NPT News in Review, Vol. 16, No. 6

Editorial: Rain or shine, the NPT must be implemented
9 May 2019

Ray Acheson

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“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” says the unofficial motto of the US postal service, engraved on the James Farley Post Office just a few blocks from the UN in New York City. It is a concept that the nuclear-armed states would do well to heed. Their legal obligation to achieve the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals stands, regardless of the environmental conditions. But you’d never know that based on their positions here at the NPT PrepCom or their vehemently negative reactions to the revised draft recommendations circulated by the Chair on Thursday afternoon.

“I have nothing good to say about this document,” said the US ambassador after having an hour to look at the new draft. He described it as “dramatically worse” than the first text and said if the Chair’s intention was to “bridge differences,” then the Chair failed. Of course, this comes from a delegation that only the day before said this PrepCom has illuminated “seemingly incompatible approaches” to nuclear disarmament and, by the way, tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles during this meeting.

The French ambassador also had a go at the Chair, saying that the new recommendations contain “harmful elements,” some of which threaten the existence of the NPT. He argued that this document is the “opposite” of a collective vision, which is what the draft recommendations are supposed to provide.

It seems that what France and the United States mean is that this document does not reflect theirvision—collective amongst perhaps four of the nuclear-armed states, though even that is a stretch. The “bridge,” in their perspective as articulated throughout this PrepCom and many previous meetings, is to be built by those who reject nuclear weapons over to those who embrace nuclear weapons wholeheartedly as their most treasured tools of “security”. And then those who built this bridge need to march across it—not to acquire nuclear weapons themselves, of course, but to support the nuclear-armed states in their indefinite possession of these weapons, which is all for our own good.

As Emily Welty of the World Council of Churches noted on Thursday evening, the different approaches in diplomacy seem to be, on the one hand, saying, “I didn’t get everything I wanted but I’m staying in relationship and honoring the process,” versus those who express shock when outcome documents do not echo their own position exclusively. This latter is common in the nuclear-armed playbook, seen repeatedly over recent years. Others have grown weary with this practice. Perhaps it is the aggression of the nuclear-armed states in these forums and in their nuclear postures and build-up; perhaps it is the experience of going ahead and negotiating new international law on nuclear weapons without the nuclear-armed states’ permission. Either way, many states seem more willing to stand up and confront the nuclear-armed over their behaviour. As Costa Rica asked, “What is point of this exercise if some countries think of this as a zero-sum game like baseball?” 

Fortunately, the majority of delegations taking the floor in response to the revised recommendations are not playing sports. Some expressed particular changes they regretted having been made or missed, but expressed overall support for the Chair’s efforts. Several delegations also pointed out that even though a few governments may not see this as a collective vision, these recommendations are actually much closer to the objectives and spirit of the NPT and outcome documents from 2010 and before. The Brazilian delegation noted that this document is a much more accurate reflection of discussions and common ground than the 2017 and 2018 NPT PrepCom Chair’s summaries. Thailand noted that the changes give the document more balance based on views in the room, especially in relation to nuclear disarmament, where obligations need to be reaffirmed the most. Austria argued that it is important to have a common basis, and that basis is the NPT.

“If the NPT is no longer a middle ground, what are we doing here?” asked the New Agenda Coalition, describing the revised recommendations as a “natural evolution” based on really listening to all states parties. The draft is indeed much improved from the first round, reflecting majority positions on humanitarian consequences, nuclear disarmament commitments and obligations, gender considerations, and more. Language could still be stronger on the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), such as urging its signature and ratification, but the recognition of the need for a legally-binding norm to prohibit nuclear weapons and the TPNW’s complementarity to the NPT is vital. Much more depth is added to the paragraph on gender, reflecting not just the need for women’s participation but also the active encouragement of states parties to support gender diversity in their delegations and through sponsorship programmes in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1325. The document also adds recognition of the disproportionate impact of ionising radiation on women and girls, which has been discussed throughout this review cycle and is reflected in the TPNW. The chapeau and section one on nuclear disarmament reflect the central importance of implementing obligations and commitment to accomplish nuclear abolition. 

Overall, while not perfect or sufficiently far-reaching from the perspective of some governments and many activists, the draft recommendations provide a solid reflection of the majority view of NPT states parties and offer a good starting point for work at the 2020 Review Conference. What happens next year will depend on the will of governments to comply with their legal obligations and to respect international law—and to respect each other. The NPT belongs to everyone, the South African ambassador reminded the room on Thursday. “‘No’ is never a negotiating position”—certain states parties cannot operate as a small gang that gets its way while everyone else has to go along, she warned. Compromise and negotiation, not threatening Chairs of meetings and other delegations, is the only way to go.

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