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The Challenges of Non-proliferation: Preparing for the NPT Review Conference PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ray Acheson   
Sunday, 06 July 2008 15:59

Representatives from States Parties and 60 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) met in Geneva from 28 April–9 May for the second session of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee (PrepCom).1 Three sessions of the PrepCom are held in the years leading up to each NPT Review Conference, which takes place every five years and will next be held in 2010 in New York.

The current cycle of PrepComs got off to a rocky start in 2007 in Vienna, when politics masked as procedural wrangling threatened to prevent the Committee from adopting an agenda.2 Fortunately, after much debate and, finally, compromise, the first session of the PrepCom was able to agree on an agenda, which will be used for the duration of the PrepCom process. As a result, the second session did not have as many opportunities to stall.

In fact, the second session was procedurally smooth. Despite rumors of opposition, the PrepCom adopted six draft decisions during its second week without difficulty, regarding financial matters, the location and dates of the third PrepCom session (May 4-15, 2009 in New York) and the Review Conference (April 26-May 21, 2010 in New York), and the chair of the next session.

Consensus hit a bump, however, when it came time to accept Chairperson Volodymyr Yel’chenko’s “factual summary” of the PrepCom’s work. Despite appreciation expressed by various delegations for Ambassador Yel’chenko’s “very fair and balanced summary,”3 he was unable to find consensus to annex the summary to the final report and therefore submitted the factual summary as a working paper instead. As such, it carries less weight to guide the agenda as the preparatory work for the Review Conference moves forward. This followed the precedent established last year, when Chair Yukiya Amano (Japan) faced similar opposition.4 While some delegations were supportive of Ambassador Yel’chenko’s summary, others objected to its content and balance, including Iran, the United States, Egypt and Algeria. The Iranian and Algerian delegations both thought the summary did not represent the views of the majority of states, particularly regarding disarmament and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The US delegation highlighted what it believed to be “inaccuracies” in the summary, including its treatment of Iran, Syria, the nature of US nuclear cooperation with Israel, and the US disarmament record.


There was discord on other fronts, as well. Several delegations, including Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States voiced concern over Syria’s alleged nuclear reactor, to which the Syrian delegation responded with increasingly hostile replies. Iran’s nuclear program also continued to draw criticism, and Iran’s representative took to repeatedly explaining the program’s peaceful nature. In the end, however, neither issue prevented the meeting from proceeding smoothly; rather, the speaker’s list was empty by the end of the morning meeting on Wednesday, 7 May, despite the Chair’s attempts to get the delegations to engage in interactive discussions at the end of each cluster of issues. While participants were generally relieved to get through the session efficiently, the lack of interactive dialogue meant a lost opportunity for real discussion; interactive dialogue allows delegates to give clarity on their proposals, to glean perspective and perhaps understanding on others’ interests and concerns, and to engage with each other creatively and cooperatively. The few times that States Parties did interact after cluster debates, pertinent and illuminating questions were asked — and sometimes answered. Overall, however, most delegations did not participate in the dialogue, leaving many of the more pressing questions unaddressed. This suggests there is still a ways to go before delegations are ready to move beyond simply restating their governments’ positions toward talking openly and frankly about their country’s interests, which is the kind of interaction this review cycle needs.

Substantive Convergence

The second session of the PrepCom is intended to generate momentum around specific proposals for consideration at the third session, which, in turn, makes recommendations to the Review Conference regarding issues that are “ripe for consensus” or upon which the conference should focus. Because of the relative lack of procedural blockages, the 2008 PrepCom was able to focus on substantive issues, including several proposals on strengthening and implementing the NPT. Some of these generated broad interest, suggesting they are or could be ripe for action by the 2010 Review Conference.

In a working paper that appeared to interest even some of the nuclear-weapon states, Egypt presented a limited list of concrete measures to lay the groundwork for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, an aim endorsed by the 1995 NPT Review Conference. Adoption of the Middle East resolution in 1995 was central to the deal struck allowing the indefinite extension of the NPT.5

Nineteen delegations joined Japan this year to emphasize the importance of disarmament and non-proliferation education as tools to help create conditions for a nuclear-weapon-free world. They argued that education will nurture new thinking by both governments and citizens, which will in turn “empower individuals to make their contribution, as national and world citizens, to disarmament and non-proliferation.” Japan suggested, in a working paper, that education in the NPT context, should include “deepening discussions among security and disarmament experts on the security benefits of and challenges to the NPT regime, and providing knowledge on these issues to the public.”

The overwhelming majority of delegations argued that the 13 practical steps toward disarmament of the world’s nuclear weapons, unanimously adopted at the 2000 Review Conference, still constitute the roadmap for implementing Article VI of the NPT, the only legally-binding commitment on the part of nuclear-weapon states to pursue nuclear disarmament.6 Many delegates reiterated the need for the 13 steps to be recommitted to, reported on and implemented. Some suggested the steps could be updated or “refreshed” to reflect changes in global security since 2000. Various working papers and statements suggested these could include: the development of a verifiable post-START arrangement;7 more substantial US-Russian bilateral reductions in nuclear weapons; commitments by all nuclear-weapon states to a moratorium on the development of nuclear weapons; and the reduction of the operational status of nuclear weapon systems (essentially removing them from high alert).

