Day 23: Amid confusion, UN Secretary-General encourages successful outcome
No-one quite knows what is happening at the NPT Review Conference, but there are many excellent theories, growing depression and only two days to go.
At the beginning of the conference we had identified four kinds of possible outcome: i) consensus adoption of a substantive, forward-looking outcome document with effective objectives, commitments and mechanisms for achieving further progress; ii) successful adoption of an outcome document with lowest common denominator substance; iii) adoption of a minimalist document that records only the basic facts of the conference; and iv) collapse and failure, with recriminations and reverberations. Which will it be? The optimism of the earlier weeks has faded considerably, but the general atmospherics remain collegial, even though meetings are now going on till nearly midnight.
In an unprecedented step, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent an open letter to the NPT President, Ambassador Libran Cabactulan, with a “personal message of support for a successful outcome”. Calling for “progress towards fulfilling the goals and objectives of the Treaty with the highest possible levels of accountability and transparency”, the Secretary-General wrote, “Now is the time for delegations to be pragmatic and coalesce around solutions that will advance the interest of the whiole community of nations”. Encouraging the NPT parties to “step up their work with flexibility and in a cooperative spirit,” he warned that “too much [is[ at stake to repeat the failure of 2005”, and reminded them: “The world is watching”.
The main part of the day was taken up with continuing closed debate going through the president’s 29-page draft final declaration article by article, paragraph by paragraph. Diplomats complained that they were just going through the motions, with familiar positions, objections and suggested amendments being reiterated on all sides, without any sense of how decisions would be taken. Various diplomats have been appointed or reappointed to resolve certain of the outstanding issues, as small and not so small groups of diplomats met in other closed rooms in the hope of ironing out the remaining obstacles to obtain agreement on key issues. For example, the President has asked Alison Kelly to keep working with the relevant people on resolving the remaining problems on the Middle East resolution; China, Japan and South Korea went into a huddle to work out what all would accept as appropriate language on North Korea; New Zealand, Ireland and Uruguay to coordinate negotiations to find a solution on safeguards, the Additional Protocol and export controls; José Luis Cancela reappointed to pursue agreement on articles IX and X (accession/universality and withdrawal); and others too sensitive to mention.
Two days left, and there seem to be various parallel processes and eleven (?) facilitators on language, but no discernible Strategy. Questions abound. Where is this going? What is meant by rumours of “the supermajority option”? What did Ellen Tauscher say to upset the Egyptians so mightily? Or are they posturing? Are Iran’s lengthy interventions objecting to various parts of the text and asserting the need for even stronger disarmament commitments part of a nefarious and filibustering Trap that will soon be Sprung? Or is Iran going to surprise everyone and not obstruct or block the outcome? Who needs a “success” most, the United States or Egypt? Who might be happier with a failure? Who are the Egyptian ambassador’s special dinner guests? And who is nicking the chair Carol and I keep retrieving so we can sit and pretend to work in between all the gossip going on outside Room 4?
Vignettes from a closed room
A gaggle of NGOs and press hovered at the doors to find out what was happening by converging like gnats on any emerging delegates. Some batted us away, some beckoned to a gnat with winks and nods to extract herself from out of the swarm to receive tidbits of news or gossip. Below are some snippets, of many. Since we were not in the rooms to see or hear these things for ourselves we cannot be held responsible for the truth or otherwise of what is imparted.
There was a flurry of excitement mid-morning when two diplomats were thrown out of the conference room. These were senior representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the League of Arab States, but apparently not allowed to listen in any more. They were Not Happy. Soon after, the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference President (a former UN Under Secretary-General no less) was also unceremoniously barred (not evicted, as his comment below explains), joining our humble ranks Outside the Room for a while. As more diplomats slid in or out of the room they paused to exchange a word or ten, mostly telling the loitering NGOs that we weren’t missing much. Apparently it was terrifically boring with long-winded speeches from the NAM, Iran, and the P-5 going over old ground and submitting more-of-the-same amendments. The evicted Red Cross representative and I enjoyed an inspiring conversation about how to use international humanitarian law in achieving a nuclear weapons convention. Time well spent I thought!
One apparently new objection was raised when the action plan for nuclear disarmament came under scrutiny. The UK reportedly challenged language on the relevance of international humanitarian law to nuclear weapons and wanted deletion of para A (v): “The Conference expresses its deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, and reaffirms the need for all States to comply with international humanitarian law at all times.” France agreed. Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand, Mexico and others disagreed and tried to find out the reason for the British objections. The UK then backtracked to say they were not advocating its deletion, but flagging up that care needed to be taken with this para as international humanitarian law did not necessarily apply at all times. Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand, Mexico and those others that no-one seemed able to name all insisted that international humanitarian law applies to nuclear weapons and that the paragraph should remain. Outside the room, someone suggested that “under all circumstances” might be better phrasiing, while keeping the essential point, which we all agreed should stay in.
Russia, the United States and UK took the floor one after another and all proposed the same changes to the same paras in the Action Plan for Nuclear Disarmament. France appears to want even more deletions, but would not block. The one remaining mention of a timeline appears still to be anathema. Though almost all earlier references to timelines and timebound framework have disappeared from the text under consideration, Russia declared in exasperation that they had been saying for three weeks that this was a red line and they cannot accept any such mention. The US speaks for four in underscoring that “legally binding” should not be associated with security assurances.
More nations have ratified the CTBT — Central African Republic and Trinidad and Tobago. Which should really be 3 more, but only counts as 2. A mass of tourists visiting the UN clapped excitedly and flashed their cameras as these new ratifications were presented in front of a wonderful exhibition on “Putting an end to nuclear explosions” in the Visitors Entrance of the main UN building. So that make 182 signatories and 153 ratifications for the test ban treaty. And still not allowed to enter into force. Other treaties with far fewer parties entered into force years ago. Doesn’t seem fair, really. I blame the Brits (no, really, I do).
