"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
LOOKING BACK: The 1995 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference
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Randy Rydell

This May, the parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will gather for the treaty’s 2005 Review Conference, where they will assess the treaty’s effectiveness and explore ways to remedy its shortcomings. Such conferences are not empty rituals; they tell us a lot about the overall health of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, which is now widely viewed as in great jeopardy.[1]

Yet, the treaty’s present status and future prospects will not be the only focus of these deliberations. The parties will also review the implementation of the commitments that led to the indefinite extension of the treaty in 1995, along with related commitments agreed to at the 2000 Review Conference. It is therefore useful to look back at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference—both its outcomes and the multilateral process that produced them.

What Does a Review Conference Review?

The NPT provides only a sketchy formal mandate for such conferences, saying merely that “a conference” of the parties shall “review the operation” of the treaty “with a view to assuring” that its provisions “are being realized.”[2] Over the years, the review conferences, supported by annual sessions of their preparatory committees (PrepComs), applied these general standards to assess how well the parties were fulfilling their commitments.

Yet, the review process also performs informal functions. It provides a pulpit for articulating national policies, a forum for debate, a crucible for reconciling political differences, a town hall for participation by nongovernmental organizations, and a global classroom for educating the public on global nuclear threats and responses. These formal and informal functions seek to ensure that the treaty remains both true to its principles and relevant to changing times.

The 1995 Review and Extension Conference also had another formal purpose: “to decide whether the [t]reaty shall continue in force indefinitely, or shall be extended for an additional fixed period or periods.” Although the treaty provided that the extension would be determined by a majority vote, the parties felt that such a key decision should, if possible, be reached by consensus. Achieving that consensus proved to be one of the most difficult challenges in the history of multilateral diplomacy.

The “Package Deal”
The conference resulted in three decisions and a resolution that the parties heralded as a “package deal.”[3] The integrated nature of the package deal—a feature insisted upon by Indonesia, South Africa, and many other states—gave the review process a sharper focus and clarified its ends. Certain positive steps by the nuclear-weapon states before the conference, including a consistent pattern of strong U.S. support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), likely contributed to the successful outcome.[4]

Decision 1—Strengthening the Review Process
This decision provided for five-year review conferences, each preceded by three sessions of a PrepCom.[5] These conferences would have three main committees, which could have “subsidiary bodies” on specific issues. It also clarified that in the future the review process would examine “principles, objectives, and ways,” including those in Decision 2, and would “look forward as well as back.” As Canadian Ambassador Christopher Westdal put it, the goal was “permanence with accountability.”[6]

Decision 2—Principles and Objectives
The second decision set forth some “principles and objectives” for assessing progress in the following areas: universality; nonproliferation; disarmament; nuclear-weapon-free zones; security assurances; safeguards; and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

For example, the decision laid out a “program of action” for disarmament, including the CTBT, a fissile materials treaty, and the “determined pursuit” by the nuclear-weapon states of “systematic and progressive efforts” to reduce nuclear arsenals.[7] It called for “further steps” to assure non-nuclear-weapon states-parties against the threat of nuclear attack. It anticipated today’s worries over the proliferation risks of advanced fuel cycles by clarifying that the treaty’s “inalienable right” to peaceful uses of nuclear energy must be applied “in conformity with Articles I, II as well as III of the [t]reaty.”[8] It also expanded support for the principle that new nuclear “supply arrangements” should require full-scope IAEA safeguards “as a necessary precondition” (i.e., safeguards over all nuclear materials of the importing, non-nuclear-weapon state). India and Pakistan—both NPT nonparties—have been seeking to avoid this precondition.

Decision 3—Indefinite Extension
The crucial third decision was based on a simple declaratory statement that, “as a majority exists” among the parties to extend the treaty indefinitely, the treaty shall continue in force indefinitely. The decision’s preamble contained language “emphasizing” the other decisions, which further affirmed the linkages in the package deal.

Resolution on the Middle East
The last key component of the package deal was the Resolution on the Middle East, which, inter alia, endorsed the creation of a Middle Eastern “zone free of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction,” (WMD) including “their delivery systems.” The NPT’s indefinite extension without a vote would not have been possible without addressing this issue—a long-standing goal of the Arab states and many other parties.

Through some skillful diplomacy, especially the success of conference president Jayantha Dhanapala in forging compromises between groups of states backing various treaty extension options, the conference achieved its immediate goals of extending the treaty indefinitely while strengthening accountability.

