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NPT: cornerstone of nuclear non-proliferation or stumbling block?

After the NPT Review Conference collapsed in disarray last week with disagreement over new proposals for a Middle East disarmament conference in 2016, humanitarian initiatives for a nuclear weapons prohibition treaty look like the only way forward.

After a tense standoff that carried several hours past the scheduled closing of the 2015 Review Conference for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT),  the United States, United Kingdom and Canada on 22 May refused to accept text on the Middle East contained in the president’s draft outcome document covering nuclear weapons, energy, safety and security issues. They were heavily criticized for blocking, especially by states that also considered the document to be fundamentally inadequate following removal of most if not all humanitarian and disarmament commitments. For the sake of the NPT, however, the majority had decided to accept the efforts of the conference president, Ambassador Taous Feroukhi of Algeria, recognising the pressure exerted by the nuclear-armed states to strike out all controversial references, including nuclear disarmament objectives and steps put forward by an overwhelming majority of nuclear free nations.

Thus it was that after three years of meetings and four intensive weeks of talks at the United Nations, the failure came down to three states’ refusal to compromise on the organization and timeline for another proposed conference to rid the Middle East of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as mandated in 1995, given practical agreement in 2010, and still undelivered. 

The president’s text amalgamated proposals from Egypt, supported by the Non-Aligned Movement, Russia, and a ‘subsidiary body’ of the conference chaired by Spanish diplomat Juan Ignacio Moro.  An emerging deal broke down because the US backed Israeli concerns over the organizational terms and “arbitrary deadline” that did not allow for the conference to be postponed beyond March 2016. The proposals and pressure for a deadline arose because of frustrations about how the 2010 NPT agreement for a Middle East conference in 2012 failed to be implemented and then lost urgency when the deadline passed. While the US blamed Egypt, others from the Middle East expressed anger that the interests of Israel, a nuclear-armed state outside the NPT, had been prioritized over the interests of NPT member states.  A day later, their criticisms seemed to be borne out when Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly thanked the US, UK and Canadian governments for “blocking an Egyptian-led drive on a possible Middle East nuclear arms ban”.

Anyone wanting to track how this latest deadlock came about needs to read the in depth reports provided on a range of UN-related disarmament fora by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s “Reaching Critical Will” team of young analysts.  As their NPT news reports have tracked, the most politically significant story from the 2015 NPT review conference is about whose nuclear and security concerns are prioritized in the established NPT regime and how new approaches to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons are fundamentally challenging international constructs of power and inequality.  As noted by the Washington Post, attention now has to be paid to the powerful “uprising among civil society groups and the coalition of 107 states, which are seeking to reframe the disarmament debate as an urgent matter of safety, morality and humanitarian law.”

As governments lined up to express their views on the disappointing outcome,  Ambassador Alexander Kmentt of Austria, a major figure in these NPT negotiations, spoke of the “wide divide” on “fundamental aspects of what nuclear disarmament should mean”. Highlighting on behalf of a much larger group of nations that “there is a reality gap, a credibility gap, a confidence gap and a moral gap”, Kmentt reminded the closing plenary of all the states in the NPT – 107 and counting - that have taken the significant step of signing the “humanitarian pledge” to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”. 

This commitment, which internationally broadened the Pledge announced by Austria at the end of the Vienna Conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, in December 2014, is now recognised as the main, if not only, positive outcome of the 2010-2015 NPT review cycle. Though specifics have not yet been elaborated, the Pledge brings states towards a practical treaty-based approach to strengthen the NPT by embedding the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons in international law. 

It is the direct outcome of the disarmament initiatives that were spearheaded at the 2010 NPT Review Conference by NGOs such as the Acronym Institute and International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and taken forward by a growing number of progressive governments, including from Mexico, Austria, Ireland, Costa Rica, Philippines, Norway, Kenya and South Africa.  During this review conference, 159 of the NPT states had co-sponsored the Austrian-led statement on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, while Australia coordinated a slightly weaker statement on the ‘humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons’ co-signed by 26 states, including many US nuclear allies from NATO, as well as Japan, which co-sponsored both statements. Taken together, the humanitarian statements encompass practically all of the NPT’s 190 member states – apart from the five that possess and deploy them. 

