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The NPT Review Cycle in Wartime


Viewpoint by Sergio Duarte

The writer is Ambassador and former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

“Recalling that States must refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State and that the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security are to be promoted with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources..” (From the Preamble of the NPT)  JAPANESE  | NORWEGIAN

NEW YORK (IDN) — As the war waged by Russia against Ukraine continues unabated, the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) are set to begin soon a new cycle of preparation for its 11th Review Conference, scheduled for 2026 in New York.

All states directly or indirectly involved in that conflict are parties to the Treaty and several possess or house nuclear weapons in their territories. Reckless rhetoric rekindled the fear of the international community that these weapons may be used sooner or later in the war.

Given this terrifying prospect, it is useful to recall some aspects relating to the genesis, implementation and objectives of the NPT as well as the significance of the review process for the health of the non-proliferation and disarmament regime as well as for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Rivalry and mistrust between the two major powers prevented a United Nations Commission established in 1946 to make specific proposals for the elimination of such weapons from fulfilling its mandate. Subsequently, a large part of the international community became increasingly convinced that it was in the common interest to curb the expansion of the number of possessors of nuclear armament as an interim way to achieve their elimination.

Support for a non-proliferation treaty grew with the expectation that such an instrument would bring progress toward the common objective of nuclear disarmament.

Accordingly, Resolution 2028 (XX) of the General Assembly, adopted without a vote in 1965, requested the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) to negotiate such an instrument and defined its basic principles. The first three of those principles were that a) the treaty should not permit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, in any form, both by nuclear and non-nuclear states; b) it should embody an acceptable balance of mutual obligations between nuclear and non-nuclear states; and c) the treaty should be a step toward nuclear disarmament.

Between 1965 and 1968, the ENDC debated draft treaties submitted separately and later jointly by its two co-presidents, the representatives of the Soviet Union and the United States. In March 1968, in the absence of a consensus on a final text, the co-presidents introduced some changes to their draft and sent it on their own authority to the General Assembly.

Following further debate and further changes, the Assembly finally adopted the Treaty on June 12, 1968 (Resolution 2373) by 95 votes in favor, four against and 21 abstentions and opened it to the signature of States. Over the following couple of decades, the NPT became the most adhered-to instrument in the field of nuclear arms control. Today only four states are not a party to it. However, important divergences still remain after 52 years of the existence of the Treaty.  Six among the ten Review Conferences held so far ended without consensus on a Final Document.

The NPT clearly reflects the strong interest of the nuclear weapon states to prevent others from following their example. Its main operative provisions are designed to prohibit any country that had not exploded a nuclear device prior to January 1, 1967, to acquire such devices or weapons by any means and established a system of verification of that obligation.

Nowhere in the Treaty can one find any explicit, clear commitment to nuclear disarmament. Under Article VI, all its Parties undertook “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.

Such negotiations have yet to take place. Over the decades, the two main nuclear powers—the United States and Russia—concluded between themselves a number of agreements to limit or reduce their nuclear forces, including a bilateral treaty by which the number of their warheads and launchers were drastically curtailed.

This instrument is in force until 2026, while all previous ones lapsed or were rescinded. France and the United Kingdom put in place unilateral limitations on the size of their own nuclear forces. Those agreements and decisions are not organically linked to the NPT and do not envisage the elimination of atomic arsenals.

None of the non-nuclear members of the NPT have acquired nuclear weapons[1]. A few alleged attempts to circumvent that norm were thwarted by diplomatic or military pressure. Although some countries are considered to be in a state of “latency” and would be able to develop independent nuclear capability quite quickly, this would undoubtedly provoke a major international crisis with negative consequences for them and the discredit or possibly the demise of the non-proliferation regime.

In 1995 an NPT Review and Extension Conference decided that the Treaty would remain in force indefinitely. This decision froze the division of the world in two immutable categories of states: five that are recognized by the NPT as “nuclear weapon states” and the remainder of the international community.

Those five are the same permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that enjoy the power of veto over its decisions. The four countries not parties of the NPT that acquired nuclear weapons are usually considered de facto nuclear states. The temporal limit established by Article IX.3 makes it impossible to alter that situation. Any initiative to amend the Treaty would not prosper due to the conflicting interests of several Parties.

The near universalization of the NPT over the first three decades of its existence significantly reduced the risk of “horizontal” proliferation, that is, the increase in the number of states that possess them. Besides the perceived advantages of membership in the NPT, other reasons explain the fact that the majority of the international community opted for accepting a legal obligation not to obtain such weapons.

