Omicron To the Rescue: NPT Review Conference Postponed—Again!

Viewpoint by Tariq Rauf*

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is an essential pillar of international peace and security, and the heart of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. Its unique status is based on its near-universal membership, legally-binding obligations on disarmament, verifiable non-proliferation safeguards regime, and commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear energy”. UN Secretary-General António Guterres on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the NPT’s opening for signature, 24 May 2018, Geneva.

VIENNA (IDN) — The bedevilled Tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) not unexpectedly has fallen victim again to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the Omicron variant has reached the United Nations in New York where the review conference was expected to convene from 4 to 28 January 2022.

The Chef de Cabinet of the UN Secretary-General informed President-designate Gustavo Zlauvinen, on 27 December 2021, that “I wish to advise you that the Secretariat will not be able to service an in-person meeting of the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in January 2022”.

Accordingly, on 30 December 2021, following consultations with delegations, President-designate Gustavo Zlauvinen informed that the review conference would not be held as envisaged this month and is postponed to a later date this year.

The tentative new dates for the tenth review conference in New York are 1 to 26 August 2022. Consultations will continue in the interim to examine other options for dates, failing that a formal decision on the dates shall be taken three months prior to the August dates—that is, probably by early May 2022.

In my view, in many respects, this is a welcome development not only because it spares many delegates from likely infection with Omicron in New York, but more importantly it forestalls an expected contentious and bad-tempered conclave of feuding States thereby rescuing the NPT review process from further ill-tempered discourse and another failed conference.

The cycle of postponement started in March 2020 now is repeating for the fourth time and into the third year. In light of this continuing saga of trying to convene the tenth NPT review conference, this opinion piece suggests possible alternatives for consideration.

One possibility could be for some NPT non-nuclear-weapon State to offer a suitable location to hold the review conference in 2022, preferably in April-May.

A more radical and likely controversial alternative could be to write off the tenth review conference and leapfrog to the eleventh review conference to be held as scheduled in 2025 but in Vienna (Austria) and not in New York.

I can already foresee howls of protest especially regarding the second option—this is discussed in some detail below.

Charged political atmosphere

Returning to the present situation prevailing in the world, let’s face it, relations between the “big three” nuclear-weapon States (NWS)—China, Russia and the United States—have become conflictual and are continuing on a steep downward slope. What with the United States over three administrations getting into confrontations with China and Russia, the latter two NWS pushing back against what they perceive as provocative confrontational diplomatic-military policies and deployments of the US, while the US, in turn, regards China’s and Russia’s domestic and foreign actions and policies as destabilizing and aggressive.

There is no love lost between these three NWS, and the US’ nuclear-dependent client States (known as “the allies”) have joined the melee in poking the “bear” and the “dragon”. Not to forget fanciful constructs, such as the “Indo-Pacific” invented by geographically challenged strategists to “contain” China, supplemented by the “QUAD” and “AUKUS” referred to as “force multipliers“, that are further exacerbating tensions and increasing the risks of armed conflict.

Add to the mix, that none of the five NWS parties to the NPT are considered by the majority of the 186 NPT non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS) to be fulfilling their nuclear disarmament obligations pursuant to the Treaty and the consensually agreed benchmarks set by the NPT review conferences in 1995, 2000 and 2010 – 2010 being the last time that the NPT States could agree on a review conference outcome.

It should be noted in all fairness that Russia and the US have reduced their nuclear weapons by more than 80% each from their Cold War holdings, and France and the UK unilaterally have reduced as well, but nonetheless, between them, the five NWS parties to the NPT still hold about 13,000 nuclear weapons spread out over more than 100 locations in 14 States (including five NATO NNWS hosting US nuclear weapons).  

