NPT conference: half time glass half full

Frustration at the failure of nuclear weapon states to honour the agreements made at previous NPT Conferences is growing. In heated exchanges in New York the 184 countries without nuclear weapons want to ensure that this time the NPT outcome has direction, accountability and muscle. Half way through the conference Rebecca Johnson reports that there is still everything to play for.

Rebecca Johnson
17 May 2010

The review of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York has passed its midpoint well on schedule, much to the relief of those who remember the angry stalemate of 2005, yet failure to get agreement on key regional and global disarmament commitments could still threaten the outcome.  As first drafts of proposals from the three committees on disarmament, safeguards and nuclear energy were circulated on Friday, the major disagreements revolve around three issues: what should be in the 2010 disarmament action plan; how concrete a commitment will be made to a future conference and process to lay the groundwork for making the middle east a nuclear-weapons-free zone; and the role and acceptability of the strengthened safeguards agreements that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been trying to get states to adopt.

On disarmament, there is much emphasis on reaffirming a set of principles and steps that were adopted ten years ago, but barely implemented.  These include bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force, negotiating further multilateral disarmament measures, making much deeper and irreversible cuts in existing arsenals, and diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in security policies.  Though these à la carte steps are still important, the fact that they were agreed to and then ignored for ten years rankles deeply.  The majority of the 184 nations without nuclear weapons  want the review conference to agree to implement a more clearly defined set menu –including some kind of comprehensive nuclear treaty or framework – to give legally binding context and coherence to the steps. They want to ensure that this time the NPT outcome has direction, accountability and muscle, and does not end up as disregarded or repudiated, as happened to many of the agreements painstakingly negotiated and adopted in  1995 and 2000.

So far we have seen Britain, France and Russia still reciting the reductions and closures of nuclear facilities that they undertook in response to the end of the cold war twenty years ago, as if expecting to rest on these past laurels for the foreseeable future while they actually seek to retain, modernise and renew their nuclear systems.  Apart from its long-held declaratory policies of “no first use” and unconditional promises not to threaten or use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-armed countries (called security assurances), China hasn’t even got reductions to show, as Beijing is also bent on modernising and increasing the Chinese nuclear arsenal.

The exception is the United States, which had a lot of catching up to do after the Bush administration’s negative record on nuclear arms and international treaties over the previous decade.  Ever since President Obama’s speech in Prague last year on wanting a world free of nuclear weapons, the United States has been at pains to promise future disarmament and security commitments as well as listing its past efforts.  The President’s determination to ratify the CTBT and the New START agreement with Russia, as well as the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review’s recognition of the need to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, have brought considerable support for the Obama administration’s efforts to make the NPT Conference successful.  Two kinds of problems are coming up now that could get in the way. 

News that Obama has promised $80 billion to modernise the US nuclear infrastructure and arsenal over the next ten years has called into question the sincerity of his commitment to nuclear disarmament.  While it is understood that this huge sum – much more than the Bush administration spent on nuclear weapons and facilities – is meant as a sweetener to win Republican votes to ratify the CTBT and New START, the price tag is thought by many to be dangerously (and unnecessarily) inflated.  In the UN corridors and side-bar meetings rather than in the formal NPT Committee debates so far, more voices are asking if Obama can be trusted to walk the walk on practical disarmament as well as talk the talk on the vision of a nuclear free world. 

This frustration is not only aimed at the United States, as illustrated by a heated exchange earlier in the week, when Ireland supported South Africa in challenging the complacent tone of a presentation by France, saying that “reductions in nuclear weapons, in and of themselves, do not necessarily equate to a commitment to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons”.  Pointing out that “nuclear weapons reductions, while welcome, may be undertaken for a wide variety of reasons” including financial considerations, safety, security and preventing weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists, Ireland underlined the importance of making – and meaning – a genuine commitment to eliminate and not just reduce existing nuclear arsenals. 

