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The 2015 NPT Review Conference: setting the record straight

Nearly a month has elapsed since the 2015 Review Conference of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT) failed to agree on a Final Document after four weeks of tedious discussions and negotiations. This unfortunate but entirely avoidable outcome is a big setback for nuclear disarmament, and especially efforts to rid the Middle East of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

According to the data released by SIPRI earlier this month for 2015 Yearbook, all the nuclear weapon-possessing states are working to develop new nuclear weapon systems and/or upgrade their existing ones. It is therefore more important than ever to set the record straight on some misleading narratives as to why the review conference failed, blame was assigned wrongly and cover was provided for the real culprits.


The NPT disarmament stalemate

The main fissures in the area of nuclear disarmament concerned the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (HINW) and the push to get the review conference to agree on launching a process leading to a legally binding treaty, convention or instrument to ‘close the legal gap’ in Article VI of the NPT on ‘effective measures’ to prohibit nuclear weapons and achieve nuclear disarmament.

Within the larger group of some 159 non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) parties to the NPT supporting the HINW generally, the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), consisting of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa advocated a menu of options: (a) comprehensive nuclear-weapons convention; (b) nuclear-weapons-ban treaty; (c) framework agreement comprising mutually supporting instruments; and (d) hybrid arrangement.

The five NPT-defined nuclear weapon states (NWS)—China, France, Russia, UK and USA—supported by the members of the Non-Proliferation Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) and a group of 26 states led by Australia, did not support efforts leading directly to a legally binding instrument on nuclear disarmament but to put in place ‘building blocks’ (a euphemism for a step-by-step approach) that could eventually lead to nuclear disarmament. The NPDI consisted of Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates—seven of these are so-called ‘umbrella states’, relying on security guarantees from NWS.

The 120-strong Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) proposed a plan of action for the elimination of all nuclear weapons in an irreversible and verifiable manner, in three successive phases: first phase 2015-2020; second phase 2020-2025; and third phase: 2025-2030.

The NWS openly dismissed the credibility of the HINW, rejected claims that there was any new information or data on the consequences of nuclear detonations or that their nuclear weapons posed risks of accidental detonation, dismissed all recommendations from the NNWS for prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons, and remained wedded to their step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament based on the principles of strategic stability and undiminished security for all states. Some of the NWS, together with the nearly 30 NNWS that are seemingly indefinitely wedded to notions of nuclear deterrence, rejected all recommendations by other NNWS for accelerating the pace and scope of nuclear disarmament.

Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction

The other bone of contention was the fraught issue of the implementation of the Resolution on the Middle East, adopted at the 1995 NPT Review Conference as part of the package on indefinitely extending the NPT, and the ‘action’ agreed at the 2010 NPT Review Conference on convening a conference of the Middle East states on establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the region (MENWFZ/WMDFZ).

It was clear that the differences between the states in the region over establishing the zone had widened during the 2010-2015 period. The unnecessary victim of this debacle was the facilitator, Under Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava of Finland (for the postponed 2012 Middle East conference), who was abandoned by all sides despite his dedicated efforts of holding multilateral consultations involving Israel and the Arab States during 2013-2014. Sometimes international politics makes no friends nor does it abide by principles.

The draft Final Document of the 2015 NPT review conference proposed the date of 1 March 2016 for the convening of a Middle East conference, following consensus-based consultations among all states in the region.


Conduct of the Review Conference

With regard to the conduct of the Review Conference, it was noticeable that there was a lack of effective coordination in the conference bureau, a lack of clarity about how and what the President of the Review Conference—Ambassador Taous Feroukhi of Algeria—intended to achieve as an outcome, and a pronounced lack of imagination on the part of many delegations to achieve the best outputs from the strengthened review process (SRP) and to utilize the SRP to achieve the best results.

The closed-door, off-site, ‘Presidential consultations’ in the last week of the conference, involving some 20 delegations, were undemocratic and non-inclusive. The states taking part were Austria, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Iran, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and the five NWS. Such nineteenth century diplomatic practices and cold war groupings prevail even though these are no longer relevant and are incapable of dealing with current issues and priorities. Issue-based coalitions—NAC, NPDI and HINW—are more relevant but lack coherence and are mired in intra-group divisions.

There also is the rise of a disturbing tendency in which non-parties to the NPT are given preferential treatment and protection at the expense of states parties, especially by some depositary states. Examples include the 2005 US-India nuclear cooperation agreement and the so-called exemption in 2008 by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, as well as the preferential treatment for Israel both in the NPT and the IAEA contexts. Rhetorical calls for NPT universality are then left with no effective follow-up.



In the late evening of 22 May 2015, the United States’ strong outright rejection of the proposals in the draft Final Document relating to a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East—a rejection supported by the UK and a belligerent Canada—finally put the 2015 NPT Review Conference out of its misery to the relief of many.

Contrary to the claims of these three states, the proposed action in the draft document on the Middle East called for all states of the region to reach a consensus on the agenda for a conference to be held no later than 1 March 2016, to which all these states would be invited. Such a course of action is not unprecedented. In 2007, the NPT Preparatory Committee convened on the scheduled date without an agreed agenda and then negotiated an agreed agenda in informal sessions. The responsibility for the failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, therefore, should be assigned to those states that rejected the draft Final Document.

In reality, the rejection by the USA and two of its close allies was received with imperceptible sighs of relief by those NNWS for whom the draft Final Document was much too weak on the nuclear disarmament front and thus saved them from raising their own objections or reservations.

Thus, it is somewhat misleading to claim that were it not for the objections to the Middle East part, the draft Final Document necessarily would have passed muster and been adopted, albeit grudgingly, by the other states parties.

In sum, the failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference can be placed on the inflexibility of many delegations, improper implementation of the strengthened review process and an absence of leadership. Though the Treaty will continue in force, the failure in 2015 is deeply disappointing as it represents a wasted opportunity to advance the objectives and goals of the NPT, which is universally regarded as the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament regime.

This failure means that the agreed ‘64 actions’ of the 2010 NPT Review Conference remain to be fully implemented and an opportunity has been lost to agree on ways and means of strengthening the NPT regime. While the NPT will survive, the credibility of the regime has been severely damaged by the inflexibility of states parties and dangerous new tendencies and developments are on the rise. These include an unchecked resurgence in the saliency of nuclear weapons in European security, setbacks for reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons, increasing discord both between and amongst the NNWS and NWS, deteriorating confidence in the NPT by the Arab states parties, and an overall loss of credibility in the nuclear disarmament pillar of the NPT.   


Tariq Rauf is the Director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme.