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Perspectives on the 2019 PrepCom

The APPG met on 22 May 2019 with Ambassador Aidan Liddle and BASIC Executive Director Paul Ingram to discuss the 2019 Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee (NPT PrepCom) which took place from 30 April to 10 May at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Ambassador Liddle, the UK Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, set the scene in which PrepCom had taken place. Due to international tensions, participants were concerned that it would be unduly difficult to reach consensus. However, it appeared as if all actors were aware of how critical the meeting was and were prepared to work towards a positive resolution. Ambassador Liddle highlighted three specific achievements arising from PrepCom:

  1. Agreement on procedural items: Ambassador Rafael Grossi, Argentina’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, was nominated as president of next year’s Review Conference. Additionally, agenda items and related procedural matters which can be an indicator of tension between states were agreed, laying a good foundation for 2020.
  2. Centering dialogue and engagement: During the first week and a half of the conference, delegations largely refrained from attacking other states in their statements. In the corridors and during the side events, diplomats focused on making progress, rather than finger-pointing. The high level of civility and productivity in discourse raises hopes for next year.
  3. The UK’s prominence at PrepCom: The UK ran three side events and its delegation spoke on a wide range of other side events. Ahead of the PrepCom, the UK published a draft of its National Report for next year, which it is seeking further consultation on. This level of transparency was positively received at both the NPT and the Conference on Disarmament.

Despite these positive developments, Ambassador Liddle warned that work remained to be done ahead of 2020. He expressed some hesitancy over the Chair’s recommendations. While the first draft of the Chair’s recommendations was seen as fairly balanced by the UK and Allies, the second draft veered far off what some states could accept. As such, achieving a consensus document at the 2020 Review Conference may be difficult. However, he cautioned against using a consensus document as the only metric of success. A consensus document to which all NPT states can agree could be watered down and it should be remembered that the 1995 Conference which extended the NPT indefinitely contained a ‘package’ of documents instead. Nevertheless, tough decisions will need to be made ahead of next year.

Ambassador Liddle also highlighted the UK’s role as the new Chair of the P5 process. The UK is committed to deepening P5 dialogue on doctrine and postures, and involving expert communities in aspects of this, and the P5 plans to host a side-event at the 2020 RevCon on nuclear doctrine and posture.

Paul Ingram, Executive Director of BASIC, highlighted the need and opportunity for the UK to show leadership on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The BASIC Trident Commission in 2014 highlighted the need for the UK to do more in nuclear disarmament whereas the House of Lords’ International Relations Committee report from April 2019 showcased the progress which has been achieved over the past five years. He suggested that the next challenge for the UK government will be to effectively engage and communicate with the public on nuclear issues.

Mr Ingram noted a number of areas of engaged discussions at PrepCom: Risk reduction emerged as an area of consensus where states could come together and provides an opportunity for middle nuclear powers to take leadership. It also gives NNWS opportunities to engage NWS on the subject of nuclear deterrence and build their understanding of NWS’ security considerations. An area for conflict at RevCon could be how states interpret previous commitments made in the 13 Steps and 64 Point Action Plan in a changed security environment. A compromise will be necessary which takes into account the realities of the new security environment while respecting previously made disarmament obligations. It will be necessary for NWS and NNWS to relearn habits of cooperation.

Mr Ingram agreed with Ambassador Liddle that the UK played a prominent and influential role at PrepCom. For example, China’s national statement referenced nuclear responsibilities at several points, showing that the ‘nuclear responsibilities’ framework pioneered by the UK is being adopted by others.

The speeches were followed by a Q&A session, in which parliamentarians raised the issues of the WMD Free Zone in the Middle East and the importance of a final consensus document for RevCon.

It was noted that the November 2019 Conference on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East has perhaps removed some of the pressure from RevCon. However, there is still uncertainty over the way forward; separating the WMD Free Zone into its own track does not ensure progress in its own right and the Conference remains highly contentious. Nevertheless, the Arab states have signalled an honest intent to engage Israel, and the Conference will not make any decisions without consensus from all parties in the region.

Concerns were raised that the absence of a final outcome document in 2020 would make it very difficult to sell any ‘success’ publicly, and 2020 could be seen as merely a repetition of the 2015 conference. There is a need to re-think how the disarmament community presents success or failure in 2020 in order to minimise the impact of whether a joint outcome document is reached.


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