1 June 2010, Final Edition

Thinking beyond the NPT Review Process
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will

Download full PDF here

On Friday afternoon, the 2010 NPT Review Conference adopted its final document. After a tense morning, during which the Iranian delegation sought instructions from capital on whether or not to accept the document, the text was adopted as-is with no objections from the floor. The review portion of the text includes a footnote specifying that it is the Chair’s reflection of the Treaty review. The Conference did agree, however, to a forward-looking action plan covering nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation, and nuclear energy, as well as the 1995 resolution on the Middle East.

While hailed by many governments and news media as a success, the adoption of this document conceals resistance by the nuclear weapon states to any meaningful commitments on nuclear disarmament and reluctance by some non-nuclear weapon states to agree on further substantial measures to deal with non-proliferation challenges. The document itself was carefully crafted to stay within the “red lines” of every delegation and it was, as the Chair described it, the best that could be offered at this point in time.

For the most part, the document preserved the status quo in disarmament and non-proliferation, while promoting the so-called “virtues” of nuclear energy. The most progressive element of the text is the promise of a 2012 conference on the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Israeli government (which is not a party to the NPT) has already rejected the Review Conference outcome, declaring that it will not attend this conference,1 and the US government immediately stated that their ability to organize such conference was seriously jeopardized by the fact that the document singled out Israel.2

The disarmament action plan does include a yardstick with which to measure implementation of article VI and the 13 practical steps over the next five years. Action 5 calls upon the nuclear weapon states to “engage with” related issues and report back to the 2014 NPT PrepCom and the 2015 RevCon, the latter of which will “take stock and consider the next steps for the full implementation of Article VI”. This implies that the next Review Conference could potentially work on a roadmap for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, though the document rather vaguely leaves it up to the nuclear weapon states to “engage with” and “report on” these measures in the interim.

But a final document is just a document. The key indication of the current state of play over these issues can be found in the NPT review process, which led to the document; from studying the process we can glean information not just about government positions (which we largely knew going in), but also about their tactics, pressure points, relationships to other governments, perceptions of how “international relations” should be “managed,” understandings of equity and fairness, and interests in truly advancing peace and security. The process also clearly indicates the weak points of the NPT regime itself.

The lack of substantial forward progress reflected in the final document has been caused by the failing commitment to the core bargain of the Treaty. During this review process, the nuclear weapon states—often supported by the states that shelter under the US nuclear weapon umbrella or that host US nuclear weapons on their soil—argued that they have met their nuclear disarmament obligations. They also expected to be praised for what they have said they intend to do, while at the same time demanding “more than words” from others. These states came to the Review Conference looking for strengthened non-proliferation commitments by these “others,” to make sure they will never acquire nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, the states that neither posses nuclear weapons nor rely on them for security—the overwhelming majority of countries in the world—believe that they have adequately demonstrated their commitment to not acquire nuclear weapons and expect the states that do possess these weapons to fulfill their end of the bargain by eliminating their arsenals. This Review Conference offered the chance for all states to agree to a legally-binding framework for this elimination process. Instead, the outcome pushed this decision into the future and sent related complex issues to be dealt with in other fora. The review process showed that nuclear-armed and protected states are still addicted to their weapons because they afford them a sense of power.

So what needs to change before the nuclear weapon states can overcome their addiction? If the NPT process is failing to achieve a world without nuclear weapons, is it time for something new?

It is clear that nuclear weapons do not offer security from military threats. They are unusable against other nuclear-armed states; they are unusable against terrorists, climate change, poverty, and famine. Focusing on the uselessness, as well as the immorality and illegality of nuclear weapons, will be key to undermining the nuclear weapon states’ continued possession of and reliance on these weapons of terror.

The Swiss and Norwegian delegations brought the question of international humanitarian law to the heart of the current debate about nuclear weapons during this Review Conference. The final document included language expressing “deep concern at the catastrophic human consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and reaffirming “the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.” While watered down from its original incarnation in an earlier draft, this sentiment could be a valuable tool by which to further delegitimize nuclear weapons, which could help facilitate concrete nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

The economic burden of nuclear weapons is also instrumental in undermining the addiction to this particular instrument of power and prestige. At the exact same time as it demanded stricter commitments against proliferation at the Review Conference, the Obama administration put forward to the US Senate a plan to maintain nuclear weapon delivery systems; sustain a “safe, secure, and reliable” US nuclear weapons stockpile; and modernize the nuclear weapons complex—for the price of $180 billion over the next decade. Is this sound fiscal policy in the midst of a global economic crisis? Can such a double standard be tolerated by an equitable and just process of international relations?

The benefit of this particular NPT review process was not necessarily the adoption of a final document. One real positive outcome was the emergence of a new debate on the relevance and legality of nuclear weapons and the overwhelming support from the vast majority of countries for a legally-binding agreement to achieve their abolition. Most states, not to mention representatives of civil society, repeatedly expressed their frustration with the slow, incremental pace of disarmament. Their frustration was reflected in the process, and even, to a weaker degree in the outcome document itself. While falling short of a commitment to a specified framework for nuclear disarmament, all states parties agreed that the 2015 Review Conference will “consider the next steps for the full implementation of article VI” (Action 5) and the nuclear weapon states committed to implement the unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear weapons (Action 3).

Of course, we do not need to wait until 2015 to “consider” the full implementation of article VI or the unequivocal undertaking. We do not need to rely on the NPT process alone to eliminate nuclear weapons. The vast majority of states have called for the negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention to outlaw nuclear weapons. The NPT process has demonstrated a need for this convention more than ever before. As Egyptian Ambassador Abdelaziz said while delivering the Non-Aligned Movement’s closing remarks, “The outcome document we just approved represents in our view a basis for a deal we intend to vigorously build on in the next years, in cooperation with all States Parties to the Treaty, in particular with Nuclear-Weapons States, aiming at the earliest realization of a world free from nuclear weapons, where policies of deterrence have no place, and where the horrible threat posed by nuclear weapons to human lives on our planet no longer exists.”

1. “Israel rejects Middle East nuclear talks plan,” BBC News, 29 May 2010.
2. Reuters, “US ‘regrets’ that Israel singled out in treaty text,” 28 May 2010.

[PDF] ()