Yet, today this legacy is mixed, particularly from the vantage point of the non-nuclear-weapon states. Many feel that the indefinite extension cost them “leverage” for promoting disarmament. The possibility remains that the failure to achieve concrete results in physically eliminating nuclear weapons could eventually cause the 1995 package deal to fall apart.

Key events, including the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998, the U.S. Senate’s vote against the CTBT in 1999, North Korea’s announced departure from the treaty in 2003, recent safeguards compliance issues involving Iran and other states, and the various ways since 1995 that the nuclear-weapon states have reaffirmed the value of nuclear weapons, have greatly stressed the NPT regime.

Yet, international support for the treaty remains strong and, although some allegations of noncompliance have arisen, compliance with the NPT’s nonproliferation commitments remains overwhelming. The track record in disarmament is less impressive. Transparency remains a serious problem as the world still lacks any precise figures on the size of the world’s nuclear arsenals and relevant fissile material stocks. The lack of robust institutional infrastructures and domestic laws to implement disarmament missions is another warning sign, along with the scant evidence that disarmament is receiving the funding it needs to dispose of nuclear weapons irreversibly and verifiably.

Many states are specifically disappointed with the failure of the nuclear-weapon states to fulfill their disarmament-related commitments at the 2000 Review Conference, including those dealing with a fissile material treaty, the CTBT, the stalemate on negotiating multilateral disarmament treaties in the Conference on Disarmament, and missile defense.[9] Competent diplomacy and efficient conference management—so vital in 1995—depend heavily on persuasive evidence of real progress in achieving the treaty’s key goals. It is difficult to produce a consensus out of thin air.

Despite persisting worries over the future of the NPT regime, hope remains for progress in some important areas. There is potential for the further creation or consolidation of nuclear-weapon-free zones. As recognition grows of the risks and disutility of nuclear weapons, hopes remain that the numbers of such weapons will fall at a faster rate, with growing transparency, irreversibility, and verification. Support for making the IAEA’s Model Additional Protocol[10] the new safeguards standard is steadily growing, as is worldwide attention to long-neglected security and proliferation threats inherent in the nuclear fuel cycle—points that IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has recently reiterated.[11] The WMD “nonproliferation norm” got a boost on April 28, 2004, when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1540, which obliged all states to take specific steps against the global spread of such weapons.

In retrospect, the success of 1995 was based on competent diplomacy, efficient conference management, and the availability of some persuasive evidence of real progress in achieving the treaty’s key goals. If the 2005 Review Conference heeds these lessons, its results may well surpass all expectations. If past commitments are dismissed or forgotten, all bets are off. That is why 1995 is worth remembering.


1. The recent report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change warned that “[w]e are approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation.” A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, December 2004, p. 39.

2. Article VIII(3). The text of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is available at http://disarmament2.un.org/wmd/npt/npttext.html.

3. For a more detailed discussion of the evolution of this package, see Jayantha Dhanapala, Multilateral Diplomacy and the NPT: An Insider’s Account (Geneva: UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2005), pp. 50-57.

4. Ibid., p. 58.

5. The decision also allowed for a possible fourth session of the PrepCom.

6. Dhanapala, Multilateral Diplomacy and the NPT, p. 57.

7. The 2000 NPT Review Conference went a few steps further, setting forth 13 “practical steps” relating to disarmament. See “The 2000 NPT Review Conference and the 13 Practical Steps: A Summary,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2005, p. 8.

8. Articles I and II contain the basic nonproliferation obligations of the nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states, respectively, while Article III deals with safeguards.

9. A compilation of statements made during the NPT review process is available at http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/npt/nptindex1.html.

10. The Model Additional Protocol significantly strengthens safeguards implemented pursuant to the NPT. For a summary, see Arms Control Association, “Fact Sheet: The IAEA 1997 Additional Protocol at a Glance,” January 2005.

11. See “Tackling the Nuclear Dilemma: An Interview With IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei,” Arms Control Today, March 2005, pp. 6-11.


Randy Rydell is senior counsellor and report director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (Blix Commission). He is also a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association and is currently on leave as a senior political affairs officer at the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs. He is co-author with Jayantha Dhanapala of Multilateral Diplomacy and the NPT: An Insider’s Account (Geneva: UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2005). The views expressed are those of the author alone.