A number of delegations increased their calls for a standardized reporting mechanism to create “an environment more suitable for nuclear disarmament” by raising the level of transparency, accountability and trust among NPT states parties. Currently, a minority of NPT States Parties submit formal reports to PrepComs and Review Conferences, as is called for in step 12 of the 13 practical steps mentioned above. These reports generally contain details about specific initiatives the state has undertaken to implement provisions of the NPT, often with particular focus on Article VI and the 13 practical steps. Some states and civil society groups argue that a clear and detailed reporting system could become a “formal expression of . . . accountability” among States Parties to the NPT, could bring transparency and could help determine whether states are complying with the Treaty.8

Several delegations, including Canada, Switzerland and New Zealand, spoke in favor of establishing a standing secretariat to coordinate and manage the NPT’s meetings and processes. Such a secretariat could provide consistency throughout review cycles: it would be able to focus year round on implementing the Treaty’s provisions: tracking, standardizing and assessing proposals and reports; providing outreach to Member States; and increasing transparency and balance of the implementation of all three pillars of the NPT (non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to peacefully use nuclear energy). It could, in essence, provide the framework for achieving the objectives of the NPT. Although the United States insisted that a standing secretariat would not be useful, the majority appear willing to consider an institutional framework for the NPT.

Substantive Divergence

Despite considerable convergences, stark divergences among government priorities — for example, nuclear disarmament verses non-proliferation — were echoed repeatedly throughout the PrepCom. Opinions differed about alleged violations of the Treaty, about requirements for a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East, and over proposals to multilateralize (and from the perspective of some governments, increase the discriminatory nature of) the nuclear fuel cycle.

Perspectives on the nuclear-weapon states’ fulfillment of Article VI (in which states commit to pursue negotiations on nuclear disarmament “at an early date” and “in good faith”) also continued to vary widely. The delegations of France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States presented statements about their reductions and holdings of nuclear weapons, and France and the United States issued colorful brochures explaining their disarmament efforts. However, as the Canadian delegation emphasized: “Measuring disarmament merely in terms of the overall number of weapons eliminated has its limitations.” These arsenal reductions have come at a price not contemplated in the NPT. One of the US delegation’s statements explained that some of the necessary conditions for achieving the goals of Article VI include developing a “responsive production infrastructure” — the ability to build new types of weapons “on demand” — and to improve its non-nuclear forces. It seems unlikely that non-nuclear-weapon states would have signed a treaty that said the nuclear-weapon states can improve, modernize and extend the lifetime of their nuclear weapons as long as they reduce their overall numbers. It is equally unlikely that non-nuclear-weapon states would have signed a treaty if it had said that in exchange for reductions in warhead numbers, the nuclear-weapon states could develop their conventional forces to excessive levels, in addition to developing prompt global strike, anti-missile and space weapon technologies.

Mounting Tensions between Nuclear Haves and Have-nots

On 29 April, the Ambassador of Switzerland noted: The “philosophy of compromise today seems to be reaching its limits. Too many States Parties are now expressing their frustration because, in their view, the promises made during key phases of the history of the NPT have not been kept in each of the three pillars of the Treaty.” He argued that the focus on Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has drawn more and more attention to non-proliferation issues, “thus masking the slowness of nuclear disarmament and indiscriminately fueling fears about the development of civil nuclear programs throughout the world.”

The tension between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states in the NPT is increasing while the trust is deteriorating. By emphasizing the need for further non-proliferation measures without satisfying the international community’s demands for verifiable, irreversible progress on nuclear disarmament, the nuclear-weapon states are undermining the credibility of the Treaty itself. The United States in particular has increased the philosophical gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” by repeatedly calling non-proliferation the core of the NPT, while virtually every other delegation emphasized its commitment to all three pillars of the Treaty. Many non-nuclear-weapon states feel they have compromised all they should and that it is time for the nuclear-weapon states to demonstrate their willingness to fulfill their end of the bargain.

The Way Forward

In order for the 2010 Review Conference to have any chance of success, the concepts of compromise and equality must be rejuvenated among NPT States Parties. This responsibility lies not just with diplomats, but with other government officials — including parliamentarians and mayors — with NGO representatives and with civil society at large. In his statement to the PrepCom, Sergio Duarte, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, described the NPT as a garden that is not self-sustaining, but rather, needs to be cultivated. He said: “The entire review process is essentially an exercise in tending to this NPT garden — to ensure that its various components remain in harmonious balance and that it has the resources it needs.” The successful maintenance of the NPT also requires cultivation by civil society. Civil society groups need to be creative and persistent in engaging our governments and each other. Cooperation and community are essential; progress toward disarmament, peace, security and environmental sustainability requires the development and maintenance of collective and critical consciousness and the determination and capacity to resist the status quo and to create and sustain an alternative. Members of the general public en masse need to engage their governments, to give support for what is being done and ask for what is not — and more importantly, to engage and talk, work, resist, and organize with each other for change.

Resistance sometimes comes in small packages, especially in the field of multilateralism. Participants in the review cycle should focus on specific issues where consensus might be possible and/or where it is most desperately needed in order to preserve (or revive) the NPT’s credibility. Focusing on what is possible now — revitalizing the 13 practical steps, establishing more systematic reporting, moving ahead on the 1995 resolution on the Middle East, establishing a standing NPT secretariat, and promoting disarmament and non-proliferation education — is a legitimate way to generate momentum for compromise, which is the strongest tool for rebuilding trust and making progress. The need for action is urgent, before the spirit of compromise spoken of by the Swiss ambassador evaporates permanently.

Ray Acheson is project associate of Reaching Critical Will, a project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She is editor of the News in Review, a daily newsletter published during NPT PrepComs and Review Conferences, and is associate editor of the Arms Control Reporter.