Photo: Chair Syed Hussin addresses the 2019 NPT PrepCom. Credit: Alicia Sanders-Zakre, Arms Control Association. - Photo: 2019

Fiddling While the Nuclear Arms Control Architecture Collapses

Viewpoint by Tariq Rauf

Just as the senators of Rome fiddled away while the city burned, today’s diplomats seem helpless in averting the total collapse of nuclear arms control thus paving the way for a dangerous new nuclear arms race with increased risks of accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons. Tariq Rauf was Alternate Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) NPT Delegation 2002-2010, and has attended all NPT meetings as an official delegate since 1987 through 2019. Personal views are expressed here.

NEW YORK (IDN) – The third and final session of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) fizzled out in disagreements over the pace and extent of nuclear disarmament at United Nations headquarters in New York.

At the NPT PrepCom held from April 28 through May 10, 2019, representatives of 150 States parties took part in the discussions, 106 statements were made in the General Debate followed by scores of sometimes repetitive statements under three “clusters” of issues: (1) nuclear disarmament and security assurances; (2) nuclear verification (IAEA safeguards), nuclear weapon-free zones, regional issues including with respect to the Middle East, and North Korea and South Asia; and (3) peaceful uses of nuclear energy, NPT review process and provisions for withdrawal from the Treaty.

In 2020, the NPT will mark its 50 years in force since 1970 and 25 years since the Treaty was extended in 1995 to remain in force indefinitely, i.e. permanently. The NPT with 191 States parties is widely considered to be the cornerstone of the global nuclear governance regime covering nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

It is considered to be a major success in halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons and has contained their possession to nine States (USA, USSR/Russian Federation, UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea – in that chronological order) – though the last three States listed never signed the NPT and North Korea withdrew from the Treaty in 2003.

Many Western States are focusing on marking the Golden Jubilee of the NPT in 2020 through highlighting the widespread peaceful applications of nuclear energy such as, for example, in agriculture, electricity production, human health and salinity, and strengthening the nuclear verification capabilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency; while downplaying the failure to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons.

On the other side, many non-nuclear-weapon States from Asia, Africa and Latin America are pointing out the promise of the NPT to end the age of nuclear weapons remains largely unfulfilled.

In general, at NPT meetings States set themselves up in political groupings, the largest of which is the Group of Non-Aligned States (NAM) numbering around 122; the Western and Others Group (WEOG) that includes Western countries (EU, NATO, Canada, USA) along with Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand; and the Eastern Group that includes the Russian Federation, Belarus, Hungary, Poland and some other East European countries (even though some are in the EU and NATO).

In addition, there are issue-based groupings, such as: the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) with Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa; the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) with Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates; the Vienna Group of Ten with Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden; the “de-alerting” (of nuclear weapons) group with Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden and Switzerland; the “P-5” nuclear-weapon States (China, France, Russian Federation, UK and USA); the Group of Arab States, among others.

Thus, there is a bewildering array of groupings of States each pushing their converging and diverging views and as a result making the achievement of consensus or agreement even more difficult.

The mandate of the Preparatory Committee is two-fold: (1) to complete the procedural preparations for the next review conference which include agreement on the dates of the next two sessions of the PrepCom, the rules of procedure, the agenda and programme of work, and endorsement of the President of the review conference; and (2) to make “recommendations” on issues pertaining to the “three pillars” of the Treaty – nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, in addition to security assurances for non-nuclear-weapon States and regional issues.

This year’s session of the PrepCom, like its predecessors, managed to complete the procedural preparations and endorsed in principle the candidacy of Ambassador Rafael Grossi (Permanent Representative of Argentina to the International Atomic Energy Agency and other international organizations in Vienna) as President of the 2020 NPT Review Conference. However, as in previous years, States parties were unable to overcome their deep differences and thus did not agree on any “recommendations” even though these are only indicative and not binding for the review conference.

While much ink was spilled on concerns and allegations regarding the current sorry state of international relations, political and military conflicts, decline of multilateralism in favour of unilateralism and pursuit of narrow national interests, in effect the gathered diplomats fiddled verbally unable to do anything to prevent the collapsing architecture of nuclear arms control.

