Intro blog: the 2010 NPT Review Conference opens in NY

Posted by Rebecca Johnson: Intro blog from the NPT

The eighth review conference of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gets underway at the United Nations in New York on Monday, and will run from 3 – 28 May, 2010.  As government delegations and over 2000 civil society representatives begin to queue up for their UN passes,  there is already a buzz of anticipation, tinged with anxiety.  After some significant steps on nuclear weapons reductions and security undertaken by President Barack Obama over the past year, it is now the turn of 189 of the world’s governments to face up to the many challenges that nuclear weapons and technologies continue to present.

The NPT was negotiated in the 1960s after China and France joined the United States, Soviet Union and Britain in developing national nuclear arsenals.  The purpose was to stop more countries from building nuclear weapons, so transfers of nuclear materials and technologies were to be confined solely for “peaceful purposes” under a system of agreed safeguards and inspections by the IAEA.  In return, Article VI of the NPT requires that the five existing nuclear-weapon states should pursue nuclear disarmament negotiations in good faith, with the ultimate goal of “general and complete disarmament”.  Since it entered into force in 1970, the NPT has played an important role in slowing down the spread of nuclear weapons.  With 189 states parties, the NPT is one of the most well-supported treaties in existence. Yet the regime is frequently described as “in crisis”, “in danger of eroding”, or “at risk of collapse”.

The 2010 Review Conference has the job of reviewing progress to date and deciding on what further steps and measures need to be undertaken in order to implement the treaty’s obligations and provisions.  The major challenges already identified during the preparatory committee process leading to the Review Conference are:

  • making the treaty universal –189 states are members, but not Israel, India or Pakistan.  North Korea will also need to be brought back into the treaty following its renunciation of its status as a non-nuclear state party in 2003
  • nuclear disarmament, where reaffirming and updating the “13-steps” agreed by the 2000 Review Conference are on the agenda, while civil society and now a majority of NPT parties have begun advocating negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention that will prohibit the use, development and deployment of nuclear weapons on an equal basis for everyone, with a phased timetable for existing arsenals to be eliminated and their materials and components safely and securely disposed of;
  • persuading more non-nuclear countries to adhere to the enhanced safeguards and inspections provisions contained in the Additional Protocol to the safeguards agreements concluded between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and each non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT (the nuclear-weapon states are not obliged by the treaty to conclude safeguards agreements, though some have voluntary agreements with the IAEA);
  • the conflicted role of nuclear energy, which the treaty promotes as long as it is developed solely for peaceful purposes;
  • safety and security for nuclear materials and programmes;
  • regional non-proliferation and disarmament, particularly the resolution calling for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East that was agreed by the 1995 Review Conference;
  • measures to deter countries from emulating North Korea and withdrawing from the NPT to use their civilian nuclear programmes to make nuclear weapons;
  • institutional measures to implement decisions and strengthen the regime; and
  • supporting disarmament and non-proliferation education.

Opinions differ on what needs to be done for the conference outcome to contribute effectively to preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons and facilitating the process by which existing arsenals are progressively reduced and eliminated.  The majority will work for the conference to avoid deadlock and adopt one or more constructive documents, preferably (but not, according to the rules of procedure, necessarily) by consensus.   But some may have other game plans.  Over the next month, the Acronym Institute will report on the key issues, proposals, strategies, tactics and negotiating ups, downs and implications of key states as the Review Conference proceeds.

4 Weeks of Work: NPT Conference programme

Opening on Monday, there will be at least four days of statements from states or groups of states, starting with the Foreign Minister of Indonesia, who will deliver the opening statement for the 110-member group of Non-Aligned states parties to the NPT (the Non-Aligned Movement – NAM – designation originated in the cold war to indicate countries that were not formally aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union).  On Friday 7 May, the Conference will hear statements from various nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).  For the second and third weeks, the Conference will divide into three “Main Committees”: Main Committee (MC) 1 will address mainly nuclear disarmament issues; MC2 will address safeguards, nuclear-weapons-free zones and regional issues, including the Resolution on the Middle East adopted by the NPT in 1995; and MC3 will debate nuclear energy, safety, security and institutional issues, such as withdrawal from the treaty and enhancing treaty governance and decision-making.   In 2005, three subsidiary bodies were also agreed, one convened under the auspices of each of the Main Committees. These were: practical steps on nuclear disarmament and security assurances in MC1; regional issues including the Middle East in MC2; and institutional issues including Article X (on withdrawal from the treaty) in MC3. Proposals to convene similar subsidiary bodies in 2010 were well underway, but at time of writing, Iranian opposition to having a subsidiary body in MC3 to discuss withdrawal has held up agreement on all three.

