"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
NPT Parties Agree on Middle East Meeting
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Peter Crail

In a final-hour agreement concluding a month-long review of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the 189 parties on May 28 endorsed a final document on ways to strengthen the treaty, including, for the first time in 15 years, steps toward establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. The document is centered on a series of 64 action steps aimed at strengthening the treaty’s “three pillars” of nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. On the Middle East zone, the parties agreed to start a process over the next two years to determine how progress can be made on a WMD-free Middle East, in particular calling for a regional conference to discuss the issue in 2012.

It was the eighth such review, which are held every five years, but only three previous sessions have adopted a final consensus document. The May conference adopted only the 64-step action plan by consensus. An article-by-article review of the treaty was adopted as the conference president’s interpretation of member-state views.

Throughout the last day, the consensus agreement hinged on whether a small group of states, in particular Egypt and the United States, could agree on language related to implementing the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East. The NPT parties adopted that resolution, aimed at establishing a WMD-free Middle East, as part of a package of decisions that led to the indefinite extension of the NPT. Diplomatic sources said during the conference that much depended on the outcome of the discussions on the Middle East, some of which occurred at the highest levels of government, outside the conference itself.

In their closing statements, many delegations credited the success of the conference to an improved atmosphere for promoting disarmament and nonproliferation, noting particularly President Barack Obama’s April 5, 2009, speech in Prague calling for steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons and the April 8 signing of a U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction agreement.

Egypt, speaking on behalf of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), a group of 118 developing nations and the largest bloc in the treaty, called the timing of the conference a “historical juncture,” citing “stronger political will…aimed at the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”

In this regard, several delegations, including Indonesia and Japan, contrasted the renewed momentum and the success of the conference with the failure of the last review in 2005, which was fraught with serious disagreement, was not able to agree on an agenda for half of the month, and concluded without any substantive agreement. (See ACT, June 2005.)

Obama also tied the review conference outcome to the nuclear arms policies he outlined in 2009, saying in a May 28 press statement that it “reaffirms many aspects of the agenda that I laid out in Prague, and which we have pursued together with other nations over the last year, and underscores that those nations that refuse to abide by their international obligations must be held accountable.”

The adoption of the consensus document did not mean that all areas of dispute were resolved. In several cases, the final document recognized that “many” or particular groups of states held a particular position, indicating the parties could not reach consensus in these areas by the end of the conference.

Although nearly all states characterized the final document as a success, many cited areas in which it did not meet their expectations or contained elements they did not fully endorse.

The United States, which played a central role in negotiating the language on the Middle East zone, said that it “deeply regretted” the decision to name Israel in that context, citing concerns that the conference to be held in 2012 might be used to single out the U.S. ally. The United States also noted that the final document did not name Iran, which Washington and its allies have charged is in violation of the NPT and UN Security Council resolutions.

The final document “recalls the reaffirmation by the 2000 Review Conference of the importance of Israel’s accession to the Treaty and the placement of its nuclear facilities” under international inspections. Israel, along with India and Pakistan, has never signed the NPT. The document includes similar language for the two other nonsignatories.

France also stated that the conference should have gone further in criticizing countries of proliferation concern, such as Iran and North Korea, saying that “words were not enough” and that more had to be done to respond to such “proliferation crises.”

Many states, however, expressed disappointment that the document did not promote more urgent action toward nuclear disarmament by the five recognized nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.) The NAM states in particular noted that many of their proposals for an action plan toward nuclear disarmament were not adopted. Other non-nuclear-weapon states, including Mexico and Norway, joined them in stating that the document should have established nuclear disarmament timelines.

The most significant critique came from Iran, which derided the final document for drawing “a rosy picture” of recent nuclear disarmament efforts by nuclear-weapon states and for failing to condemn efforts to modernize nuclear arsenals or call for the withdrawal of nuclear arms stationed on the territories of non-nuclear-weapon states.

The United States maintains about 200 nuclear arms in Europe as part of NATO nuclear sharing arrangements.

Tehran said that it joined the consensus to “demonstrate political goodwill” and respect the views of other countries. Iran was the last country to agree to the consensus document, having delayed the final meeting for several hours as its delegation sought instructions from Tehran, diplomats said.

