2015 NPT Review Conference – expectations versus reality

Heightened international tensions, ongoing regional conflicts and disputes, and unresolved security concerns have always led to a challenging atmosphere at NPT Review Conferences throughout the Treaty’s 45 years. The 2005 Review Conference took place amidst a strained political climate following the invasion of Iraq and the deeply unpopular unilateralism of the Bush Administration. The 2010 conference fared better, yielding an elaborate 64-point Action Plan for global nuclear disarmament, preventing further proliferation of nuclear weapons and promoting civilian uses of nuclear energy – in other words, the three key pillars of the NPT.

Expectations are that the Review Conference will end this week without a final document, a repeat of 2005 rather than 2010. Numerous international events have conspired against an atmosphere conducive to productive discussions. North Korea conducted a third nuclear test in 2013, and Russian annexation of Crimea and subversive activities in Eastern Ukraine has left the transatlantic region restless. Russian and American arms control relationships have hit a roadblock over American missile defense plans in Europe, development of precision-strike technology and the alleged Russian INF treaty violation. Russian dependency upon nuclear weapons to maintain strategic balance appears to be increasing. The Middle East has been mired in an ever-increasing number of conflicts, the latest involving Saudi air strike intervention in Yemen’s civil war, increasing the difficulties for any talks of elimination of weapons of mass destruction from the region.

However the conference is facing another set of serious challenges coming from the inside of the NPT regime. Glaring failures to advance nuclear disarmament objectives codified in the treaty and subsequent consensus agreements at previous Review Conferences, a growing list of initiatives that have been dormant for many years in the Conference on Disarmament now and the perceived imbalance in enforcement between the NPT pillars combine with international security events to create a particularly difficult atmosphere, which is very prone to erratic behavior and a tendency for coalitions of the willing on issues of importance to some parties to the Treaty. There are no signs yet that the parties are close to achieving a consensus on ways of advancing the treaty objectives and producing an outcome document that would build on the 2010 action plan in a constructive and effective manner.

There are three strands of issues that are playing a particularly significant role in the discussion this week.

Firstly, there is the lack of progress over realizing the goal of nuclear disarmament by the five NPT-defined nuclear weapons states. This has always been an issue at the heart of the regime, but which has not seen significant practical implementation of the consensual action plans arising from previous NPT review conferences (especially 2000 and 2010). There appears to be a lack of confidence on the part of the nuclear weapon states in moving beyond arms control to true disarmament (beyond reductions whilst maintaining existing doctrines), and few answers that translate the commitments into a road map that meets the expressed security concerns of those states. The gulf remains between these states, unwilling to disarm in a manner that involves perceived risks to security or status, and the majority of the international community, that demands they do so regardless. There is little consensus on what conditions are necessary to facilitate the elimination of all nuclear arsenals. The failure to exert a strong political will to implement the disarmament elements of the 64-point Action Plan contributes to the concerns that the treaty’s legitimacy is on the line. What do the nuclear weapon states have to show for five years of the P5 multilateral dialogue on disarmament issues? A glossary of terms and an agreement on a common reporting framework to improve transparency between the nuclear armed states. Disarmament feels as far off as ever it did before the process began. Whilst the total number of nuclear weapons may have come down by a half from the levels and numbers at the height of the Cold War, progress since 2010 has been minimal.

Secondly, progress on developing global disarmament and non-proliferation building blocks has stalled. The failure to convene a conference on a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East is particularly notable. This was a prerequisite presented by the Non-Aligned Movement to their agreement on an indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 twenty years ago. As of today, the subsequent 2012 deadline has long passed, with much of the groundwork for the conference prepared, but no agreement on the scope and agenda. NAM has been deeply critical and an Egyptian delegate at the Review Conference called for the removal of the sponsors (UK, US and Russia) and Ambassador Jaakko Lajava from his role of the conference facilitator, and putting the responsibility in the hands of the UN Secretary General.

Key members of the international community have failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), so it exists in a limbo. It requires only six more ratifications to enter into force, whereas the sensor network and administrative structures to guide its operation have been up and running for several years now. The Fissile Material (Cut-off) Treaty (FM(c)T) remains stuck at the pre-negotiations phase at the Conference on Disarmament, which for years has been unable to agree on an agenda of work. Several other initiatives languish on the agenda with little sign of progress.

Third, new emerging challenges are arriving in addition to this old, apparently stale agenda. Tired of the gridlock, non-nuclear weapon states have driven the movement on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. This has significant potential to play an important role in highlighting the risk and scale of irreversible damage resulting from even a small nuclear explosion, and thereby raising the bar on the threat to use them and the utility they are perceived to have. The idea of ‘closing the legal gap on disarmament within the NPT’ and establishing a ban on nuclear weapons has grown out of this movement. It remains unclear how a legal ban only involving states already legally committed to refrain from possessing nuclear weapons would drive forward the agenda beyond a symbolic action. The nuclear armed states, for their part, complain that these are rushed ideas that do nothing to address their security concerns, nor create the conditions for disarmament. There are clear fears that raising the temperature of the regime in this way will only highlight divisions and force states to pick sides, turning a process that has potential for collaboration between states with different interests and approaches into one of division and righteous recrimination. Such behavior could undermine the multilateral achievements in the field of non-proliferation arms control and nuclear warheads dismantlement that require input and engagement from all groups of states for their success.

In all likelihood, if there is a final document that emerges this week from the Conference, it will inevitably be a lackluster restatement of previous commitments expressing a holding pattern. It is difficult to imagine an outcome that effectively addresses the concerns that the NPT framework for cooperation and limiting the nuclear threat, which took years and billions of pounds to build and maintain, risks unraveling in the near future. The experience this month must surely be a wake-up call for all Foreign Ministries to recommit to the international process, understanding that national priorities must be reconciled with the international common interests to reverse the spread of nuclear weapons and move towards zero. This will require deep and permanent shifts in the tone of discussions on disarmament, changes in urgency of many issues, and innovative ways of engaging on issues of common concern. While these are much less tangible than an official UN document detailing actions and timescales, they are certainly no less valid.

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