NPT: toothless in the face of real world dangers

The core purpose of the NPT was security and the prevention of nuclear war, but the esoteric diplomacy of the current regime has become too far removed from the dangerous and messy world of today’s nuclear risks and ambitions. Rebecca Johnson reports at the close of the NPT meeting in Geneva

Rebecca Johnson
4 May 2013

The final day of the second PrepCom for the 2015 Review Conference of parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) had been expected to go smoothly, but things got off to a late start due to objections by some states. Two documents needed to be addressed. One was the PrepCom’s report that simply details the administrative facts and decisions. The other was the “factual summary” that the presiding Chair is required to present, which is supposed to capture the substantive essence of the meeting, as distilled from nine days of statements and 48 working papers.  Having assisted a previous Chair in writing such a summary, I know only too well how difficult it is to get this right.  States are nationally egotistical, so they look first at whether their points have been adequately covered, and of course a summary snapshot can seldom give due weight to all the proposals, ideas, complexities and subtleties.

As the expressions of appreciation from many delegations attested, in many ways the Romanian Chair, Ambassador Cornel Feruta, did a valiant job of describing basic disagreements and weighting different perspectives. But the main omission that struck everyone was that neither the summary nor the draft report mentioned that Egypt had walked out in protest on the sixth day of the meeting.  Unprecedented in the NPT’s history, this needed to be reflected.

Egypt’s action had been undertaken as a warning shot across the NPT’s bow, to draw attention to the mounting frustration among the Arab states over the postponement of the 2012 Conference on the Middle East.  Being ignored in the draft report and summary was perceived as adding insult to injury.  Tense exchanges between the Chair and key protagonists found a solution in the time-honoured device of an oral amendment, in which Feruta proposed an additional sentence to the paragraph that listed the 106 participating states, noting Egypt’s announcement on 29 April that it would not attend the rest of the meeting.

In considering the Chair’s draft summary most states looked at what was said on their particular initiatives and interests.  In 99 paragraphs, it was not easy to do justice to widely divergent views put forward by the nuclear-armed states and most if not all the non-nuclear participants.  While delegations from various sides put on record their disagreements with how some elements had been written up, most also paid tribute to Feruta’s “hard work and tireless efforts” and “fair and inclusive manner”.   

Nonetheless, several delegations, including Mexico, South Africa, Singapore and also Iran on behalf of the Non-Aligned states parties, emphasised that there had been no negotiations on the text, and sought Feruta’s assurance that his Chair’s summary would not be attached to the PrepCom report in a formal capacity. Feruta confirmed that the summary would be issued as a working paper only, but hoped it would be of assistance to the Chair of the third PrepCom, Ambassador Enrique Román-Morey of Peru, and the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

In this regard, it was noteworthy that the “deep concerns” about the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” were reflected early on, together with references to the March 2013 Oslo conference and the follow-on that will be hosted by Mexico early next year.  However, a number of states were unhappy that the Chair’s summary had not explicitly recognised the fact that 80 NPT states parties (more than previously reported due to late additions) had co-sponsored the ‘Joint Statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons’, an unprecedented 75 percent of the participating delegations.   Old habits seem to die hard, for the summary featured the joint statement of 4.7 percent of the meeting (five nuclear-armed states parties) ahead of the 80-nation joint statement on humanitarian impacts, conveying outdated assumptions about the relative status and importance of those with and those without nuclear weapons in today’s security environment.

Taking the floor to thank Feruta for his “able stewardship”, Ambassador Abdul Minty of South Africa took the opportunity to underline that “hardly any delegation disagreed” with the importance of the humanitarian concerns addressed in the joint statement. He continued: “Given the unacceptable harm that would be visited upon humanity from any use of nuclear weapons, all States Parties agree on the need to ensure that these weapons are never used again.”  Acknowledging that the “only way to guarantee this is through their total elimination”, South Africa (which eliminated its own nuclear arsenal in 1990-92) argued that it is “a shared responsibility of all States to prevent their vertical and horizontal proliferation and to achieve nuclear disarmament…” Ambassador Minty also thanked and paid tribute to “the crucial role of civil society in creating awareness about this issue”.

Pairs of opposing views characterised much of the Chair’s summary. For example, “many states parties expressed concern that any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons would be inconsistent with fundamental rules of international humanitarian law”, while “some nuclear-weapon states (NWS) outlined that under their respective national policies any use of nuclear weapons would only be considered in extreme circumstances…”  And “many states parties stressed the need for the negotiation of a phased programme for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons within a specified time frame, including a nuclear weapons convention”; while the NWS “provided information on their efforts to implement their disarmament commitment” and “reaffirmed the contribution of the pragmatic step-by-step process to nuclear disarmament and stressed the validity of this route”.  This might have sounded more reassuring were it not for the fact that “certain NWS parties noted they are not pursuing new missions or new capabilities for their nuclear forces”. This fact served mainly to accentuate awareness of the dog that didn’t bark – that certain other nuclear-armed parties gave no such assurances, probably because they are pursuing new nuclear capabilities and missions.  Iran’s Ambassador Ali Soltanieh, commenting at the end, explicitly raised concerns about “Trident and new nuclear weapons” undermining the NPT.

