I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
NPT Conference Begins Amid Discord

May 2015

By Kingston Reif, Kelsey Davenport, and Daryl G. Kimball

Parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will have to overcome wide gaps on fundamental treaty issues if they are to reach consensus on a final document by the end of their month-long review conference in New York, opening statements by key countries suggested.

Much of the division at the outset of the conference centered on implementation of key portions of the 64-point “action plan” that the treaty’s 189 parties adopted at their last review conference, in 2010. (See ACT, June 2010.) The action plan covers the three so-called pillars of the NPT: nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. 

The five countries that the NPT recognizes as nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have come under fire from non-nuclear-weapon states and others for failing to meet their disarmament commitments under the treaty and the action plan. 

The review conference must “demonstrate how and when the action plan will be implemented, or it could risk fading in relevance,” UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said in remarks delivered on behalf of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the opening plenary of the conference on April 27.

Crossing Group Lines

The politics of NPT review conferences often are dominated by the clashes and compromises among the main groups of states, perhaps most notably the Western states and the Non-Aligned Movement. But the conferences also have given rise to coalitions that cut across the lines of these groupings and put forward alternative proposals to accelerate disarmament. 

The Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) was founded by Australia and Japan in 2011 and now includes Canada, Chile, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. It will be working to build consensus on a number of nonproliferation and disarmament steps, including strengthening safeguards and verification and “de-alerting and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in military doctrines,” according to Tanya Ogilvie-White, research director at the Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament at Australian National University. 

Ogilvie-White said in an April 22 e-mail that the NPDI’s strategy is to pursue a “middle path” that focuses on “creating a practical action plan that has a chance of actually being implemented” rather than a “wish list that will just be abandoned” after the conference ends. 

Ogilvie-White said she believes this is a good strategy but that the group is hampered by the perception that it is actually a “nonproliferation coalition and is not serious about disarmament,” because many NPDI member states are strategically aligned with the United States. This alignment, however, puts them in a stronger position to engage in discussions with the nuclear-weapon states, she said. 

Another group of countries that is expected to be active at the review conference, especially on disarmament issues, is the New Agenda Coalition, which was formed in 1998. Its members are Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa. 

In an April 19 interview, an official from one of the coalition countries said the slow pace of disarmament is unacceptable and that the choice of nuclear-weapon states to modernize their arsenals is a “violation of the commitment to disarm.” He said the coalition will be pushing for commitments to explore “other options and venues” outside of the NPT for “pursuing a more-robust commitment” to nuclear disarmament.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

    Speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed to “the continued lack of progress in the implementation of nuclear disarmament obligations and commitments” by the nuclear-weapon states.

    Zarif reiterated the coalition’s proposal for the “urgent commencement…and successful conclusion” of “a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention, which includes a phased program and a specified time frame for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.” 

    The five nuclear-weapon states, in a joint statement issued on Feb. 6 after a meeting in London, made it clear that they view the action plan as “a roadmap for long term action.” They “reaffirmed that a step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament…remains the only realistic and practical route to achieving a world without nuclear weapons.”

    In an April 22 e-mail, Alexander Kmentt, director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation in the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, expressed concern “about talk of a roll-over” of the action plan—that is, simply restating the 2010 pledges—instead of new commitments on the part of the nuclear-weapon states or a commitment to accelerate progress on the action plan. “This would be a serious blow to the entire NPT regime and, I believe, not acceptable in the opinion of most” of the non-nuclear-weapon states, he added.

    Yet, Kmentt cautioned that reaching a consensus outcome should not be the only benchmark for success. “I would hope that the international community uses this opportunity to send a clear and strong expression of support and sense of urgency for both nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation,” he said. 

    In an April report assessing implementation of the action plan, Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies said that “progress in implementing disarmament action items since 2010 has been very limited, though in the past year some positive developments took place with regard to transparency and reporting.” For example, the United States in 2014 released updated figures for the total number of nuclear weapons in its stockpile and the number of warheads dismantled between 2009 and 2013.

    U.S.-Russian Tensions

    The 2010 review conference took place just after Russia and the United States had signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which entered into force in 2011. Since then, however, U.S.-Russian relations have soured, and there have been no further arms reduction talks. Tensions between the two countries, which possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, increased further as a result of Russian actions in Ukraine and the Western sanctions imposed in response. 

    The strained relations were on full display at the opening plenary of the review conference. 

    Reiterating a proposal that President Barack Obama first announced in 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States has more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security and expressed his government’s “willingness, readiness, now, to engage and negotiate further reductions of deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third below the level set by New START.”

    He emphasized that the offer “remains on the table” and “urge[d] the Russians to take us up on it.”

    Mikhail Ulyanov, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, contended that U.S. policies were blocking further nuclear reductions. In his remarks at the NPT plenary session, Ulyanov cited U.S. ballistic missile defense plans and development of prompt global-strike conventional weapons as examples of obstacles to further nuclear cuts. 

    The two diplomats also continued their countries’ sparring over U.S. claims that Russia violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (See ACT, September 2014.)

    Many non-nuclear-weapon states expressed frustration with the nuclear-weapon states’ interpretation of the action plan and the impasse between the United States and Russia on disarmament. 

    In the action plan, the nuclear-weapon states made a commitment “to accelerate concrete progress on the steps leading to nuclear disarmament,” including “rapidly moving towards an overall reduction of the global stockpile of all types of nuclear weapons” and further reducing “the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts.” 

    That frustration with what the non-nuclear-weapon states see as a lack of short-term progress and failure to push for such progress is reinforcing support from some states for alternative approaches.

    One manifestation is the initiative focusing on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use, which has been the subject of three conferences since 2013. The most recent was in Vienna last December. (See ACT, January/February 2015.) In his April 28 remarks to the NPT conference on behalf of 159 non-nuclear-weapon states, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said supporters of the initiative are “encouraged that the humanitarian focus is now well established on the global agenda.” 

    Beyond Disarmament 

    Although the perceived lack of progress on disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states appears likely to dominate the conference, other issues could lead to contentious debates.

    In 2010 the NPT parties agreed to convene by 2012 a conference on a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. The conference has not taken place. Discussions are continuing, but an Egyptian official said in March that the Arab League and Israel have “fundamental differences” on how to move forward on an agenda.

     Another issue that officials from NPT states have flagged in the lead-up to the conference focuses on the provision, contained in Article X, that spells out the right of parties to withdraw from the treaty. The issue gained importance after North Korea announced its withdrawal from the treaty in 2003, an action that NPT members have not officially recognized.

    In their Feb. 6 joint statement, the nuclear-weapon states “expressed the hope” that the review conference would reach agreement on language concerning the “potential abuse” of the right to withdraw from the treaty. States, however, disagree on what measures to take to strengthen the withdrawal provision. 

    Meena Singelee, executive director of the International Network of Emerging Nuclear Specialists, emphasized in an April 22 e-mail that the goal of the ongoing discussions is “discouraging states from potentially abusing” the right to withdraw, not limiting that right or amending the treaty. 

    Singelee, who recently published a report on developing consensus on strengthening the withdrawal provision, said that helpful results from the review conference could include consensus that a state remains liable for “violations committed prior to withdrawal,” a commitment to hold a special session of NPT member states when a state announces it is withdrawing, and commitments by states not to supply materials and technology to a state that has withdrawn.