By Jamshed Baruah

GENEVA (IDN) - The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR has expressed great concern about the precarious security situation in South Sudan, where some 4,000 people are currently fleeing every day to neighbouring Uganda. 90 percent are women and children.

South Sudan’s conflict erupted in December 2013, and it has produced one of the world’s worst displacement situations with immense suffering. Some 1.69 million people are displaced inside the country, while 831,582 South Sudanese refugees are abroad, mainly in Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda.

- Photo: 2020

Great Expectations! The Non-Proliferation Treaty and The Coming of The Messiah!

Viewpoint by Tariq Rauf* from Vienna for IDN

Great Expectations is a novel published in July 1861 by the renowned British writer, Charles Dickens. It depicts the education of an orphan nicknamed Pip who has a stroke of good luck and great expectations but then loses both his luck and his expectations. Against that backdrop, the writer – an eminent nuclear disarmament expert – cautions that the taking of office by Joe Biden as US President next January would not mark the coming of the Messiah for nuclear arms control as wished for by his supporters. Besides, he argues, the already postponed tenth review conference of the parties to the NPT should be held in April-May 2022 in the Austrian capital city Vienna and not in August 2021 at the UN headquarters in New York. And this for two reasons: the wide-ranging impact of COVID-19 pandemic and Vienna offering an ideal venue for nuclear disarmament conferences.

Tariq Rauf writes:

The coming of the messiah

Hallelujah! It’s been decreed that the messiah will arrive in Washington at 12:01 PM (EST) on January 20, 2021 – the sky will turn blue, the ocean’s azure, the air filled with perfume, rivers of milk and honey shall flow – the bad man and his henchmen will have gone, and all shall be well again on Planet Earth!

For the hordes of diplomats – the “NPT-2021-optimists” – pining in agony over the postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic of the tenth review conference of the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) originally scheduled for April-May this year; the messiah and his helpers shall wave a magic wand.

COVID-19 vaccines will become available to the fortunate in “developed” countries, making it safe again to travel to New York in August 2021 to sit in the gold-leafed General Assembly Hall at the United Nations and pontificate over the vexatious question of whether nuclear deterrence is a “godsend” to secure the security of nuclear-armed States and their (allied) “captive nations” or whether to do away with these horrible weapons that have the potential to end all forms of life on Earth.

The irresistible urge to shop can be indulged again on Fifth Avenue and at country outlet stores – though many have shuttered their doors. Precious Apple devices can be bought as one can no longer trust Huawei, over-priced badly served gastronomy partaken, and rats as big as cats chased late at night on side streets in mid-Manhattan among mountains of the trash while enjoying the pungent bouquet of “evening in Manhattan” sourced directly from the overfilled garbage bags piled high on sidewalks. Heaven be praised for the coming of the messiah, and for spending the humid month of August 2021 in New York at the NPT review conference to provide a salve for the soul!

Lest all this excitement and visions of a return of “multilateralism”, “exceptionalism” and “leadership” overpower one’s rational thoughts and the better angels of one’s nature, spare a thought for the teeming billions in developing countries with little or no access to COVID-19 vaccine, ubiquitous Coca Cola coolers grossly unfit to store over-priced vaccine at up to minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit), though other vaccines can be stored at minus 2 to minus 8 degrees Celsius, and millions of untreated coronavirus victims and carriers on the move globally.

As the UN has stated clearly, “no one is safe unless everyone is safe!” But who cares, let’s all go to the NPT review conference in New York in August 2021 – the fortunate amongst us – vaccine nationalists in the developed countries – likely vaccinated against COVID-19, most others not. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, speaking to the G20 leaders on November 21, 2020, clearly cautioned that “Vaccine manufacturing production is scaling up fast towards the objective of producing 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021”.

CNN has reported that “Rich countries have bought enough Covid-19 vaccine doses to immunize their populations three times over, an international vaccine watchdog has said, but developing countries are being left behind in the global sprint to end the coronavirus pandemic”.

Even though reportedly 189 countries have signed up to the international COVAX programme to equitably produce and distribute vaccines, the population of the world is hovering around 7.2 billion people. Current trial corona vaccines require two shots per person for possible immunity lasting about six months – hence, clearly 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021 cannot in any way be sufficient to provide general global or regional protection. The US has not joined COVAX and to date there is no indication that Joe Biden will reverse this position when he takes office in January 2021.

WHO chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, stated in Geneva on December 1, 2020 that “The goal is to get at least 2 billion doses by end of 2021 which will be enough to vaccinate 20% of the populations of countries that are part of COVAX”.