The U.S. has unilaterally withdrawn from the 2015 “Iran nuclear deal” even though 14 successive reports from the IAEA confirm that Iran is implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding limits on its nuclear programme, the 1987 U.S.-USSR Treaty on Intermediate- and Shorter-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) is on track to be killed off, and the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and the Russian Federation is set to expire in February 2021 unless renewed.

Just as the senators of Rome fiddled away while the city burned, today’s diplomats seem helpless in averting the total collapse of nuclear arms control thus paving the way for a dangerous new nuclear arms race with increased risks of accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons.  

The Roots of Division and Discord

Nuclear disarmament

From the very first NPT review conference held in 1975, and every five years thereafter, the main area of division and discord is nuclear disarmament as required under Article VI of the Treaty. The five nuclear-weapon States (NWS) parties, along with their allies, traditionally have linked disarmament to national and international security considerations, as well as to disarmament covering conventional and other types of weapons.

In contrast, in general, most of the non-nuclear-weapon States have emphasized the implementation of NPT Article VI. Over the years, the Western States have promoted a so-called “step-by-step approach”, or “building blocks” to achieve disarmament – i.e., the NPT to be followed by a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, then a fissile material control treaty, and then other unspecified steps. In contrast, the NAM have been proposing a phased programme and a specified time frame for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons through a nuclear weapons convention.

At the 2000 NPT review conference, the NWS agreed on an unequivocal undertaking towards the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals through 13 practical steps for systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI of the Treaty in accordance with the principles of transparency, verifiability and irreversibility.

And, at the 2010 NPT review conference reference was made to the catastrophic consequences of any use of nuclear weapons that led to three international conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons – Oslo (2013), Nayarit (2014) and Vienna (2014).

These were followed by UN General Assembly mandated “Open-ended Working Groups to develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations” that met in 2013-2014 and in 2016 – these meetings were boycotted by the NWS and their allies. In 2016, the General Assembly, on a vote of 123 in favour, 68 opposed and 16 abstentions, mandated negotiations in 2017 on a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.

These negotiations, again boycotted by the NWS and their allies, led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that was adopted by 122 States in July 2017 – currently it has 70 signatories with 23 ratifications, and will enter into force when 50 States have ratified. The TPNW has further exacerbated divisions between its supporters and opponents, NATO as well as the five NWS and India and Pakistan have vociferously opposed the TPNW.

The proponents of the TPNW wisely opted not to make this treaty the centrepiece of their statements in the disarmament cluster thus disappointing the strident opponents who feared that the PrepCom would be “highjacked” by the TPNW. A new element, however, was introduced by the U.S. at the 2018 NPT PrepCom in Geneva when it proposed “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament” (CCND), sweeping aside previously agreed measures from the 1995, 2000 and 2010 NPT review conferences.

At this year’s PrepCom the U.S. reformulated its CCND proposal to “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND) and based its new approach on the grounds that the “step-by-step” approach had failed to deliver results and thus a completely new track was needed to create the conditions and environment that could lead to further nuclear arms reductions involving all possessors of nuclear weapons.

The U.S.’ CEND approach has left its unquestioning loyal allies, who have doggedly supported the step-by-step or building blocks or “stepping stones” approaches, squirming in the cesspool of unilateralism and dreaming of butterflies and unicorns to appear magically and sprinkle fairy dust leading to a new vision and new world of uncharted nuclear arms control.

Middle East

In addition to discord and divisions over nuclear disarmament, the second contentious issue concerns the establishment of a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the region of the Middle East (MEWMDFZ). At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference the decision had to be taken on the future course of the Treaty.