The nuclear-armed five issued their own “P5” statement, so called because Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States have occupied permanent seats on the UN Security Council since the Second World War. Their joint statement impressed no-one. After stiffly noting that they “are ever cognizant of the severe consequences that would accompany the use of nuclear weapons”, the P5 affirmed that they believed their “nuclear forces should be maintained at the lowest levels needed to meet national security requirements”, implying that continuing to deploy and modernize nuclear weapons along these lines was somehow consistent with the NPT and contributed “towards our common goal of nuclear disarmament”, as mandated in article VI of that treaty. 

Though deeply cynical about the behaviour of the nuclear-armed states -  which are all now spending money on renewing and/or enhancing their nuclear weapon capabilities -  disarmament advocates did not block the president’s text, though they clearly viewed it as a weakened version of the 2010 Action Plan, which was itself a major roll back from the programme of action on disarmament -  called “Thirteen Steps” that was given consensus and applause by the 2000 Review Conference. 

But patience has clearly been wearing thin. For many -  as illustrated by over a hundred co-signing the humanitarian pledge for nuclear disarmament - turning a blind eye to the shortcomings of the president’s draft text was made possible only because they are now deciding to go beyond the NPT and launch a different kind of treaty process in order to stigmatize, prohibit and abolish nuclear weapons through humanitarian law negotiations that are open to all governments and blockable by none.  

The NPT has 191 states parties, and is frequently described as the “cornerstone” of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. Since it entered into force in 1970, various measures such as the safeguards agreements and additional protocol and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) have successfully added to this cornerstone. But a cornerstone that gets taken for granted and choked with weeds is more aptly described as a “stumbling block.” That’s what the NPT appears to be now, even for many of its supporters.

Since 1995, NPT adherence and implementation have barely advanced. The five nuclear armed states within the treaty have taken it for granted as their political fiefdom, acting as if its extension in 1995 has legitimized them to possess and deploy nuclear weapons indefinitely as long as they engage in diplomatic rituals of public criticism every five years. Meanwhile, the four nuclear-armed states outside the NPT continue to benefit without paying any membership dues. An egregious example was set by the US nuclear deals brokered by the Bush administration with India a few years after that non-NPT state conducted nuclear tests and declared itself a “nuclear weapon state”.  And now comes this week’s decision by the US, UK and Canada to sacrifice the chance of a consensus 2015 NPT outcome for the sake of Israel, another nuclear-armed non-NPT state.

Twenty years ago the P5 demanded that the non-nuclear states should take more responsibility for creating the conditions for disarmament. This NPT conference is now over. Rather than indulge in a blame game, governments and civil society need to rescue what is left and look to the future. Deeds now, not just words. 

It will be imperative for the humanitarian pledgers to strategize together on how best to start a practical negotiating process to ban all nuclear weapons, knowiing that they are following in honourable, innovative and effective footsteps.  Like the 1925 Geneva Protocols and the 1981 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the NPT should continue to exercise relevant, if declining, legal and normative influence as more comprehensive and globally effective disarmament treaties were negotiated and entered into force, including the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention; the 1996 Chemical Weapons Convention; the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the 2008 Cluster Munitions Convention. 

The challenge is whether member states can stem the NPT’s further decline and erosion by enabling it to become a useful stepping stone to transform the nuclear landscape with a much needed and universally applicable nuclear ban treaty.  If this troubling review conference tells us anything, it is that human and environmental security require us all to move beyond  the NPT’s cold war flaws and inherently unstable contradictions and inequalities embedded in colonialist structures that privilege a handful of nuclear haves over the majority of have-nots.  When governments and civil society gather for the 2020 NPT Review Conference, let’s hope that the 2018 Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty has entered into force, shifting the nuclear-armed states from their dangerous complacency.


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