18 May 2009, Final edition

A qualified success
Michael Spies & Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will

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By the abysmal standards that have typified the preparatory process—instituted in 1995—leading up to each five year review of the NPT, the third and final Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting before the 2010 Review Conference (RevCon) must certainly be considered a success. The PrepCom was able to agree to an agenda for the RevCon, on its third day, no less, amid a chorus of accolades for what many described as a new, positive atmosphere in multilateral disarmament, stemming entirely from US President Obama’s 5 April speech in Prague.

However, it did not surprise many delegates—most of whom are veterans of the so-called decade of deadlock that had accompanied the Bush administration’s allergy to multilateralism—that the PrepCom would become snagged once it attempted to work through matters of substance.

The PrepCom’s failure to adopt substantive recommendations for the RevCon, a feat no previous PrepCom had ever accomplished, may have temporarily tainted the atmosphere, but was not unforeseen. During his opening remarks to the PrepCom, its Chair, Ambassador Chidyausiku of Zimbabwe, cautioned that despite recent signs of progress, in many areas the positions of states had actually grown further apart rather than closer.

With this note of caution, on Monday, 11 May, the Chair circulated a clever and concise first draft of recommendations, intended to capture specific proposals that identify concrete practical actions on implementing the Treaty, stand a reasonable chance of gaining consensus, and build upon earlier decision. Its strongest provisions dealt with moving the disarmament agenda forward and even included consideration of a nuclear weapons convention (see NPT News in Review, No. 6).

It must be noted that the vast majority of states could have accepted the first draft, including many members of NATO, with little or no modifications. Following consultations, and in particular input from the nuclear weapon states, on Wednesday, 13 May, the Chair put forward a revised set of recommendations that significantly weakened the sections on disarmament, civil society participation, and education, but bolstered those on implementing the 1995 Middle East resolution and on non-proliferation.

For some, the second draft proved to be a bridge too far. As the conference moved into its final hours, it devolved into a tense blame game that pitted western delegations against the Non-Aligned Movement and some of its more outspoken members, most notably Cuba, Egypt, and Iran. On Thursday, 14 May, the Chair advised states let the recommendations go, as to not to ruin the spirit of cooperation. Despite the Chair’s judgment that the differences in position were too vast, a large number of delegations urged the Chair to continue the process of seeking consensus (see NPT News in Review, No. 10).

The breakdown of the recommendations process
Despite the positive atmosphere, disarmament rhetoric of the US and UK administrations, and the quick adoption of the agenda, the PrepCom delegates did not find enough common ground—or at least, enough common rhetoric—to agree to a set of non-binding recommendations for next year. Breaking with the recent past, the Chair decided not to forward the recommendations to the RevCon as a working paper.

The Chair had introduced a newly revised draft recommendations on Friday, 15 May. Delegations consulted with their regional groups before resuming an informal meeting of the PrepCom. During this last attempt to reach consensus on the draft recommendations, the Chair determined that the Committee did not have a sufficient amount of time to reach agreement. Later, at a press briefing, he said the “differences were very minor; with time, we could have done it.”

The differences, as laid out by delegations during Thursday’s plenary discussion on the draft recommendations, did not seem very minor (see NPT News in Review, No. 10), though the revisions in the third draft were quite minimal. The additional changes brought on board an additional caveat to the already thoroughly conditioned preambular paragraph, further emphasized its non-binding character and marginally indicative character—a change insisted upon by the UK. Other amendments made minor changes to the sections on universality, disarmament, non-proliferation, regional initiatives, and education.

Despite the lack of time to make additional major changes to the text (delegations would have needed to consult with their capitals had the second draft text been heavily amended), western and non-aligned delegations traded blame for the impasse. Since the first draft was not agreeable to a few western states and the second was not agreeable to a few NAM states, it would be cynical and insincere to place“blame” on any particular group or delegation. Instead, the experience only serves to further illuminate the wide gulfs between states’ positions.

Paradoxically on the surface, this result came as a relief to many delegations. While the vast majority of states parties seemed ready to accept either the first or second drafts, no one was entirely content with either. Rather than becoming stuck with an imperfect text, delegations will have the freedom in 2010 to negotiate and reach agreement with a clean slate on the many fraught issues facing the NPT regime.

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