In order to get the support of the States of the Arab Group and of Iran, the three depositary States of the NPT – the Russian Federation (USSR), UK and the USA – co-sponsored a Resolution on the MEWMDFZ that became an integral part of the inter-linked package that allowed for the indefinite extension of the NPT. The 2000 NPT review conference called upon Israel by name to accede to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon State and for the implementation of the 1995 resolution. The 2010 NPT review conference mandated a regional conference on the zone to be convened by 2012; however, the U.S. unilaterally postponed that conference leading to criticism by the Arab States, Iran, the Russian Federation and the NAM. The 2015 NPT review conference collapsed into failure when the U.S. followed by Canada and the UK vetoed a proposal to hold such a conference by 2016 under the aegis of the UN Secretary-General.

In 2018, the General Assembly adopted a decision by vote mandated the UN Secretary-General to convene a MEWMDFZ conference before the end of 2019. According to unconfirmed reports circulating at the PrepCom, it is alleged that some Western States are working behind the scene to prevent the convening of such a conference, but it is known that some States remain opposed to the proposals advanced by the Arab States.

In general, led by the U.S., Western Group and EU States, have opposed putting pressure on Israel to attend such a conference leading to unhappiness and anger on the part of the Arab States, Iran and NAM. This issue once again stumped agreement at the 2019 NPT PrepCom. Even though now there are serious divisions between some members of the Arab Group, and also with Iran and Syria; nonetheless on the matter of the MEWMDFZ the group manages to coalesce behind a common position.

The Blame Game

Given the precipitous decline in international relations over the past few years, not surprisingly there is growing fatigue and frustration in the inability and powerlessness of the majority of non-NWS to move on nuclear disarmament through the NPT review process. Consequently, many diplomats and research institute experts are flailing around attacking the efficacy of the review process, while largely ignoring the corrosive effects of worsening political relations, hardened positions, lack of flexibility, decline in negotiating skills for compromise and growing ignorance of the sophistication of the strengthened review process.

NPT review conferences were never designed to be forums for either negotiating legally binding treaties or conventions on nuclear weapons, for nuclear verification measures for IAEA safeguards, or for battling over major international political controversies and resolving differences especially relating to ‘compliance’ with IAEA safeguards by non-NWS.

Since 2014 in particular, the NPT review process has been eroding and deteriorating with loss of civility and respect in discourse, lack of political will and competence to develop common ground in support of the NPT, retracting agreed steps and actions under the NPT review process, disregard of international law while touting the preservation of a so-called “rules based international order”, and blaming the review process for the inability of States parties to join hands to strengthen the integrity and authority of the NPT.

Just as the band playing on the deck of the Titanic could not prevent its sinking, diplomats are unable and unwilling to reverse the steady undermining of the NPT strengthened review process as they persist in defending entrenched positions, are unwilling to find common ground in the interest of preserving the NPT, and are failing to fully implement the relevant guidance from the 1995, 2000 and 2010 NPT review conferences.

Chairman’s Draft Recommendations

In accordance with the mandate for the third and final session of the PrepCom to prepare a report containing recommendations to the review conference, the Chairman, Ambassador Syed Mohamad Hasrin (of Malaysia), circulated his draft report to delegations on May 3. The draft recommendations which on the whole were relatively balanced and broadly reflected the views of States, inter alia, included:

  • Reaffirmation of the commitment to promote the full implementation of the provisions of the Treaty, as well as the reaffirmation of the previous commitments of the 1995 NPTREC, the 2000 and 2010 Review Conferences;
  • Call on nuclear-weapon States to cease the development of new types of nuclear weapons, and refrain from qualitative improvements to existing nuclear weapons, and further minimize the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies;
  • Call for the entry into force as soon as possible of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and pending the entry into force of the need to maintain moratoria on nuclear test explosions;
  • Reaffirm that the IAEA is the competent authority responsible for verifying and assuring, in accordance with the Statute of IAEA and the IAEA safeguards system, compliance by States parties with the safeguards agreements undertaken in fulfilment of their obligations under the NPT;
  • Note that the comprehensive safeguards agreement and the additional protocol represent the enhanced verification standard which enables the IAEA to provide increased assurances on the non-diversion of declared nuclear material and on the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities;
  • Reaffirm the central role of the IAEA in strengthening the nuclear security framework globally and in coordinating international activities in the field of nuclear security;
  • Recall that nothing in the Treaty should be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with the Treaty;
  • Acknowledge that each State party has the right to define its national energy policy and that nuclear power is expected to continue playing an important role in the energy mix of many countries;
  • Reaffirm the central role of the IAEA in promoting international cooperation on nuclear safety-related matters, including through the establishment of nuclear safety standards;
  • Continue efforts towards the full implementation and the realisation of the objectives of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East and take into account the conference for the negotiation of a binding treaty on the creation of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction to be held in 2019;
  • Note the strong support for the continued implementation of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; and
  • Urge the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.

