NPT Review Conference: No outcome document better than a weak one

By Cesar Jaramillo | June 3, 2015

Perhaps Bob Marley sang it best: “[Y]ou can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” And so, in the eyes of a growing number of nations and civil society organizations around the world, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—as currently structured and implemented—is simply no longer a credible path to nuclear abolition.

The failure to agree on an outcome document at the month-long 2015 NPT Review Conference was an accurate reflection of the profound inadequacies and disagreements permeating the global nuclear disarmament regime. The lack of a consensus document constitutes a necessary shock to an ailing system.

As the conference drew to a close, it became clear that any language alluding to specific and effective measures to implement nuclear disarmament had been removed from successive drafts of the outcome document because of stiff pushback from nuclear-weapon states. Agreement on a weak outcome document would have been disrespectful to abolition efforts and would have presented a distorted view of the dysfunctional nuclear disarmament regime.

The NPT—both as a normative framework and as a deliberation forum—has been instrumental in addressing concerns related to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. But it has failed to deliver on the goal of nuclear abolition, itself a foundational objective of the United Nations. Today the question is not just whether the world is a better place with the NPT than without it, but whether this treaty will actually lead to complete nuclear disarmament.

A symptom of a graver illness.The final stumbling block to consensus on an outcome document illustrates the dysfunction of the NPT. It came down to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada supporting Israel’s position on a conference to pursue a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

Israel is one of only four states in the world with a rogue nuclear arsenal outside the NPT. In the final analysis, consensus on the NPT outcome document was thwarted by support for the objections of a non-state party, which has for decades resisted calls to join the treaty.

At issue were Israeli concerns about a proposed timeline and process for convening the Mideast conference. In this context, a 1995 resolution, which called for “practical steps” toward a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, was widely considered critical for the indefinite extension of the NPT at the time. The draft outcome document called for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to convene a Mideast conference on this issue by March 2016. This already represented a lengthy delay from the undertaking in the outcome document that was unanimously agreed to in 2010, which specifically called for the conference to be convened by 2012.

While claims by the United States that the proposed plan “set an arbitrary deadline for holding the [Middle East] conference” seem to imply that this would somehow be a rushed endeavor, in reality the international community has had this objective for 20 years.

Under the plan, no state would be in a position to block the conference. While all states in the region would be urged to participate, the conference would proceed even if one or more states decided not to attend. This drew the ire of Israel and its triad of NPT advocates, who insisted on strict consensus as a prerequisite for moving forward with the long-delayed effort. This approach effectively gives Israel veto power to block the process toward a WMD-free zone in the Middle East from even getting off the ground.

The USA, UK and Canada also argued that the security interests of Israel had to be taken into account in such a process. No state or international organization has claimed otherwise.

What is perhaps the key stumbling block, though, has remained mostly unspoken. Should Israel agree to attend a regional conference, it would be compelled to come clean about its never-confirmed nuclear weapons program—and thus end the unjustifiable and anachronistic opaqueness that many in the international community have tolerated for decades.

The long-unfulfilled promise.While the Middle East disarmament question was the official—and widely reported—reason why there was no outcome document at the NPT Review Conference, the disagreements straining the nuclear disarmament regime run much deeper.  

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima, 45 years after the NPT entered into force, and more than a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, many states are frustrated by the blatant disregard of nuclear-weapon states of their obligation to disarm. The status quo was challenged in the statements of a majority of NPT states parties during the 2015 Review Conference.

Tired arguments over the purported value of nuclear weapons possession have been replaced by a renewed emphasis on the humanitarian imperative for nuclear disarmament. The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use outweigh any alleged benefits.

The widespread rejection of the status quo, however, has done little to persuade nuclear-weapon states to change course.

Nuclear-weapon states extol the value of nuclear weapons in safeguarding their national interests, but expect no one else to embrace the same rationale. They demand immediate, consistent compliance with non-proliferation obligations, but disregard their own responsibility to disarm. They consider the pursuit and possession of nuclear weapons by some states unacceptable, but seem content to accept the nuclear-weapons programs of military or economic allies, even outside the NPT framework. They continue to spend billions of dollars modernizing arsenals and related infrastructure.

