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The NPT review conference: no bargains in the UN basement

About the author
Patricia Lewis is Director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).

If it is not easy to sum up the 2005 review conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) from 2-27 May in New York, it is only because there are so many apt candidates: dire, dreadful, disgusting, outrageous, nonsensical, pathetic, sad, terrifying. As the representatives from 188 states wrangled, postured and denied humanity the chance to strengthen constraints against the most destructive weapons on the planet, all the serious work of the five years since the 2000 conference was wasted. As one astute observer put it when watching certain states behave as though the treaty hardly deserved their attention: “they definitely deserve one another, but we the peoples do not deserve them”.

True, the vast majority of representatives at the conference were working hard to reach agreement and were definitely taking the treaty and threats to it very seriously indeed. However, as is so often the case these days, the will of the majority did not prevail. In fact, it wasn’t even taken into account.

1998 and 1999: two crucial years

Why is the thirty-five year-old NPT in so much trouble? Why is it that, ten years after the historic decision to extend the treaty indefinitely, many states now quietly question the wisdom of that hopeful occasion?

From the perspective of 2005, there have been two landmark years. First 1998, when India and Pakistan carried out their nuclear-weapons tests. India had carried out a test in 1974 but had always pretended that it was for peaceful purposes so as to maintain the useful fiction that it did not actually possess nuclear weapons. But from 1998 there was no more pretence. The world had two more declared nuclear weapons possessors and there was no going back – not yet anyway.

The deeply held, if never officially confirmed, belief that Israel possesses nuclear weapons has continued to create difficulties for states in the middle east, particularly as all of the other states in the region are party to the NPT and have thus foresworn nuclear weapons.

Second 1999, when the United States Senate failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT, which bans all nuclear weapons tests explosions, requires the ratification of 44 named states in order for it to enter into force. That list includes North Korea, Iran, Israel, India, Pakistan and all five declared nuclear-weapons states (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China). The rejection of the CTBT by the US was announced despite the fact that of all nuclear-weapons states, it was the US that pushed for the treaty back in 1994-96 in Geneva.

1968-95: era of choices

In 1968, when the NPT was negotiated , the word “proliferation” meant two things to the negotiators: horizontal proliferation and vertical proliferation. Horizontal proliferation, the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, is now simply called proliferation; vertical proliferation describes the acquisition of more nuclear weapons by the nuclear-weapons states, and attempts to stem it are referred to as disarmament.

The NPT has three pillars that form an interconnecting set of bargains. The primary bargain is that between the nuclear-weapons states (only five are accorded this status by the treaty) and other states. This bargain is best expressed as: the non-nuclear weapons states agree not to acquire nuclear weapons and to subject their civil nuclear programme to scrutiny and international controls in exchange for receiving nuclear technology for peaceful purposes; meanwhile, the nuclear-weapons states commit themselves to negotiate away their nuclear weapons in good faith.

In 1995, as part of the legal process that extended the treaty indefinitely, the states all agreed to a set of documents that contained three decisions and one resolution. The three decisions were:

  • to extend the treaty
  • to enhance the review process on the treaty
  • to agree the principles and objectives of the treaty

The resolution was about the middle east; it called for the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the region. The “principles and objectives” document refers to the ultimate goal of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons; specifically to universality, non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, nuclear-weapons-free zones, security assurances, IAEA safeguards and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

“Permanence with accountability” was the Canadian catchphrase of the 1995 conference. Most delegates believed that with the end of the cold war and the nearly completed negotiation of the CTBT that a nuclear-weapon-free world was within reach.

2000 and after: era of danger

At the review conference in 2000, a further, far-reaching document was agreed – despite the US Senate’s rejection of the CTBT – that inscribed an unequivocal commitment to nuclear disarmament and put forward thirteen agreed steps as a programme of action for nuclear disarmament. Some of these thirteen steps were already precarious: for example, the commitment to the early entry into force of the CTBT and the commitment to the Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) Treaty (from which the US announced its withdrawal in December 2001).

However, world events since conspired to ensure that the chances of fulfilling the promises of 1995 and 2000 faded. Following 11 September 2001, the US focus on the “war on terror” has meant a shift away from regime-building and non-discriminatory international law. US concerns of a remaining nuclear threat in Iraq (although woefully inaccurate), the undeclared nuclear-research activities in Iran, and North Korea’s announcement of withdrawal from the NPT in early 2004 have all been seen by the George W Bush administration as reasons why treaties cannot do the required job.

In consequence, after denouncing the “axis of evil”, invading Iraq, establishing a number of unilateral and multilateral discriminatory measures, and breaking an illicit ring of trade in nuclear-weapons technology headed by AQ Khan of the Pakistani nuclear-weapons programme, the United States feels that what is needed is old-fashioned power-based diplomacy.

