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The NPT Review Conference: Success is in the eye of the beholder

June 4, 2010

Nagasaki survivor Taniguchi Sumiteru shows the assembled diplomats a graphic photo of the injuries he sustained when he was 16 years old. "Please don't turn your eyes away from me...I cannot die in peace until I witness the last nuclear warhead eliminated from this world."

The only clear point of consensus at the outset of the five-year review of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which took place last month in New York, was that it had to succeed. The collapse of the 2005 Review Conference and the lack of progress on nearly every one of the 13 steps adopted as an action plan for disarmament in 2000 haunted the month-long deliberations. “Failure is not an option,” was a refrain among diplomats who feared that one more blocked or insubstantial outcome would cause the Treaty as a whole to unravel.

Definitions of success, however, were elusive, to say the least. For the thousands of NGO and civil society representatives who descended upon the conference with a single purpose, success meant emerging with a call for a serious, comprehensive, and accelerated plan for nuclear disarmament—something that the nuclear-weapon states have resisted throughout the NPT’s troubled 40-year history. NGOs were joined in this demand by a growing number of vocal and insistent non-nuclear-weapon states. According to Tim Wright of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), 28 individual NPT member states[1] and the Non-Aligned Movement group as a whole (116 states) called for work to begin on a Nuclear Weapons Convention in their conference statements and working papers.

The NPT nuclear-weapon states (the P-5) and their allies defined success as recognition of the reductions they have already made in their strategic arsenals since the end of the Cold War, acknowledgment of their good intentions regarding disarmament in the future, and agreement with their view that compliance, enforcement, and safeguards to strengthen the Treaty’s non-proliferation provisions required the most urgent action. The message from the P-5, while presented without the hostility and rancor on display five years ago, was essentially the same as it was in 2005: “proliferation of nuclear weapons (especially in Iran) has to be stopped before we can even consider going to zero ourselves.” This was one of the major fault lines around which the 2010 Review Conference might have fractured.

Another was the whole question of the Middle East, specifically the resolution calling for negotiations on a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone, without which the NPT could not have been extended indefinitely in 1995, and which has been in limbo ever since. The resolution is a virtual minefield for a number of reasons. As one of three nuclear-weapon states that have never joined the NPT, Israel does not acknowledge its arsenal and has been unwilling to engage in any negotiations about nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the region that are not linked to Middle East peace as a whole. Iran, as it has in the past, pressed for condemnation of Israel and threatened to block the outcome document unless it singled Israel out for criticism. Since the NPT operates by consensus and failure was “not an option,” this challenge had to be taken seriously.

There was no debate at all, among the member states at least, about the “inalienable right” to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes asserted in Article IV of the Treaty. One delegate after another, using almost identical language, cited a growing worldwide demand for nuclear-generated electricity—especially in the emerging economies of the global south—and stressed the importance of promoting expanded access to nuclear fuel without adding to proliferation risks. More than one NGO representative commented that this NPT conference looked like a salesroom for the so-called nuclear renaissance. Most NGOs took an entirely different position, criticizing nuclear energy not only on familiar health, environmental, and security grounds, but also as an outdated, economically unviable means to provide the world’s energy needs while protecting the Earth’s climate. As an alternative, NGOs called for universal participation in the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), and for a crash program of investments in clean, renewable energy sources that could leapfrog over the nuclear “option” and supersede Article IV.

The 2010 Review Conference, in sharp contrast with the debacle in 2005, was characterized from the opening gavel by a sense of optimism that serious ideas about disarmament and non-proliferation could get a serious and respectful airing. A lot of the credit for this more collegial atmosphere was given to the US, which came to the Review pocketing a new START agreement with Russia, a new Nuclear Posture Review asserting that the elimination of nuclear weapons is the ultimate goal of US policy, a pledge to submit the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the Senate for ratification, and a surprise report on the size and structure of the US nuclear arsenal, accompanied by a challenge to the other nuclear-weapon states to do the same for the sake of transparency.

None of the nuclear-weapon states, however, including the US, were willing to look beyond short-term, incremental steps—what NGOs and many non-nuclear-weapon states see as ongoing delaying tactics—and the P-5 (or at least the P-4, since China’s position is a bit more ambiguous) were united in demanding airtight non-proliferation machinery as a pre-condition for their own disarmament. Of even greater concern to NGOs and to non-nuclear-weapon states are the modernization plans of all the nuclear states, with the US, in particular, planning to spend $180 billion over the next several years on its nuclear weapons labs, manufacturing infrastructure, and delivery systems. So while the new US attitude was welcomed, another commonly voiced opinion was that the disarmament steps taken by the P-5 so far were insufficient and that much deeper reductions were needed at a much faster pace.

The most important development at this Review Conference was the outspokenness of a growing number of states about the need to move beyond the NPT itself to a Nuclear Weapons Convention. As recently as the 2009 NPT PrepCom, a treaty that would actually eliminate nuclear weapons was largely dismissed as an unrealistic project of Costa Rica, Malaysia, and abolition-minded NGOs. Even NPT member states frustrated by the lack of progress on disarmament had shied away from the Convention as a premature initiative or as something that could undermine the NPT.

This time, with states such as Austria, Norway, and Switzerland expressing much-needed European support for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, the idea could no longer be swept under the rug. A majority of NPT member states, backed by a strong and sympathetic Conference president—Ambassador Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines—pressed hard for references to the NWC in the conference outcome document. They prevailed, and the Convention was noted in both the summary portion of the document and in the recommendations. The P-4 (China has consistently said it supports the idea of a convention) were unhappy with this result, but they did not block it.

The real drama came on the last day of the conference, when the plenary session to approve the final document was postponed twice until late afternoon. The Iranian delegation, as we learned, had instructions from Tehran to block consensus on the outcome, ostensibly because Iran was dissatisfied with the language about the Middle East resolution and because the disarmament recommendations were not strong enough. Several hours of intense negotiations behind closed doors were required to persuade Iran that another failed NPT Review was in no one’s interest. In the end, Iran joined the consensus and the 28-page final report (available at Reaching Critical Will) was adopted.

At the end of the day, the “success” of the 2010 NPT Review had little to do with finding consensus for an outcome document, or reestablishing a sense of collegiality among the member states, or reaffirming commitments to disarmament made in 1995 and 2000. For IPPNW, ICAN, and the global community of abolition NGOs, success means that a majority of NPT member states have now expressed an interest in looking beyond the NPT itself and some of them appear ready to work actively for a comprehensive treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons. Forging new working relationships with those states and others in an effort to move the abolition agenda further than it can be moved through the NPT process is the task ahead.

[1] Algeria, Austria, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Egypt, Holy See, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Lichtenstein, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Norway, Philippines, Qatar, Senegal, Switzerland, Thailand, Tunisia, Yemen

One Comment
  1. June 8, 2010 1:01 pm

    Great article nuclear disarmement should be one of our primary goals as it still is a consistent danger to the world

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