No matter, we’ll roll the dice of life and sip Manhattans in Manhattan Undercover at the UN Lounge, Where Diplomats Get Drunk and Handsy. No wonder the unseemly rush to get to New York in August next year. Truth be told, full disclosure: I myself over the years have quaffed many a café latte accompanied by sad-looking machine-made croissants at the aforementioned North Delegates Lounge at the UN in New York while taking a break from the tedious repetitive speeches in the General Assembly Hall or the “EcoSoc” chamber where NPT conclaves are held, or to meet up with delegates to conspire or to exchange information. In the basement level is the plebeian “Vienna Café” where delegates and civil society representatives rub shoulders and devour crusty sandwiches provided by hosts of “side events” on the margins of NPT committee meetings held in Conference Room IV at the UN. But given these considerations, I am neither suicidal nor crazy; hence in no hurry to rush to New York in August 2021.

In contrast, were the review conference to move to Vienna in 2022 as I have been proposing; there are the various “coffee corners” in the Vienna International Centre and ornate Baroque halls at the Hofburg Palace; and, no one can match Vienna (Austria) which is the traditional venue of historic international conferences not to mention the stately balls at the Opera and the Hofburg Palace is known for cultured decorum (but usually these are over by the time NPT meetings are held in April-May).

While the foregoing might be considered somewhat melodramatic by some, it is not that far from reality. With the unknown Emily W. Murphy, Administrator of the US General Services Administration, ascertaining on November 23 that Joe Biden is the “apparent president-elect” of the United States, there are signs of delusional euphoria and irrational exuberance in some diplomatic circles that the messiah will bring a swift return to “multilateralism”, civility in dialogue and collaboration in nuclear diplomacy – even though no one knows what “multilateralism” means in a time of corona vaccine tribalism/nationalism and the onset of a new cold war, this time against China and continuing hostility towards Russia.

Already a new nomenclature has emerged, that of a “Biden-Obama administration” from 2009 to 2016 with the name “Biden” occupying pride of place. While there will be palpable relief that the loudmouths, bullies and pseudo-intellectuals of the Trump administration in nuclear diplomacy will depart and we will no longer have to suffer their asinine epithets such as “dim wits”, or “mad” or “intellectually stunted”, wildly hurled at pro-nuclear disarmament folks urging compliance with NPT obligations. There will be no nirvana under the new US administration as its DNA is rooted in the precepts of the efficacy of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence, and of exceptionalism and great power status.

Let there be no mistake, the election of Joe Biden, as president-elect of the United States, is a much welcome development and expectations are running high of the new administration reversing some of the worst excesses of the Trump administration such as returning to climate change accords and the World Health Organization, reverting to multilateralism albeit with the traditional US “benign” hegemonic role, and re-engaging in diplomacy, among other expected welcome moves.

The arms control legacy of the messiah

Unless there is collective amnesia in the NPT community and the “NPT-2021-optimists”, we should not forget the harsh and sometimes even abusive hostility of the “Biden-Obama administration” that started in 2012/2013 and went through to the 2015 NPT review conference against the proponents of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the UN mandated open-ended working groups on taking forward negotiations on nuclear disarmament.

And, not to forget, as well, that it was the “Biden-Obama” administration that delivered the death knell to the 2015 NPT review conference, killed off the 2012 “conference on establishing a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East” (mandated with US concurrence by the 2010 NPT review conference), diluted or walked away from previous nuclear disarmament commitments consensually agreed at previous NPT review conferences, and launched a “trillion-dollar” nuclear weapons modernization programme in the aftermath of Obama’s “Prague speech” in August 2009.

The nuclear weapons modernization programme is expected to cost each American citizen a mere café latte per week for 30 years – and now estimated to run up to $2 trillion. Nuclear weapons, of course, will not be eliminated within our lifetime but also for many lifetimes past the end of this century – this will be the indisputable outcome of the Biden-Obama nuclear modernization (inherited and carried forward by Trump) and on Biden’s shoulders when he takes office.

On the positive side of the ledger, full credit is due to the “Biden-Obama” administration for the 2010 New START treaty reducing deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 each by the US and Russia; for the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) placing limits on Iran’s nuclear activities under stricter verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); for the four nuclear security summits (2010, 2012, 2014, 2016) that focused on the security of 17% of the world’s nuclear materials in peaceful uses under IAEA safeguards (though 83% in the weapons enterprises, nearly 1,900 metric tonnes, was off the table); and for agreeing to the “64 actions” at the 2010 NPT Review Conference even though most were observed in the breach.

It is at the same time both surprising and concerning that the “NPT-2021-optimists” have suddenly developed a faith based belief that a Biden administration will reverse a number of Trump-Obama nuclear weapons policies, revise US nuclear doctrine to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and on an early use of nuclear weapons in certain circumstances, and formulate rational nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation policies, all within the space of 193 days between inauguration on 20 January 2021 and the expected commencement of the postponed 2020 NPT review conference on 2 August 2021.