Steps on WMD-Free Middle East Agreed

One of the central agreements of the conference was on steps toward a WMD-free Middle East, a goal with which the international community as a whole has agreed since it was first proposed by Iran in 1974.

Arms control discussions that foresaw the eventual establishment of such a zone had been held by states in the region, including Israel, as part of the Madrid peace process during the 1990s. Those discussions did not include such key countries as Iran and Iraq, and the process eventually faltered.

In a section of the document dedicated to implementing the 1995 Middle East resolution, the conference agreed on five “practical steps” to make progress toward this goal. Key among them was the decision to convene a conference in the region in 2012 “to be attended by all states in the Middle East.” The document also calls for the UN secretary-general and the co-sponsors of the 1995 resolution (Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to appoint a “facilitator” to consult with states in the region in preparation for that conference. Both actions were largely based on Egyptian proposals prior to the conference.

The resulting language was a compromise between the Arab League, led by Egypt, which wanted the 2012 conference to negotiate a WMD-free zone, and the United Kingdom and United States, which argued that it was too early for such negotiations.

The final negotiations on the Middle East zone language, still in dispute in the last days of the conference, hinged on whether to single out Israel by name. Washington sought to avoid that, but the Arab League pressed for it.

Israel responded harshly to the language, announcing that it would not participate in the conference. “It singles out Israel, the Middle East’s only true democracy and the only country threatened with annihilation,” said a May 28 press statement issued by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

British Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament John Duncan cautioned in a May 30 post on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Web log, however, that the two-year process prior to the conference is intended to prepare a way in which all sides “will be comfortable attending.”

“It would indeed be very surprising if Israel was able to agree today to come to the proposed conference before that dialogue has taken place,” he added.

Debating the Urgency of Disarmament

Many non-nuclear-weapon-state NPT members stressed the need for the conference to instill a greater sense of urgency into the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. The NAM in particular maintained that the conference should endorse negotiations on total nuclear disarmament, including by convening a conference to negotiate banning nuclear arms, and that the nuclear disarmament process should be outlined in a “time-bound framework.” Early on, NAM states called for setting a date of 2025 as the goal for completing nuclear disarmament.

With the exception of China, which endorsed holding such a conference, nuclear-weapon states argued that such a timeline was unfeasible and that nuclear disarmament was a lengthy process.

Early drafts of the disarmament language reflected calls for more definitive actions on nuclear disarmament, including deciding that the nuclear-weapon states “shall convene” consultations no later than 2011 “to accelerate progress on nuclear disarmament.” The drafts also invited the UN secretary-general to convene a conference by 2014 to consider a road map toward eliminating nuclear weapons in a specified time frame.

Due to objections from nuclear-weapon states, the final document did not include specific dates for consultations, but did retain a commitment by the nuclear powers to “accelerate progress on steps toward nuclear disarmament.” The final document also omitted any reference to a nuclear weapons conference, stating instead in the president’s summary that the final phase of nuclear disarmament “should be pursued in an agreed legal framework,” recognizing that “the majority of states believe this should include specified timelines.”

Specific actions related to nuclear disarmament stoked fierce debate, and in some cases, the final document either reflected such differences or removed references to the actions altogether. A call for nuclear-weapon states to “cease the development of new nuclear weapons and the qualitative improvement” of existing ones was removed in the final days from the list of action steps. Instead, the final document recognized “the legitimate interests of non-nuclear weapon states in constraining” such developments.

A U.S. diplomat said that Washington’s opposition to the language had no relation to improvements in military capabilities, but a concern that such restrictions would limit qualitative improvements to the safety and security of nuclear weapons.

In addition, a call to address the issue of nuclear sharing arrangements, solely practiced by the United States with five NATO allies (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey), was ultimately removed from the outcome document.

The United States, along with countries hosting U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, opposed the draft language. NAM countries have challenged such arrangements as violations of the NPT’s Article I, which prohibits nuclear-weapon states from transferring nuclear arms. Washington argued that nuclear sharing does not fall in the purview of the NPT review process. The United States has maintained that because the weapons remain in U.S. custody, the arrangement does not violate Article I.

