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June 1, 2018
NPT: Back on Track

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Alison Kelly

The 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference opened in New York on May 3 in a positive if subdued political atmosphere. High expectations generated by President Barack Obama’s commitment in Prague a year earlier to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons and to strengthen the NPT had been muted by uncertainty about Iran and other potential spoiler issues at the conference, not least the ability to agree on a path forward on implementation of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East.

Proliferation challenges in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the nuclear ambitions and programs of Iran and North Korea, the latter’s announced withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, the failure of the 2005 review conference, and a decade of stagnation on nuclear disarmament had placed the treaty under great strain. With fears that it was no longer fit for purpose, 2010 was widely seen as a make-or-break year for the future relevance and sustainability of the NPT.

The 2010 final document, adopted on schedule on May 28, has laid those concerns to rest. For the first time in the history of the NPT, forward-looking action plans have been agreed across all three pillars—disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—and on implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution and the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The political will of states and civil society and the overwhelming desire to re-establish the NPT as the cornerstone of the global disarmament and nonproliferation regime had found reflection. This is no mean achievement.

The improved climate in the lead-up to the conference provided much-needed momentum for a treaty suffering frustrating inertia. Publication of the first Shultz-Perry-Kissinger-Nunn article in The Wall Street Journal in 2007 as well as initiatives such as the work of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament on eliminating nuclear threats brought hopes of progress. For the first time in the 21st century, creative discussion took place at the highest levels. Encouraging policy declarations by world leaders, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom, signaled renewed political will to make significant strides toward multilateral disarmament. New and innovative plans, such as the five-point proposal of the UN secretary-general in October 2008 and Obama’s Prague speech in April 2009 setting out an exciting vision of a world without nuclear weapons, showed that the objective of complete nuclear disarmament was no longer the lofty ambition of idealists. The re-engagement of key players with the issues, the signing of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the completion of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, and the active role of civil society were crucial factors.

Ireland’s long association with the NPT gave a particular sense of urgency as it worked toward the review conference. The need for a legal mechanism to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons during a period of intense mistrust and instability prompted Ireland in 1958 to table the first in a series of resolutions at the UN General Assembly. These “Irish resolutions,” as they became known, paved the way for negotiation of the NPT. Forty years later, the New Agenda Coalition (NAC)—Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden—was launched in Dublin in 1998. The NAC was centrally involved in the negotiation of the 13 “practical steps” for nuclear disarmament in the 2000 final document and remained determined to achieve real progress in 2010.

The European Union, of which Ireland is a member, played a prominent role throughout the review process, contributing many policy positions and statements. Ireland also worked closely within the “Vienna Group of Ten”—Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden—which was committed to providing constructive input to the NPT review process on the so-called Vienna issues of nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In addition, I was asked by the president of the conference, Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines, to chair subsidiary body 2 on regional issues, including the Middle East, particularly implementation of the 1995 resolution. Ireland willingly accepted this opportunity to strengthen the NPT, albeit with some trepidation given previously intractable positions on the Middle East issue.

Practical Achievements

Now that the dust has settled on the lengthy and complex negotiations and hard-won compromises, many participants and observers are examining the outcome document as a whole and reflecting on what the conference actually achieved in practical terms. Real judgment will ultimately be made at the 2015 review conference, when the parties assess implementation of what was agreed in May 2010.

Ireland’s point of departure has been that the NPT, to date, has not succeeded in moving nuclear-weapon states quickly enough toward abandoning their nuclear arsenals, as envisaged in Article VI of the treaty and in the 13 practical steps agreed in 2000. Although the NPT contains the sole legally binding commitment by the nuclear-weapon states to disarm, an estimated 23,000 nuclear weapons remain in their hands some 40 years after its entry into force. Furthermore, disarmament took a back seat to nonproliferation in the decade prior to the 2010 conference, with a focus on establishing new nonproliferation arrangements and mechanisms such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the measures adopted under UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires countries to establish effective national controls to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. This emphasis on nonproliferation has led the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) to express concerns that its right to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy was being constrained. It is through this prism that Ireland worked to develop clear policy positions in all areas and now judges the extent to which its objectives have been achieved.