The irony that the sole possessors of nuclear weapons within the NPT are the five permanent members (P5) of the United Nations Security Council— which are tasked with the maintenance of international peace and security—has not been lost on many international observers. But the P5 are not the only ones obstructing progress in abolishing nuclear weapons. States that participate in nuclear alliances such as NATO are wantonly complicit. They agree with nuclear-weapon states when they claim that they maintain their arsenals not only for their own security, but also for the security of the alliance.

Articles 1 and 2 of the NPT refer, respectively, to the undertaking of nuclear-weapon states not to transfer nuclear weapons to others, and the undertaking of non-nuclear-weapon states not to receive them. Within NATO, which has an overt policy of nuclear deterrence, a nuclear weapon state can make its weapons available to the multilateral alliance and place weapons on the territory of non-nuclear-weapon states.

For much too long, nuclear dependent states have been allowed to reside in both camps. When it suits, they present themselves as responsible international actors that are non-nuclear-weapon states under the NPT. At the same time, they are party to, and endorse, a security arrangement that runs contrary to the letter of the NPT and the broader goal of nuclear abolition.

Applying pressure. The existential threat posed by nuclear weapons is so great that the international community must devise and implement every peaceful means of persuasion at its disposal to compel nuclear-weapon states to achieve verifiable abolition within a specified timeframe. The time has come for concrete actions that unequivocally convey not only the gravity of the threat, but the seriousness of the demand.

One proposal is to pursue a legal prohibition or ban of nuclear weapons, even if some or all nuclear-weapon states refuse to participate. Civil society organizations from around the world—notably those working with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons—and a growing number of supporting governments have done a formidable job in presenting the ban as a serious alternative. It has a key attribute: It anticipates the continued recalcitrance of nuclear-weapon states and plans to move forward in spite of it.

Some skeptics have argued that pursuing a ban treaty would be a redundant effort, since nuclear weapons are already illegal under the NPT. But there is hardly universal agreement on that view. And it is hard to see why anyone who believes the NPT already makes nuclear weapons illegal by implication would oppose unambiguously codifying that illegality under international law. There are numerous examples of redundant international agreements. The actual use of nuclear weapons, for example, would contravene a host of overlapping security, human rights, and environment-related international laws and conventions.

Critically, the process of enacting a treaty that formally bans nuclear weapons will not only provide the international community with a legal reference point; it will also stigmatize a category of weapons, put pressure on those who possess them, and mobilize public opinion, particularly in nuclear-weapon states.

By the end of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, more than 100 nations had explicitly endorsed the “Humanitarian Pledge,” which affirms that the nuclear disarmament regime has a legal gap that needs to be filled. While there are differing interpretations of what filling the legal gap entails, the coming together of the majority of the world’s nations around this demand for concrete progress rooted in humanitarian considerations constitutes a historic shift in the nuclear disarmament debate.

At the same time, the world is exhibiting nuclear push-back in other realms: lawsuits filed by the Marshall Islands against all nuclear weapons possessors; the Mayors for Peace campaign; efforts to continue the work of the Open Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament, which convened in Geneva in 2013 to “develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.” All of this is good news.

Anything but premature. The goal is still a Nuclear Weapons Convention—by any name. The need for it is not a matter of opinion. If nuclear weapons are ever to be abolished, there must be a universal, non-discriminatory process, with provisions for the irreversible elimination of existing nuclear arsenals and a timeline for verified implementation. Outstanding related objectives, such as the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the pursuit of a Fissile Materials Treaty, would, of course, be part of such a global multilateral undertaking.

The absence of an outcome document at the 2015 NPT Review Conference will not diminish the push for abolition, but a challenging path lies ahead. Nuclear-weapon states and their supporters will dig in their heels. They will continue to refer to any effort that challenges the nuclear disarmament status quo as a “distraction.” They will point to progress where there is none. Perhaps most problematic, they will continue to refer to any serious plan to initiate and conclude a process to eliminate nuclear weapons as “premature.”

Seventy years after Hiroshima, efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons are hardly premature.

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