The good news was that US-Russian steps to implement the New START treaty were “welcomed” and these two former superpowers were “encouraged to continue negotiations to achieve greater reductions in their nuclear arsenals, including non-strategic nuclear weapons”.  Sadly this didn’t get everyone off the hook. Though the UK and France were credited with providing information on “planned reductions”, this came after concerns were expressed by “many” that “the total estimated number of nuclear weapons, deployed and non-deployed, still amounted to several thousands”.

And so the Chair’s summary continued, juxtaposing the concerns of the “many” with information provided by “some” or “certain” states parties.  “Many” remained “deeply concerned at the maintenance of many nuclear weapons on high alert”, while “many” were also concerned about “the continued role of nuclear weapons in national and regional military doctrines”.  This view contrasted in the same paragraph with: “Some states affirmed that they had reduced the role of nuclear weapons in their strategic doctrines”; as well as “some States parties called for the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons which continued to be stationed outside the territories” of the NWS. 

The report skimmed through all sorts of other concerns – years of “stalemate” in the Conference on Disarmament; that the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty’s entry into force is still impeded by 8 states; that the safeguards system on nuclear materials under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) still needs strengthening;  the “threat of terrorism and the risk that non-State actors might acquire nuclear weapons and their means of delivery”.  Then there were some positive mentions of nuclear weapons free zones (NWFZ), though we were sternly reminded that such NWFZ “did not substitute for legal obligations and unequivocal undertakings of the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals”.

And so to the Middle East, where Feruta’s summary of the statements and working papers was tactfully pitched.  The Facilitator, Jaakko Laajava of Finland, was given “appreciation” for his “tireless efforts”, and “a number of states parties expressed support for the Facilitator’s efforts for multilateral preparatory consultations involving the States of the region”.  At the same time, “States parties expressed disappointment and regret at the postponement of the 2012 Conference”.  Reference was given to “appreciation for the constructive engagement of the Arab states” and their collective “position paper” on the “organization, agenda, outcome document, working methods and other issues related to the Conference”. Though the Arab states were clearly unhappy with how the weight of the Middle East debates were reflected, Bahrain on their behalf expressed “heartfelt thanks” to Feruta for his efforts. Iran at one point complained that the very process of producing a summary requires selection and bias, and argued for stopping the practice altogether and relying solely on states parties’ statements and working papers, but no-one rose to this bait.

In addition to some routine paragraphs on “peaceful uses” on nuclear energy, more significant concerns were raised on nuclear safety, security, civil nuclear liability, treaty reform and withdrawal.  The summary went through the rituals of calling on Israel, India and Pakistan to accede to the NPT as non-nuclear states. North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests were condemned, and it was urged to “fulfil its commitments under the Six Party Talks” and “return at an early date to the [NPT] and to its NPT safeguards agreements with the IAEA”, once again fudging the fact that the NPT has demonstrated an abject inability to address either the legal or the substantive challenges of North Korea’s announced withdrawal from the treaty in 2003.

With a smattering of applause and a large measure of relief, this latest instalment in the almost annual ritual of NPT meetings closed. Business was done, the wheels were turned, there had been much meeting, talking, lobbying, caucusing and arguing about substance and future steps, (more honestly in the fringe meetings than formal sessions) meetings. Hundreds of statements had been read, with a new ‘papersmart’ initiative ensuring that these and the working papers and relevant documents were available electronically far more quickly than ever before.

Yet, amidst all this “output”, the NPT seems to be locked inside a bubble of diplomatic fantasy and failing to tackle the real world dangers posed by nuclear technologies and practices and the nuclear arsenals and policies of all nine nuclear-armed governments.  Whether legally recognised as outside the NPT or regarded as a state party in flagrant non-compliance, North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities serve as a constant reminder of the NPT’s toothlessness where it matters. Similarly, whether inside or outside the NPT, the other eight nuclear-armed states behave as free-riders on the regime, benefiting from its constraints on others while the treaty serves as a smokescreen for them to carry on producing and deploying nuclear weapons without due regard for the security and interests of their neighbours. 

The core purpose of the NPT was security and the prevention of nuclear war, but the  esoteric diplomacy of the current regime has become too far removed from the dangerous and messy world of today’s nuclear risks and ambitions. South Africa’s Ambassador Minty spoke for most NPT members when he urged: “humanitarian concerns should be at the core of all our reflections, decisions and actions during this [NPT] Review Cycle and beyond”.

This is the last in a series of articles on openDemocracy 5050 by Rebecca Johnson reporting on the inside story of the NPT PrepCom meeting in Geneva April 22-May 3rd.


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