NPT News in Review, Vol. 18, No. 6

Editorial: The Power of Procedure
11 August 2023

Ray Acheson

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In terms of NPT procedural turmoil, this Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) reached a new low. After two weeks of discussing issues that have a serious bearing on the continued existence of the world, states parties ended the meeting by fighting over which documents could be listed in the meeting’s procedural report. Iran, Russia, and Syria objected to the inclusion of the Chair’s summary of the meeting, as well as his recommendations for the second session of the PrepCom, in the list of official documents.

In the end, to enable the adoption of the PrepCom’s procedural report and have a record of the meeting, the Chair withdrew his summary. He had already concluded that there was no consensus to adopt it as an outcome of the PrepCom, but intended—as the Chairs of the PrepComs in last review cycle did in 2017, 2018, and 2019—to submit his summary as a working paper under his own authority. But Iran, backed by Russia and Syria, objected to the summary being listed even as a working paper. The Iranian delegation’s main concern was that the summary singled out Iran in a negative way and presented a one-sided view of the situation with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran also objected to what it perceived as Western bias throughout the whole summary—it felt the Chair had given preferential treatment to the views of the Western Group delegations at the expense of the views of most other delegations participating in the meeting.

Russia’s objections focused more on Chair’s recommendations to the next PrepCom. The Russian delegate asserted that the recommendations paper was new, dangerous, and risked derailing the whole review cycle. Beyond the irony that this warning came from the state that derailed the last review cycle, Russia’s concerns also ignored past precedent. It argued that the Chairs in the previous cycle had issued reflections, not recommendations. But as the Canadian delegation pointed out, while this Chair’s approach was perhaps a little more straightforward than those of the past in framing his reflections as recommendations, this is not a truly novel development. Furthermore, as many delegations pointed out, it is normal in multilateral processes for Chairs to submit documents and reflections in their own capacity, and it is troubling that a few delegations would call this entire practice into question.

Of course, some of those defending “good multilateral practice” were also being disingenuous in standing up for the Chair’s papers at this PrepCom. The United States, for example, has blocked the outcomes of two NPT Review Conferences—once on behalf of a state not party. All five of the nuclear-armed states, and some of their nuclear-supportive allies, have consistently watered-down outcome documents, failed to implement their obligations and commitments related to nuclear disarmament, and undermined previous Chair’s efforts to present factual and balanced reflections of discussions when such reflections have not suited their interests.

Nevertheless, the fight over including working papers in a list of documents in a procedural report is extreme even for NPT standards. One might think that two consecutive failed Review Conferences would inspire some flexibility and compromise among states parties to preserve the Treaty they claim to care so much about, but this continues to prove to not be the case.

Of course, procedural fights are never really about procedure. Underneath comments about precedent and process are some very serious politics. This was clear in the discussions about the content of the Chair’s summary on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.

Debate over the Chair’s summary

As the Chair said, the discussion on his draft summary was an opportunity to see where things stand with the NPT. Things do not stand well. With states parties diametrically opposed on the key issue of whether nuclear weapons are good or bad, reaching agreement on even a summary of discussions becomes intractable.

No clearer exemplification is needed than the remarks about nuclear deterrence on Thursday afternoon. Austria pointed out that a critique of deterrence doctrines was missing from the summary, even though most states parties clearly articulated that they see the threat of nuclear weapons stemming not just from specific threats to use nuclear weapons but also from the existence of these weapons. Ireland made similar remarks. Poland responded to these comments by asserting that nuclear deterrence is essential for the security of some states under the prevailing security circumstances and that the security of states cannot be diminished in the pursuit of the goals of the NPT. That is, in practical terms, implementing the NPT is not as important as Poland’s sense of security afforded to it by the United States possessing and threatening to use nuclear weapons on Poland’s behalf.

If this is “where things stand” with the NPT, it is not all that surprising that states parties can fight about which documents to include in a procedural report. If there is divergence about whether or not international law should be implemented by states that have ratified it, the foundations of this Treaty are paper thin. What spaces remains to de-escalate the current “geopolitical” situation leading us toward massive nuclear violence if NPT states parties do not believe the Treaty’s implementation serves their “interests”?

The nuclear-armed states are usually slightly more careful in their formulations. They claim that their deterrence doctrines, their arsenal modernisation, and their policies and practices of nuclear sharing, etc., are all somehow in compliance with the NPT. This is the fundamental political fight at the heart of the NPT, as it has been now for decades. The discussion over the Chair’s summary clearly delineated the fault lines known well to all who follow these discussions.