For changes in nuclear weapons policy, a nuclear posture review (NPR) is usually the vehicle employed along with a new national security strategy – on average, it takes a new president one year or longer to do so. George W. Bush submitted his NPR to Congress on 31 December 2001, while Barack Hussein Obama submitted his NPR on 6 April 2010, and Trump on 2 February 2018. Hence, it seems quite unlikely that Biden will be able to prepare an NPR in six months and thus whether the US NPT delegation will have revised and updated guidance by August 2021!

To refresh memories of those who have forgotten the position of the “Biden-Obama” team on 8 May 2015, at the NPT review conference, let me recall the US statement in the subsidiary body 1 (nuclear disarmament): “But, to be clear, nothing in Article VI requires time frames or specific requirements for achieving the final elimination of nuclear weapons”.

The US statement on 22 May 2015 dooming the 2015 conference to failure, inter alia, said: “We have made clear throughout the process that we will not accept the efforts by some to cynically manipulate the RevCon to try and leverage the negotiation to advance their narrow objectives at the expense of the treaty or of our shared long-standing principles. We know that this Treaty is more important than one idea or one person or one country. We also made clear that we were prepared to conclude this conference without a final consensus document rather than endorse a bad final document, just as we have said about other matters in the international arena…Unfortunately, the language related to the convening of a regional conference to discuss issues relevant to the establishment of a Middle East zone free of all weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems is incompatible with our long-standing policies”. Only Canada and the United Kingdom cravenly joined the US in rejecting the “draft consensus document tabled by the President of the conference”.

And, now let us recall the voting record of the Biden-Obama team on the First Committee resolutions on “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations”, in 2012, 2013, and again in 2015 and 2016, the US voted against (along with France, Russia and the UK). In 2013 through to 2015, the US voted against “Follow-up to nuclear disarmament obligations agreed to at 1995, 2000 and 2010 Review Conferences of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” and in 2016 against the related resolution on “Towards a nuclear-weapon-free world: accelerating the implementation of nuclear disarmament commitments”. As well as against the resolution on “Promotion of Multilateralism in the area of Disarmament and Non-Proliferation” in 2015.

Furthermore, as indicated above, for its first year, at least, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in the US will occupy the Biden administration fully in addition to dealing with the pandemic related economic downturn and trying to heal the deep political-ideological divisions in the country – it would be a welcome surprise if NPT diplomacy attracted the attention of the Oval Office in Washington in 2021.

With this record of the Biden-Obama administration, one is led to wonder about what elixir of arms control and NPT optimism the “NPT-2021-optimists” are imbibing? To be clear, I would be exhilarated if the Biden administration reversed the sorry record of the Biden-Obama team and brought the US back into the fold of the 1995, 2000 and 2010 NPT commitments framework, that was ended by the Trump administration and replaced with the charade of “creating the environment for nuclear disarmament”, and in doing so dragged the always willing “captive allied nations” along into it. In fact, I would very much like to be proved wrong regarding my scepticism of a Biden administration’s performance on nuclear arms control and disarmament matters in its first term.

With this somewhat dismal picture of the messiah’s past and the great expectations of the “NPT-2021-optimists”, let us now devote our attention to some organizational matters pertaining to the postponed 2020 NPT Review Conference.

Looking Ahead to 2022

As indicated above, in May I had proposed to hold the review conference in Vienna in 2022 (not 2021), because given present trends it seems unlikely that the COVID-19 pandemic will have been fully checked or whether vaccines, if approved, would have been administered to populations in many countries, and whether international travel would have returned to normal and quarantines ended. Furthermore, the calendar of UN-related events in 2021 will be challenging as many events from 2020 have been postponed to next year.

NPT review conferences are not UN conferences – rather, they are conferences of the States parties to the NPT, paid for by them separately from UN membership dues and are governed by their own rules of procedure (RoP). Thus, while the President-designate and States parties need to take into account the advice of the UN secretariat which is always given in good faith; States parties are fully empowered to make their own decisions under the rules of procedure (RoP) for NPT review conferences taking into account international political developments.

Contrary to popular belief in some circles, the UN formally has nothing to do with the NPT as it was written and adopted in 1968 – this is not a criticism of the UN which does valuable work internationally but merely a factual observation. (Though at the request of States parties, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs provides competent secretarial services for NPT meetings.)

The only international organization to which the Treaty accords a formal role is the IAEA – the role of implementing safeguards or verification of the non-proliferation obligations of non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS) parties (NPT article III). The inalienable right of States parties (NPT article IV) to utilize nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes by NNWS, especially developing countries, in practice has come to be implemented through the technical cooperation programme of the IAEA.

