Day 1 at the NPT: Transparency, bluster, and practical commitments

Posted by Rebecca Johnson

Initial media coverage of the first day of the NPT Review Conference was all a-twitter with news of a ‘walk out’ by some delegates during the speech by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.  It wasn’t a walk out, more a shuffle, in twos and threes, as if a few delegates at a time suddenly remembered they were supposed to be somewhere else.  Or that syndrome when one person leaves a boring meeting to go to the loo, and then half the room discover they need to go too.  Because by that time Ahmadinejad had got quite boring and repetitive, having greatly exceeded the five-minute time allocated for national statements (group presentations get eight minutes). In that time, Ahmadinejad had castigated the nuclear weapon states several times and used the inflammatory phrase “the Zionist regime” three times to accuse Israel of stockpiling “hundreds of warheads”, threatening others and imposing “various kinds of pressures on the members of the IAEA on the false pretext of probable diversions in their peaceful nuclear activities without providing even a single credible proof to substantiate their allegation”.

Before considering the opening statements in more detail, the best signal of governments’ desire for a successful 2010 NPT Review Conference was the smooth start.  Ambassador Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines was unanimously elected President and was able to confirm the Chairs for the three main substantive committees and additional posts. Most procedural decisions have gone through comfortably, with one hiccup:  Iran is still holding out against accepting a “subsidiary body” to debate the weaknesses in the NPT, often called “institutional deficit”, including the withdrawal provision in the treaty’s Article X. As a consequence, others are holding up confirmation on the otherwise agreed subsidiary bodies on practical disarmament steps (in Main Committee I) and regional issues including the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East (in MC2).  Referring to himself as a “manager-facilitator”, Cabactulan promised to keep working on this problem, with the recognition that even if the Conference can’t agree on these subsidiary bodies, the Committee chairs can allocate time to make sure the NPT addresses these three important practical components of NPT concerns.

Ahmadinejad’s defensive attack

Amongst the ranting against Israel, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad also made strong points against nuclear weapons, described as “a fire against humanity rather than a weapon for defence”.  Countering accusations about Iran’s nuclear programme, he underscored that “the possession of nuclear bombs is not a source of pride; it is rather disgusting and shameful” and that such weapons would “annihilate all living beings and destroy the environment, and its radiations would affect the coming generations and its negative impacts would continue for centuries”.  He then made eight accusations against the doctrines and policies of nuclear possessor states and eleven proposals for what should be done, including suspending states that use or threaten to use nuclear weapons from membership in the IAEA Board of Governors.  Had it not been for the staged shuffle-out and widespread anxiety that Iran might spoil the NPT party and stop the Conference being a “success”, this speech would have attracted more yawns than headlines.  Such condemnation of nuclear weapons would certainly be incompatible with acquiring nuclear weapons.  But though long on rhetoric, Ahmadinejad’s speech was notably short on commitment to take action to allay international concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme.

US has 5,113 active nuclear weapons

Others were more deserving of headlines.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a feisty speech that went beyond reminding NPT parties of President Obama’s initiatives to clarify narrower circumstances in which the United States would threaten or use nuclear weapons (in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review), reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons in existing arsenals (New-START, negotiated with Russia and signed on April 8, 2010), and to promote nonproliferation and nuclear security through UN Security Council Resolution 1887 (September 2009) and the April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, in which Obama hosted 46 government leaders and discussed with them ways to identify and implement concrete measures to control their nuclear materials better and prevent nuclear terrorism. Promising to seek further reductions, her big news was a declaration of transparency – that the United States would make public the size of its stockpile.  The impact of this first-ever revelation – especially on states pondering whether to get or keep a few nuclear bombs of their own – would undoubtedly have been stronger if Clinton hadn’t reiterated that “the United States will retain a nuclear deterrent for as long as nuclear weapons exist, one that can protect our country and our allies”.

Within an hour of her speech, laptops in the UN began buzzing with the news released from the Pentagon that the US has precisely 5,113 nuclear weapons in action today.  My friends at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) were crowing that their estimates had been spot on (give or take the thirteen), while others, including the US Arms Control Association, pointed out that this was at least 5,000 too many for any country to have 40 years after the NPT entered into force with its Article VI obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament.  Moreover, it didn’t count the 4,600 that FAS says are kept in reserve.  But hey, it’s another good start after all those decades of second guessing and paranoid secrecy. Who will be next, we wonder?

Following the policy changes contained in the NPR, Clinton also announced that the United States would ratify the relevant protocols to the nuclear-weapon-free zones established in Africa (Treaty of Pelindaba) and the South Pacific (Treaty of Rarotonga), though said nothing about the protocols to the South-East Asia and Central Asian NWFZ, which are still a problem. The US supported practical measures to “realize the goal of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East” in accordance with the 1995 Resolution adopted by NPT parties as part of the deal brokered to enable the Treaty to be indefinitely extended.  She also announced a $50 million subsidy for the IAEA’s new “Peaceful Uses Initiative”, intending it to “improve health care and nutrition, manage water resources, increase food security, and help countries develop the infrastructure for the safe and secure use of nuclear power”.