And not to forget the disastrous nay crazy decision by the US in May 2018 to jettison the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on limits on Iran’s nuclear activities, which was functioning well as verified by the IAEA. Since June 2019, Iran has been stepping out of JCPOA limits and now has an advanced uranium enrichment programme, albeit under verification by the IAEA pursuant to Iran’s NPT safeguards agreement. Proximity talks are continuing in Vienna at a slow pace to restore the JCPOA, as of the time of this writing, involving France, Germany and the UK (E3), plus China, Russia and the US (+3), and Iran moderated by the European Union (EU).

The matter of setting up a zone free of nuclear- and other weapons of mass destruction (NWFZ/WMDFZ), as ordained by the Resolution of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference is still languishing in the doldrums. The decision in 2018 by the UN General Assembly to convene a conference on this matter open to all States of the region of the Middle East was opposed by Israel and the US, and the 2019 and 2021 sessions were boycotted by these two States. To add insult to injury, reportedly in September, President Biden following in the footsteps of his predecessors gave a written assurance to Israel committing not to pressure it to sign up to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon State and not to join a Middle East NWFZ/WMDFZ, in addition to supplying conventional weapons to Israel to maintain a qualitative edge over other States in the region.

Overall, it would take a reckless optimist to think that an NPT review conference in these times of increasing political and military tensions would be a smooth and amicable meeting of minds to produce agreed actions or steps to strengthen the implementation and authority of the Treaty and to implement its obligations across the “three pillars” and the agreed outcomes of 1995, 2000 and 2010.

Thus, from my point of view, it is a sort of perverse blessing that due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the tenth NPT review conference has been postponed to a later date in 2022.

Misstep by the “Non-Aligned” States

It is highly regrettable, even irresponsible, for the leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) NPT States reportedly to reject proposals to convene the tenth review conference in Vienna at the conference facilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations Office in Vienna (UNOV), on the dates in April-May 2022 reserved for the first session of the preparatory committee for 2025 (eleventh) NPT Review Conference.

In my view it is not only irresponsible but also somewhat arrogant and disingenuous for the leadership of the NAM States reportedly to continue to insist that NPT review conferences shall be convened only at the UN in New York on the grounds that all (or nearly all) NPT States have diplomatic representation there.

Such a view obviously conveniently reflects amnesia about the fact that nearly 200 States and territories routinely attend climate conferences such as the COP held in Glasgow, Paris and at other locations. Not to mention, that two of the “three pillars” of the NPT – nuclear non-proliferation/safeguards and cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy—always have resided at the IAEA in Vienna and nearly all NAM States benefit from the technical cooperation activities of the Agency.

Furthermore, with the signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in September 1996, one part of “pillar one” on nuclear disarmament also is in Vienna at the technical secretariat of the CTBT verification system, in addition to the IAEA’s nuclear disarmament verification activities (as was the case regarding South Africa, Iraq, Libya and North Korea).

As I have pointed out previously, there exists little or no relevant continuing expertise among diplomatic missions in New York on NPT matters, as their main functions cover other important matters under the purview of the United Nations and its bodies such as the Security Council, General Assembly, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) among others. For NPT meetings held in New York, hordes of delegates are shipped in from Vienna, Geneva and national capitals bringing in expertise across the three pillars of the Treaty.

It is high time that the leadership of the NAM States, and others, reassess their position regarding confining NPT review conferences exclusively to New York and to demonstrate the required vision and flexibility to move review conferences to Vienna—the natural and logical location.

Venue for the Tenth Review Conference: Location in an NPT State

Despite the continuing coronavirus pandemic and the frustrating bullheadedness of some NPT States, including reportedly the leadership of the NAM States, to persist in holding the review conference in New York and given the likelihood that the prospects in August 2022 do not look promising at present, and since the UN will only be able to provide limited conference space one suggestion could be for an NPT non-nuclear-weapon State to offer a suitable location.

Even though my preference remains for Vienna and since that may not be possible for 2022, then a feasible opportunity could be to hold the review conference at a suitable location in some NPT non-nuclear-weapon State. Several such States have large international conference and exposition facilities, along with appropriate accommodation and travel arrangements, that could easily host an NPT review conference.