A large number of countries do not have the required economic, financial, industrial and technological resources and lack security challenges that might lead them to an effort to produce atomic explosives and sustain associated delivery systems. Medium powers that might nurture aspirations in that direction seem to believe that their defense and security needs are better served by other means.

In the current world panorama, the acquisition of nuclear armament by any non-nuclear state party to the NPT would undoubtedly spur undesirable and dangerous regional competition. In a few states, however, motivations and pressure to seek independent nuclear capability still linger in some sectors of public opinion.

Article III of the NPT provides the legal basis for effective systems designed to verify compliance with the obligations accepted by its non-nuclear Parties. No similar provisions exist for the verification of compliance by nuclear weapon states with their own commitments. Article VI contains the only mention to possible action toward nuclear disarmament but does not set specific measures or time frames, let alone deadlines for the achievement of that result. The lack of clear obligations regarding nuclear disarmament renders more difficult the construction of multilateral consensuses in that direction.

Strongly advocated by the nuclear weapon Parties and their allies, the indefinite extension of the instrument achieved in 1995 brought the expectation that a strengthened review process based on agreed specific principles and objectives would make progress possible. Accordingly, at the next Review Conference in 2000, important agreements on action were reached, particularly the “13 Practical Steps for non-proliferation and disarmament”.

That hope, however, was short-lived.  During the preparatory cycle for the next Review Conference, to take place in 2005, the relationship between the major powers deteriorated sharply, and the will to seek further constructive decisions waned as previous political commitments were abandoned or negated. Parties could not even agree on recognizing understandings reached only five years before.

The Conference was unable to start meaningful work until too late in the time allotted to it and could not produce a substantive outcome document. A determined effort to avoid two failures in a row was made five years later at the 2010 Review Conference, which earnestly debated the most relevant issues. It finally agreed on a Final Document that contains a long list of proposed actions reflecting widely diverging priorities and did not have any practical follow-up.

Its most important achievement was the recognition of the “catastrophic consequences” of nuclear detonations, which provided the basis for the negotiation and adoption in 2017 of the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, leading to their elimination (TPNW). Despite the fierce opposition of the nuclear weapon states and many of their allies, this treaty entered into force in 2021. Its relevance and appeal are undeniable, and the growth of its membership reflects the rejection of nuclear weapons by the international community. 

While the failure of some of the Review Conferences held prior to 1995 can, to a large extent, be ascribed to the inability to agree on follow-up measures, from that year onwards, the fate of such Conferences seemed to hinge more on the state of relations between the nuclear-weapon states than on the perceived defects of the Treaty, among which the built-in imbalance between non-proliferation and disarmament commitments.

It is fair to recognize that over the five decades of the existence of the NPT, its Parties have shown a consistent allegiance to the instrument and a willingness to continue working together under its framework. One can recall, in this connection, that the language of the draft Final Documents proposed by the respective Presidents of in 2015 and 2022 would have been accepted by the overwhelming majority, even if it was considered by a large number of Parties a retrogression with respect to previous instances. Objections raised in both cases by nuclear-weapon states prevented the adoption of those drafts by consensus. Clearly, their objections had more to do with specific interests linked with geopolitical realities than with the review of the Treaty.

The war in Ukraine will certainly have a negative impact on the preparations for the 2026 Review Conference. An end to the conflict within the next few months seems very doubtful at this point. Although it is, of course, impossible to detach the performance of the NPT from the overall political realities, it is crucial to prevent the review process—and the authority of the Treaty itself – from becoming another casualty of the war. This involves a vigorous effort during the forthcoming review cycle to address the shortcomings of the current nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime with a view to its improvement.

Sooner or later—hopefully, sooner rather than later—this senseless and disastrous conflict will come to an end. If we are lucky, its aftermath will not mean the assured mutual destruction of the belligerents together with a large part of human civilization but will instead bring new opportunities for a sensible, inclusive, just and productive reorganization of international relations and for a renewal of faith in multilateral agreements.

The necessary construction of a new and more just and inclusive security paradigm requires less self-centered attitudes from all parties and a clear-sighted recognition that an effective and lasting system of international security is not compatible with the continued existence of nuclear weapons. No nation can fell secure unless all nations feel secure. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 February 2023]

Image: President of the 10th RevCon Gustavo Zlauvinen opening the Conference in the UN General Assembly Hall on August 1, 2022. Credit: UN

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