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Will the NPT finally open its arms to the Nuclear Weapons Convention?

May 10, 2009

Pardon my uncharacteristic exuberance, but when I read the following sentence in the just-released draft recommendations to the 2010 NPT Review Conference on the Amtrak train from New York to Boston this afternoon, I nearly jumped out of my seat:

Examine, inter alia, ways and means to commence negotiations, in accordance with Article VI, on a convention or framework of agreements to achieve global nuclear disarmament, and to engage non-parties to the treaty.”

Before you put me into a home for the terminally dull, what that means in plain, non-diplomatic English, is that the Chair of the 2009 PrepCom, Boniface Chidyausiku of Zimbabwe, has done in one sentence what the NGO community has spent 12 mostly dark years trying to accomplish: he has made the Nuclear Weapons Convention part of the NPT work plan. Specifically, he has identified the Convention as the implicit goal of Article VI of the NPT, and has called on states to explore ways to commence negotiations on a Convention, even as they work on strengthening disarmament and non-proliferation objectives to which they have already agreed.

If this sentence survives the second week of the PrepCom and remains in the recommendations forwarded to the Review Conference,  all NPT states — including the NPT nuclear weapon states — will be honor bound to engage in a serious discussion of the Convention from this point forward. Moreover, part of their task, spelled out explicitly by the Chair, will be to find creative ways to include the non-NPT nuclear weapon states — India, Pakistan, Israel, and the prodigal DPRK — in the disarmament process.

This does not mean that negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention will begin tomorrow, or even in June 2010. The representatives of the nuclear weapon states at the PrepCom continue to talk about the Convention as something off in the distance, maybe 30 or 40 years from now. We still have a lot of work to do if we’re to convince them that the whole process could come to a conclusion much sooner.

Nevertheless,  this is a significant breakthrough. One of the most frequently expressed criticisms of the Nuclear Weapons Convention, other than the feeling among many diplomats that taking it up is premature, is that the NWC somehow competes with or would distract from desperately needed measures to strengthen the NPT. During the formal NGO session on May 6, we rebutted that argument, making it plain that the NWC and the NPT are closely linked and mutually reinforce each other.

“The aim of NWC negotiations,” we told the delegates, “is not to provide an alternative to the NPT, rather to develop an additional instrument that would build upon the NPT and other nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament measures. It would thus be sensible to connect NWC negotiations closely with the ongoing efforts to implement and strengthen the NPT.”

By echoing that point of view in the draft recommendations, and by including it as a prominent element of the proposed action plan on disarmament,  Chairperson Chidyausiku has not only validated the single most important goal NGOs brought with them into this PrepCom, but has also shown how essential interim steps can be placed in a comprehensive framework — something else that has been central to NGO arguments in favor of the Convention.

At the very least, well respected members of the diplomatic and parliamentarian communities have been speaking up for the Convention at this PrepCom. Jayantha Dhanapala, a former UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament and the current President of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs told participants at an IPPNW-sponsored PrepCom workshop that Article VI of the NPT anticipates negotiation of an NWC. He was joined in this assessment by Randy Rydell, a  senior political affairs officer in the UN Office of the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. Rydell’s former boss, Hans Blix, has also endorsed the Convention. Henrik Salander, the new Chair of the Middle Powers Initiative and the Chair of the 2002 NPT PrepCom, has offered some strong words of support as well.  Just to name a few.

The nuclear weapon states may be less than ecstatic about this, but the one idea that would completely eliminate nuclear weapons and prohibit them as a matter of international law is starting to get some traction.

The draft recommendations to the 2010 Review reaffirm the importance of the commitments made at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference and the 2000 Review, and acknowledge that those commitments have not yet been fulfilled. What the parties to the NPT should do in 2010, the recommendations state, is set “practical, achievable and specified goals and measures leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons.” Is it just my wishful thinking, or do others hear the desire for a time frame in that?

Among the specific interim steps mentioned are CTBT ratification, negotiation of a fissile materials ban, diminished operational status (which means taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, at long last), deep and verifiable reductions, irreversibility, and others that were part of the 13-step action plan endorsed in 2000 and that were relentlessly trashed by the Bush administration right through 2008. The recommendation that might actually have the greatest repercussions in the short term, were it to gain acceptance, is that there be no qualitative improvements in nuclear arsenals. Stopping the modernization of nuclear weapons and of the infrastructure to produce warhead components and delivery systems really would make abolition only a matter of time.

We all agree that the NPT is the foundation of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, the walls of which would be strengthened by the mortar of a CTBT, a fissile materials treaty,  stronger safeguards, and other interim measures. What has eluded the diplomatic imagination up until now is the recognition that the Nuclear Weapons Convention is the capstone of the whole edifice. Maybe that idea is finally starting to sink in.

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  1. The Tortoise is Breathing « IPPNW eUpdate

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