While Ireland was specifically urging France to reaffirm the undertaking the nuclear weapon states made in 2000 to “accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals”, South Africa had criticised the British decision to procure the next generation of nuclear weapons to replace Trident.  In this context, a growing number of governments are arguing that the missing link between Obama’s Prague vision and the practical fulfilment of the disarmament obligations in the NPT is a negotiated treaty to ban nuclear weapons altogether.

Building on the conventions that have prohibited biological and chemical weapons, an envisaged “nuclear weapons convention” would prohibit the use and deployment of nuclear armaments, provide an agreed timeline for eliminating current arsenals and establish a stringent verification system applicable to all - as advocated now by the majority of NPT governments as well as the UN Secretary General and over 4000 mayors and parliamentarians from around the world.  The first draft of the NPT Chairs’ disarmament plan of action circulated on Friday recommended “special efforts to establish the legal framework required to achieve the final phase of nuclear disarmament and maintain a world without nuclear weapons”.

In the final two weeks all eyes will be on the nuclear weapon states.  If they insist on this recommendation being deleted – as France and Russia succeeded in doing in similar circumstances at an NPT preparatory meeting in 2009 – that will be taken to mean that in spite of their feel-good rhetoric they are not serious about fully implementing their disarmament obligations.

The positive tone of the first two weeks was largely due to the constructive engagement of the US delegation on all fronts.  But as delegations fight for what will go into the final text, retrogressive national policies of replacing, modernising and committing increased budgets for current and future nuclear arsenals are fuelling demands for commitments to a treaty-based comprehensive objective, as well as rededication to the progressive and practical disarmament steps adopted ten years ago.

The gap between past agreements and actions is also at the heart of disputes over text relating to the middle east. Having seen fifteen years go by since the NPT Conference in 1995 adopted a resolution calling for a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the middle east (in return for Arab support to extend the NPT indefinitely), the Arab states parties want more than nice words this time round.  While the Conference will no doubt call generally on Israel, India and Pakistan to join the NPT, attention is on what more can be done to engage Israel, the only state in the middle east with un-safeguarded nuclear facilities.  The Arab states want the 2010 NPT Conference to agree on a practical process to move towards negotiations on a nuclear-free zone in the middle east, and have therefore proposed (among other things) a regional conference that would include Israel.  In view of Israel’s insistence on achieving recognition from its neighbours and regional security first, the United States has traditionally shielded Israel from overt criticism, despite the fact that it has remained outside the NPT and has a very secretive and attitude regarding its nuclear weapons, which are believed to number between 60 and 200.  In addition, the United States is pressing for the NPT conference to address Iran’s ambitious uranium enrichment programme, which many governments regard as a security problem for the region as well as internationally. 

Negotiations on the middle east are continuing in private, primarily between the nuclear weapon and Arab states, with the United States and Egypt as the main interlocutors.  Iran is a party to the NPT and is certain to oppose any criticism or further controls on its nuclear programme, which it vociferously claims is solely for peaceful purposes.  While Iran is marginalised from the closeted negotiations on the middle east at this stage, it is a loud voice in debates over strengthened safeguards.  The IAEA and many governments negotiated an “Additional Protocol” to plug the loopholes in the 1970s safeguards system, which most people agree is inadequate for verifying that states are adhering to their obligations not to divert nuclear materials for weapons. While many want there to be agreement that nuclear materials and technologies should not be supplied to states that have not adopted the strengthened safeguards agreements, some – most notably Brazil, Egypt, Iran, Libya and Syria – argue against.  They claim that the protocol is voluntary and that it is unreasonable to heap more controls on the programmes of non-nuclear-weapon states when there are no comparable verification requirements on the nuclear weapon states.  This argument will run and run, but in the end it is expected that some form of compromise language will be found.

So at the half way point in the NPT Conference, nothing can be taken for granted – especially on disarmament and the middle east – and there is everything to play for.




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