In addition, the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) also is located in Vienna along with the IAEA at the  Vienna International Centre  (VIC) – thus an element of nuclear disarmament (NPT article VI) also is present in Vienna. These NPT-related attributes or connections are lacking in New York and Geneva. Accommodation and food costs in Vienna are lower than in New York and Geneva, and delegations do not experience visa problems as has been the case in New York.

The location of Vienna in Central Europe will greatly reduce distances to be travelled by NPT delegates from Asia, Africa and Oceania, as well as of course from European countries – these regions put together comprise the largest number of NPT States parties and countries in the world – thus reducing the carbon footprint of the review conference. Only the North and South American delegates will have increased travel distances, but these obviously are a minority compared to those from other regions. The argument does not pass muster that New York is the appropriate venue for NPT review conferences as all UN member States have representation there. However, if up to 196 States can send delegations to Conferences of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to venues such as Paris and Kyoto, then it is perfectly logical to convene the NPT review conference in Vienna.

The reality is that of the present 171 member States of the IAEA, 163 are NNWS party to the NPT, but nearly all of the 186 NPT non-nuclear-weapon States, as well as the NPT nuclear-weapon States all, have safeguards agreements in force with the IAEA including 80% of these with additional protocols in force.

Currently, at the IAEA there are 848 active technical cooperation projects underway covering development priorities in areas such as human health and nutrition, food and agriculture, water and the environment, nuclear safety, nuclear security, nuclear power generation, nuclear waste disposition, nuclear sciences, industrial applications, nuclear knowledge development and management, and legislative assistance (nuclear law); as well as to develop solutions for future energy needs, and standards for radiation safety and nuclear security worldwide.

It should be recalled that starting in 2007, the first session of the PrepCom was moved to Vienna (from New York) in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the IAEA and its contributions to the implementation of the NPT. The UN/NPT Secretariat has successfully organized PrepCom sessions in Vienna in 2007, 2012 and 2017 – thus there is no compelling reason why it would be unable or find it difficult to organize the review conference in  Vienna with the assistance of the conference services offices of the UN Office in Vienna (UNOV) and of the IAEA at the  Vienna International Centre and its adjoining Austria Center Vienna (ACV).

My original proposal was to hold the review conference in Vienna in 2022 during the April-May time frame that is currently scheduled for the first session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2025 review conference. As the PrepCom is for two weeks, another two weeks could be added to enable 20 working days; the norm for a review conference. A one-day PrepCom session could be included towards the end of the fourth week, with a chair for the first session as is the norm from a Western Group State party to agree on procedural matters for the 2023-2024 PrepCom sessions. This would enable three PrepCom chairs to go on and chair the three main committees at the review conference in 2025. As the 2022 PrepCom session’s substantive discussions would have already been subsumed within the review conference, the procedural matters could be completed within the span of one day.

The President-designate of the tenth review conference is doing his best to discharge his responsibilities and to be responsive to the views of NPT States parties. It is many of the NPT States parties that are agitating to hold the postponed review conference in August 2021 come what may – COVID-19 or no pandemic, etc. This stubborn obstinacy is not only strange as explained above but also irrational.

While it may be desirable to hold the postponed review conference as soon as possible in 2021, there is no overriding reason to do so. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many international diplomatic meetings; however, the NPT review conference does not have before it urgent time-sensitive decisions that have to be taken. Hence further postponement to hopefully a safer time in mid-2022 in Vienna makes eminent sense, reasons for which have been outlined above.

It is important to hold a regular NPT review conference over 20 working days with full participation of as many States parties and civil society representatives as possible; and for full negotiations to be carried out in the main committees and their subsidiary bodies. Having a hybrid conference, with some delegates in the conference room and other piped in online is undesirable and contrary to the requirements of the Treaty’s strengthened review process. Given heightened nuclear weapons risks and continuing modernization of nuclear forces, it is essential that a full and normal review conference is convened to hold nuclear-weapon States to account.

To conclude, consultations on the Vienna venue and dates for 2022 need to start now otherwise it may be difficult to find conference rooms at the Vienna International Centre (VIC) or at the Austria Center Vienna which are connected to each other, or at the Hofburg Palace Kongresszentrum as these might be booked for UN or other events. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 December 2020]

* Tariq Rauf is former Head of Verification and Security Policy (2002-2011) at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Alternate Head of IAEA Delegation to NPT Review Conferences (2002-2010), was a member of Japan’s Group of Eminent Persons for Substantive Advancement of Nuclear Disarmament (2017-2020), and served as Senior Advisor to the Chair of Main Committee I (nuclear disarmament) at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, and has attended all NPT meetings as an official delegate since 1987. Personal views are expressed here.

Photo: “Manhattan cocktail” (Creative Commons image) served at the UN North Delegates’ Lounge (designed by Hella Jongerius and Rem Koolhaas) “where Diplomats and Renegades Rendezvous!” (Image source:

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