This would be a good opportunity for some NPT non-nuclear-weapon States to take the initiative and offer the venue for the tenth NPT review conference. Needless to say, NPT States would pay to cover conference costs much as they pay the UN to hold NPT meetings in Vienna, Geneva and New York.

Apparently, such a suggestion came up during the consultations held by President-designate Gustavo Zlauvinen just after Christmas in 2021 but reportedly was rather arrogantly rejected out of hand by the leadership of the NAM States (as well as perhaps by some others)—a most unfortunate development that does not reflect well on the largest group of the NPT non-nuclear-weapon States and others.

Venue for the Review Conference: Vienna

As I have noted previously, 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, the President-designate and NPT States parties are fully empowered to make their own decisions under the rules of procedure (RoP) for the dates and venues of NPT review conferences taking into account prevailing international political and health developments.

Challenging times call for novel approaches, shedding old practices and trying new avenues in light of changing circumstances. NPT States, especially NAM States and others, now need to take off their rose-coloured spectacles favouring New York as the only venue for NPT review conferences and recognize the reality staring them in the face that the only international organization to which the NPT accords a formal role is the International Atomic Energy Agency (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—though it must be recognized that peaceful uses of nuclear energy much pre-date the NPT and did not come about because of the NPT.

The inescapable reality is that of the present 173 member States of the IAEA, 168 are non-nuclear-weapon States party to the NPT, but nearly all of the 186 NPT non-nuclear-weapon States, as well as the five (NPT) nuclear-weapon States all, have safeguards agreements in force with the IAEA including about 80% of these with additional protocols in force.

Currently, at the IAEA as part of its statutory activities, there are 848 active technical cooperation projects underway covering development priorities in 140 countries in areas such as human health and nutrition, zoonotic diseases, food and agriculture, water and the environment, plastics cleanup, 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.

In addition, the Comprehensive Nuclear-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 and connections are lacking in New York and Geneva. Accommodation and food costs in Vienna are lower than in New York and Geneva, and delegations have not experienced visa problems as has been the case in New York.

With increasing attention devoted to the carbon footprint of international travel, especially at the climate change conference COP26 in Glasgow held in November this year; it is not inconsequential that 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.

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, and in November 2021 in Glasgow; then it is perfectly logical to convene the Eleventh NPT Review Conference of 191 States parties in Vienna in 2025.

Towards the 2025 NPT Review Conference

While not an ideal way to proceed but in recognition of the reality that an end to the COVID-19 pandemic and evolution of further variants of the coronavirus are not in sight, first vaccinations are lagging in much of the Global South while third and fourth vaccinations are being recommended in other parts of the world, the question should be considered: should the tenth NPT review conference be written off? Especially since neither the political-strategic nor the medical-health conditions are conducive to a 20-day intensive conference involving hundreds of delegates this year.

The fact that such a suggestion could be put forward by someone like me, who has been an official delegate at all NPT meetings since 1987 and along with others made key contributions in particular at the 1995 and 2000 NPT review conferences, as well as leading the IAEA NPT delegation as Alternate Head, speaks volumes about the precarious state of the NPT review process at the present time and the temerity to advance such a suggestion. 

Should we then write off the tenth NPT review conference and hold the first session of the preparatory committee for the 2025 (eleventh) review conference, for 10 working days in Vienna in April-May this year, as would have been the case had there been no pandemic and the tenth review conference held in 2020 as originally planned.

Obviously, a radical and out-of-the-box proposal but possibly a practical one given the current and evolving situation regarding both the coronavirus pandemic and the fraught international security environment.

Some would say that this would favour the nuclear-weapon States and take them off the hook for accountability on nuclear disarmament.

Yes, that would be a correct assessment. But, on the other hand, would this be less risky and potentially damaging for the NPT than a contentious and failed review conference in 2022 as seems to be the case.

