Photo: Jayantha Dhanapala. Credit: CTBTO - Photo: 2017

2020 NPT Review Conference Needs Innovative Strategies

By Jayantha Dhanapala

“ . . . and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” – Shakespeare: Twelfth Night

Note: The first Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will meet from May 2 to 12, 2017 in Vienna, Austria. Following the text of a Policy Brief Jayantha Dhanapala – a former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka – did for the Asia Pacific Leaders Network (APLN) middle of March 2017. It is being reproduced with the permission of the author who currently serves as the 11th President of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, These are his personal views.

KANDY, Sri Lanka (IDN-INPS) – The Preparatory Committee, open to all State parties to the Treaty, is responsible for addressing substantive and procedural issues related to the Treaty, and the forthcoming Review Conference, based on the strengthened review process for the NPT established in 1995. The Chair-designate of the first session is Ambassador Henk Cor Van der Kwast of the Netherlands.

Thus begins the tenth review cycle of the NPT since its signature in 1968 and its entry into force in 1970. Held in accordance with Article VIII: 3 of the Treaty, 2020 will also be the fifth review conference since the watershed 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference which adopted Decision 1 “Strengthening the Review Process for the Treaty” as part of the “package” adopted.

That decision was supposed to have been part of a trade off for the indefinite extension of the NPT by empowering the State parties with a stronger review process. That it was a specious promise by the nuclear weapon states and their allies has been proved by the actual events post 1995, and the fact that two of the Review Conferences (2005 and 2015) ended as failures without the adoption of Final Documents.

Picking up the debris of the 2015 Conference with problems such as the unfulfilled Article VI bargain on nuclear disarmament, the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, and other issues are formidable enough, but doing so in a dramatically different (and still to be fully unravelled) political order under the newly elected President Donald Trump of the USA and the distraction of a rival show in town is worse.

The other Multilateral Conference

To add to the problems embedded in the NPT itself, is the fact that there is a parallel multilateral process which is stealing the limelight and could eventually overshadow this NPT Review cycle.

In the UN General Assembly in 2016, a number of non nuclear weapon countries from the Global South joined with others to ensure the adoption of Resolution 71/258 “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations”. This Resolution decided that a UN conference should be convened in 2017 “to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons leading towards their total elimination”. The Conference is meeting from March 27-31 and will have its second session from June 15 – July 7, 2017. The resolution was adopted on December 23, 2016 by a large majority, with 113 UN member states voting in favour, 35 voting against and 13 abstaining. One report said support was strongest among the nations of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. [1]

At a UN budget committee meeting earlier, the United States attracted the ire of other nations when it objected to a funding request for the planned four weeks of negotiations on the treaty, to be held at UN headquarters in New York.

However, under intense pressure from supporters of nuclear disarmament, it eventually withdrew its objection, and the committee authorized the request. The organizational meeting for the conference was held in New York on February 16 and elected as Conference President, Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gómez of Costa Rica, an experienced diplomat from a country with impeccable disarmament credentials, with no standing army. 

Prior to the UNGA vote, at the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, which deals with disarmament and international security matters, 123 nations voted in favour of the resolution, with 38 against and 16 abstaining. A total of 57 nations were co-sponsors, with Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa taking the lead in drafting the resolution.

The UN vote came just hours after the European Parliament adopted its resolution on this subject – 415 in favour and 124 against, with 74 abstentions – inviting European Union member states to “participate constructively” in next year’s negotiations.[2] Recent opinion polls in a number of countries show overwhelming support for the elimination of nuclear weapons in a number of countries. A strong coalition of NGOs has also been mobilized.[3]

The link between the NPT and Nuclear Weapon Ban Conference

Ireland, credited with the origins of the NPT in the UN, was significantly at the helm of the Nuclear Weapon Ban resolution and explained the link between the NPT and the Nuclear Weapon Ban Conference thus:

