The P5 Conferences and the Importance of Transparency

Expert government representatives from the NPT’s recognized nuclear weapon states (NWS, known as the P5 as they are also UN Security Council permanent members): China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, will gather in Washington, DC this Wednesday through Friday to discuss their cooperation on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation in the context of the Treaty.

Although the five (with Germany) have received more media attention for their collective efforts and disagreements when pushing through rounds of sanctions against Iran on suspicion that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, the meeting this week will be the third of its kind for the group to focus more intently on how they can further their cooperation in developing the broader three pillars that support the non-proliferation regime: disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear technology, and in particular upon their own disarmament obligations.

This is a rolling program of work on verification, confidence-building and transparency, with previous meetings in London (2009) and in Paris (2011), and has come to focus attempts by NWS to coordinate their moves on the 2010 NPT Action Plan, which requires them to report on their progress to the NPT PrepCom in 2014. China, for example, is leading on producing an agreed glossary of nuclear definitions.

The irony is within a process discussing transparency that itself has to remain quite secretive to retain the confidence of the partners, making it difficult to discern just how helpful these meetings have been. To be sure, nuclear weapons issues have long been top secret, linked to state survival and the threat of proliferation, with political and military leaders unsure whether revealing more details about their nuclear arsenals will make them appear weaker, or spur opponents to race them. The historical balance of power issues and lack of trust between the P5’s members, in addition to potential threats from the few nuclear weapons states that are not parties to the NPT (India, Pakistan, Israel, and possibly North Korea) add to the complexity of improving transparency.

Nevertheless, there has been a limited reveal of the process: at the NPT Preparatory Committee, in communiqués issued at the end of each meeting, and at civil society pre-meetings before the Paris and Washington events involving delegation leaders discussing the context.

BASIC is this week also to publish a briefing by Cormac McGarry on this process, following an earlier BASIC briefing by Andrew Cottey. He suggests ways for France and the UK to champion transparency and bring China further in on the process, whilst Russia and the United States work on sharing more information on their tactical and non-deployed nuclear weapons holdings.

Participants in these meetings know that they will need to produce concrete results in 2014 if the NPT Review Conference in 2015 is to hold any promise in retaining faith in the broader non-proliferation regime.


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