The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Resources > Key issues in a nutshell

Overview of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty


Regarded by most as the cornerstone of the international legal framework regulating nuclear technology. This fact sheet provides a brief introduction.

Nutshell 06-2012 image


The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the core international framework regulating the rights and obligations of states when it comes to nuclear technology. The treaty was opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970, and it is generally said to consist of three ’pillars’; non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy. The three pillars are purportedly all of equal importance, despite the impression one might get from the title of the Treaty.

One of the most significant features of the NPT is that the Treaty categorizes State Parties according to whether or not they had tested nuclear weapons (or any other nuclear device) prior to 1 January 1967. The States that had done so undertook to facilitate the spread of peaceful nuclear technology, while those who did not have nuclear weapons (the Non-Nuclear Weapons States – NNWS) pledged never to acquire or develop nuclear weapons (art. 1-2). In addition, the designated nuclear-weapons states agreed to work towards the full elimination of nuclear weapons and to ”pursue negotiations in good faith” towards a comprehensive nuclear weapons treaty (art. 6). Finally, the bargain also contained assurances of the ability of NNWS to gain access to civilian nuclear energy through the proclamation of the ”inalienable right of all [..] Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” (art. 4).


Today, the NPT has been ratified by nearly all the members of the United Nations (190 states in total). Among the five nuclear-armed states recognized under the NPT, only three (UK, USA and Russia) joined at the very beginning. The other two (China and France) did not accede until 1992 – 22 years after the treaty entered into force. India,Pakistan and Israel remain de jure outside the treaty, while North Korea withdrew (with some legal ambiguity) in 2003. All the four non-parties to the NPT are thought to have nuclear weapons.


The original Treaty was given a timeframe of 25 years, after which an extension (definite or indefinite) could be agreed by a simple majority of the State Parties (art. 10). Hence, in 1995, the parties agreed to extend the treaty indefinitely, but only after the NWS agreed to substantial political commitments on the disarmament ‘pillar’. Central among these commitments was the decision to work towards the implementation of a zone free of WMDs in the Middle East.

In 2000, at the first review conference after the extension, quite a few states were disappointed by the lack of progress on the commitments from 1995. The result was an outcome document with a famous list of 13 steps towards nuclear disarmament, including the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty and the negotiation – within five years – of a treaty regulating fissile material. The five-year timeframe of the latter was the only resemblance of a deadline in the outcome document.

In 2005, hardly any progress had been made since 2000, and with the withdrawal of North Korea in 2003 and the US abrogation of the ABM treaty in 2002, the impression was that things were actually going in the wrong direction. As a result, the 2005-conference ended in failure, without a final document.

The expectations were therefore high at the 2010 review conference in New York, and while the Obama-effect had provided a considerable boost to the disarmament community, there were few who dared to voice much optimism as the meetings commenced. Eventually, however, after three weeks of negotiations, the review conference adopted an outcome document that included, inter alia, plans for the implementation of a zone free of WMDs in the Middle East. In other words; not too different from the outcome in 1995.