Additional protocol language may be resolved by going back to 2,000. The NAM made an effort to clarify that nuclear disarmament was not dependent on general and complete disarmament and to separate the two. Iran said they had no instructions on the Institutional section. There were still a lot of problems around the section on Article X (withdrawal). Iran won’t accept more than the first sentence. Clarification needed by others, especially regarding the distinction between the exercise of the withdrawal right by states that are compliant and those being investigated for noncompliance. South Africa was being very constructive. Half the delegations that spoke do not want a treaty support unit as they would prefer to work with IAEA and ODA. Half thought it would be a great idea but didn’t want to pay for it. Austria made a suggestion on voluntary contributions.
“Why don’t you criticise China?… you give them too easy a ride” demanded an aggrieved P-5 member. Having twice now referred critically to China’s problem over any reference to a moratorium on fissile material production (China is understood to have stopped production but refuses to join the other four nuclear weapon states in declaring a moratorium… why?) I asked what else I should criticise China for. The P-5 diplomat looked nonplussed and then said China wanted praise for its unverifiable declaratory policies like no first use and unconditional security assurances. But he didn’t think they’d block if they didn’t get praised for this. So what’s the problem? The Chinese diplomats keep referring to such Chinese policies…. (Referring multiple times to the same position appears to be an occupational hazard. This is certainly a timewasting problem that all too many of the diplomats should plead guilty to, including my informer, but hardly a hanging matter.) So I accosted a passing Chinese delegate and asked: why do the other P-5 consider you a major problem in these negotiations? He thought for a while and then conceded that they might find China’s frequent reiteration of policies like no first use annoying because they were under pressure from the NAM to do something similar. And China didn’t like the paragraph about ceasing the development and qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons “but neither do the others… we’re all modernising”. Shame on you, China! Shame on all you modernising nuclear-armed states! (I do more vigorous criticism on a good day, but this isn’t a very good day for the NPT.)
Article-by-article discussions on the President’s draft ended around 6 pm, and as we exiles flowed into the room (pausing to pester the wan prisoners that flooded out) it was announced that the North Lawn would be kept open till midnight so that various meetings (four groups?) could continue. Alexander Marschik was suddenly tasked with going through the disarmament action plan… again… I had to phone and cancel my dinner with Ambassador Park (thank you for your understanding). No definite agreements to report, but groups scheduled to resume at 9.00 am tomorrow. A plenary is planned for Thursday afternoon, and and a new text is expected before 6.00 pm. That could be the litmus test and deadline for determining whether a final document is feasible or not. A growing number of delegates milling around the North Lawn were disgruntled about the process and communication, but some still appeared purposeful and confident.
65 more British bombs to ban
Meanwhile, new UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Foreign Office) Alistair Burt (veteran of John Major’s conservative government) dropped into the NPT just after Coalition Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that in the interests of transparency and confidence-building he’d fess up to the fact that instead of 160 nuclear warheads like we were led to believe*, Britain actually has some 225 of these things but no more (although the use of the future tense could be meant as a signal of something or other… or maybe a late night grammatical error…. I understand those)
Burt couldn’t deliver a speech because going through article by article of a long President’s draft declaration in a very tightly closed room doesn’t lend itself to set speeches, but he held a press conference to explain the significance of the transparency and confidence-building gesture that led the new British government to announce that just when you thought we only had to get rid of 160 Trident warheads, the UK has 65 more nuclear bombs than we thought. So are we bigger than China now?
Hague also announced a review of declaratory policy on the circumstances in which Britain would contemplate using some or all of these nuclear weapons. This is unlikely to result in recognition that the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons are contrary to international humanitarian law. The review might conceivably recommend that the UK bring its declaratory policy and security assurances into line with the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. That would be good. Because we like to harmonise such things with the United States (it’s the Special Relationship thing). Especially since our nuclear weapons (like America’s) are assigned to NATO, and it helps if NATO is not confused about whose doctrine they are following when they contemplate using nuclear weapons.
When George W. Bush changed US policy on nuclear use, so did Tony Blair. But we’ve been out of step with Obama’s new declaratory policy since April, so definitely time for a review. I wonder if this was related in any way to why the UK delegation took the floor to demand removal of a paragraph saying that all states should comply with international humanitarian law at all times?
I always worried about that ceiling of 160. Not the kind of thing I want over my head. Now our minimum deterrent consists of 225. Yay for us. Will these be enough to deter…. er…. someone bad… with bad intentions… and bad capabilities? (*Not that the previous government lied, we hasten to explain, for in their successive announcements from 1998 to 2009 they had used carefully chosen language to specify “up to” 200, and then 160 “operationally-available warheads”.) Now there are 65 more that aren’t – we gather – operationally available. But it doesn’t sound as if they’re awaiting dismantlement either. What are they for? What are any of them for?
Let’s not be too churlish…. transparency is a good thing, and we are immensely relieved to hear that unbeknownst to us, we’ve actually been about a third more protected with nuclear insurance and deterrence thingummies than we previously thought. Though 65 not-operationally-available nuclear devices might not count as effective for deterrence if they aren’t taken out on exercise regularly like the other really fit 160 that are available to be transported around the world’s oceans and to bump occasionally into France’s (up to 300) nuclear weapons. I suppose that also means there are now 65 more nuclear bombs that Britain has to reaffirm it will unequivocally undertake to eliminate. Will that make a difference?