Given the prevailing deleterious international security situation and ongoing squabbling among States it was not a surprise that, on May 8 and 9, the Chair’s draft report while perfunctorily praised was attacked from all sides for not adequately reflecting various idiosyncratic views of different States and many suggestions were made for “improving” the document. As is usual practice, the Chair then circulated a revised draft on the evening of May 9 May that inter alia included:

  • Reaffirm the responsibility of all States parties to the full implementation of the Treaty and the importance of open, inclusive and transparent dialogue to achieve this end;
  • Express concern at the erosion of the treaty-based disarmament architecture and underscore the mutually reinforcing relationship of its relevant treaties;
  • Call for the elaboration of measures that can contribute to building confidence and to reduce the risk of the use of nuclear weapons, either intentionally, by miscalculation, or by accident, in the context of achieving nuclear disarmament;
  • Reiterate the deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, including any intentional or accidental nuclear explosion and call for further consideration to prevent the devastation that would be visited upon all humanity by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples; and reaffirm the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law;
  • Acknowledge the need for a legally-binding norm to prohibit nuclear weapons in order to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons;
  • Recognize that comprehensive safeguards agreements have been successful in their main focus of providing assurance regarding non-diversion of declared nuclear material and have also provided a limited level of assurance regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities. Note that the implementation of measures specified in the model additional protocol provides, in an effective and efficient manner, increased confidence about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a State as a whole. Note also that numerous States are of the view that those measures have been introduced as an integral part of the IAEA safeguards system. Also note that it is the sovereign decision of any State to conclude an additional protocol, but once in force, the additional protocol is a legal obligation;
  • Recognize the indispensable role of science and technology, including nuclear science and technology, in achieving social and economic development for all States parties … call on the United Nations development system to work closely with the IAEA to maximize the potential role of nuclear science and technology for development;
  • Note the significant progress made on the establishment of the IAEA Low Enriched Uranium Bank in Kazakhstan. Note also that the creation of mechanisms for assurance of nuclear fuel supply should not affect State parties’ rights under the Treaty and should be without prejudice to their national fuel cycle policies, while tackling the technical, legal and economic complexities surrounding these issues, including, in this regard, the requirement of IAEA full scope safeguards;
  • Recall that all States should abide by the decision adopted by consensus at the IAEA General Conference on 18 September 2009 on prohibition of armed attack or threat of attack against nuclear installations, during operation or under construction;
  • Stress the importance of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, as well as of the peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nuclear issue, and encourage efforts towards continuing dialogue and engagement for the full denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula;
  • Call upon India, Israel and Pakistan to accede to the Treaty as non-nuclear weapon States promptly and without conditions, and to bring into force comprehensive safeguards agreements as required by the Treaty; and
  • Encourage States parties to be represented at a high level at the 2020 NPT Review Conference.

In his revised draft, in effect the Chair inter alia strengthened the text on nuclear disarmament, referred to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and included a call on India, Israel and Pakistan to accede to the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon States.

On the last day, May 10, there was near bedlam as State after State mostly from the Western side criticized the revised draft as being unacceptable and these States then stated that they were prepared to work on the basis of the original draft which they now miraculously found either as a basis for moving forward or to be adopted unchanged!

On the other hand, many though not all NAM States praised the revised draft and indicated their willingness to accept it despite its shortcomings. The complaints related to the language on nuclear disarmament, the additional protocol to safeguards agreements, the JCPOA and Iran’s compliance, non-compliance by Syria with the NPT regarding its undeclared construction of a nuclear reactor in 2007, the Middle East, nuclear security, North Korea denuclearization and other matters.

