A problematic nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

From the review conference in New York, Paul Meyer outlines the treaty's flaws. Can an ‘outcome’ document fix them?
By: /
May 14, 2015

The year 2015 marks the 45th anniversary of the entry into force of the (Nuclear) Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This treaty is often referred to as the cornerstone of the global nuclear system and a foundation for the international security environment in which we live. With only four states remaining outside its ambit, the NPT formally retains wide support within the international community.

Every five years, the 190 states parties to the NPT convene for a review conference to consider the state of implementation of the treaty and its core provisions for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. The NPT review conference is currently underway at the United Nations in New York with a deadline of May 22 to produce an outcome that can be agreed by all the participating delegations.

Even as official delegates and civil society observers gather for this preeminent meeting, friends of the NPT have to acknowledge the many deficiencies in its contents and status:

Haves and Have Nots: The two-tier structure of its membership that distinguishes between the five nuclear weapon states recognized by the NPT and the non-nuclear weapon states has from the start imparted a discriminatory character to the treaty. Although this differentiation was presented originally as only a temporary condition the fact that 45 years after its entry into force a central obligation — that of nuclear disarmament — has not been fulfilled perpetuates a two-class construct. The reality that the nuclear weapon states seem to be investing overwhelmingly in the modernization of their arsenals rather than in their elimination raises basic questions as to the credibility of their declaratory support for the Article VI commitments for nuclear disarmament.

Violations: The nonproliferation provisions of the NPT have also suffered corrosive episodes with covert nuclear activities by non-nuclear weapon states such as Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria violating their treaty obligations. While the progress towards a diplomatic settlement to the long running dispute with Iran over its nuclear program has been a welcome development, realism dictates caution in assuming that the envisaged comprehensive agreement due by June 30 is going to be achieved and satisfactorily implemented. The strengthening of the international safeguards regime through adherence to the Additional Protocol (a voluntary agreement that increases the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify compliance with the nonproliferation commitment of states) has witnessed steady progress with 124 now in force, but is still far from gaining universal support amongst IAEA states.

Universality: This remains a goal that the NPT states continue to affirm, but state actions over the last few years have belied these assertions. A variety of nuclear cooperation agreements with India have in conjunction with self-inflicted wounds by the Nuclear Supplier Groups and the IAEA demonstrated that political-commercial factors have consistently trumped nuclear nonproliferation principles in relations with India. As a result it has been granted de facto the benefits of NPT membership without any of its de jure obligations. As a result the cause of universality has been dealt a mortal blow and the grievances of non-NPT parties that did not receive similar preferential treatment have led to further complications in realizing the goals of the treaty. In particular it has led to Pakistan persistently blocking the commencement of FMCT negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament in the wake of the nuclear exemptions provided to India, which Islamabad argues has shifted the strategic balance in South Asia against it.

The defection of North Korea in 2003 from the NPT established a negative precedent and that country’s blatant pursuit of nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capabilities constitutes a continuing challenge to the regime’s integrity. The failure of efforts by the international community to check this conduct and the apparent paralysis of the six party talks at forging a diplomatic settlement casts a dark shadow over the NPT and the entire regional security situation in North Eastern Asia.

The Middle East represents another area for which NPT involvement seems only to have produced a series of unrealized promises from the 1995 resolution on the Middle East that was part of the package of agreements that enabled the indefinite extension of the NPT to the present inability to convene a conference on a regional WMD-free zone that all states parties supported as part of the outcome of the 2010 Review Conference.

The reliability of assurances offered by nuclear weapon states to the non-nuclear weapon states have also come into question most recently with regard to the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 and the commitments made at that time on the part of the U.S., Russia and the UK to Ukraine to respect its territorial integrity in return for its adherence to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.

Institutional Deficit: These failures of state action might not be so corrosive of the authority of the NPT if there were institutional means to enable the membership to meet and discuss these and other challenges to the treaty. Regrettably, the NPT suffers from a massive institutional deficit, one that is all the more pronounced when it is compared with multilateral agreements of comparable importance. Unlike the standard practices elsewhere the NPT is devoid of institutional support. It lacks any Executive Council or any body to provide on-going stewardship for the treaty. There is no provision for an annual meeting of states parties or indeed any gathering empowered to take substantive decisions beyond the once in five years review conferences. The NPT has to do without any dedicated secretariat or any implementing organization with a mandate to promote compliance with all treaty provisions (the IAEA’s mandate only pertains to the nonproliferation provisions of the treaty).

Reporting Requirements: These institutional deficiencies are compounded by limited transparency as to the efforts of states parties to implement the treaty. Only a small fraction of the states parties regularly submit reports on their implementation actions. Reporting by the nuclear weapon states on Art VI compliance remains uneven and in many cases lacking the detail to allow for any meaningful comparative assessments as to the progress being made on fulfilling treaty commitments. Such reports would of course be most effective as part of an enhanced institutional framework in which they would become key inputs to annual meetings of states parties. These meetings would then have an empirical basis for discussion of the overall health of the NPT-centered regime and impediments to implementation. In short, there is a need to develop accountability mechanisms for the NPT that will ensure that the implementation record of states parties is adequately documented and open to collective peer review by the NPT membership.

Going Forward: NPT Viability in Question

In the absence of such accountability, the NPT is liable to sink into a rut of “he said, she said” disputes over the performance of state parties that will only further erode the standing and authority of the treaty. Calls and proposals for such institutional reform have been made in the past, but without receiving the necessary support of NPT states parties. The working papers and statements submitted to the present review conference to date do not inspire confidence that the membership is coming to grips with the fundamental problems facing the NPT and devising a plan of remedial action. These are not problems that can be resolved by merely cranking up the number of items included in an outcome document. It doesn’t really matter if there are 13 practical steps (as per the outcome from 2000) or 64 action items (as per the outcome from 2010), if the will is not there to carry them out. The future viability of the NPT requires a concerted effort by its membership to honestly address its vulnerabilities and to undertake the reforms that are commensurate with the treaty’s importance for maintaining international peace and security.