I would say, yes since it would be better to leapfrog to 2025 as the least worst of bad options facing us. The nuclear-weapon States would still be held to account in the three sessions of the preparatory committee in 2022, 2023 and 2024 – thus, their performance on nuclear disarmament would not escape scrutiny.

It should be recalled that it is only in the NPT review process that the five nuclear-weapon States provide some level of accountability regarding their nuclear weapons. Their bilateral and unilateral reductions in nuclear arms are driven by their own national security considerations and are not driven by their nuclear disarmament obligations under the NPT. 

Presidency of the 2025 NPT conference

Should we leapfrog to 2025, Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen of Argentina, the long-suffering and hard-working President-designate of the tenth NPT review conference, would have to decide whether to continue his indefatigable labours of Sisyphus in trying to convene the conference in times of a lingering coronavirus world or to pass the NPT 2025 torch to someone else to follow in his valiant footsteps? No one should begrudge the President-designate should he decide to move on were the tenth review conference to be written off – in which case he would deserve a big vote of gratitude from all NPT States for his dedication and perseverance.

Restoring credibility to the NPT review process

It has become somewhat of commonplace for delegates and civil society experts to rail against the strengthened NPT review process for the failings of States parties to utilize it effectively and for not being able to agree by consensus on the outcome reports of review conferences and their preparatory committee meetings.

For my part, being responsible along with others for formulating the strengthened review process for the NPT in 1995 and 2000, I have consistently maintained that the failure of delegates to reach agreed outcomes is due to their rigidity and opposition to compromise rather in the functioning of the review process.

It would not be inappropriate to interpret William Shakespeare (from Julius Caesar), “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings“, to read, “The fault, dear NPT delegates, is not in our review process, But in ourselves, that we are underprepared, obstinate and inflexible“.

Again, as I had pointed out a year ago, what is needed is that diplomats covering the NPT, including those in Vienna, need to discover “courage” in their heart – courage that seems to be missing in action much as the Lion in the Wizard of Oz seemingly was missing courage. The Lion does indeed have courage only to be discovered when it encounters the “Wicked Witch” and stands up to “Be a lion, not a mouse” and recognizes “Courage. What makes a King out of a slave? Courage!

Recall, President John Kennedy’s inspirational speech on 12 September 1962, in which he threw out the challenge, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too” (emphasis added). Consequently, the first humans landed on the Moon on 20 July 1969 and returned safely to Earth – a mission accomplished more than half a century ago.

Speaking at a webinar held in Vienna, President-designate Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen cited “the great Nelson Mandela [who] said: Where people of goodwill get together and transcend their differences for the common good, peaceful and just solutions can be found even for those problems which seem most intractable“.

Thus, to conclude, obviously in these trying times it would be appropriate to look at novel solutions to implement the NPT review process held up by the corona virus and take the leap towards new horizons. That is, to seriously consider: (a) convening the tenth review conference in 2022 at a location in some NPT non-nuclear-weapon State; and/or (b) writing off the tenth NPT review conference and to look to the eleventh (2025) review conference to be convened in Vienna.

If humans can get to the Moon, traverse the void of space and the depths of the oceans, fight unseen deadly viruses with novel medications; then surely it is not inconceivable to consider the proposals made here to restore credibility to the NPT review process so damaged by the inflexible attitudes of delegates. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 January 2022]

* This article Personal comments by Tariq Rauf, former Head of Verification and Security Policy Coordination, and Alternate Head of NPT Delegation, International Atomic Energy Agency; Non-Proliferation Expert with Canada’s NPT delegation 1987-2000 – he has been a Delegate at all NPT meetings since 1987; and was Senior Advisor to the Chair of Main Committee I (nuclear disarmament) at the 2015 review conference and to the Chair of the 2014 session of the NPT preparatory committee; and a member of the Eminent Persons Group on nuclear disarmament convened by the Foreign Minister of Japan.

Photo credit: United Nations

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