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Fifty years of the NPT—cause for celebration or commemoration?

Fifty years of the NPT—cause for celebration or commemoration?
Panoramic view of Midtown skyline and the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, New York City, where the 2019 Preparatory Committee for the 2020 NPT Review Conference took place. Photo: Shutterstock.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970, is turning 50 next year. As suggested by discussions at the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 NPT Review Conference (PrepCom)—held in New York on 29 April–10 May 2019—it might not be a happy anniversary. Despite their ritualistic affirmations that the NPT is the cornerstone of the global nuclear order, states parties remained divided on substantive issues.


Unimplemented disarmament commitments

The NPT’s five-yearly Review Conferences (RevCon) bring states parties together to assess the fulfilment of treaty obligations. Especially since the indefinite extension of the treaty in 1995, such meetings have been viewed as regular health checks on the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime.

A key problem has been the imbalance in the implementation of the NPT’s three pillars: while commitments regarding nuclear non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy have been met with considerable success, this cannot be said about nuclear disarmament. Apart from the 2010 New START Treaty between Russia and the United States, little progress has been made in cutting global nuclear stockpiles since the aftermath of the cold war. In addition to the general disarmament commitments based on Article VI of the NPT, the more concrete steps—agreed at the 1995, 2000 and 2010 Review Conferences—remain largely unimplemented.

Discontent over the lack of concrete progress on disarmament also pervaded the 2019 PrepCom. As the Irish representative noted, ‘for too long the disarmament pillar of the NPT has been neglected’. The Non-Aligned Movement—the largest grouping of states within the NPT—argued that ‘pursuing non-proliferation alone while ignoring nuclear disarmament obligations is both counterproductive and unsustainable’.

States parties also expressed concern over backward steps, such as the erosion of US-Russian arms control architecture and the modernisation of nuclear arsenals. For example, the European Union appealed to Russia and the USA to extend the New START Treaty beyond its expiry in 2021 and to begin negotiations on a follow-on agreement to make further reductions in their nuclear forces.


Perceived obstacles to disarmament

Each of the five nuclear-armed NPT members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the USA—expressed their commitment to disarmament in principle, but viewed further progress as being impeded by current circumstances.

Highlighting the security-related obstacles to disarmament, the USA called on all NPT members to join its Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative to explore ‘ways to ameliorate conditions in the security environment that impede progress toward a future safely and sustainably free of nuclear weapons’. While it is not clear exactly what disarmament obstacles are to be discussed under CEND, the USA has previously referred to proliferation threats, the expanding Russian and Chinese arsenals, as well as Russian non-compliance with the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty) as some key problems.

Russia, in turn, suggested that disarmament cannot proceed without addressing ‘a set of factors that have negative impact on strategic stability’, referring to US missile defences, the deployment of weapons in space, and the strategic role of high-precision conventional weapons. Russia denied having violated the INF Treaty, and instead pointed to US non-compliance with New START limits regarding the conversion of strategic delivery vehicles to conventional roles. While Russia expressed readiness to extend New START—provided that the latter issue be solved—the USA denied Russian accusations about New START without touching on the topic of the treaty’s extension.

China shifted the responsibility to the two countries with by far the largest nuclear arsenals, arguing that ‘substantive reductions’ by Russia and the USA ‘would create necessary conditions for other nuclear-weapon states to join in multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament’. Both the UK and France argued that the current security environment required them to maintain nuclear deterrent capabilities.

While some non-nuclear weapon states seemed to agree that progress on disarmament was conditional on reducing the impediments in the security environment, others vocally objected to that logic. For example, the New Agenda Coalition—Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa—said that ‘the imposition of conditions for the implementation of any Treaty obligations and commitments would undermine the credibility of the Treaty’ and that NPT commitments ‘are not to be reinterpreted, rolled back, or conditioned in any form’.


Nuclear-armed states announcing moderate steps

Apparently cognizant of the need to address the widespread criticism over the lack of progress on disarmament, the five nuclear-armed NPT members announced their intention to take rather moderate steps towards implementing some commitments.

