Oct. 09: The NPT Review Conference 2010–looking good but there’s still time to fail
In 2005 it seemed impossible that within four years there would be real, substantive discussions in the framework of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on nuclear issues, including nuclear disarmament; that the UN Security Council would hold a special meeting to discuss nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament; or that the President of the United States would receive the Nobel Peace Prize for actions aimed at the abandonment of nuclear weapons.
By the time of the 2005 NPT Review Conference (RevCon), there was a strong belief among non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) that the nuclear weapon states as defined by the NPT—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the USA—had no intention of ever giving up their nuclear weapons. The outcome of the 2000 RevCon, particularly the ‘13 steps’ towards nuclear disarmament, was not recognized by France or the USA and, indeed, the word ‘disarmament’ was rarely used at all by the US administration of President George W. Bush. Furthermore, there were two problematic cases on the agenda, those of Iran and North Korea. Or, rather, they would have been on the agenda for the RevCon if the preparatory process had managed to agree on one. Instead, states had to spend the first three weeks of RevCon 2000 thrashing out an agenda, leaving only a week for substantive discussions. That RevCon 2005 was a dismal failure came as no surprise.
Today, roughly six months before the 2010 RevCon, the situation is radically different and there is much more optimism about the success of the conference. However, some of the obstacles from 2005 still remain and need to be addressed.
On the positive side, the first obvious difference is that an agenda has already been agreed so the conference can get straight down to substantive discussions. These will include the discussion on the Middle East and nuclear weapons long sought by some NNWS.
The second is that nuclear disarmament is now being discussed seriously once again by the nuclear weapon states. Credit for this must go to the four US statesmen—Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn—advocating a vision of a world free from all nuclear weapons. This vision was openly supported by President Barack Obama in his April 2009 speech in Prague and its essence repeated by the UK, the USA and other members of the UN Security Council at the special Security Council meeting on 24 September this year.
On the negative side, the cases of Iran and North Korea have not yet been addressed adequately within the framework of the NPT. Both countries are targets of Security Council resolutions that impose sanctions, and both continue to disregard them. In the case of Iran, there is great concern over the consequences of Iran gaining nuclear weapons capacity. To add to the well-known positions of Israel, the USA and other Western countries, the Arab countries also have serious concerns about this possibility. Their message is very clear: an Iranian bomb would necessitate an Arab bomb. The implications of such a development for the security of the region as well as for the non-proliferation regime as a whole would be grave. However, even if the issue is raised at the RevCon, any significant result is unlikely. The matter, which is of crucial importance for the NPT, rests with the Security Council and will be solved (if it ever is) in that context or in the context of direct negotiations with Iran.
There is less of a general sense of urgency over North Korea, even if there is understandable anxiety in Japan and South Korea. The aim is to reach a broad agreement with North Korea involving components such as nuclear disarmament, energy security, diplomatic relations and security mechanisms. With North Korea out of the NPT since 2003, discussions in the RevCon will instead focus on preventing a similar case in the future, by reviewing criteria for leaving the NPT and establishing how to prevent NNWS from abusing their status under the NPT to gain access to nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes, developing a covert weapons programme, and then withdrawing from the NPT at an opportune moment. This is of course a crucial question for the long-term survival of the NPT and implies a need for a more capable control agency with a stronger legal mandate.
Connected to this is the planned growth of civilian nuclear power and the risk that dual-use nuclear technology, such as for enrichment, could spread and be misused. Several counter measures based on control of the nuclear fuel cycle have been put forward and may come up for discussion at the RevCon in Main Committee III. These have been met with great suspicion by many states in the Non-Aligned Movement, including Brazil, Egypt and South Africa, who see it as an attempt to create a new division into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ under the NPT.
For all the positive signals coming from the nuclear weapon states, and particularly the USA, several NNWS remain highly sceptical that the nuclear weapon states are serious about disarmament. They can—rightly—point to the fact that all five nuclear weapon states have either recently modernized, are in the process of modernizing, or have just decided to modernize their nuclear weapons systems. The nuclear weapon states need to counter this scepticism and demonstrate their sincerity with some positive actions in the run up to the RevCon. These could include:
- Reduction in nuclear weapon numbers—through the successful conclusion by Russia and the USA of a replacement for the 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II), now planned for December 2009. If the new treaty contains rules on warhead dismantlement and verification it would also be a signal that verification is back as a recognized disarmament and non-proliferation tool, after more than a decade of its value being called into question.
- Reduction in nuclear weapons’ role—through de-emphasizing the role and value of nuclear weapons in national security strategies and nuclear strategies. Currently underway are reviews of the US Nuclear Posture Review and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Strategic Concept.
- Reduction in deployment readiness—by doing away with the launch-on-warning and hair-trigger alert systems currently in use.
Furthermore, the negotiations on a fissile materials cut-off treaty (FMCT) could be opened in January January 2010, as currently planned, and the US Senate could ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in time for the RevCon.
With six months to go before the next RevCon, the outlook is promising, the right words have been said and the preparatory work has been successful. During the next half-year, the nuclear weapon states in particular have some highly visible opportunities to turn their positive words into concrete action. If they take them, they will allay the scepticism of several NNWS: if they do not, it could feed the atmosphere of mistrust that has plagued previous RevCons. Even if it may be unwise to get too carried away by the current sense of euphoria and high expectations, modest optimism still seems justified. After all, things would have been very different if the RevCon had taken place two years