Disarmament issues were negotiated in Main Committee I and its subsidiary body in a constructive atmosphere, despite the divergent positions of many states and regional groups. With support from others, the NAM called, inter alia, for accelerated nuclear disarmament within a fixed time frame, for work toward a nuclear weapons convention to ban all types of nuclear weapons, and for multilaterally negotiated, legally binding security assurances. Nuclear-weapon states opposed all of these proposals. Other contentious issues included nonstrategic nuclear weapons and the basing of nuclear weapons on the territory of non-nuclear-weapon states. The NAC and other like-minded partners worked hard to retain robust language on disarmament while attempting to bridge differences between the nuclear-weapon states and the NAM. The outcome is a forward-looking, 22-point action plan on nuclear disarmament. Although the language is not as strong as Ireland and others would have wished, its important recommitments to previous undertakings on nuclear disarmament and on concrete steps are welcome, as is the language on security assurances, nuclear testing, fissile materials, and other measures such as transparency. Notably, the nuclear-weapon states are called on to report by 2014 on progress made under a number of headings. In the short time since the review conference, it has generally been accepted that the action plan represents a significant step forward for the NPT regime.

Full implementation of the action plan resulting from the negotiations in Main Committee II on nonproliferation would represent a considerable reinforcement of the nonproliferation regime. The action plan has attracted some criticism that it is less action-oriented than the nuclear disarmament plan. If the language on nonproliferation is in truth weaker than that on disarmament, this may reflect the belief of the great majority of NPT states that nonproliferation would be tackled more effectively through an accelerated program of nuclear disarmament. As Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said in his opening statement to the conference, “As long as some States appear to covet their nuclear weapons and to be reluctant to relinquish them, others will covet them too, and will strive to acquire them.” The nonproliferation regime also has been buttressed by a number of complementary mechanisms developed outside the NPT framework.

A major disappointment to the United States and a number of other delegations was the failure to specify Iran in the sections of the document dealing with noncompliance. The choice was ultimately very simple: to name Iran or to have an outcome, given the consensus nature of NPT decisions. There is little doubt, however, that the final document strengthens the nonproliferation provisions of the treaty. Support for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is strong, with the agency’s authority reaffirmed. The document underscores the importance of resolving all cases of noncompliance with safeguards obligations, in full conformity with the IAEA statute and states’ legal obligations. It highlights the centrality of additional protocols, which give the IAEA increased inspection authority in states that adopt them, and calls on all states to bring them into force as soon as possible and to implement them provisionally pending their entry into force. On export controls, all states are urged to ensure that their nuclear-related exports do not directly or indirectly assist the development of nuclear weapons or other explosive devices. There is no question that the final document emphasizes the responsibility of states to play their part in ensuring that the nuclear threat does not become even more menacing.

The outcome of the Main Committee III negotiations is a strong reaffirmation of the right of states to develop and participate in international cooperation on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, within the context of the treaty. It confirms that the choices and decisions of states in this regard should be fully respected. The final document also urges that “preferential treatment” should be given to non-nuclear-weapon states that are parties to the treaty, “taking particular account of the needs of developing countries.” In addition, the outcome underscores the importance of appropriate and effective levels of nuclear safety and security at the national level, as well as international cooperation in these and other aspects of peaceful uses, notably through the work of the IAEA.

Agreement on the Middle East

The greatest challenge of the review conference was the question of implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution, which calls for the establishment of “an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems.” The resolution, co-sponsored by Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the depositaries of the treaty, was negotiated by Egypt and its Arab partners at the 1995 review and extension conference as part of a package of agreements that included the indefinite extension of the NPT. The difficulties involved in making progress toward a Middle East WMD-free zone have tested governments and civil society over the past 15 years while political will has generally been weak, influenced by developments in the Middle East peace process. Dissatisfaction within the region at failure to achieve progress since 1995 provoked linkage to agreement on an overall outcome to the 2010 conference and raised the stakes. As chair of subsidiary body 2 on regional issues, it was my responsibility to broker agreement on this matter.

