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NPT: New Opportunities and Obsolete Perceptions
by Rene Wadlow
2015-05-22 07:22:19
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In “Nuclear-weapon Non-prolifereation and Global Order” I outlined the framework of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the role of the Review Conferences.  Here I will deal first with the evolution of the NPT Reviews and then turn to possible avenues for future action.

The NPT Review Conferences, every five years, provide an opportunity for governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to evaluate progress in disarmament among the nuclear-weapon States and to sound a warning about tension  areas such as the Middle East, the two Koreas, and India-Pakistan relations. The hope of governments participating in the Review is to seek consensus at each Conference  on a “Final Document” embodying agreed statements of policy and recommendations for action.  It has also become the practice to measure the success of each Review Conference according to whether or not it was able to reach agreement on such a final statement.

The First Review in 1975 had great difficulty in drafting a consensus statement.  The drafting committee had failed to reach agreement, and the Review was “saved” by the last-day dynamic efforts of the President of the Conference, Inga Thorsson of Sweden who largely wrote and then presented a “President's Statement” which was accepted by the reluctant participants. This compromise statement was accepted by the most eloquent and active critic of the disarmament performance of the nuclear-weapon States, Ambassador Alfonso Garcia Robles of Mexico who was willing not to force a vote as he would continue his fight another day  in the UN disramament fora in Geneva.

nuc02_400In 1980, the Second Review Conference was unable to agree to a Final Document despite three extra days and all-night meetings.  From 1975 to 1980, negotiations on nuclear arms control between the USA and the USSR had seen a lack of progress or results.  The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the last days of December 1979 made any arms control agreement even less likely, especially on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which was the focus of efforts at the time.

The basic position of the most active of the non-nuclear-weapon States during the Review was that the NPT only stopped the dissemination of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear-weapon States but that there were no curbs on the continued manufacture, stockpiling and sophistication of nuclear weapons by the existing nuclear-weapon States − what in shorthand became know as the difference between horizontal and vertical proliferation, vertical proliferation being in the exclusive hands of the nuclear-weapon States.

The Third Review Conference was held in Geneva in August-September 1985.  Since the 1980 Review had failed to reach a consensus statement, there was real pressure not to have two “failures” in a row.  Such a failure could undermine the Treaty as a whole.  NGOs were particularly active in the period just prior to the Conference, setting out analysis and propositions, and holding talks with the most “NGO-friendly” Ambassadors, Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, Mohamed Shaker of Egypt who was elected President of the Review Conference and Victor Israelyan of the USSR who some years later reappeared on the Geneva scene representing Armenia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. There had been no progress in nuclear arms control between 1980 and 1985.  Moreover, the stagnation of  the world nuclear energy markets had dashed earlier hope of many developing countries that accession to the NPT would bring them the benefits of nuclear energy. Originally, the NPT was to have three pillars: disarmament, non-proliferation, and access to nuclear energy and technology for peaceful uses.

In 1986, shortly after the end of the Review, the disastrous accident at Chernobyl indicated that Soviet nuclear-energy technology was unsafe as the 1979 Three Mile Island accident proved that US nuclear technology was unsafe.  Fukushima in Japan − never two without three − has ruled out prospect for nuclear energy.  All that is left is some unspectacular nuclear technology in medicine, agriculture, and the testing of materials.

A day before the end of the 1985 Review, I met the President, Mohamed Shaker, and because much of the negotiations are behind the scenes closed to NGO representative, I asked him how things were going.  He replied “ Fine, no worry”.  Then on the final day of the Conference, Middle East issues almost destroyed the consensus.  Iran demanded that its condemnation of the Iraqi attacks on the Bushehr nuclear reactor under construction be entered into the final documant. Iraq responded by threatening to withdraw its support of the final document.

The unexpected issue which reached its climax around 3AM was being discussed in the President's office just behind the meeting room led by Ambassador Richard Butler of Australia. During this time everyone stayed in the meeting hall not knowing when the discussions would end. I spent much of the time talking with the Ambassador of Yugoslavia who had played a leading role as spokesman for the Non-Aligned Movement.  He said that he would not call for a votre so as not to destroy the consensus, but as there is always an occation to make last comments after the Final Document is accepted, he had a 23 page speech of obervations on why the Final Document was inadequate and ended by saying “Had there been a vote, he would have voted no”.

At nearly 6 AM, the Conference started its final round. Iran agreed to a compromise. Its statement would be printed in an annex to the Final Document, but not in the document itself.  With that, the Final Document of 1985 was accepted.  The President said that since it was 6  AM and everyone had been up for at least 24 hours, he would forego the customary speeches thanking the President for his efforts.  I passed the Yugoslav Ambassador in the parking lot as we were getting our cars, and I said “And the 23 page speech?” and he replied “It will go down in history as one of the great speeches never made.”