Perhaps the most important of these was the stated readiness by China, France, and Russia to take forward the process of signing the protocol on negative security assurances of the Bangkok Treaty. The treaty established a nuclear weapon-free zone (NWFZ) in South East Asia in 1997. Alongside the Mongolian single-state NWFZ, the South East Asian NWFZ is the only inhabited such zone whose members have not received binding security assurances from any of the five nuclear-armed NPT members. However, mere intent will not necessarily produce results, as consultations over this issue have dragged on for a number of years.

The aim of renewing consultations on the South East Asian NWFZ was also mentioned in the joint statement by the five nuclear-armed NPT member states. In addition, they agreed to conduct further work on the Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, submit their national implementation reports, and organize a side event on nuclear policies and doctrines at the 2020 RevCon.


Controversy over the TPNW

The above commitments by the nuclear-armed states fall short of expectations, and are hence unlikely to impress most non-nuclear weapon states. As many of them pointed out, even nuclear weapons reductions—which would constitute concrete progress but seem out of reach at the moment—are not a substitute for total elimination of such weapons.

In highlighting the importance of the end goal of complete disarmament, many countries referred to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in complementing the NPT. According to Austria, the TPNW closed ‘the legal gap in international law through a legally-binding norm to prohibit nuclear weapons’, which ‘is generally accepted to be required for the full implementation of Article VI’. Austria and other TPNW signatories encouraged more countries to join the treaty.  

In contrast, the five nuclear-armed NPT members jointly condemned the TPNW, arguing that it ‘contradicts, and risks undermining the NPT.’


Arms control and disarmament in the Middle East 

Another issue that divided the PrepCom was the 1995 Middle East resolutionwhereby NPT members agreed to promote the creation of a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)-free zone in the region. Several countries stressed the need to implement the resolution and lamented its lack of implementation to date—with some recalling that it was this issue that had led to the failure of the previous RevCon in 2015.

At the same time, many delegations expressed their support for the United Nations General Assembly decision to convene a conference on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East at the UN, which is due in November 2019. For example, the League of Arab States called for the RevCon to express support for the UN conference. Jordan—which has been chosen to chair the conference— urged all countries to support the process.

While Russia expressed its support and intent to join the conference, the USA said it would not attend. Based on an implicit acknowledgement that Israel was unlikely to join the meeting, the USA regretted the decision to convene it ‘despite the absence of consensus support among the regional states’. The UK—the third co-sponsor of the Middle East resolution— shared US criticism towards the conference, but had not yet made up its mind about participation.

Several countries expressed their support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), calling for Iran’s continued compliance, and some explicitly regretting the US decision to withdraw from the agreement in 2018. As the representative of the International Atomic Energy Agency noted, the JCPOA ‘amounts to the most robust verification system in existence anywhere in the world’.

The Iranian representative argued that the USA’s ‘maximum pressure to dismantle the JCPOA… will be detrimental not only to the stability and security in the Middle East region, but to the NPT’, and that ‘Iran will adopt appropriate measures to preserve its supreme national interests.’ The PrepCom was overshadowed by Iran’s decision on 8 May to respond to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA by scaling down its commitments under the agreement.


Troubled waters ahead

Excluding the fiery rights of reply exchanges between the USA and three other countries—Iran, Russia and Syria—for the most part the discussions at the PrepCom were constructive and respectful. However, the polite tone did little to narrow the gaps between the states parties’ positions. The PrepCom was eventually unable to agree on joint recommendations for the upcoming RevCon, and instead produced a more informal working paper.

The lack of agreement on joint recommendations at the PrepCom further highlights the difficulties ahead for 2020. While RevCons have been unable to reach consensus outcomes before, this would be the first time that two of them successively failed in this task. While one may question whether a consensus final document should be the ultimate measure of success of the NPT, persistent divisions suggest that the cornerstone of global disarmament and the non-proliferation regime is in an unprecedentedly poor shape.

Ambassador Rafael Grossi of Argentina—who will formally take up his position as chair of the 2020 RevCon later this year—nevertheless seemed determined to fight the odds. At the end of the PrepCom, Grossi said he would conduct consultations in ‘all corners of the word’, building on the shared understanding that a weakened NPT is in no one’s interest. 


Dr Tytti Erästö is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme.