The Bumpy Road to Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Process

By Sergio Duarte

The writer is President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

NEW YORK (IDN) – On July 1, 2018 the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will celebrate the fiftieth aniversary of its opening for signature. Although criticised as discriminatory for establishing different rights and obligations for nuclear and non-nuclear Parties, since that date in 1968 a total of 191 States have acceded to the Treaty, making it one of the most successful instruments in the field of arms control.

Only four countries among the members of the United Nations are not Party to it. While several different factors can explain the fact that so far the majority of nations have chosen not to acquire nuclear weapons the NPT can certainly be credited as instrumental in this regard.

Originally conceived by its main promoters to remain in force for 25 years, the Treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995 at a conference held under its Article VIII. The indefinite extension was strongly supported by the possessors of nuclear armament and its allies while many non-nuclear weapon Parties advocated instead further extensions for successive periods of 25 years in order to alllow the membership to better evaluate the performance of the NPT over time in the pursuit of its goals, especially the cessation of the nuclar arms race and nuclear disarmament.

A package of three Decisions and one Resolution were adopted at the Extension Conference. The three Decisions dealt with a) the strengthening of the review process by, inter alia, holding a meeting of the Preparatory Committee in each of the three years prior to the Conference; b) the adoption of a set of Principles and Objectives for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament; and c) the extension of the Treaty indefinitely «as a  majority exists among States party» in favor of that move.

The Resolution, sponsored by the three Depositary States – the United States, Russia (then Soviet Union) and the United Kingdom – called upon all States in the Middle East “to take practical steps” aimed at making progress towards the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in that region.

It is generally understood that agreement on the first two Decisions and on the Resolution was essential to ensure the building of a majority for the indefinite extension. The agreed Principles and Objectives remain as an expression of the aspirations of the parties to the Treaty, which assign different priorities and urgency to them. On the other hand, efforts undertaken to realize the objectives of the Middle East Resolution have not yet achieved success.

In accordance with the decision taken by the Extension Conference, the NPT remains in force for the foreseeable future. Under the strengthened review process a Preparatory Committee has met in the three sucessive years before each of the mandatory Review Conferences held at five-year intervals. Since the entry into force of the NPT in 1970 nine such Conferences have been held in accordance with Article VIII, paragraph 3  to review the operation of the Treaty.

Four among those nine Conferences ended without consensus on the substantive aspects of the review and four others adopted Final Reports that in general reveal deep divergence on key issues. The 1995 Conference was unable to adopt a final declaration on the review of the operation of the Treaty.

The original objective of the periodical review instituted by Article VIII, paragraph 3 was to contribute to the realization of all the provisions of the instrument. However, as noted above all consensual Final Documents adopted did not go much far beyond recording opposing views.

The intention behind the adoption of the “strengthened review process” in 1995 was to make possible a thorough exchange of opinions that would look both backwards and forward to serve as the basis for substantive recommendations to be submitted to each Review Conference.

The history of the review process shows that the successive Preparatory Committees have only been able to take consensus decisions on procedural aspects such as the draft agenda, the choice of the President of the Conference, arrangements for documentation and participation of non-governmental organizations.

In some cases even this outcome has not been achieved. In 2004, for instance, the third Session of the Preparatory Committee could not recommend a draft agenda, which had to be negotiated and adopted at the 2005 Review Conference itself. The difficulty to agree on a draft agenda was again felt at the first Session of the Preparatory Committee in 2007.

The impasse once again threatened agreement on the procedural aspects but was solved by the Prepcom through a formula similar to the one that had been painstakingly reached at the 2005 Review Conference. The next two preparatory cycles were able to avoid falling into the same trap and found timely agreement on all necessary procedural recommendations.

The outcomes of the 2000 and 2010 Review Conferences showed that substantive agreement is indeed possible. In 2000 the Parties to the Treaty agreed on “Thirteen Practical Steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI of the Treaty and of paragraphs 3 and 4 (c) of the 1995 Principles and Objectives”.

At the 2010 Review Conference agreement was reached on a 22-point Action Plan which includes concrete steps for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. However, political will to implement these agreements seems to have waned together with interest in and commitment to both sets of recommendations. They seem now relegated to history.

It is interesting to note that lack of consensus on substance is a recurrent feature of multilateral discussions on specific measures in the field of nuclear disarmament. A joint draft NPT was introduced at the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) in 1965 by the delegations of the United States and the Soviet Union. The ensuing debates failed to result in an agreed treaty draft text.