The masonry metaphors, of foundation, cornerstones and pillars, while effective, should not cause a false interpretation of the NPT as something set in stone or frozen in time. Like all treaties, it is a living document and it never claimed to be the last word, envisaging in Article VI further effective measures and a complementary treaty. There is a dynamic tension at the heart of the treaty, a grand bargain which does not preserve forever any right to nuclear weapons but rather acknowledges the reality of their existence while the process of disarmament is taken forward. “Taking forward” are the operative words here, for there has been little perceptible progress on the multilateral nuclear disarmament pillar under the NPT and today marks the beginning of the first multilateral nuclear weapons negotiations since the CTBT over twenty years ago, a treaty which regrettably has still not entered into force, despite its ever increasing importance. We cannot ignore the wider security situation, nor should we. There has been a worrying decrease in the taboo around threat of use; there are persistent illegal nuclear tests; there is vast investment in so-called modernization with talk of more strategic, more targeted, more usable nuclear weapons. The very idea that any nuclear weapon could ever be used again and in some sort of controlled way is one of the most dangerous to have emerged in the current discourse. Nuclear weapons are the most powerful and most indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction ever invented. Knowing what we know now about their catastrophic consequences and the impossibility of any adequate humanitarian response, we must do everything to ensure that they are never used again”[4]

This surge of support from a majority of the world’s non-nuclear-weapon States for a nuclear weapon ban identified as one of the three pillars of the NPT and the essence of Article VI coming as it does after the Humanitarian Initiative wave is most significant. NATO countries like Netherlands has shown itself to be partial to the idea of a ban, and nuclear weapon possessing countries like China, Pakistan, and India have abstained on the UNGA vote and may participate in the Nuclear Ban Conference, albeit unenthusiastically.

Two separate but parallel multilateral processes

The question arises as to whether there will be two separate but parallel multilateral processes for nuclear disarmament (since the NPT review process will focus on Article VI) taking place or whether there will be a confluence. The Nuclear Ban Conference according to the dates agreed, is only for 2017 but it is very likely that it will be extended beyond 2017; the NPT Review cycle of course goes on till 2020.

One of the few instances of parallel processes like this in multilateral disarmament was when the Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) had a process on the control of landmines falling short of an outright ban, whereas the NGO community led by Jody Williams of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) negotiated a Mine Ban Convention or the Ottawa Treaty outside the UN framework.[5] A similar development took place on banning Cluster Munitions.[6]

The likely impact of this parallel processes on each other are:

  • NWS and their allies will favour the NPT Review process while many NNWS will favour the Nuclear Ban Conference. Progress in one will be held hostage for progress in the other
  • Both will fail for lack of consensus with mutual recrimination.

Dealing with the detritus of 2015

2015 NPT Review Conference. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

I have dealt with the different approaches to the NPT in my previous writing.[7] I quote:

“Commentators on the NPT usually fall into two categories. One group, the nationals of NWS and their allies, believe in arms control (as distinct from disarmament) predicated on the retention of nuclear arms by the five NWS and the strict prohibition of any proliferation of these weapons to other states. Their commentaries are preoccupied with dangers to the NPT arising from breakouts from the regime, with the current suspects being Iran (these suspicions being largely allayed by the JCPOA), Syria, and North Korea (although the latter has already announced its withdrawal from the NPT, has conducted two nuclear tests, and is believed to have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons). A second group comes from NNWS, largely from countries within the NAM. These commentators believe in both arms control and disarmament, and they identify the lack of progress by NWS in implementing Article VI as equally, if not more, important in comparison to the core Articles I and II. They see the NPT as a transitional stage toward a nuclear-weapons-free world.

The debate revolves around, on the one hand, a common identification of three pillars that support the NPT—nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—and, on the other, a sharp disagreement over the comparative importance of each pillar. That disagreement is routinely papered over with adroit diplomacy and drafting skills at NPT review conferences, when a final document can be agreed upon by consensus. But the discord invariably reappears as the next review conference approaches.”

Considering the causes for the failure of the 2015 Review Conference, the following issues will have to be addressed in the coming NPT Review cycle while asserting the strengthened review process – Article VI issues: the proposed Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone; the success of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with regard to Iran; the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and of course the external threats to the integrity of the NPT by NWS trying to smuggle India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group conferring benefits normally reserved for Non-nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) within the NPT to outliers. And if India comes first can Israel be far behind given the Trump-Netanyahu axis?

Tariq Rauf in analyzing the failure of the 2015 Review Conference[8] has written:

In sum, the failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference can be placed on the inflexibility of many delegations, improper implementation of the strengthened review process and an absence of leadership. Though the Treaty will continue in force, the failure in 2015 is deeply disappointing as it represents a wasted opportunity to advance the objectives and goals of the NPT, which is universally regarded as the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament regime.