The 1990 Review was the last held in Geneva and the last in which I participated directly. By 1990, the USSR was on the eve of its break up and the Eastern European group led by Ambassador Radoslav Deyanov of Bulgaria was more independent of Soviet views than in the past.  The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan had calmed some of the East-West tensions. The difficulties to reach consensus were obvious from the start with the early statement of Yugoslavia on behalf of the Non-Aligned.  The criticisms, reservations and demands from the 23-page 1985 speech were no doubt dusted off and remade stressing “the importance of the NPT as a legally binding  instrument which confirms the urgency of the cessation of the nuclear arms race and of nuclear disarmament.”  The stress was on the concept of “legally binding” and the fact that the nuclear-weapon States were not living up to Article VI with no “good faith” negotiations on nuclear disarmament but, to the contrary, continuing unabatedly with qualitative improvements of nuclear weapons.

However, the main issue in 1990 was whether some nuclear-weapon States had breached their obligation not to help any non-nuclear weapon State to acquire nuclear weapons, in particular the USA and the UK to Israel. The nuclear-weapon ambitions, if any, of North Korea, Iraq and Libya were also on the minds of delegates but only Israel was named as such in a starement circulated by Egypt on the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.  Since 1990, the creation of a Middle East nuclear-weapon free zone has been, and remains, the heart of the NPT Review.  There has been no progress since 1990, and there is a feeling among some governments that the NPT Review is not the most appropriate place to discuss Middle East issues. Thus at the 1995 Review, it was recommended that a separate conference be organized to deal with a Middle East  nuclear-weapon free zone.  Such a Middle East conference is yet to be held.

In 1990, the Ambassador of Mexico, Miguel Marin-Bosch led the charge on the failure of the nuclear-weapon States to deal in good faith with nuclear disarmament or even with partial arms control steps.  In the 1975 Review, I had worked closely with Marin-Bosch who was then a young Mexican dipmomat and who had done his university studies in New York City.  He was the link between NGO representatives and Ambassador Garcia Robbles.  We would exchange whatever information we gathered in the hall ways.  In 1990, Marin-Bosch was Ambassador of Mexico, but once an NGO representative, always an NGO representative, so I had not moved up in status.  Both Garcia Robbles and Marin-Bosch had free hands at the Reviews because there were few people in Mexico who cared about NPT issues, even in the Foreign Ministry, while US negotiators had to keep an eye on what the State Department wanted, how Congress might react, what the White House was thinking.  Thus to get an agreement on a consensus statement, the US delegation was willing to make compromises, especially in the wording of the Final Document. In past Reviews, Alfonso Garcia Robles was willing to go to the brink to get diplomatic concessions but then step back so consensus could be reached.  Marin-Bosch was not so polite,  considering that the prospects for genuine nuclear disarmament were growing worse and could not be modified by changes in a written document.  The Review went on into the weekend, but the President of the Review saw that he had no option but to bring the Conference to a close without a Final Document.

In 1995, the Review Conference, moving to the UN in New York, was divided into two − the Review as usual and a separate section on the continuation of the Treaty.  The NPT had originally been designed for 25 years with the five-year interval Reviews.  In 1995, it was decided to continue “indefinitely and unconditionally” the Treaty, keeping the five-year Reviews.  In 1995, the Review segment of the Conference was again unable to reach a consensus statement. 

Since 1995, the Reviews have followed the same pattern.  The key issue, but not always in the public discussions, is a possible nuclear-weapon free zone in the Middle East.  No progress has been made on such a zone or even negotiations on such a zone, though tensions and armed violence in the Middle East have continued.  There have been no disarmament negotiations in good faith or otherwise among the nuclear-weapon States .  The UN disarmament bodies change names − going from the Committee on Disarmament to the Conference on Disarmament, but now it is in a dormant phase.  Basically, it has closed shop without saying so officially.  Thus issues raised in the NPT Reviews but not acted upon cannot be continued in a more permanent UN disarmament body.  There are usually yearly resolution in the UN General Assembly but these do not lead to negotiations.In light of the lack of any progress within the UN, there have been two related proposals to advance matters through a concentration on values and world law rather than geostrategic considerations.

One avenue is to view nuclear weapons and their use through a humanitarian lens.  There have been a number of governmental conferences, first in Oslo and the most recent in December 2014 in Vienna to stress that setting off nuclear weapons would not be a good thing from a humanitarian standpoint, violating the core values of humanitarian law (called earlier the laws of war).  Personally, I think that although nuclear weapons have been “improved” since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the evidence on their destructiveness is already in . How we deal with the evidence is the real question.  In the key countries, there is an abundance of information but a paucity of ideas.

The second and related approach is to negotiate a Convention to render nuclear weapons “illegitimate” somewhat along the lines of the anti-personnel mine ban and the Convention on Cluster Munitions − forms of “humanitarian disarmament.”  A number of States, supported by NGOs, are seeking to delegitimize nuclear weapons by rendering their use and even possession illegal under international law based on the indiscriminate effects of any use. This approach draws on the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons.  Advocates of this approach also draw on international human rights law, as use of nuclear weapons would infringe on the non-derogable right to life.  The UN General Assembly has passed resolutions along the same lines, and the idea will, no doubt, be highlighted during the 2015 Review.

Such a Nuclear Weapons Convention would embody the universal condemnation of nuclear weapons by the emerging world society and so become part of world law.  The hope is that the Convention would be an important step toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, combining both the technical aspect of disarmament with the broader world law value of the right to life.

In a post Review Conference, I will try to see how ideas have been developed and what can be useful next steps.


Rene Wadlow, President and a representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.


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