5 May 2010, No. 3

A new decade for disarmament?
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will

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As the general debate went into its second day, ministers and ambassadors from around the world continued to address the Review Conference with words of hope and aspiration for increased security, cooperation, and peace in a world without nuclear weapons. Serbia’s foreign minister argued that zero sum approaches to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation could adversely affect international peace and stability. Germany’s minister of state similarly noted that the Review Conference needs to send a strong signal of unity, emphasizing that all of us want more cooperation in arms control and less weaponry.

However, as several delegations pointed out on Tuesday, there is a real risk that the 2010 Review Conference will end in failure as it did in 2005 if governments cannot work together. The German minister of state, calling for a new decade for disarmament, noted that much time has been lost already this century.  Many delegates expressed their priority not just for a “successful” Review Conference, but for restoring confidence in the NPT regime as a global norm for international peace and stability. The Norwegian deputy foreign minister noted that Norway’s broad based civil society has made it clear to the government that a failed Review Conference would seriously undermine the authority and credibility of the NPT.

In reaction to buzz about the “lack of confidence” in the NPT, some states have characterized calls for the negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention—which would  operationalize the implementation of the NPT—as a distraction from the NPT. Some have even suggested that such a convention would undermine the NPT. However, many delegates and most non-governmental representatives at this Conference argue that the best way to restore confidence in the NPT is by implementing it—with concrete actions, not just words.

All states claim that they are in compliance with their NPT obligations. However, mechanisms only exist to ensure that non-nuclear weapon states implement their non-proliferation obligations. For these states, the most substantial mechanism to ensure compliance—the comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreement—must be concluded within 90 days of ratification and stays in force indefinitely; the non-proliferation obligation is thus in force swiftly and in perpetuity.  With respect to the disarmament obligation, the international community is resigned to rely on the “good faith” clause of article VI. No time lines are specified, nor is there any mechanism to ensure compliance. The failure to engage in negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons 40 years after the Treaty entered into force, along with nuclear sharing and the engagement in nuclear trade with non-states parties, are indicative of the need for mechanisms to ensure nuclear weapon states’ compliance with the Treaty.

This imbalance of  obligations does undermine the credibility of the Treaty. However, as Brazilian foreign minister said on 3 May, article VI “contains the seed of [the Treaty’s] own self-correction.” This seed is the obligation to disarm and cease the arms race. The seed needs to grow into a nuclear weapons convention.

Restoring the credibility of the NPT will require the concrete demonstration of good faith by all NPT states parties. Good faith, according to the International Court of Justice, “obliges the Parties to apply  [a treaty] in a reasonable way and in such a manner that its purpose can be realized.” Governments and civil society alike look forward to further discussion of methods to strengthen the Treaty at this Review Conference—and all of us hope that discussion leads to concrete action that leads to improving the Treaty’s implementation rather than simply maintaining the status quo. Definitions of success may vary, but we all have a stake in seeing a progressive, forward-looking outcome—which is something we should all work for together


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