It is noteworthy that the Chair performed his duties with grace and humour and maintained the confidence of the PrepCom throughout, though on the last two days his luck ran out when several States expressed their criticisms of his draft recommendations as discussed in this report.


At 11:22 EST New York on May 10, the 2019 NPT PrepCom Chair announced that in the absence of consensus on both the original and revised draft recommendations, he would circulate them as “Recommendations by the Chair to the 2020 NPT Review Conference”.

Yet again, NPT States abjectly failed to agree on Recommendations after harping for nearly two weeks on the importance of the NPT as the cornerstone of the global nuclear governance system and highlighting the significance of the 50th anniversary of the NPT in 2020. One astute participant was heard to mutter under his breath rather cruelly that the right and left brain hemispheres of some delegates were disconnected and they were suffering from acute disconnection syndrome!

The main divisions between delegations were primarily over nuclear disarmament, Iran, Syria, the IAEA additional protocol, nuclear security, access to peaceful uses of nuclear technology, the Middle East WMDFZ and other related matters. In general, EU, NATO and “nuclear umbrella States” opposed the revised draft recommendations; while NAM, African and other States expressed supported for them. In the closing session, France read out names of 70 States supporting a call for DPRK denuclearization and the U.S. read out names of 52 States on Syrian non-compliance with IAEA safeguards. China criticized the French coordinated statement and stated that the NPT review process was not the right forum for DPRK matters.

The reversion to loss of civility in discourse in the second week of the PrepCom was an unwelcome reminder of the rancour at the end of the 2015 NPT review conference. Iran, Russian Federation, Syria and the United States engaged in frequent “rights of reply” that sometimes resorted to language not usually heard in diplomatic forums and left a bad taste all around. This was reflective of the general discourse in international relations prevalent today and the NPT review process is not immune to this slide in civility.

Despite the doom and gloom referred to above there were a couple of positive developments. In an enhancement of the strengthened review process, the Chairs of the 2017 and 2018 PrepCom sessions made a useful innovation in submitting an “Inter-Chair working paper: conclusions and recommendations for the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons”.

And, in 2017 the Chair circulated on his authority his paper on “Towards 2020: Reflections of the Chair of the 2017 session of the Preparatory Committee”; the Chair in 2018 followed suit in issuing “Chair’s Reflections on the State of the Non-Proliferation Treaty”; and the 2019 Chair put out his “Reflections of the Chair of the 2019 session of the Preparatory Committee”.

This author has been proposing for years (since 1998) that each session of the PrepCom issue a “Statement on the State of the NPT” document that would be parsimonious yet cover all important matters and would reflect the general views of States parties on the prevailing international situation as it relates to the NPT at the time of the PrepCom. This practice of issuing “Reflections”, i.e. a statement on the state of the NPT, should be continued in the next review cycle of 2020-2025.

NPT States parties will next gather at the United Nations in New York for the 2020 NPT Review Conference from April 27 to May 22 to mark the 50th anniversary, the Golden Jubilee, of the world’s most important and fundamental nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament treaty and to chart the course for the next five years (2020-2025).

Some States favour a high-level segment on the first two days that would result in a Ministerial Declaration on the high importance of the NPT and believe that this ought to suffice as the outcome rather than negotiating a final document as is mandated by the strengthened review process. Many other States support negotiating a final document and regard any Ministerial Declaration as insufficient.

Over the next 11 months, unless all States parties honour their declarations on the importance of the NPT and work to develop common ground to strengthen the authority and integrity of the Treaty and its full implementation along with the agreed obligations from the 1995, 2000 and 2010 review conferences, the chances of a consensus outcome in 2020 would be slim and result in an unprecedented two back-to-back failed reviews with all the predicted dire consequences. [IDN-InDepthNews – 19 May 2019]

Photo: Chair Syed Hussin addresses the 2019 NPT PrepCom. Credit: Alicia Sanders-Zakre, Arms Control Association.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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