Instead, the issue of tactical weapons in general was addressed by calls for the nuclear-weapon states to reduce “all types” of nuclear weapons. In addition to the United States, Russia maintains a stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons, estimated at 2,000. Moscow has generally resisted calls specifically aimed at reducing such weapons.

Although China supported many of the provisions sought by the NAM on nuclear disarmament, a Western diplomat said that the Chinese delegation challenged early draft language calling for a global moratorium on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. China is the only nuclear-weapon state not to have officially declared such a moratorium, although it is believed to have halted such production unofficially since the 1990s.

In their closing remarks, Australia and Japan voiced disappointment that the conference did not endorse such a moratorium.

Addressing the issue of fissile material for weapons, the conference called on the Conference on Disarmament to begin negotiations immediately on a treaty banning fissile material for weapons, a process that has been stalemated for well more than a decade.

The final document attaches some urgency to efforts to bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force, calling for nuclear-weapon states to ratify the accord “with all expediency.” Initial drafts, however, called on all states to do so “without delay and without conditions.”

A call for nuclear-weapon states to “close and dismantle as soon as feasible” their nuclear test sites was ultimately removed from the final document due to opposition from some nuclear-weapon states.

France, which supported the language, is the only country to have closed its test sites. The United Kingdom does not maintain any of its own. The United States opposed the call on the grounds that it carries out operations unrelated to nuclear testing at its test sites.

A diplomatic source said that referring to closing test sites in the section on the CTBT was always problematic because it is not in the CTBT itself. The diplomat suggested instead that the language should be placed in another section of the document.

Addressing Key Proliferation Concerns

The key debates on nonproliferation centered on long-standing efforts by many countries, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to universalize the more stringent inspections under the agency’s 1997 Model Additional Protocol, and on initiatives to respond to potential withdrawals from the NPT.

With regard to the additional protocol, the conference encouraged all states that have not done so to bring such a measure into force as soon as possible and to implement such a protocol provisionally before it has been ratified.

The NAM, as well as other key developing states such as Brazil, opposed attempts by the United States and other countries to recognize the additional protocol as the new IAEA safeguards standard. Instead, the president’s summary recognized the additional protocol, along with comprehensive IAEA safeguards, “as the enhanced standard for verification of the NPT.”

For the first time in a review conference document, the NPT parties also addressed concerns over a country’s withdrawal from the treaty after being found in noncompliance with its obligations. The language, however, appeared to reflect continued divisions over the issue.

The president’s statement noted that “many states” believed that NPT parties were still responsible for violations under the treaty in the event of their withdrawal and that “numerous states” acknowledged that nuclear suppliers could write their supply contracts to include provisions requiring the return of nuclear technology following a state’s withdrawal from the NPT.

Concerns about withdrawal rose after North Korea in 2003 declared that it withdrew from the treaty, an action that treaty members have not officially recognized.

Curtailing Nuclear Deals With Non-NPT States

One controversial issue raised in the course of the conference was the conclusion of nuclear supply arrangements with non-NPT members India, Israel, and Pakistan.

Many countries maintained that nuclear cooperation should continue to be reserved for countries that have joined the NPT. Early drafts of the NPT final statement incorporated this position by reaffirming that “existing or new supply arrangements” for civil nuclear trade require the recipient state to have “full-scope” safeguards in place. According to the Western diplomatic source, France opposed this language, while the U.S. delegation insisted that the word “existing” should be deleted; otherwise, the language would have applied to nuclear cooperation with India, which the United States argued was a “unique” case.

In 2008 the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an informal collection of the world’s major nuclear supplier countries that aims to prevent proliferation, agreed on an exemption for nuclear transfers to India. The exemption, initiated by the United States as part of a policy shift announced in 2005, reversed long-standing restrictions on nuclear trade with non-NPT parties.

Egypt suggested replacing “existing or new” with “any,” but this too was opposed by the United States; Mexico said the issue was important but could accept the U.S. proposal as a compromise, the Western diplomat said.

The final president’s statement reaffirmed that “new supply arrangements” for nuclear transfers should require that the recipient accept “IAEA full-scope safeguards and international legally-binding commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons.”

The issue may soon be put to a test. China, an NSG member, reportedly is planning to provide two additional light-water nuclear power reactors to Pakistan. China did not seek an NSG exemption similar to the one for India.