NPT: challenging the nuclear powers' fiefdom

The NPT Review provided a bridge between the partial non-proliferation approach of the NPT and the comprehensive abolition objectives of a nuclear weapons convention. It will no longer be possible for governments to dismiss calls for a comprehensive nuclear abolition treaty

Rebecca Johnson
15 June 2010

Two weeks after the Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was proclaimed a success, what does it all signify

The representatives of some 190 governments applauded vigorously when the Conference Chair, Libran Cabactulan, tapped his gavel on adoption of a final document.  They had reason to be relieved, as two deadlines for adopting agreed conclusions and recommendations had already been postponed on the last day and time was running out.

Once the draft final document had been circulated to the conference participants on the last evening, it was clear that success was in reach.  The United States and Egypt had agreed on a package for taking forward the goal of a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.   This redirected the spotlight to the Iranian delegation, which reportedly had instructions to oppose a final document on the stated grounds that it did not contain a commitment to negotiate on time-bound nuclear disarmament. As this is a traditional demand of the non-aligned NPT parties that the nuclear weapon states have blocked for many years, Iran’s real motivation was assumed to be avoidance of criticism over its nuclear programme, the subject of an impending UN Security Council resolution. 

Having got most of what they wanted on the Middle East, including a regional conference in 2012 and a facilitator to bring all states in the region into a process before and after this conference, Egypt and the Arab states were determined to have the final document adopted by consensus.  And since Egypt was in the position of coordinating the Non-Aligned Group of 116 NPT parties, Cairo’s wishes carried considerable weight, With time running out and the Iranian government and delegation divided over the pros and cons of blocking the NPT outcome, Egypt’s President Mubarak and senior ministers from several countries (reportedly Russia, Brazil and Turkey, among others) as well as civil society persuaded Tehran to join the consensus.

The adopted document contained a forward looking section on “Conclusions and recommendations for follow-on actions”, containing framing principles and objectives and four action plans requiring 64 specific actions on: nuclear disarmament;  non-proliferation and safeguards; nuclear energy, safety and security; and the Middle East. This was fully negotiated and agreed, unlike the preceding section, titled “Review of the operation of the Treaty”, which assesses progress on all the treaty’s articles since 2000.  In view of the determination of the nuclear-weapon states to avoid being criticised, and the heated debates that had taken place over issues such as the modernisation and replacing of nuclear weapons systems by Britain and others, together with disagreement over how to characterise the previous “decade of deadlock”, when past agreements had been ignored or reneged on, it was decided that this review section of the final document should be adopted under the Chair’s “responsibility”.

There were two main drivers behind the successful adoption of the final document: a collective desire to support President Obama’s initiatives  and demonstrate that the non-proliferation regime is still relevant and important; and the breakthrough on the Middle East, in which Irish diplomats brokered a critical deal between the nuclear-weapon states and the Arab League to hold a regional conference in 2012 and establish a process to pursue the de-nuclearisation of the Middle East. Without these motivations, it is doubtful whether such a final document could have achieved consensus, as the commitments on nuclear disarmament and safeguards were much weaker than most states thought necessary. 

Iran had apparently been banking on some of the weapons states obstructing agreement. Notably, the United States held out a long time against naming Israel as the only country in the region with a nuclear programme outside the NPT. In the end, Alison Kelly the skilled Irish diplomat tasked with coordinating the Middle East package, persuaded Washington to accept language that the Clinton administration had adopted ten years ago. Hence, the 2010 document recalled that the 2000 NPT Review Conference had agreed the importance of Israel placing all its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards - which would mean closing down the Israeli nuclear weapons programme - and acceding to the NPT.  In view of the complexity of the US position with regard to Israel, there were concerns that this fragile deal could collapse if there was any attempt to tinker with or reopen the text. 

For Egypt, the deal on the Middle East constituted an important step forward, consolidating several of its regional, political and leadership objectives.  The significance of the 2010 Review Conference, however, lies not in the outcome document’s text as written, but rather in the underlying direction and politics of the debates and proposals.  The various committees and subsidiary bodies had held very substantial discussions, but had failed to reach agreement on a host of the most important issues, particularly relating to disarmament, the IAEA Additional Protocol, and strengthening the non-proliferation regime. While media eyes were on what Egypt and the United States would agree on the Middle East, Conference president Cabactulan convened a special group of around 16 key delegations to hammer out consensus language on the other outstanding issues in the last week.  This President’s Group included the five nuclear-weapon states (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) plus Germany, Spain (representing the European Union), Japan, Norway, Indonesia, Mexico, Egypt, Cuba, Iran, Brazil, and South Africa. Others, including the delegations of Ukraine, Zimbabwe, Austria, Ireland and Uruguay that chaired the various committees and subsidiary bodies, also contributed as necessary while continuing to facilitate on-going negotiations in the wider conference.