Each of the Committees (and subsidiary bodies, if any are convened) will negotiate on text which they will then try to adopt and transmit to the Conference President, Ambassador Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines.  The final week will no doubt see intense negotiations on text to try to achieve agreement on a comprehensive final document or one or more decisions or resolutions.

High Stakes

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to speak on Monday afternoon, soon after EU Foreign Policy Minister Baroness Catherine Ashton.  Clinton is likely to emphasise the constructive lead taken by the United States since President Obama took office: concluding the New-START treaty with Russia, clarifying US security assurances not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries that are states parties in full compliance with their NPT obligations, reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the Nuclear Posture Review, and engaging heads of government on nuclear security and non-proliferation measures, as pursued through UN Security Council Resolution 1887 (September 24, 2009) and the April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit hosted by the United States in Washington.  The United States clearly wants to overturn the negative legacy of the Bush adminsitration’s disastrous attitude towards the NPT, CTBT and other multilateral agreements and to set a positive context for the NPT Conference.  There is considerable goodwill towards the Obama administration’s efforts, although there are also criticisms, particularly of the priority given to non-proliferation and materials security over nuclear disarmament, for example in Resolution 1887, characterised as an “unbalanced approach”.

While the major substantive litmus tests are likely to be nuclear disarmament and the Middle East, the most unpredictable challenge to a successful NPT outcome is considered to be Iran, criticised by the IAEA and concerned that the US will push for a further UN Security Council sanctions resolution.  No doubt believing that the best defence is attack, President Ahmadinejad is flying into New York to speak at the NPT Conference.  As the only head of state on the list, he is scheduled to speak directly after Indonesia’s statement on behalf of the NAM, and is expected to proclaim Iran’s right to enrich uranium for “peaceful purposes” and accuse the nuclear-weapon states of not complying with their disarmament obligations.

Like many others, I had my travel plans disrupted by Iceland’s volcano. It was a salutary reminder of how small, interconnected and fragile our jewel-blue planet really is.  Working day to day on nuclear issues it is sometimes necessary to shut down our knowledge of what is at stake so that we can keep on.  But sometimes it is important to remind ourselves that the end of the cold war may have changed nuclear dangers, but it didn’t eliminate them.  The NPT’s very first paragraph recalls that its original purpose was to prevent nuclear war: “Considering the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples…”  Strengthening global security and preventing nuclear war were the basic reasons for negotiating the NPT, and these important objectives will be at the heart of debates in the NPR Review Conference.   Solutions now being sought, however, go beyond the narrow confines of the NPT text, which established two classes and differential obligations: nuclear haves and nuclear have-nots.  In fact a core challenge for 2010 will be how to implement the challenge identified by President John F. Kennedy when he spoke about nuclear weapons to the UN General Assembly in 1961, nearly fifty years ago: “The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”

2010 should be very different from the dismal event in 2005, not least because of the positive measures undertaken by President Obama. Yet these could still be swamped by the regional rivalries of the Middle East or if some of the other nuclear-weapon states refuse to reaffirm commitments made in 2000 that are still a long way from being fulfilled.  At the preparatory meeting held in 2009, France and Russia were digging their heels in over reaffirming some of the “13 steps” and even the mention of future objectives such as the nuclear weapons convention, while China was quietly anxious about what more transparency and accountability on disarmament matters might entail. If solid agreements on nuclear disarmament and the Middle East are on the table by the fourth week then that would be sufficient incentive for significant governments to exert pressure on potential spoilers.  If not enough is being offered in negotiations, then there is the risk that one or two spoilers could disrupt or even prevent a constructive outcome document being negotiated and adopted.

Much is at stake, and amid the hopes and anxieties there is much to work for.  Watch this space!

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