A failed nuclear NPT review conference: Fin de regime?

Arguing over a middle east conference obscured a more significant tension over who is leading the disarmament agenda.
By: /
May 26, 2015
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The once-every-five-years review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) ended on May 22 without an agreed outcome document. Such a failure is not unprecedented; the 2005 review conference suffered a similar fate. What this inability to agree on a consensus outcome signifies in fact is a fundamental gap in the appreciation of the treaty’s functioning on the part of its 189 states parties.

Much of the attention to this failure has focused on the rejection of a text on the Middle East by the United States, supported by the UK and Canada. This text outlined an approach to convening a conference on a Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction-free zone in the Middle East involving all states of the region that had been agreed to at the 2010 review conference but which had proven impossible to hold given disagreements amongst the concerned states.

The approach proposed this time was to have the conference convened at a set date without a prior consensus on its agenda or modalities.

Given the differing security priorities of the Middle Eastern states — notably Israel, the sole non-NPT state in the region; Iran and the Arab states led by Egypt — this exercise was always going to be something of a diplomatic high-wire act to pull off. To have succeeded would have required an extraordinary amount of cooperation and flexibility amongst the concerned states and this regrettably was not forthcoming. An imposed solution was not going to be acceptable.

But the dust-up over the Middle East conference has obscured a more fundamental reason for the failure to agree on a substantive outcome at the review conference.

The reality of a month-long session was that a yawning chasm had emerged amongst the NPT parties concerning the implementation of the core Article VI treaty commitment to nuclear disarmament. Whereas the great majority of states lamented the “lack of” or “slow pace of” disarmament, the five nuclear weapon states asserted that this aspect of the treaty was proceeding in a satisfactory manner.

As this was the first review conference to be held after an extraordinary series of three conferences hosted by Norway, Mexico and Austria on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons; there was a powerful current to express the humanitarian imperative for nuclear disarmament voiced at these conferences.

Although there was push back from some nuclear weapon states, especially from France and Russia, that denied that these humanitarian conferences had yielded any new insights on nuclear weapons; it was evident at the review conference that a new movement was forming around the necessity for further action.

This now has manifested as “The Humanitarian Pledge,” an undertaking originally launched by Austria and now supported by 107 states. The pledge aims to take effective measures to overcome “the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.” The exact form these measures will take is still to be determined, but it represents a firm rejection of the status quo as its has been perpetuated by the nuclear weapon states and their allies through espousal of the “step by step” approach to nuclear disarmament.

Against a backdrop of protracted stagnation of bilateral and multilateral disarmament activity and multi-billion dollar modernization programs for nuclear forces, this “step by step” posture has become discredited. Alternatives being promoted include a ban on nuclear weapons to be negotiated amongst non-nuclear weapon states with or without the participation of the nuclear armed states as well as a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention.

Each of these alternatives come with their own set of challenges, but what is becoming clear is that the majority of non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT are no longer willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the nuclear weapon states and their version of the way forward on nuclear disarmament.

It was this split that was most evident at this review conference and that augurs poorly for maintaining cohesion within the NPT’s membership in the years to come. The global nuclear order which has been largely governing for the last 45 years on the basis of the NPT may not be able to retain its authority unless a new consensus can be achieved. This in turn will depend on nuclear disarmament action that is real rather than rhetorical in nature. It will require remedial action and a revived sense of common purpose if the NPT member states can make it to the next review conference in 2020 with the treaty’s authority intact.