During the conference, Austria’s Ambassador, Alexander Marschik, had coordinated negotiations on future disarmament steps, coming up with an action plan that captured the concrete proposals drawn from the most widely-supported statements and working papers.  Opposition from the nuclear weapon states to many proposals supported by all or most of the non-nuclear countries resulted in several successive drafts being circulated, each one weaker than the previous, and in the end the May 24th version of the disarmament draft was handed to the President’s Group to forge agreement.  The negotiations went through two nights and were reportedly very tough, with the nuclear powers behaving as if the NPT was their fiefdom and they didn’t have to accept anyone else’s proposals or target dates for when and how they should comply with the treaty’s disarmament obligations.  They therefore dug their heels in and fought hard to cut or water down many proposals supported by the vast majority of non-nuclear weapons parties, especially relating to devaluing nuclear weapons, nuclear doctrines and use, nuclear sharing, and eliminating tactical nuclear weapons.

Confronted with intransigent nuclear-weapon states and a tight deadline, the only way to save many of these proposals was to make them appear aspirational, framed in terms of Obama’s Prague call for the peace and security of a world free of nuclear weapons, which had been endorsed in September 2009’s UN Security Council Resolution 1887, and the NPT 2000 “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear weapons”.  Though Obama’s more positive attitude to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the US and China have yet to ratify, made it possible to include several supportive paragraphs on the CTBT, China opposed all mention of the moratorium undertaken by the other four nuclear powers on the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes.

Despite the  document’s disappointments and weaknesses, however, the NPT outcome is likely to prove very significant – more so, perhaps, than most of the negotiators envisage. This is not only due to the commitment on the Middle East but also because -- for the first time in an NPT context -- a majority of states have explicitly advocated comprehensive negotiations as well as incremental steps, citing the UN Secretary General’s Five Point Plan and its reference to a nuclear weapons convention.   

On issues such as strengthening safeguards and controlling nuclear exports, as well as on disarmament steps, the 2010 agreements seldom went beyond what had been adopted ten years ago – and hardly implemented.  Away from the euphoria of having succeeded against so many odds in adopting a consensus final document, the conduct of the review conference was actually indicative of a deeply fractured regime, with states parties still unable to deal with the treaty’s compliance and implementation shortcomings, strengthen the regime institutionally or adopt commitments to devalue nuclear weapons and make the IAEA additional protocol a verification standard.

At every NPT PrepCom and Conference since 1994, the same fundamental concerns and demands have been raised again and again, without much getting done. 2010 took place in one of the most constructively conducive international environments for addressing nuclear issues that governments could wish for. Yet once again the NPT review conference proved incapable of dealing with the tough decisions.  Disarmament was not the only issue where images of agreement were considered more important than the substance. The adopted text was unable to go much beyond reaffirmations, exhortations and language agreed in 1995 or 2000 on universality, strengthened safeguards, the additional protocol, export controls, nuclear safety and security.  At the same time, pressure from both the major nuclear energy producers and from NAM leadership, including Egypt, Cuba and Iran resulted in the nuclear energy provisions in Article IV of the treaty being more heavily promoted than at any previous conference, despite the increased proliferation and environmental risks that this could mean.  After almost a decade of debates on disincentives to make withdrawal from the treaty more difficult and to increase the NPT regime’s tools for accountability, compliance and implementation, the ideas could only be recorded, since no agreed recommendations were adopted.

Though some were clearly unhappy with the outcome, governments were prepared to accept some lowest common denominator language in the text on the grounds that a political show of unity was important to bolster the nuclear arms reduction initiatives undertaken in some of the weapon states, and strengthen the hand of leaders such as Presidents Obama and Medvedev against their domestic critics, thereby reinforcing the non-proliferation regime and creating the conditions for further progress.

Though the struggles between Egypt and the United States over the Middle East agreement and between Iran and the nuclear powers over sanctions dominated the news, an equally important but under-reported story concerned the conflicts between the nuclear and non-nuclear states over the need to de-nuclearise deterrence and work towards a nuclear weapons convention.  The 2010 NPT Review Conference was a modest success on paper. Its long term significance is likely to rest on the growing recognition that getting rid of nuclear threats requires not only concrete disarmament steps but the establishment of  what paragraph I B iii of the final document described as ‘the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons’. 

Though shorn of any target dates, time-lines or commitments to negotiate, the concept of a nuclear weapons convention is set as a framing objective in the consensus action plan on disarmament, providing an important bridge between the partial non-proliferation approach of the NPT and the comprehensive abolition objectives of a nuclear weapons convention.  It will no longer be possible for governments to dismiss calls to consider a nuclear abolition treaty on grounds that this is either premature or would undermine the current non-proliferation regime, since the 2010 outcome has recommended it as a useful approach for fulfilling and strengthening the purposes of the NPT.

For far too long the nuclear powers have treated the NPT as if it gave them special privileges to make and deploy nuclear weapons while others were required to do without.  The 2010 Review Conference put this attitude on trial. The inability of the NPT machinery to deal with non-compliance and to strengthen its own verification and implementation processes are likely to add impetus to efforts reflected in the disarmament action plan to initiate a process leading to negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention that will comprehensively ban nuclear weapons for everyone, reinforce what is best in the non-proliferation regime and establish stronger verification and safeguards mechanisms to prevent nuclear proliferation.

This is the final report by Rebecca Johnson from the NPT Review Conference 2010.




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