2 May 2012, No. 2

In pursuit of nuclear disarmament
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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In stark contrast to the opening PrepCom of the last NPT review cycle, Monday’s plenary saw a swift and painless adoption of the agenda and other procedural items. The room bore a sense of relief as Ambassador Woolcott of Australia gaveled the decisions.

However, it is not clear that the substantive undertakings of the review cycle will go as smoothly. Perhaps most notably on day one, a major divergence over the character of the 2010 NPT action plan became apparent, which will have implications for determining the most appropriate objectives for the 2015 Review Conference.

2010 action plan: a building block for implementing the NPT
Addressing the opening plenary, Ms. Angela Kane, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, argued that the NPT review process “enables States Parties collectively to take stock of progress made, and to identify new achievements that are needed. It is the review process that helps to sustain the NPT as a ‘living’ Treaty that is periodically assessed in light of the ever-evolving political and strategic circumstances of our times.”

Most delegations tended to agree with this vision, highlighting the importance of the current review process to take stock of the implementation of the 2010 commitments and then to move forward by adopting an ambitious and progressive plan of action in 2015. Most countries view the 2010 action plan a stepping stone rather than an end game. The Non-Aligned Movement described the 2010 action plan as a “vital achievement to be built upon,” while the Irish delegation said it provides a “solid basis for our work in the 2015 review cycle.” New Zealand called it a “reference by which we can measure our collective efforts to implement the Treaty” and the Swiss delegation emphasized that it “should not be viewed as an end in itself, but rather as a means of achieving full implementation of NPT commitments.”

The representative of the Holy See pointed out that the action plan’s “sometimes broad formulations, lack of specific targets and deadlines on most of the action items, and possible differences in interpretation pose significant challenges for review and assessment.” Indeed, as Reaching Critical Will’s 2010 NPT Action Plan Monitoring Report demonstrates, it is extremely difficult to gauge the level of implementation of many elements of the plan because it lacks specific mechanisms, timelines, or benchmarks that could serve as a guide or measure. However, this preparatory meeting will require a serious and comprehensive examination of the current state of affairs. As Ambassador Brennan of Ireland argued, the first PrepCom provides “a useful opportunity to assess progress to date on implementing the 2010 follow on actions, to take an initial strategic look at where we want the NPT to be in 2015, and to begin to work out how we will get there over the next three years.” He called for an “ambitious agenda” for the 2015 cycle.

For many delegations speaking on Monday, an ambitious agenda would prioritize disarmament, which, as the New Agenda Coalition argued, is falling behind non-proliferation in terms of commitments met. Austria’s delegation argued that “this review cycle will determine whether the NPT is a credible framework for nuclear disarmament.” If implemented, the action plan would “put us on a right track towards a world without nuclear weapons,” said Mr. Johannes Kyrle. Likewise, Malaysia’s delegation suggested that this review cycle “would serve as a good avenue for all the nuclear weapon States to substantiate their unequivocal commitment to eliminate their nuclear arsenals and provide positive momentum as we move towards the 2015 RevCon.”

Nuclear weapon states on moving forward
However, not all delegations agreed with this vision. While the US delegation sees the action plan as a “point of departure” for this review cycle rather than an ultimate achievement of the NPT process, it prioritizes non-proliferation rather than disarmament as the basis for future work. Ambassador Burk criticized the action plan for not addressing “some very serious challenges to the Treaty,” in particular, “the unresolved cases of noncompliance with the Treaty’s nonproliferation obligations.” Likewise, the French delegation seems to view withdrawal and “non-compliance” with non-proliferation commitments as the issues most in need of further attention, arguing that it has already undertaken “ambitious, irreversible disarmament action”.

The Russian delegation also indicated its expectation that during this review cycle, states parties will collaborate to determine “the ‘next’ balanced package of measures to strengthen the Treaty.” However, Mr. Uliyanov of Russia also argued, “Global events analysis shows the utmost need to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime comprehensively…. A lot of work still has to be done to ensure that the non-proliferation requirements enshrined in the Treaty are respected everywhere.”

The UK delegation gave less indication of what it sees as the objective for future work, though it too focused on potential proliferation as the key challenge to the Treaty. In terms of disarmament, Ambassador Adamson in one sentence stated her government’s commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons and in the next argued that “only a credible nuclear capability can provide the necessary ultimate guarantee to our national security.” As usual, China’s delegation offered more rhetorical support for nuclear disarmament, though it too placed caveats on the process, arguing that the US and Russia should first make “drastic reductions” in their arsenals and then, at “an appropriate time,” the international community should develop a “long-term plan composed of phased actions” for disarmament.

Beyond the rhetoric
Yet the vast majority of countries in the world, as represented by the Non-Aligned Movement and also the New Agenda Coalition, have expressed disappointment and frustration with the lack of concrete, irreversible, transparent, verifiable, and time-bound progress on nuclear disarmament. While they have undertaken measurable steps to ensure non-proliferation, there is nothing equivalent to guide or assess compliance with disarmament.

As the Holy See’s representative argued, “Only the visible expression of an intent to construct a global legal basis for the systematic elimination of all nuclear weapons will suffice. It cannot be considered morally sufficient to draw down the stocks of superfluous nuclear weapons while modernizing nuclear arsenals and investing vast sums to ensure their future production and maintenance. This current course will ensure the perpetuation of these weapons indefinitely.”

This NPT review process should be seized by states parties as a chance to finally develop the measurable commitments for a disarmament process that they have been demanding for more than 40 years. The credibility of the non-proliferation regime will hinge on the disarmament actions undertaken. And the international community, not just the nuclear weapon states, have an active role to play in this context. Making demands or complaints in international fora is no longer enough; action is now required.

“The logic of nuclear disarmament will ultimately prevail,” argued Mr. Kyrle of Austria. “The question is whether it will happen through a rational, serious political effort by the international community or as a result of a cataclysmic event. How we deal with nuclear weapons is a litmus test for the international community. It will clarify whether we are capable to resolve a fundamental challenge to our very existence through international cooperation.”

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