According to this view, what matters is not the possession of nuclear weapons as such but who possesses them. Nuclear weapons are fine in the hands of the “good guys” but should never get into the hands of the “bad guys”. Anything that ties the hands of the US and its allies is “bad” whereas restrictions on the bad guys are the way the world should be. All of this has resulted in a number of measures, which, if seen in the context of support for the NPT, are indeed useful. Measures such as the proliferation security initiative, the G8 global partnership, Resolution 1540 and so on could all have a useful role in strengthening the NPT.

However, because of suspicions that the US has its mind fixed on developing new nuclear weapons and maintaining the status quo, an increasing number of states are deeply suspicious of the commitment of the US (and by inference of the other four nuclear-weapons states) to the cause of nuclear disarmament. This has had the effect of weakening some non-nuclear weapons states’ commitment to the treaty.

The seeming lack of full commitment to the promises of nuclear disarmament, and the lack of concern over universalisation (India, Pakistan and Israel being quietly acknowledged as de facto nuclear-weapons states) have led some non-nuclear-weapons states to the conclusion that the NPT is not the treaty they once decided to join.

On the other side of the equation, disregard for the treaty provisions and commitments by Saddam-era Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Iran have led the US and others to a similar conclusion: if some countries can cheat, who else could, and if the treaty can’t stop them doing so then what is its point?

The discovery of AQ Khan’s illicit trade network and the inability of the Security Council to address concerns over the two distinct cases of North Korea and Iran have given the US great cause to worry. In sharp contrast is the successful application of muscular diplomacy in the case of Libya, thus reinforcing the prevailing view in the US that treaties are of limited value compared with power-brokering. In fact, in reality, neither is sufficient and both are required.

2004-05: the writing on the wall

By 2004, during the preparatory meeting for the review conference, the writing was on the wall: no agreement could be reached on the agenda for the review conference in 2005.

By 2005, the wrangling over the agenda took the best part of the first two weeks of the four-week review. The main problem was how to refer to the agreements of 1995 and 2000. The US and some key allies wanted no reference to them whatsoever – as if attempting to erase them from old photographs and memories – as if somehow, by not referring to them, it meant that they just did not exist.

In the end it was Egypt that played the game with the US. Iran did so to some extent but generally kept its eyes on its own agenda, i.e. distracting attention away from states’ and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concerns over its behaviour, past and present. Egypt however pushed and pushed against the US, particularly over the reference to 1995 and 2000 and within that framework to the issue of a WMD-free zone in the middle east.

The work of the review conference is divided into parts. There are three main committees (along with their respective subsidiary bodies) dealing with:

  • nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament
  • security assurances and regional security issues
  • the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

To cut a long and distressing story short: despite the experienced chairs of the main committees and subsidiary bodies, no substantive text could be agreed. With more time for negotiation, it might have been possible to find more agreement, but in the end the big political divisions were too great to overcome.

The big issues included:

  • the CTBT and how to reconcile the overwhelming support for the treaty with the rejection of it by the US
  • concerns over North Korea’s announced withdrawal and how to prevent similar from happening again – yet the right to withdraw from a treaty is seen as a fundamental right for some states
  • North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme
  • concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme
  • nuclear disarmament – or rather the lack of it
  • the institutional deficit of the NPT – the treaty has no secretariat, no reporting mechanism and no way of dealing with urgent matters
  • universality – how to handle the improbability that India, Pakistan and Israel will join the treaty
  • implementation of the decision and agreements of 1995 and 2000. In particular the disarmament decisions and the middle east resolution
  • strengthening safeguards
  • other measures (seen as supporting or competing, depending on which side of the fence one sits) such as United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) .

These issues were discussed in the review conference but with inadequate time to find agreement on how to describe them, let alone agreement on how to act upon them.

2010 and beyond

The sense that the vast majority of states and analysts are left with by the end of the month is a mix of bewilderment, despair and cynicism. It is far too easy to be cynical: of course states act in their own narrow self-interests. Well yes, but how is it in the United States’ interest to have spent so much time and effort and to have nothing on the record castigating states that have misbehaved or to have nothing strengthening safeguards and other anti-proliferation measures?

How is it in the interests of Egypt to anger the western states and several of the non-aligned states parties when it is hoping for a seat on the Security Council or when it is hoping to increase support for its efforts on building a zone free of WMD in the middle east? These high-risk strategies have not paid off. Nobody’s self-interests are served in undermining the one legal instrument that can be used to keep proliferation in check and to further the cause of nuclear disarmament. And that was the end result of the NPT review conference in 2005.


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