Even the very first paragraph of the Chair’s summary is problematic in this regard. It said that NPT states parties reaffirmed the central role of the NPT “as the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the foundation of the pursuit of nuclear disarmament.” As Aotearoa New Zealand pointed out, backed by many other delegations, the NPT is the cornerstone for both non-proliferation and disarmament. To suggest otherwise is to imply a hierarchy of objectives, making disarmament aspirational rather than legally binding.

Unfortunately, this reflects the way nuclear-armed states and some of their allies perceive the NPT. When many delegations called for paragraph 10 to quote in full the nuclear-armed states’ unequivocal undertaking to achieve the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals, France pushed back against that. France also said that calling for a subsidiary body at the 2026 Review Conference to consider the fulfillment of Article VI is “imbalanced” and demanded that subsidiary bodies on all three pillars should be established—even though the point of this call is because the implementation of Article VI is trailing far, far behind the implementation of all other provisions of the Treaty.

France pushed back on most other paragraphs concerning nuclear disarmament, including paragraph 15’s reference to the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion, which it (incorrectly) asserted is a “reinterpretation” of the opinion. France and the United Kingdom (UK) also objected to the description of the January 2022 joint statement of nuclear-armed state leaders that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The last sentence of paragraph 24 in the Chair’s summary says that “States parties called on the nuclear-weapon States to uphold the principle affirmed in the joint statement and the norm against the use of nuclear weapons.” France and the UK argued that the joint statement was never meant to indicate there is a norm against the use of nuclear weapons.

Ironically, Austria had earlier pointed out that the draft summary did not say anything about upholding the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons. France and the UK asserting there is no norm against nuclear weapon use is a pretty strong indication that the taboo is in trouble.

Meanwhile, France and the United States (US) liked that paragraph 11 highlighted the view of some states that the NPT provides “the only credible path towards nuclear disarmament” and that “Support was expressed for a progressive, step-by-step approach to disarmament.” The US suggested adding language about the international security environment here as well, to further caveat their obligations to achieve nuclear disarmament. France claimed that nuclear disarmament is not “decreed from on high” and is contingent upon the international security environment.

Aotearoa New Zealand pointed out that the assertion that the NPT is the only credible path to achieve nuclear disarmament does not reflect the views of states parties of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Furthermore, as many delegations noted, paragraph 18 in the Chair’s summary contained problematic language undermining the support voiced by the majority of NPT states parties for the TPNW. Paragraph 18 notes the TPNW’s entry into force and the convening of its First Meeting of States Parties; it also says that TPNW states parties and signatories emphasised that the TPNW is “an effective measure to implement article VI and was complementary to” the NPT, and that they called on other states “to consider joining that Treaty.” This is all correct. But paragraph 18 also says, “It was also expressed that approaches based on an immediate and complete ban on nuclear weapons were counterproductive.”

Austria remarked that this is a minority view expressed by one delegation during the PrepCom, to which the UK responded that while it might not have expressed its position as forcefully as others, it does not want its restraint to be misinterpreted. France went even further, arguing that paragraph 18 should retain the sentence that a ban on nuclear weapons is counterproductive and add language outlining that “others expressed the view that the TPNW is neither compatible nor complementarity of Article VI of the NPT.”

Power or peace

Many more such divergences are highlighted in the report in this edition on the discussion about the Chair’s summary. Underlining them all is the core issue of inequality that nuclear-armed states have manufactured over many decades of inaction on disarmament, retrenchment of nuclear weapon policies and arsenals, and the aggressive nuclear competition they insist on maintaining among them.

While many governments come to NPT meetings to engage in serious discussions in good faith, the minority have become allowed to dictate what is possible, even when it contravenes international laws to which they have freely subscribed. For many years, most states parties and civil society have been saying this untenable. It becomes particularly so when there is now an alternative path forward, through the TPNW. States parties to that agreement have a different experience of process and politics, in which dialogue and compromise allow governments, activists, survivors, international organisations, and others to find paths forward to achieve the collective goals of peace and security.

This is the antithesis of the NPT, wherein states are now fighting over document lists in procedural reports, or where nuclear-armed governments block any efforts to advance the Treaty’s implementation. Some states parties act as if the world is not at risk of nuclear war, or billions of dollars are not being spent to modernise and expand arsenals of mass destruction, or that multilateralism and international law are not being torn apart. These are the unfortunate impacts of the NPT review process as it currently stands. But it does not have to be this way. States can make another choice—and many have. Many great ideas were shared during the Working Group and the PrepCom this year, and over the course of the Treaty’s decades of dialogue and debate.

But once again, the question comes down to: What is needed to compel the most violent governments in the world to choose people and the planet over the perception of power? If the NPT cannot resolve this question, at least for its own sake, it will likely continue deeper into the quagmire its nuclear-armed states parties have created. In the meantime, those acting most in the Treaty’s interest will continue to work together for nuclear disarmament, peace, and security through the TPNW.

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