It wouldn’t be a US speech, however, without several paragraphs being devoted to noncompliance, notably by Iran and North Korea. Stressing that the US is not advocating that the NPT be amended to limit states’ rights to withdraw, she emphasised that “we cannot stand by” when a state being investigated for treaty violations uses the withdrawal provision (which requires only three month’s advance notice) to escape its obligations and avoid being held to account.  Making a joke about how long refurbishment of the United Nations HQ is taking (though the horrendous queues for members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to gain access are no laughing matter), Clinton remarked that “our children and our grandchildren will live with the consequences” of what this NPT Review Conference decides.

One long-hoped for objective that the Obama administration and US Senate have so far failed to deliver is US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Indonesia stepped into that breach, with the announcement from Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Marty Natalegawa announcing imminent ratification of the CTBT and reversing Indonesia’s earlier position of waiting till after US ratification. Only eight (of the 44 ratifications required for CTBT entry into force) to go!

Dr Natalegawa also presented the comprehensive position paper of the 110 Non-Aligned (NAM) states parties to the NPT. This statement contained a mixture of ritualistic demands dating back to the cold war and more substantive proposals, such as challenging nuclear deterrence – “it is high time that the lure of nuclear weapons is ended” and consideration of a Nuclear Weapons Convention to ban nuclear weapons and provide for their elimination in accordance with “an action plan with benchmarks and timeframe for the ‘how’ to realise the objective of a world free of nuclear weapons”. The NAM statement also underscored the importance of NWFZ, progress to that end in the Middle East, and developing states’ resistance to further controls on their “inalienable right” to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and on the right to withdraw from any treaty as “governed by international treaty law”.

In amongst the excitement, there were a lot of lack-lustre speeches with much evoking of clichés about the NPT being a “cornerstone” and balancing the “three pillars”. Among the usual boxes that were ticked, many congratulated the US and Russia for signing the new START agreement, supported entry into force of the CTBT, lamented lack of fissban negotiations (stalled in the CD), called for more disarmament progress, notably reaffirmation of the “13 practical steps” adopted in 2000 (and largely unfulfilled ten years later), called for or committed to more action to promote nuclear energy (with or without multinational fuel cycle restrictions, depending on perspective), the IAEA additional protocol and so on.

The European Union contribution, read by Baroness Catherine Ashton, was a disappointing collection of mantras with nothing new on the table – not surprising, perhaps, since France is desperate to prevent further pressure for nuclear disarmament and Britain is in the throes of a close election. Of particular interest in this context, the Liberal Democrats’ commitment not to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons has (among other things) struck a popular chord with an electorate that is concerned about the high nuclear price tag and more willing to leave the cold war behind than the two major parties, who have sounded more and more like outdated tweedledum-tweedledee twins as the election has progressed.

Among the statements that are particularly worth a read, Switzerland announced its new study on delegitimizing nuclear weapons. Characterising nuclear weapons as “unusable, immoral and illegal”, Switzerland called for the “humanitarian considerations” to be put at the heart of the nuclear debate and said it was time to consider whether any use of nuclear could be regarded as legitimate. Calling for nuclear weapons to be outlawed, Switzerland said it supported a “new convention, such as proposed by the UN Secretary General” in his October 2008 five-point plan.

Austria also gave its support to Ban Ki-Moon’s initiative, arguing that “the most effective way to move towards ‘global zero’ is through a universal legal instrument, a ‘Nuclear Weapons Convention’, equipped with a strict multilateral verification mechanism”.  Austria’s statement, delivered by Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, also provided one of a very few critiques of nuclear energy, noting concerns about environmental and health risks and lack of real progress towards universalizing the IAEA Additional Protocol and finding “safe and fair” multilateral solutions on proliferation-driving fuel cycle technologies. Giving practical shape to its call for strengthening the multilateral system, Austria offered to provide office space, equipment and funding to support its proposal for the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (ODA) to establish a permanent liaison office in Vienna, to provide support for the IAEA, CTBT and NPT (mentioning Canadian proposals for an NPT Support Unit).  Endorsing the important role played by civil society in pursuing disarmament, Austria also proposed establishment of a “Competence Centre for Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation” in Vienna to act as “an international hub of expertise” to facilitate global efforts for a world without nuclear weapons.

The opening statement from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, presaged some of these proposals when he called for real gains towards disarmament, universality, strengthening the rule of law, progress towards a NWFZ in the Middle East and other regional issues, and a strengthened review process for the NPT including systematic reporting and consideration of a “small, permanent structure”.  Interestingly, echoing a suggestion made by the Acronym Institute after the Conference on Disarmament had been deadlocked for five years (it has now been paralysed for 14), the Secretary-General suggested that to give political impetus to shift the logjam, “the CD could consider a ministerial meeting this September, on the margins of the General Assembly session” in the autumn.

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