The Report[1] of the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament transmitted to the United Nations General Assembly on March 19, 1968 by the two-co-chairs – the representatives of the United States and the Soviet Union – on behalf of the Conference reveals the unusual procedure under which the draft NPT was sent to the United Nations General Assembly.

The international climate likely to prevail during the current preparatory cycle does not seem to hold much promise for the success of the forthcoming 2020 Review Conference. Renewed tensions between major States during the past couple of years increased the fragility and unpredictability of the international environment, exacerbating mistrust and rivalries and endangering the security of the world at large.

Most non-nuclear Parties to the NPT continue to voice their frustration at the pace of nuclear disarmament and their concern at decisions and attitudes that in their view procrastinate, rather than advance, the achievement of concrete progress toward nuclear disarmament. Nuclear parties and their allies insist that the conditions for disarmament do not exist at present and argue that nuclear weapons are necessary to maintain peace and stability.

The depth of the longstanding differences notwithstanding, all Parties to the NPT agree that the Treaty is a fundamental part of the global collective peace and security architecture. Other relevant pieces of that architecture are the various treaties and agreements achieved on different aspects of disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control. Despite their importance, two of these treaties have not yet come into force.

One is the Comprehensive Test-ban Treaty (CTBT), adopted in 1996, which still needs the signatureand/or ratification by eight States[2] specified in its Annex 2 in order to formally become part of positive international law. Nevertheless, it has established an important standard of behavior that has been observed since 1998 by all nuclear weapon States, with the exception of the DPRK. This country carried out six nuclear test explosions between 2006 and 2017.

All other nuclear weapon States have observed unilateral moratoria on such tests since 1998. There is hope that the recent developments in the Korean peninsula may facilitate progress in the DPRK’s accession to the CTBT and that other outliers will follow suit.

However, the decision by the United States to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed between the P-5+1 and the European Union, plus Iran, may further delay any positive change in the current status of the CTBT. The longer the CTBT remains in a legal limbo, the harder it will be to preserve the existing absence of nuclear tests.

The other international instrument awaiting entry into force is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), negotiated in 2017 by 122 States. So far, 58 countries have signed it and eight have already ratified, despite strong oposition by some nuclear weapon possessors and their allies. It is important to stress that the TPNW is not incompatible with the existing non-proliferation regime.

Supporters and opponents of the Treaty should avoid sterile argument over perceived conflicts between the two texts and start working constructively to deepen the coincidences. Progress can only be achieved by positive and good faith interaction between all members of the international community.

An active and unbiased debate on the relationship between the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the Treaty on the Non-proliferation can help provide a much needed impetus toward the achievement of a world free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.  

In a recent article Ambassador Adam Bugaiski, Chairman of the 2018 II Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 NPT Review Conference, presented some reflections on the outcome of that meeting and acknowledged that the Prepcom did not succeed in resolving a number of outstanding issues accumulated over the past review cycles.

The Chairman recognized the gap in approaches regarding the modalities and pace of multilateral disarmament efforts and pointed to the need to reinvigorate the review process and pave the way for more consensual work. He provided a useful list of the several areas where the discussion must be carried forward through an open, inclusive and transparent dialogue at future meetings of the Preparatory Committees and Review Conferences.

The report entitled ‘Building Bridges to Effective Nuclear Disarmament’ drawn by the Group of Eminent Persons for the Substantive Advancement of Nuclear Disarmament submitted to Foreign Minister Taro Kono of Japan on March 29, 2018 states that “the divide between two opposing trends in disarmament has become so stark that States with divergent views have been unable to engage meaningfully with each other on key issues”.

The document stresses the common interest of all States to improve the international security environment and pursue a wold without nuclear weapons in line with Article VI of the NPT. The Group noted the importance of respect for divergent views in order to facilitate a joint search for a common ground for dialogue and presents a number of recommendations to achieve those objectives.

There is much to be learned from the history of the NPT and its review cycles. The lessons from the past are very useful to prevent the repetition of previous failures should be taken seriously by all members of the international community in their search for progress on the path toward nuclear disarmament as a necessary element to achieve lasting peace and security for all nations. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 May 2018]

Photo: A view of the General Assembly Hall as Taous Feroukhi (on screen), President of the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT, closes the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 22 May 2015. United Nations, New York. Photo # 631869. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

[1] A/7072/add.1 [2] DPRK, India and Pakistan have not signed the CTBT. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States have aigned by not yet ratified it.

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