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Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
NPT Review Conference Opens

May 2000

By Matthew Rice

Marking the first assessment of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since it was extended indefinitely in 1995, delegates of the treaty's states-parties gathered April 24 at United Nations headquarters in New York to open the 2000 NPT review conference. The four-week conference will address the progress made during the last five years on a number of divisive issues, including nuclear disarmament and universal adherence to the treaty.

Disarmament was the top item on the agenda in the conference's first week, with virtually every country bemoaning the nuclear-weapon states' lack of progress toward meeting their obligations under Article VI of the treaty. That goal was reinforced at the 1995 treaty review and extension conference in a document on "principles and objectives," which called for "systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons."

Progress toward this goal was waylaid largely by Russia's slow ratification of START II and seems hindered by the continued reliance of Russian and NATO military doctrines on nuclear weapons. Matt Robson, New Zealand's minister for disarmament and arms control, said that the nuclear-weapon states "sound too tentative when describing [disarmament] as an 'ultimate goal'" and expressed concern that "nuclear weapons are claimed to be required for security into the 'indefinite' future." New Zealand is a member of the New Agenda Coalition, a group of states that has demanded faster progress toward disarmament.

Disappointment was also expressed concerning the other benchmarks laid out in the "principles and objectives" agreement: completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the start of talks on a treaty halting the production of fissile material for weapons purposes. While the CTBT was completed in 1996, it has yet to enter into force, and the treaty's rejection last fall by the U.S. Senate has called its future into question. Negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty have yet to be started at the Geneva-based UN Conference on Disarmament.

The argument of the nuclear-weapon states, notably the United States and Russia, has been that the START process offers the best path toward the eventual goal of disarmament. This claim was bolstered by the Russian Duma's April 14 approval of START II. "The Russian Duma's recent action on START II undercuts the claim that the bilateral strategic arms reductions process has no future," U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said April 24, noting that the United States approved the treaty in 1996.

In addition, Britain and France have taken steps to reduce the size of their nuclear forces. Britain's 1998 Strategic Defense Review substantially reduced its operational nuclear warhead stockpile to under 200 and reduced the warhead load of each strategic missile submarine from 96 to 48. France has also taken steps to eliminate all land-based nuclear forces and to reduce the size of its sea-based nuclear arsenal.

But other parties openly expressed concern that U.S. pursuit of missile defenses at the expense of the ABM Treaty could spell an end to even this slow progress. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sounded a warning that "the growing pressure to deploy national missile defenses…is jeopardizing the ABM Treaty…and could well lead to a new arms race, setbacks for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and create new incentives for missile proliferation."

The United States came under particular fire from Russia and China. "The collapse of the ABM Treaty would…undermine the entirety of disarmament agreements concluded over the last 30 years," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said April 25. Sha Zukang, China's representative to the review conference, said April 24 that U.S. development of a missile defense will "impede the international disarmament process, thus shatter[ing] the basis for international nuclear non-proliferation."

International condemnation of U.S. missile defense plans was not unexpected, though U.S. officials have worked to convince states-parties that the NPT review conference is not an appropriate forum to address the ABM issue. "We are…trying to see if we can find an approach that would allow us to leave our differences on this issue outside the conference room," U.S. representative to the conference Norman Wulf said April 21, expressing hope that the issue would not prove to be "a deal buster at the conference itself."


Universal Adherence

Renewing a controversial debate, Egypt and other Middle East states have demanded that pressure be brought to bear on Israel to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state. Several states, including Brazil, have joined the NPT in the past five years, leaving only four countries—Cuba, India, Israel, and Pakistan—outside the treaty regime.

The 1995 review conference recognized these concerns in its resolution on the Middle East, which called for universal adherence to the treaty in the region and the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. In its opening statement April 25 and a working paper submitted April 28, Egypt restated these concerns, calling for states-parties to exert influence on Israel to accede. Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's representative to the conference, argued that universality is required for the continued viability of the treaty. "The NPT cannot have any credibility with the states of the region as long as one state is exempt from its provisions," he said.

But with the 1998 nuclear tests of India and Pakistan, the question of universal adherence has grown, extending beyond the immediate concerns of Israel's neighbors. The United States would like to see a consensus statement that encourages universal participation by all parties, not just Israel. "The United States does not oppose attention in this year's conference to universal adherence in the Middle East, [but] we believe it should be fair and balanced within the region and with other serious issues outside the region," Albright said.


Moving Forward

As the review conference proceeds through the next three weeks, one issue will be whether it can produce a consensus document—a goal only two of the treaty's five review conferences have achieved. Jayantha Dhanapala, UN undersecretary-general for disarmament affairs and president of the 1995 NPT conference, said in an April 19 telephone briefing that the outcome of the 2000 review conference will be an important indicator of the regime's continuing vitality.

"This conference is an extremely important barometer of the level of satisfaction amongst the states-parties with the performance of the treaty. If we, for example, do not have a consensus document, that would imply that there is some malaise within the treaty, and that augurs badly for the future of the treaty," he said.