20 May 2010, No. 14

Potential approaches toward building consensus for looking at a framework for consideration of preparatory measures that could change the conditions for progress toward a step-by-step approach for considering nuclear disarmament?
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will

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On Wednesday morning, Main Committee I engaged in a vigorous debate about the concept of a “timebound framework” for disarmament. This phrase refers quite simply to putting some sort of timeline on implementing nuclear disarmament commitments—an idea which has been supported by the overwhelming majority of delegations at this Review Conference.

The Treaty’s non-proliferation obligations are in force swiftly and perpetuity. As noted in the NPT News in Review editorial on 5 May, the comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreement must be concluded within 90 days of ratification and stays in force indefinitely, providing a clear benchmark by which to measure states’ compliance.

It is not so clear with disarmament. Most of the nuclear weapon states contend that they have acted in accordance with their obligations under article VI; some, such as the UK and France, have argued that they have complied with all of the 13 practical steps that apply to them. However, there is no benchmark by which to measure the pace at which they comply, the degree to which they comply, the sustainability, the verifiability, or the irreversibility, of said compliance. At the same time, some of the nuclear weapon states engage in activities that undermine the Treaty, such as nuclear sharing, supplying nuclear technology and materials to non-states parties, conducting subcritical nuclear tests, and modernizing or “refurbishing” their nuclear weapons and related infrastructure.

However, the nuclear weapon states clearly expressed their unwillingness to set benchmarks or timeframes for implementing their obligations. The French delegation called for the deletion of paragraph B5 from the first draft of the Chair’s text, which says, “The Conference agrees on the need to implement article VI within a timebound framework.” Ambassador Danon argued that the imposition of “artificial deadlines” in nuclear disarmament has never worked and said that timelines would weaken the non-proliferation regime because nothing is gained by imposing deadlines and not meeting them.

A critical look at this assertion reveals the double standard: that deadlines or timeframes for disarmament cannot be established, or if established, they cannot be expected to be met, because they are “artificial,” but that deadlines and timeframes must be imposed and met for non-proliferation in order to remain “in compliance” with one’s Treaty obligations.

While the US and Russian delegations supported France’s perspective and also argued against the “imposition” of “deadlines,” a number of delegations reacted strongly against this, including Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Iran, South Africa, the Philippines, Algeria, Libya, Cuba, and Canada. A few states, including New Zealand and Mexico, described some of France’s proposed amendments as “unacceptable”; New Zealand’s ambassador said they have “the effect of lowering the level of aspiration and warmth in the present draft.”

Specifically on the issue of timeframes, Indonesia’s delegation pointed out that when states gave up the option of pursuing nuclear weapons, they did so with the understanding that nuclear weapons would do the same at some point. South Africa’s representative cautioned that the non-nuclear weapon states are reaching levels of desperation because they have not yet seen concrete action on nuclear disarmament as specified in article VI. Algeria’s delegation noted that timelines simply offer a tool by which to measure progress, which is something uniquely lacking when it comes to article VI. And the Canadian delegation, in typical bridge-building fashion, called for language that avoids both overly prescriptive timeframes and no timeframes at all.

However, after this resounding debate in Main Committee I, during which the majority of states who delivered interventions spoke in favour of timeframes for disarmament, the Chair of Subsidiary Body I released a significantly weakened draft action plan—a compromise based on inputs received from delegations over the past three days—that eliminated all timelines included in the original draft (except for the time limit placed on the activities of the CD).

Action 6, which previously said the NWS “shall convene consultations not later than 2011 to accelerate concrete progress on nuclear disarmament,” now says that the NWS “are called upon to convene timely consultations.” The original document had NWS reporting back to NPT states parties in 2012; the new version calls on them to do it during the upcoming review cycle. Instead of the UN Secretary-General convening “an international conference in 2014 to consider ways and means to agree on a roadmap for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons within a specified timeframe, including by means of a universal, legal instrument,” the UNSG is now invited to convene “an open-ended high-level meeting to take stock and agree on a roadmap for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, including by means of a universal, legal instrument.”

The new Action 7 punts the process of multilateral nuclear disarmament over to the CD, stipulating that it will be dealt with “in an appropriate subsidiary body, within the context of an agreed, comprehensive and balanced programme of work”—which means, in the current CD context, only within a programme of work that launches negotiations on a fissile materials treaty as well, even though the Pakistani delegation to the CD has made it clear they are not willing to accept a programme of work that includes negotiations on that item. Even then, this subsidiary body is only called on to provide a forum for exchanging “views and information on practical steps for progressive and systematic efforts to reduce nuclear weapons with the ultimate goal of their elimination, including on approaches toward potential future work of multilateral character.” The breathtaking number of conditions in that single sentence effectively buries any opportunity this action had to make a significant contribution to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

It is not just timelines that have been removed. The emphasis on “action” in the revised action plan has been diluted. In almost every instance, instead of concluding, negotiating, doing, or adopting, states shall now pursue, discuss, or consider (see the Drafts in Contrast section for a detailed comparison of the two action plans).

At the end of the MCI meeting, the Irish delegate quoted from his foreign minister’s statement from 3 May, who in turn had quoted Irish poet Edmund Burke, who counseled “Never despair; but if you do, work on in despair.”

Despair will only grow stronger around the worldif the nuclear weapon states expect everyone else to wait patiently for another 40 years for the elimination of nuclear weapons. By refusing to commit to measurable actions on disarmament, the nuclear weapon states are not only jeopardizing the potential success of the Review Conference, they are also weakening the faith the world has in this Treaty.


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