This failure means that the agreed ‘64 actions’ of the 2010 NPT Review “been lost to agree on ways and means of strengthening the NPT regime. While the NPT will survive, the credibility of the regime has been severely damaged by the inflexibility of states parties and dangerous new tendencies and developments are on the rise. These include an unchecked resurgence in the saliency of nuclear weapons in European security, setbacks for reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons, increasing discord both between and amongst the NNWS and NWS, deteriorating confidence in the NPT by the Arab states parties, and an overall loss of credibility in the nuclear disarmament pillar of the NPT.”

Enter the Trump Phenomenon

Never before has a U.S. President caused so much disruption to normal policy and threatened strategic stability with his reckless statements and actions. A toxic mix of populism, nationalist bigotry, protectionism in trade and intolerant racist exclusivism is challenging the post World War II liberal democratic international order which the U.S. helped to create and underpin.

Beyond the appointments at the helm of the departments of State, Defence, CIA and other relevant bodies we have no details of the team which will handle the NPT review cycle over the next three years. Will they have the experience and background expertise? While a U.S. Nuclear Posture Review might well be expected there is no policy statement so far on the Trump Administration’s nuclear policies except for the extravagant boast that the US should have the greatest arsenal and that more nuclear weapon states in the world the better – a wild extension of Kenneth Waltz’s theory[9] that some proliferation can help keep international peace. We have therefore no reliable guidance on Trump policies.

The Chicago-based ‘Bulletin for Atomic Scientists’ made their reaction abundantly clear by moving the Doomsday Clock to 2 ½ minutes to Midnight[10] – such is their dire perception of the risk of nuclear war under Trump.

The Washington-based ‘Arms Control Association’ commented editorially-

“Trump should certainly engage with Russia, but in a manner consistent with long-standing U.S. policies that advance core national and allied security interests in four key areas. Reduce nuclear tensions. To start, the two leaders could reaffirm the statement by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” They should also reaffirm their commitment to the quarter-century-long U.S. and Russian moratoria on nuclear weapons test explosions and the prompt entry into force of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which both have signed but only Russia has ratified.

As President Barrack Obama noted in his final press conference, “[T] here remains a lot of room for both countries to reduce our nuclear stockpiles.” With up to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons allowed under New START, Russia and the United States can safely cut their bloated nuclear stockpiles further without negotiating a new treaty. By agreeing to extend New START and its verification provisions by five years, to 2026, Trump and Putin could confidently pursue further, significant parallel reductions of warhead and delivery system inventories by one-third or more and still meet their respective nuclear deterrence requirements”[11]

Already U.S. policy on the Middle East shows very pro-Israeli tendencies (e.g. flexibility on the sacrosanct two-state solution; move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem etc.) and the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (MEWMDFZ) proposal is not likely to make any headway under Trump. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are under notice that they have been identified as a serious threat to the U.S.

In this climate no constructive approach to the NPT seems likely and even U.S. allies in NATO will be hard put to support the swashbuckling Trump policies within the NPT context. The sharp divergence in NPT policies between the EU and the USA cannot be bridged easily. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which should be celebrated as a triumph of non-proliferation achieved through patient but belated diplomacy is denounced by Trump as a bad deal.

The Future of the NPT

Tariq Rauf has set out recommendations for the conduct of the 2020 Review Conference in the SIPRI E-book co-authored by Dhanapala and Rauf.[12] It says:

“The effective implementation of a well-designed, results-oriented, strengthened review process is central to the fulfilment of the principle of ‘permanence with accountability’.

