NPT: the gulf between the nuclear haves and have-nots

The key question as the conference enters the endgame is whether the P-5 nuclear weapon states are willing to drop their demands for the removal of so many of the disarmament commitments that are important to the non-nuclear countries, including references to a nuclear weapons convention or time bound framework to achieve the total elimination of nuclear weapons

Rebecca Johnson
26 May 2010

As the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference enters its final week, a discernible shift in UK policy has moved the centre of gravity among the five declared nuclear weapon states (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) towards the anti-disarmament posture of France, making it more difficult for the United States to broker a positive agreement on disarmament with the Non-Aligned (non-nuclear) states led by Egypt.  With President Obama keen to get agreement on measures to strengthen the non-proliferation regime when the NPT conference ends on Friday, the repositioning of British policy to resist further focussed, comprehensive, practical or progressive steps towards building a world free of nuclear weapons has given a boost to the naysayers.

The last seven days have been a roller-coaster, starting with a new sanctions resolution against Iran tabled in the UN Security Council on May 18, much to the dismay of NPT delegates who feared that the coercive pressure might provoke Iran to cause difficulties or obstruct the NPT outcome. So far that has not happened. Iran has fought for its positions – as have many – but it has stayed close to positions worked out within the 116-member Non-Aligned group of states.  Negotiations have moved painstakingly forwards (and often backwards) in the various committees on disarmament, safeguards, nuclear energy, regional and institutional issues, until it became clear by Monday that they were not going to get consensus on a handful of critical issues.

Though it is looking increasingly likely that a deal will be struck on how to make progress towards a zone free of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East, the Conference is still trying to find agreement on issues ranging from strengthening safeguards (through the IAEA additional protocol) to multinational fuel cycle arrangements and assurances of nuclear supply. Most critically, however, the nuclear haves and have-nots are still very far apart over nuclear disarmament.

The majority of non-nuclear-countries from all regions welcome the signing of the START treaty, but also want to see a disarmament action plan with objectives and practical steps that reflect the commitments made by President Obama and many others when they promised to work towards creating the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.  A host of countries at the Conference, including Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, Colombia, Chile on behalf of the world’s nuclear-weapon free zones (in Africa, Latin America, the South Pacific, South-East Asia and Central Asia) and Indonesia on behalf of the NAM, have been advocating a comprehensive approach involving commitments and steps that include negotiations on some kind of treaty that would prohibit, abolish and eliminate all types of nuclear weapons. They have also been arguing for interim steps aimed at diminishing the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies, reducing operational status and the risk of accidental or unauthorised use of deployed weapons while promoting phased withdrawal, reductions and storage of weapons in the existing arsenals pending their total elimination.

Throughout the conference, France and Russia have been the most vocal in opposing commitments that go beyond what they agreed ten years ago at the 2000 Review Conference, and which have been ignored for most of the past decade.  The United States, though cautious about what could be delivered, came to the Review Conference with the hope of obtaining a constructive outcome that would lay further groundwork towards fulfilling President Obama’s objectives and facilitate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the New START Treaty, signed by the US and Russia in April 2010.

All the nuclear-weapon states say they want a successful outcome but some have more “red lines” than others.  Russia, for example, opposes any explicit mention of non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons, of which they have around 2,000, while wanting NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons to be taken out of Europe and sent back to the United States for storage pending elimination.  In addition to Russia, China and a large number of non-nuclear countries called for an end to “nuclear sharing”. While NATO officials hovered anxiously at the edge of the Conference, the United States, Britain and some NATO countries (reportedly Italy and Germany) insisted that the NPT should keep quiet on that subject and leave it to NATO to decide this question when it negotiates a new Strategic Concept over the coming six months. 

One of the most significant and contested proposals advocated by the majority of non-nuclear countries concerned the need to negotiate a future nuclear weapons convention that would prohibit atomic armaments in the way that biological and chemical weapons have been banned, and provide for their dismantlement and elimination in accordance with an agreed timetable.  To begin with, all the weapon states but China treated this proposal as premature (though it must be said, such an approach was first mooted in 1959 and supported by President John F Kennedy in 1961).  Advocated by global civil society and supported by governments, parliamentarians and civic leaders in many countries, the very mention was anathema to France and Russia – at least at the beginning of the conference.  Faced with the determination of the non-nuclear countries, the United States and Britain realised the importance of acknowledging the five-point disarmament plan put forward in 2008 by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon which suggested that a nuclear weapons convention or other negotiated framework would be worth considering as a viable disarmament approach.  This did not mean that they were willing to commence negotiations, but that they would be prepared to explore the idea of multilateral disarmament negotiations leading to such a treaty.

By the end of last week, France was under pressure and the US-Russian partnership appeared to be sufficiently strong following the START agreement, to warrant cautious optimism that Moscow’s concerns could be reconciled with the needs of the non-nuclear-weapon states to have agreement on tangible objectives and progress beyond reaffirming the 2000 undertakings.   China appeared to have more problems with the positions of some of the other nuclear powers than with those of the non-nuclear countries. China broke ranks with the P-5 on a number of issues, such as security assurances, no first use and a nuclear weapons convention, but it was out on a limb with its opposition to a moratorium on producing plutonium or highly-enriched uranium for weapons purposes pending conclusion of a fissile materials (cut-off) treaty.  This was shaping up as a tough sticking point but is not currently believed to be too difficult to resolve with some nifty wording.

Though France was vigorous in arguing its corner during the Conference, there was little suggestion that it would block consensus if things didn’t go its way.  Never easy, these factors at least suggested that the dynamic within the P-5 was manageable, thereby providing room to manoeuvre when seeking agreement with the non-aligned states.  The UK wading in at this late date with harder-line positions that lower the common denominator has noticeably shifted the balance towards the naysayers among the P-5, with worrying implications for the prospects and effectiveness of a final declaration. 

Attempts by the nuclear weapon states to water down the nuclear disarmament draft even further are likely to be resisted by the non-aligned states, who have seen many long-term proposals once again sidelined. They liked the first drafts and they would probably be willing for the sake of a successful Review Conference to accept the compromises in the current drafts, despite the positions being a lot weaker than they wanted.  The key question as the conference enters the endgame is whether the P-5 nuclear weapon states are willing to move the same distance and drop their demands for the removal of so many of the disarmament commitments that are important to the non-nuclear countries, including references to a nuclear weapons convention or time bound framework to achieve the total elimination of nuclear weapons.  If they are not willing to adopt some practical disarmament commitments that move beyond the promises they made (and reneged on) in 2000, they will jeopardise the 2010 review conference’s last chance to strengthen the non-proliferation regime with a multilaterally negotiated declaration  of forward-looking principles and steps. 








Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData