The Fragmenting Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime

The edifice of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is under great strain. Unless serious remedial action is taken, its structural integrity may be fatally compromised, says Paul Meyer.
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May 15, 2014
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Outside the spacious Trusteeship Council hall at the UN in New York where the Third Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) has just concluded its work, there is a glass display case of the type that you might find in any museum. The five ceramic and glass items presented are not decorative pieces, but rather the distorted and shattered remains of ordinary bowls and bottles “fused together in the heat from the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima, Japan August 6, 1945."

These scorched and twisted remnants of normalcy are a mute reminder as to what is at stake in the effort to shore up the crumbling nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime based on the NPT. For almost 70 years the world has avoided a reoccurrence of the use of nuclear weapons, yet some 17,000 of these arms remain in the arsenals of nuclear weapon possessing states. Several thousands of these weapons are maintained on “high alert status” with the ever-present risk of accidental, misinformed, or unauthorized launch. Human frailties being what they are, it has long been recognized by the 189 states parties to the NPT that the only guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is their total elimination. Nuclear disarmament alongside non-proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy represent the three core “bargains” of the NPT, which entered into effect in 1970 and was extended indefinitely in 1995. Now, however, NPT members are seriously divided over how the Treaty commitments are being implemented. The five nuclear weapon states recognized under the NPT (US, Russia, UK, France, and China) argue that they are making progress on their disarmament obligations and that more attention needs to be paid to the threat of further proliferation. The non-nuclear weapon states, in general, see the efforts of the nuclear weapon states as insufficient and advocate for greater results to sustain their own respective commitments to non-proliferation.

These differences get debated at the Review Conferences of the NPT held every five years, the only occasion when the members can take substantive decisions on the implementation of the treaty. The last such conference was held in 2010 and yielded a consensus outcome document including a 64-item Action Plan, which will come up for renewed scrutiny at the 2015 meeting. The two week long Third Preparatory Committee that just concluded its work was mandated to develop consensus recommendations that could go forward to next year’s Review Conference. However the differences amongst states parties were such that the meeting’s Chair decided to issue his proposed recommendations in the form of a working paper under his own authority. Thus, there was no collective product from the meeting and the Chair’s paper has no more standing than the 45 other working papers submitted to the meeting. The contents of the Chair’s paper largely reflected language gleaned from the 2010 outcome document, a point of contention for some states that had looked for more but a point of satisfaction for others that favour the status quo. The scripted speeches and lack of interactive debate that characterizes these preparatory sessions reveal the reality that for many delegations the objective of the exercise is just to check a procedural box and not to engage substantively with the subject matter relevant to the NPT. For that the side-events organized primarily by civil society organizations during the session represented by far the better value.

However much the delegates could congratulate themselves on the positive atmosphere and respectful tone of the proceedings, they could not hide the serious rifts amongst the membership that threaten to drain the NPT of its authority and influence. The five nuclear weapon states duly submitted to the meeting reports on their implementation of the Action Plan as agreed in 2010. These national reports varied in quality from “the disappointing to the dismal” in the words of one expert with massive gaps in information and considerable rhetorical filler (Russia, China, and France being especially guilty in this regard). Several non-nuclear weapon states, notably the twelve-nation Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) of which Canada is a member, pressed for more comprehensive and detailed information stressing that greater transparency is crucial for accountability—a core requirement for a strengthened NPT process.

The New Agenda Coalition—another activist group of six nations (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa)—submitted a powerfully written working paper that challenged the NPT membership to achieve “the effective measures” for nuclear disarmament that they are committed to under the treaty. Conspicuously avoiding reference to the dysfunctional Conference on Disarmament to which nuclear weapon states and some in the Non Aligned Movement appear wedded despite (or because of) its 16 years of stalemate and zero official work, the NAC paper highlighted a variety of options for those states that truly wish to progress towards a world without nuclear weapons. These options included re-tasking the Open Ended Working Group established by the UN General Assembly, which conducted sessions on advancing multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations last summer. Also included was the possibility of negotiating a nuclear weapon convention or a nuclear weapon ban (an objective supported by some civil society organizations) that would seek to stigmatize nuclear weapon possession and influence nuclear powers by way of introducing a new norm.

Another powerful current swirling around the formal positions expressed at the meeting was the so-called “humanitarian initiative.” This movement which finds its origins in the 2010 Review Conference’s reference to the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any nuclear weapon detonation has resulted in two major conferences in Norway and Mexico with a third to be hosted by Austria this December. These gatherings of states (146 represented at the February 2014 Mexico meeting) and concerned civil society have drawn renewed attention to the horrendous consequences of nuclear weapon use, including the grave impact on global climate and food security that have re-energized efforts for nuclear disarmament. The dismissive attitude the nuclear weapon states have taken to these gatherings (they have boycotted all the conferences to date) has only exacerbated relations with their fellow NPT states and further called into question their good faith in meeting their disarmament commitments.

The edifice of the NPT is currently under great strain and unless serious remedial action is taken at next spring’s Review Conference its structural integrity may be fatally compromised. It will be important for concerned governments and civil society actors to engage constructively and creatively in the intervening months to ensure that the global nuclear order based on the NPT is effective and sustained. No one wants to add new artifacts to the display case at UN headquarters.