  • The 2020 Review Conference should address two basic questions: ‘For what are states parties accountable?’; and ‘How is that accountability to be exercised’?
  • The strengthened review process must be ‘product-oriented’ and structured to facilitate the attainment of the objectives of permanence with accountability, which entails accountability by all NPT states for compliance with and the fulfillment of undertakings under the Treaty, the 2010–2000 final documents and the 1995 decisions and resolution.
  • The 2020 Conference should prepare and adopt by consensus a Final Document that makes recommendations on the implementation of the Treaty and Review Conference decisions and outcomes over the period 2020–2025, and also reviews implementation over the period 2015–2020.
  • Every effort must be made to adopt by consensus the review part of the Final Document, failing which the different points of view of states parties should be reflected. The forward-looking part, however, must be adopted by consensus in order to ensure the buy-in of all states parties.
  • The Chair of each Main Committee should also serve as the Chair of the respective Subsidiary Body, with the Vice Chairs of the committees assisting in the chairing of the Main Committees.
  • Given the special status of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East, a Friend of the President/Chair or ‘Special Coordinator’ should be appointed to facilitate review of the implementation of the 1995 Resolution and the relevant 2000 and 2010 recommendations and actions, and also prepare the recommendations/actions in this regard for the 2020–2025 period for adoption by the 2020 Review Conference. The Friend of the President/Chair or Special Coordinator would report to the President of the 2020 Conference through the Chair of Main Committee II.
  • It might be desirable for the President to dispense with a formal Presidents’ Consultations group and instead engage in frequent and wide-ranging consultations on an ongoing basis with political, regional, sub regional and issue-specific groupings. Negotiations on hard issues and differences should be carried out in the open in the presence of all states parties.”

While implementing the above recommendations will help keep the NPT on life support till the next Review Conference there is little hope that the NPT will become the robust regime it must be to achieve all three pillars of its foundation uniformly.

The question then arises on whether the NPT has not outlived its usefulness. With many regions under the self discipline of nuclear weapon free zones only the NATO region sheltering under the nuclear umbrella of the US, UK and France; North-east Asia with Japan under the US nuclear protection; South Asia with India and Pakistan already in possession of nuclear weapons and the Middle East with Israel armed with nuclear weapons remain potential areas for further nuclear weapon proliferation. If the nuclear ban movement gathers momentum together with the Humanitarian Initiative and the Austrian Pledge the relevance of the NPT will be greatly reduced. This can be manifested through several steps such as:

  • A mass non-attendance of NNWS states-parties or, more dramatically, a mass exit of NNWS exercising their sovereign rights under Article X. It will be a dramatic illustration of the fact that the NNWS prefer the legal renunciation of nuclear weapons under a universal ban of these weapons rather than through a skewed and unbalanced NPT
  • The triggering of the amendment route as a political pressure tactic. I have discussed this extensively in my Pugwash Issue Brief Volume 6 No.1 of March 2010.[13] The frustration experienced by NNWS may be vented through this route.
  • The presentation of a resolution demanding action on Article VI be put to a vote at the 2020 NPT Review Conference and making the connection between the Conference on a Nuclear Weapon Ban and the NPT Review Conference.


The vast majority of the NNWS have demonstrated their rejection of nuclear weapons as a national security choice long before NPT. Conclusive evidence of this is the fact that the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, preceded the NPT. In other words, NNWS did not need the dubious and largely unimplemented incentives of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in Article IV and the nuclear disarmament provisions in Article VI to agree not to seek nuclear weapons for themselves.

The Nuclear Ban Conference and not yet another fruitless NPT Review Conference is the logical sequence of the many initiatives taken by the NNWS led by the Global South in general and by NAM in particular. I end with an excerpt from my remarks at the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Tlatelolco in Mexico City on 14 February, 2017

“Ambassador García Robles referred in his acceptance speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to the foundation document of Pugwash – the 1955 London Manifesto – and to its founder President Lord Bertrand Russell. Garcia Robles was an eloquent and persistent voice against the global threat posed by the very existence of nuclear weapons, and he reminded his audience in Oslo that in his words:   – “To correctly appraise that threat it will suffice to recall that the United Nations General Assembly unanimously declared in 1978, at its first special session devoted to disarmament, that it is ‘the very survival of mankind’ which finds itself threatened by “the existence of nuclear weapons and the continuing arms race”.

Similar reasons, no doubt, moved Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell to declare in their historic Manifesto of 1955, that they were speaking “not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt”. Their conclusion that we have “to learn to think in a new way” is, unfortunately, as timely and relevant today as when it was spoken over a half century ago.”

The non-nuclear-weapon states, have long learned to think as human beings under an existential threat since the invention of the most destructive weapon and its uses by the USA in 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The possession by nine countries of an estimated 15,395 nuclear warheads — over 4000 of which are deployed — is a frightening reality. The explosion of just one — intentionally, accidentally, by state or non-state actors — can have catastrophic consequences with far-reaching climatic and genetic results. Under pressure from world public opinion, the nuclear-weapon states have largely confined their negotiations to arms control with partial cuts of their arsenals, mainly in the form of negotiated caps on deployments of strategic nuclear weapons.