Throughout the preparatory cycle for the review conference, a number of working papers on the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East were presented by members of the Arab League and by Iran. At the 2009 preparatory committee meeting, Russia became the first co-sponsor of the resolution to submit substantive proposals for its implementation. The United States had reached out to Egypt and the Arab Group in the months before the review conference, and intense consultations continued in various informal formats during the early weeks of the conference. Subsidiary body 2 held four formal meetings, which enabled states to set out their views and present proposals on all aspects of the Middle East issue. This provided a clear view of where common ground and redlines existed and of the essential elements required to achieve agreement on a text.

Although the matter was viewed by many delegates as involving Egypt and members of the Arab Group on the one hand and the nuclear-weapon states, primarily the United States and Russia, on the other, the reality was more nuanced. In many respects, the differences among the countries of the region on how the resolution should be implemented were more difficult.

By the time I drafted a text at the end of the third week of the conference, the informal consultations between key delegations had run their course but regrettably had not bridged the major differences on the way ahead. The 10-paragraph text I presented on May 21 to the chair of Main Committee II for inclusion in his report to the president of the conference drew heavily in its review section on previously agreed language from 1995 and 2000, including a provision recalling the reaffirmation by the 2000 review conference of the importance of Israel’s accession to the treaty and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards. The more forward-looking provisions of the text emphasized the importance of a process leading to full implementation of the 1995 resolution and endorsed a number of practical steps, including a conference in 2012 on the establishment of a zone and a special coordinator to facilitate implementation of the resolution.

This text formed the basis of negotiations in the final week, during which delegations from all sides brought amendments, some more problematic than others. The key difficulties were the mention of Israel in paragraph 5 and various aspects of the process-oriented paragraph 7, particularly the organization and mandate of the 2012 conference. On May 27, the penultimate day of the review conference, I presented a final compromise text to the conference president; the document ultimately remained very close to the May 21 text. This was subsequently accepted without amendment by all delegations as part of the final document. All sides moved considerably during the negotiations, and significant compromises were involved.

For the first time, the NPT parties have accepted the importance of a process leading to full implementation of the resolution. This is reinforced by concrete and substantive practical steps, including the convening of a conference in 2012 by the UN secretary-general and the co-sponsors of the resolution, in consultation with the states of the region, on implementation of the 1995 resolution. A facilitator with a mandate to support implementation and assist in the convening of the 2012 conference will be appointed, and a host government will be designated. The facilitator will report to the 2015 review conference and its preparatory committee meetings.

The mention of Israel was most difficult for the United States to accept. Although it did not break consensus, Obama and other senior officials said they regretted the naming of Israel. The United States has reiterated its commitment to the outcome and has signaled that it will approach the tasks of designating a host government, appointing an individual to facilitate preparations, and convening the conference with a view to achieving the participation of all states of the region.

The path ahead undoubtedly will be difficult, but for the first time, the NPT parties have an agreed plan of action on how to achieve implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution and to engage all states in the Middle East on this thorny issue.

In conclusion, the final document of the 2010 review conference will inevitably receive both high and faint praise. For some, it goes too far; for others, it will be too weak. Its lasting impact will depend on the willingness of states to implement its provisions. The 2010 conference certainly will be seen as a milestone in the history of the NPT. States demonstrated the political will and capacity to work through seemingly intractable differences in the interests of strengthening international peace and security. The immediate outcome is the reinvigoration of the treaty and a process back on track, an achievement bringing the international community one step closer to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons and a safer world for all of its citizens.


Alison Kelly is director for disarmament and non-proliferation in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. She was Ireland’s head of delegation at the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.