UN Security Council meets to discuss the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

by Danielle Samler, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy
6 March 2020

On 26 February 2020, the UN Security Council met to discuss the upcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, which will be held during the treaty’s fiftieth anniversary year. The meeting was organised by Belgium, this month’s President of the Council. At the outset of the meeting, there were briefings given by the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, and the President-designate of the NPT Review Conference, Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen of Argentina. They addressed the current security environment and the importance of having a successful Review Conference. An overarching theme of their messages was the role that the Security Council has in promoting disarmament efforts and contributing to the non-proliferation regime.

Nakamitsu recognised that the NPT is an “enduring example of the value of disarmament, arms control, and non-proliferation measures.” She also highlighted the fact that the relationships between nuclear-armed states are fractured due to “great power” competition. She urged states to not take the success of the NPT for granted and encouraged states to remember their legally binding commitments under Article VI of the Treaty. Finally, she said the “failure to achieve an outcome in 2020 would not doom the Treaty or the non-proliferation regime; it will, however, serve to undermine the value so many UN member states place on it and will in turn devalue the review cycle as a whole.”

Ambassador Zlauvinen noted that this upcoming Review Conference is an opportunity to reaffirm commitment to the non-proliferation regime and that the NPT represents an almost universal forum to discuss issues central to international peace and security. He called for wide participation in the upcoming conference, including the next generation of leaders and practitioners, women’s voices and gender perspectives, academics, and scientists. He requested that these inputs be considered and included in any concluding document. Of particular importance was his reminder that Article 26 of the UN Charter gives the Security Council a responsibility for disarmament and arms control regulations.

Germany’s minister of foreign affairs Heiko Maas set the tone for the rest of the meeting by recalling his visit to Hiroshima, where a survivor told him that “we have the means to destroy our own civilisation and what happened once can happen again.” He further said that commemorating the NPT is not enough; nuclear disarmament has come to a standstill and the proliferation crisis demands states’ full attention. He reminded states that by signing the NPT, states subscribed to its ultimate goal of achieving a world free from nuclear weapons, for which no one bears greater responsibility than the members of the Security Council.

Balancing the so-called three pillars of the NPT—non-proliferation, disarmament, and the “peaceful use” of nuclear energy—was emphasised by South Africa, Belgium, Indonesia, France, Viet Nam, and Tunisia. They stated that each pillar must be given equal weight and attention in order for effective implementation of the Treaty, as they are mutually reinforcing.

Many states also recognised nuclear weapon free zones (NWFZs) and weapon of mass destruction free zones (WMDFZs) for the positive impact they can have on international and regional security environments. Several highlighted the proposed Middle East WMDFZ. Indonesia and the Dominican Republic noted that this zone is a crucial component of the non-proliferation regime. Tunisia urged delegates to recall that the decision to establish a Middle East WMDFZ was and remains part and parcel to the indefinite extension of the NPT. It also reiterated that it is not solely the responsibility of Middle East states to free the Middle East of WMDs, but that every state has a role to play.

Some states advocated for the elaboration of a fissile material cut-off treaty such as the Dominican Republic, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Belgium. Germany, the Dominican Republic, and Belgium also urged for entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and called on Annex II states to sign and ratify the agreement. 

A number of states brought up the need to pay considerable attention to the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Estonia and Germany both called for continuation of sanctions until the DPRK returns to full and verifiable compliance with the NPT. Heiko Maas stated that the DPRK “has acquired nuclear weapons in complete disregard of the NPT.” He then asked council members “what does this say about the credibility of our own decisions?” Maas said that the only way forward is a two-pronged approach: pressure and diplomatic engagement. Belgium expressed concern with the lack of progress on the complete denuclearisation of the DPRK. The United States called on council members to be united in the goal of achieving a fully verified denuclearisation of the DPRK.

Concerns about Iran and the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) were raised by Germany, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, the United States, and Belgium. Germany stated that it expects full implementation of obligations from Iran and that the JCPOA is the only tool to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The United States similarly stressed the importance of ensuring that Iran never develops a pathway to nuclear weapons. The Dominican Republic and Estonia urged Iran to continue compliance with the JCPOA, however, the Dominican Republic also noted that it is important to ensure that Iran gets the economic benefits agreed upon.

China focused its statement on proposals for a successful NPT review conference. These included: adherence to multilateralism based on international law, safeguarding arms control mechanisms, working together on rules and regulations for cyberspace and artificial intelligence, and taking an integrative approach. China also stated that “nuclear weapon states should take effective measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security, reiterate the concept that nuclear war cannot be won and should not be fought, and exercise restraint in strategic capacity building.”

Russia expressed concern that the breakdowns in many arms control mechanisms are a result of one state trying to dominate the world and impose its rules on others. It argued that the United States is lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and that US threats make it more difficult to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. It highlighted US withdrawal from important arms control mechanisms. Belgium commented on the dynamic between the United State and Russia, noting that they both have a duty to avoid nuclear competition. Belgium also said that the fate of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is an essential component of the success of the NPT.

The United States expressed an optimistic perspective, arguing that nuclear arsenals of both Russia and the United States have been reduced. It also reiterated its position that advancing the “ultimate” goal of a world free of nuclear weapons must take into account the current security context. The US delegation criticised the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), saying that it “ignores security challenges that make nuclear deterrence necessary and will not eliminate a single nuclear warhead or make anyone more secure.” It further said it has come to the conclusion that the drafters of the TPNW gave greater weight to that treaty document than to the NPT. France also noted that it will not join the TPNW, insisting once again that the treaty will weaken the NPT standards and the non-proliferation regime.

South Africa, Indonesia, Estonia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in contrast, recalled the overall goal of the NPT: achieving a world free from nuclear weapons. St. Vincent and the Grenadines said it proudly ratified the TPNW in the hopes of achieving this goal. Viet Nam and Tunisia expressed their support for the TPNW as well. South Africa, which has also ratified, expressed its support for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. It further noted that there has been a lack of urgency and seriousness in the area of nuclear disarmament and urged states to not roll back or reinterpret commitments made since 1995, highlighting the fact that the success of the 2020 Review Conference depends on those commitments being upheld.

There was a shared concern among many states that the current security challenges cannot be used as an excuse for lack of action or a return to the past. Nuclear weapon possessors must demonstrate real disarmament efforts. St. Vincent and the Grenadines said that nuclear-armed states need to engage in open dialogue on doctrines and policies in order to increase trust between parties. At the close of the meeting, Belgium called upon the five permanent Security Council members to take on more responsibility in achieving nuclear disarmament and a world free from nuclear weapons. It also stressed that the Security Council has an important role to play in improving the global security situation and managing conflicts. Commenting on the overall outcome, a Security Council press statement issued by Council President Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve of Belgium stated that, “in light of current international geopolitical challenges, they [members of the Council] stressed the importance of upholding and strengthening the treaty.”