Bolder steps have been taken by the non-nuclear-weapon states. Tracing the history of disarmament, apart from the many nuclear-weapon free zones that have been concluded covering the Global South, it was the initiative of non-nuclear-weapon states in the 1976 Non-aligned Summit in Colombo that led to the historic First Special Session of the UNGA in 1978. The PTBT and eventually the CTBT though not in force as yet was achieved through pressure from the non-nuclear-weapon states. The same states led the Humanitarian Initiative where three international conferences affirmed the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.

The Nuclear Weapons Ban Movement and the NPT Review process are two horse carriages running side by side. Both need two groups of riders – the NWS and the NNWS. There is no doubt that the Nuclear Ban Conference is supported by the overwhelming majority of NNWS and represents the conscience of humankind.

If by the end of 2017 the Trump Administration has been able to begin the negotiations of a new START with the Russian Federation the tension between the two negotiating processes will diminish. Equally important is the role to be played by the other nuclear weapon possessor countries – China, India, Pakistan and DPRK – as well as the nuclear umbrella protected countries: Japan, Australia, ROK and NATO. In any event some major innovative strategies will be necessary to revive the NPT Review process if the 2020 Review Conference is to be a success. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 March 2017]

Photos: (Top) Jayantha Dhanapala | Credit: UNODA. | (Middle) 2015 NPT Review Conference. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

[1] For further information refer United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) website. Available from:

[2] Contrary pressures are revealed in the following NATO Directive- Note by the Secretary, United States Non-Paper:” Defense Impacts of Potential United Nations General Assembly Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty” Committee on Proliferation (CP), AC/333-N (2016) 0029 (INV) North Atlantic Council (NATO).

[3]Ray Acheson, (2007), Banning nuclear weapons: principles and elements for a legally binding instrument, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Available from: (Accessed on 09 March,2017).

[4] Statement by Ireland, Diplomatic conference to negotiate a new legal instrument for the prohibition of nuclear weapons leading to their total elimination-Organizational Meeting, 16 February 2017, United Nations, New York [online] Available at: (Accessed on 09/03/17).

[5] For further information refer United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) website. Available at:

[6] Delegates from 107 nations agreed to the final draft of the treaty at the end of a ten-day meeting held in May 2008 in Dublin, Ireland. Its text was formally adopted on 30 May 2008 by 107 nations including 7 of the 14 countries that have used cluster bombs and 17 of the 34 countries that have produced them. The treaty was opposed by a number of countries that produce or stockpile significant quantities of cluster munitions, including China, Russia, the United States, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Brazil. The U.S. has acknowledged humanitarian concerns abut the use of cluster munitions, but insisted that the proper venue for a discussion of cluster munitions was a forum attached to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which includes all major military powers.

[7] Jayantha Dhanapala, “The NPT: A Bear Pit or Threshold to a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World?,” Steven E. Miller, (2012), Nuclear Collisions: Discord, Reform & the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime, with responses from Wael Al-Assad, Jayantha Dhanapala, C. Raja Mohan, and Ta Minh Tuan, Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences [online] Available from: (Accessed on 09 March 2017).

[8]Tariq Rauf, (2015),The 2015 NPT Review Conference: setting the record straight Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). [online] Available from: (Accessed on 07 March,2017).

[9] Kenneth Waltz, (1981), “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May. Better,” Adelphi Papers, Number 171, London: International. Institute for Strategic Studies.

[10] John Mecklin (ed.), “It is two and a half minutes before midnight -2017 Doomsday Clock Statement,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, [online] Available at: (Accessed on 09/03,17).

[11] Daryl G. Kimball, (2017), “A President in Need of a Russia Policy,” Arms Control Today, Arms Control Association, [online] Available at: (Accessed on 09/03/17).

[12] Jayantha Dhanapala and Tariq Rauf , (eds.), (2010), “Reflections on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons-Review Conferences and the Future of the NPT Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). [online] Available from: (Accessed on 09/03/17).

[13] Jayantha Dhanapala,(2010), “Planning for the 2010 NPT Review Conference: A Practitioners Overview,” Pugwash Issue Brief, Volume 6, Number 1[online]Available at: (Accessed on 09/03/17).

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