NPT prospects: is the world looking for what it can’t get?


The final week of the five-yearly review meeting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has commenced. Its eventual conclusion will shape how much of the world sees what the regime is really for—to ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons, or seek to preserve them for a few. Either prospect has major implications for the NPT’s health, and the chances of a safer and more just world free of the threat of nuclear devastation.

By John Borrie

In our last post, Tim Caughley described the nature of the nuclear disarmament discourse halfway through the four-week NPT Review Conference underway at United Nations headquarters in New York. Subsequently, after almost a fortnight of largely set-piece national and group statements, there were signs that delegations were getting down to more interactive engagement.

Ireland speaking at the NPT Review Conference on nuclear disarmament matters

Ireland speaking at the NPT Review Conference on nuclear disarmament matters

Being diplomats, this was essentially happening in two ways. The first involves the time-honoured tradition of ‘smoke-filled backrooms’. However, this being New York in the twenty-first century, those private discussions of various kinds involving states in different configurations (and sometimes the United Nations Secretariat) are now presumably smoke-free. The second, more visible way was displayed on the floor of the Review Conference. Debate on textual proposals diagnosing the current state of NPT implementation took place in Main Committee (MC1) chaired by Peru, with discussion about how the NPT should act upon it in so-called Subsidiary Body 1 (SB1) coordinated by Switzerland.

During week 3, closed SB1 sessions became bruising encounters between the nuclear-weapon states—the NPT5 (China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, and United States)—and some non-nuclear-weapon states. The NPT5 pushed back hard on an initial subsidiary body draft text they considered too ambitious in nuclear disarmament terms, both in scope and because of the insertion of time-frames, to the extent that they called for it to be scrapped and work taken back into MC1. On the other side of the argument were a spectrum of states among the most vocal of which were Austria (spearheading the so-called humanitarian initiative), the members of the New Agenda Coalition (especially Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa) and others, such as Iran (Non-Aligned Movement Coordinator) and Thailand. They reflected the views of many states wanting a stronger text with liberal reference to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons (France, in particular, detests this prospect) and calling for further effective measures on nuclear disarmament to be undertaken—many wanting these completed within specified timeframes. Agreement on further specific effective measures, like those introduced for discussion by the New Agenda such as a ban treaty, a nuclear weapon convention, or a framework of some kind, were firmly resisted by the NPT5. And abetting them were some of the states living under their nuclear security umbrellas.

As if this wasn’t difficult enough, looming over the whole picture is the disappointing degree of progress on implementing nuclear disarmament measures specified in the 2010 NPT Review Conference Action Plan agreed five-years ago by consensus. It includes a particular political hot potato—failure of a Middle East conference on a zone free of nuclear weapons to be convened (at this NPT, Egypt and other Arab states called for the Finnish facilitator for the last five years to be superseded by the United Nations Secretary-General).

This simplifies a complicated debate, of course. Commentary from others, such as Reaching Critical Will, provide a more detailed blow-by-blow account of proceedings, as well as succeeding versions of the draft MC1 and SB1 documents, which by the middle of last week had been merged. But the main point that analysis of these documents reveals is this: the nuclear disarmament language to go into the NPT’s final outcome document is being watered down from the point of view of those wanting stronger declarations of commitment from the NPT5 and the nuclear-umbrella states to a nuclear weapon free world, and undertakings from them for practical steps toward that end without further delay.

the nuclear disarmament language to go into the NPT’s final outcome document is being watered down

In the last version of the nuclear disarmament-related text we have seen, CRP1/Rev.1, it is clear that a determined tug-of-war is going on between states, which bears on how Article VI of the NPT (its nuclear disarmament commitment) is to be reflected and interpreted. For instance, Reaching Critical Will argued that amongst ‘particularly troubling backward steps’ in CRP1/Rev.1, its preambular paragraph 18 in effect downgrades and distorts that commitment by convolution. In Reaching Critical Will’s view, the proposed language overturns the outcome of the First United Nations Special Session on Disarmament and the 2000 NPT Review Conference outcome, in which ‘Article VI is not about nuclear weapon reductions. It is about multilateral negotiations in good faith for nuclear disarmament.’

All of which raises the prospect that this Review Conference could deliver an outcome that serves to detract from previous consensus commitments by the NPT’s membership (including by those members dependent on nuclear weapons for their security) about their obligation to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.’ It would send the message that nuclear weapons are bad, unless they’re in the hands of those who have access to their perceived security benefits already, and there are no plans to give them up.

This jars very much with the widely-held interpretation of the NPT’s ‘grand bargain’, and the findings of the facts-based humanitarian initiative, which has confirmed that the risk of use of nuclear weapons, whether intentionally or accidentally, remains real, and any humanitarian response to assist the victims would be, almost by definition, inadequate. If the NPT5 and their allies have no serious intention of disarming shown by deed, why should the non-nuclear-weapon states continue to invest in the NPT regime, devoid of agreed concrete measures, that in the long run can only fail?

In an analysis of NPT success criteria and the humanitarian initiative ILPI and UNIDIR launched in the margins of the Review Conference, we argued that substantive success at this review meeting depends on credible commitment to action by the NPT5 and their allies on nuclear disarmament. Our finding still stands. The watering down of the nuclear disarmament provisions in the draft Final Document as developed in the documents mentioned above instead would not seem to burnish the credibility of the NPT5 and their allies on that score. Yet nuclear non-proliferation objectives, which the NPT5 seem to value above all others, ultimately depend on nuclear disarmament progress to succeed, and to sustain the belief (the illusion, some are increasingly heard to whisper) among the non-nuclear-weapon states not living under nuclear security umbrellas that a nuclear-weapon-free world remains the objective shared by all.

substantive success at this review meeting depends on credible commitment to action by the NPT5 and their allies on nuclear disarmament.

There are still five working days to go (longer, if the Review Conference has to ‘stop the clock’ and go into overtime). Increasingly, negotiations on any deal tolerable to the majority of the NPT’s membership are reverting to the ‘smoke-filled rooms’ that, historically, most of the non-nuclear-weapon states are not privy to. Yet they are the majority, and their views do matter, for it is upon their support that the regime in the end depends for legitimacy. Let us hope that a deal emerges that properly reflects their interests, as well as the nuclear-weapon-dependent. We are not especially hopeful.

It is not surprising in these circumstances that as dissatisfaction with the NPT mounts so does the prospect that effective measures for nuclear disarmament will be elaborated outside the NPT. This is a prospect still left open, more or less, in CRP1/Rev.1’s operative paragraph 19.

as dissatisfaction with the NPT mounts so does the prospect that effective measures for nuclear disarmament will be elaborated outside the NPT.

To that end, we noted in our fifth NPT briefing paper that it is important to differentiate between procedural and substantive success. A consensus outcome document that fails to address core issues and papers over deep political cracks until the 2020 Review Conference could be framed by some as a procedural success (that is; the meeting was safely navigated) but may well be a substantive failure (no meaningful progress on core issues, and it undermines the faith of the NPT majority in the Treaty). An NPT outcome that is a procedural and substantive success requires productive dialogue, compromise and credible political commitment to realise measurable and achievable actions. At present, the NPT’s membership seems some distance away from this goal.