sure whether NSG has a proviso for this under their informal rules, but the very fact that they are informal should permit them to introduce this). Let China and other hold-outs record dissent. Would they walk out? Would they resign their membership in protest? I think not.

Incidentally, after the 1998 nuclear blast, the then Director General of the IAEA (the only international organization dealing with nuclear matters of this nature) Mohamed El Baradei offered India the safeguard agreement as had been entered into by China with IAEA. (In fact he gave me a copy of this).  For reasons unknown, the government of India did not take up this offer. Had this offer been accepted it would have meant de facto recognition of India as a nuclear weapons state, facilitating our access to groups like NSG etc. Nuclear weapon states determine which nuclear facilities should come under the IAEA safeguard regime. This was not the case with the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation deal in which the question of which facilities would come under IAEA safeguards was dictated to us, reportedly against the views of the Department of Atomic Energy.

CENTER OF NUCLEAR POWER The IAEA headquarters in Vienna
CENTER OF NUCLEAR POWER: The IAEA headquarters in Vienna

The point some commentators have made that the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation was merely an opening gambit but really a pre-requisite and first step for Indo-US strategic partnership, has meant a heavy price not only in terms of the very expensive nuclear power stations to be set up by the US but imposed unpalatable and humiliating restrictions on even more vital strategic dimensions.

India had entered into a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the USSR in 1987. When a similar request for civil nuclear cooperation was made during Smt Indira Gandhi’s regime, this request was turned down unless India agreed to put all her nuclear facilities under the Full Scope Safeguards regime under the IAEA. Ob-viously this would have put paid to all our nuclear options.

In 1987, I was able to persuade the USSR government to agree to such co-operation under site-specific safeguards—islanded safeguards—where only the Nuclear Power Stations set up with Soviet assistance would be subject to safeguards.

 The Soviet Union was a member of the NSG then, as now and they winkled out an arrangement with them, permitting the implementation of the Indo-Soviet agreement, setting up 10×1000 VVR Nuclear Power Stations. The first unit was set up at Koodankulam. This illustrates the flexibility which some members have within the NSG.  What stops important members of the NSG from using this precedent?  Another question is, whether we could have become members of the Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group before applying for admission, reinforcing our case for admission to NSG.

 A more cynical but hopefully realistic denouement could be as follows:

The US, Russia and France all have signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with India for setting up a large number of nuclear power stations in India. These would all involve export of nuclear fuel and nuclear technology to India, which would militate against the proclaimed objectives of the NSG. NSG has already made an exception for India by giving a clean waiver.

If the US and France were to stop the setting up of nuclear power stations in India, they would stand to lose very expensive contracts running into tens of billions of dollars over the course of implementing six Nuclear Power Stations each. Also, having entered into these contracts which involved very complex negotiations, especially over the liability clause, would the US and France desist from fulfilling these lucrative contracts?  Very doubtful indeed.

This line of thinking would lead one to the conclusion that irrespective of the outcome of the NSG plenary meeting in Seoul, US and France could just ignore the NSG if necessary and proceed with their contracts. Other nations like Japan, which actually owns the Westinghouse Corporation, would follow suit. Canada and Australia have already ente-red into agreements with India on supply of uranium. Speculating further, this scenario would imply a subtle diplomatic play to isolate China, expose its deceptive, if not deceitful motives for equating India—a perfect non-proliferator, with Pakistan—a thief and known proliferator, which has colluded with China and the ultimate pariah state of North Korea. A “heads I win, tails you lose” consummation devoutly to be wished.

The author was Indian ambassador to Vienna and Permanent Representative to IAEA and UNIDO from 1997-2000

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