“I also want to thank Daryl Kimball and the Arms Control Association for allowing me to address all of you today and for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war.”

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
Divisions Foil NPT Review Conference

Claire Applegarth

Marking a sluggish start to a long-awaited nuclear gathering, the 2005 Review Conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) finally began substantive work May 19 after nearly three weeks of debate over procedural matters. The conference, which met at UN headquarters in New York, stalled for more than a week over a disputed agenda and then had to overcome other procedural obstacles. (A final report on the conference will be available in the July/August issue of Arms Control Today.)

Substantive work was first held up by failure to reach agreement on an agenda, despite vigorous efforts by conference president Sérgio de Queiroz Duarte of Brazil (see ACT, December 2004) to win approval from concerned states in the months leading up to the conference. Over 160 states sent representatives to the conference. The 1968 NPT has nearly 190 states parties.

Initially, disputes had focused on how to reference past once-every-five-years review conferences, such as those held in 1995 and 2000. In particular, the United States wished to avoid any discussion of the “13 practical steps on disarmament” that were adopted by all states as part of the final conference document in 2000 or, at least, wanted to focus references to past conferences on the issue of “noncompliance.”

In the early days of the conference, the impasse over the agenda centered around a dispute over a statement of the conference president associated with agenda item 16 on “Review on the Operation of the Treaty.” That statement said that the review “would be conducted in the light of the decisions and the resolution of previous [c]onferences, and allow for discussion of any issue raised by States Parties.”

On May 6, Egypt prevented consensus on the agenda’s adoption when it insisted on wording that would strengthen the delicately phrased references to past conferences. Cairo wanted to replace “in light of” with “taking into account” and to insert “outcomes” along with “decisions” and “resolution.” By that time, Egypt, with the support of some other developing countries, had succeeded in including the word “resolution” as a reference to a 1995 resolution supporting the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

The agenda impasse was resolved May 11 when the document was adopted as worded, with the presidential statement officially linked to that agenda item by an asterisk. The agenda’s adoption was immediately followed by an on-the-record statement of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), a group of more than 100 developing nations, reaffirming its commitment to the specific obligations agreed to at the 1995 and 2000 conferences.

Conference participants next struggled to agree on the structure of the three committees charged with allocating the conference’s substantive work. States disagreed on how these committees, which address nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, would divide issues in subsidiary bodies. The NAM, for example, pressed for discussion of negative security assurances, while the United States and a few other Western states opposed this. Such assurances are guarantees by nuclear-weapon states that they will not use these arms against non-nuclear-weapon states and were referenced in the outcomes of the 1995 and 2000 NPT Review Conferences.

Finally, the conference agreed May 18 that subsidiary bodies would be established for nuclear disarmament and related issues, including security assurances; regional issues; and withdrawal from the treaty. Ordinarily these procedural matters are resolved in the opening days of the conference.

On May 19—the end of the third week of the meeting—states began discussions on their draft working papers and the formulation of committee reports, which were to be delivered only two days before the end of the conference.

The first one-and-a-half weeks of the conference were given over to prepared statements from more than 90 states, with many statements delivered by foreign ministers or similarly high-level government officials. These statements reflected areas of agreement among large numbers of states and some disagreement among particular states. Many countries, for example, reaffirmed the goal of nuclear disarmament, including the need for early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and conclusion of a fissile material cutoff treaty. They also advocated new measures to control the spread of technologies that have civilian use but can also be used to make to make fissile material for nuclear weapons and endorsed tougher inspections and new mechanisms to address states that withdraw from the treaty.

The United States, however, sought to block discussion of nuclear disarmament and instead focused on the treaty transgressions of particular states. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker, who gave the opening address for the U.S. delegation, underscored that noncompliance with the treaty was the “most serious challenge in its history.” Rademaker drew attention to President George W. Bush’s action plan on nonproliferation, as outlined in a February 11, 2004 address. (See ACT, March 2004.) Iran, for its part, tried to deflect criticism that it had violated its NPT safeguards agreement with its previously secret uranium-enrichment program and characterized concern about its nuclear program as an assault on developing states’ “right” to nuclear energy production.

In opening remarks to the conference May 2, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei asserted that, if states could not work together, “each acknowledging the development priorities and security concerns of the other, then the result of this [c]onference will be inaction.” UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on states “to accept that disarmament, nonproliferation, and the right to peaceful uses are all vital” and “are all too important to be held hostage to the politics of the past.”

More than 1,700 representatives from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) registered to attend the conference. Many Japanese atomic bombing survivors were also in attendance, recalling that August 6 marks the 60th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A number of NGOs also staged a demonstration, which drew many thousands of participants, in New York’s Central Park May 1 calling for nuclear disarmament.