Backgrounder: The ‘P5’ Conferences: Past Meetings and Policy Considerations for Geneva 2013

This background briefing gives context, recent history, and key issues affecting the ‘P5’ meeting of the NPT nuclear weapon states in Geneva this week (April 18th-19th) and speculates as to what is likely to be on the agenda.

The five countries formally recognized under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as nuclear weapon states (NWS: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) have been hosting private meetings since 2009 to discuss their responsibilities and commitments to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament under the NPT. They will meet again this year in Geneva on April 18th – 19th, days before the start of the 2013 NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting, under the chairmanship of the Russian Federation. Discussions will likely continue in order to reaffirm their commitments to implement the 2010 NPT Action Plan as well as their obligations under Article VI of the Treaty. Action 5 of the 64-point Action Plan, commits the NWS to report back to the NPT Preparatory Committee in 2014 on their progress in implementing steps towards nuclear disarmament. It seems likely that what progress they are able to report on will fall short of the concrete results non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) have been calling for.

The roles, responsibilities and international presence of the NWS mark them as a unique group in global nuclear politics. Some argue that there is a clear gap between NWS rhetoric and reality when it comes to their nuclear policies: their statements of commitment to disarmament are undermined by a lack of clear action. Indeed, the extent of their nuclear weapons modernization programs more than hints at a long term commitment to retaining their arsenals.

The NWS are focusing their attention on agreeing steps to achieving greater transparency. They have some way to go. Their own discussions are highly secretive, though they have also been holding side meetings with journalists and NGOs to outline the context of discussions. As a result, there is still very little evidence of what has been achieved by the ‘P5’ meetings in the last four years.

This closed door approach is based upon the need for the five to build mutual trust before the process can be opened up in any constructive way. The project to agree a common glossary of terms being led by China is a positive step towards that goal; the group collectively reflecting upon how core concepts like ‘nuclear deterrence’ apply in the 21st century context.

This ‘P5’ process has evolved out of an attempt to better coordinate positions at NPT meetings within the group. These have led to joint statements, and outside to joint decisions. The latest of these was the decision to stay away from the March 2013 Oslo conference on humanitarian dimensions of nuclear weapons at which 127 countries were represented. Days before the conference kicked off, the NWS issued statements saying that they would not attend, even though some had earlier indicated that they would. French sensitivities in particular had led to the group pulling ranks, and collectively agreeing that this process would ‘divert discussion away from practical steps to create conditions for further nuclear weapons reductions.’ Reference was made in most of the statements to claims that the ‘existing mechanisms such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and conference on disarmament have proven to be the most effective means to increase stability and reduce nuclear dangers’.

Progress on the NPT Action Plan and Article VI is vital in order for the NPT to maintain its credibility. Many have expressed frustration that commitments given at the 2010 Review Conference (RevCon) have remained unfulfilled. This in the context of the damage to the good will from many members states caused by the failure to convene the 2012 Helsinki Conference due to ‘present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not yet reached an agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference’. The blame is likely to land on the shoulders of the three co-sponsoring states (Russia, the U.S., and the UK), and particularly the United States.

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