Unmet Promise: The Challenges Awaiting the 2020 NPT Review Conference

November 2018
By Sérgio Duarte

On July 16, 1945, the first experimental detonation of a nuclear device, known as the Trinity test, was conducted in the Nevada desert. Less than a month later, the vast power of this new technology was employed twice in war. Since then, nuclear weapons have continued to proliferate, bringing the current number of possessor nations to nine, as the international community has sought to slow or reverse that course.

Sérgio Duarte speaks at the August 2017 Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs held in Astana, Kazakhstan. (Photo: Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs)This article describes the multilateral process that resulted in the adoption 50 years ago of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the treaty’s gradual acceptance by the overwhelming majority of the international community despite the permanence of divergences about its objectives and concerns about its credibility. What follow is a discussion of the role played by the successive five-year review conferences and an argument that the “enhanced review process,” adopted in 1995, has contributed to clarifying positions and concerns but has not yet produced consensus on a binding commitment by all parties to achieve the common objective of nuclear disarmament. The unfinished task before the 2020 NPT Review Conference is to help pave the way to a world without the threat of nuclear weapons.

The question of nuclear weapons nonproliferation was considered by the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) from 1965 to 1968 in response to a request by the UN General Assembly. By then, five nations had successfully obtained a nuclear weapons capability, and there was considerable and well-grounded concern that others would follow.1

Multilateral Process

Established in 1962 to succeed the short-lived Ten-Nation Disarmament Committee, the ENDC was composed of five members from the Warsaw Pact (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union), five members of NATO (Canada, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States), and eight nations (Brazil, Burma, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Sweden, and the United Arab Republic, later succeeded by Egypt) that did not belong to either military alliance. Its permanent co-chairs were the representatives of the United States and the Soviet Union. France chose not to occupy its seat on the committee, although it maintained unofficial consultations with other members.

The UN Charter does not mention nuclear weapons, as it was concluded about three weeks before the Trinity test. The first General Assembly resolution, however, adopted on January 24, 1946, established a commission “to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy and other related matters” and to make specific proposals on the control of atomic energy and on “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons.”

The emerging ideological confrontation between the two major powers and their rivalry and mutual mistrust prevented agreement on the substance of the issue during the following years, and the commission was finally abandoned without producing any tangible result. Still, the hopes and fears raised by the discovery of nuclear energy led to the establishment the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957. Upon ratifying the statute of the fledgling organization, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower said that “the splitting of the atom may lead to unifying the entire divided world.”2 Unfortunately, his optimistic prediction did not come true.

In 1958, Ireland introduced at the United Nations the first of what became known as the “Irish Resolutions” calling the attention of the international community to the possibility of further proliferation. The international community agreed that preventing the spread of atomic weapons, fostering peaceful uses of atomic energy, and nuclear disarmament were desirable common objectives. General Assembly Resolution 2028 (XX), adopted by consensus on November 19, 1965, called on the ENDC to “give urgent consideration” to the question of nuclear nonproliferation and to reconvene “with a view to negotiating an international treaty to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.” This resolution also set forth the main principles on which such a treaty should be based.

a. The treaty should be void of any loop-holes which might permit nuclear or non-nuclear Powers to proliferate, directly or indirectly, nuclear weapons in any form;

b. The treaty should embody an acceptable balance of mutual responsibilities and obligations of the nuclear and non-nuclear Powers;

c. The treaty should be a step towards the achievement of general and complete disarmament and, more particularly, nuclear disarmament;

d. There should be acceptable and workable provisions to ensure the effectiveness of the treaty;

e. Nothing in the treaty should adversely affect the right of any group of States to conclude regional treaties in order to ensure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories;

The last of those principles was inserted at the insistence of Latin American nations that were already negotiating what became the successful establishment of the world’s first zone free of nuclear weapons in 1967 through the Treaty of Tlatelolco, a move originally frowned on but later supported by the nuclear weapon states.3

Separate, but Identical Drafts

Even before the adoption of Resolution 2028, the United States and Soviet Union were talking to each other on developing their own proposals for a nonproliferation instrument. Initially, each introduced its own draft text at the ENDC; on August 24, 1967, the two co-chairs presented separate but identical drafts4 that included some changes and additions with respect to earlier formulations. The two proponents explained that they had sought to reflect concerns raised by non-nuclear states, particularly the members of the Group of Eight.

The Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament meets in Geneva’s Palais des Nations on March 18, 1969. (Photo: United Nations)The objective of nuclear disarmament was mentioned in the preamble of each draft. The identical texts kept the original language of the previous draft articles dealing with the obligations of nuclear and non-nuclear states, the recognition of the rights of all parties to the development and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and amendments to and review of the operation of the treaty. The final language of the provisions on safeguards on fissionable materials for peaceful purposes would be defined by ongoing negotiations outside the ENDC. A new Article V dealt with the availability of “benefits” deriving from “peaceful applications of nuclear explosives” through “appropriate international procedures.” The question of peaceful nuclear explosions was the subject of intense and inconclusive debate and disagreement at the ENDC and elsewhere for several years until it became clear that the explosive technology had in fact no useful civil applications.

In response to the concerns of members of the group of eight countries, a new draft article was introduced containing an undertaking by all parties to the treaty to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” This became Article VI of the new instrument, and its formulation still generates controversy. The right to conclude regional treaties on the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones was recognized in a new Article VII. Article X provided for the convening of a conference after 25 years to decide, by a majority of the parties, on an indefinite extension or additional fixed periods.5 The right of parties to withdraw from the treaty under specific conditions was also recognized in Article X.6

Several ENDC members proposed a number of additional amendments to the identical texts. The question of security assurances was among the main concerns of non-nuclear-weapon states, but was not mentioned in the drafts. The Soviet, UK, and U.S. delegations informed the ENDC of their intentions to introduce a resolution at the Security Council on that matter.7

To a large extent, the logic of the Cold War determined the positions adopted by different ENDC members. Members belonging to the Warsaw Pact and NATO generally supported the drafts, as well as the decisions of the co-chairs on procedure. They participated actively in the discussions and presented suggestions that contributed to a better understanding of the issues involved, particularly regarding verification of compliance and the thorny question of peaceful nuclear explosions.

Countries from the Group of Eight proposed changes to bring the text under examination more in line with the principles contained in Resolution 2028. The absence of a clear prohibition on deploying nuclear weapons in territories of third states and the sharing of nuclear forces were seen as at odds with principle (a). The lack of provisions to curb quantitative and qualitative aspects of proliferation by nuclear-weapon states was similarly criticized. Given the built-in asymmetry of a text intended to apply to unequal parties, that is, possessors and nonpossessors of nuclear weapons, non-nuclear-weapon countries also wanted to ensure a fairer balance of mutual responsibilities and obligations. Accordingly, the renunciation of nuclear weapons should be matched, in their view, by a strong commitment to disarmament, consistent with principles (b) and (c). With different emphases, some delegations also argued unsuccessfully against what they felt were undue restrictions on certain aspects of nuclear technology.

No Consensus

Some of the proposals for changes were not accepted by the ENDC co-chairs. A revised draft that amalgamated the previous texts and incorporated some other suggestions by ENDC members was converted into a single joint draft by the co-chairs and introduced on March 11, 1968. Predictably, the new text failed to obtain the agreement of the ENDC membership. In view of the lack of consensus on substance and on the follow-up procedure, the co-chairs decided on their own authority to send a document titled “Report of the Conference of the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament”8 to the General Assembly on behalf of the conference. An annex to the report contained the draft treaty as accepted by them. An addendum9 listed all proposals and amendments presented during the discussions.

The report was placed before the UN General Assembly First Committee at its March-June 1968 session. A number of delegations sponsored a draft resolution endorsing the text annexed to the report. Three revised versions of the draft resolution were subsequently submitted, and on May 3, the two ENDC co-chairs agreed to certain revisions of the draft treaty itself, which were accepted by the co-sponsors of the draft resolution.


The First Committee adopted this new draft resolution recommending the endorsement of the draft nonproliferation treaty as revised. Among Western European states, France, Portugal, and Spain abstained on this vote. On June 12, 1968, General Assembly Resolution 2373 (XXII), co-sponsored by 48 states, was adopted by a vote of 95 to 4, with 21 abstentions. This time, France, Portugal, and Spain voted in favor. Brazil, Burma, and India were among those abstaining. Voting against were Albania, Cuba, Tanzania, and Zambia. The resolution commended the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and requested that it be opened for signature and ratification.

At present, 191 states are members of the NPT, making it the instrument with the greatest adherence in the field of arms control.10 Yet, the 50-year history of the treaty shows more confrontation and disagreement than cooperation between its armed and unarmed members. The Non-Aligned Movement and many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have militantly advocated the need for compliance with the commitments, particularly those contained in Article VI, to which the nuclear-weapon members of the treaty subscribe. A recurrent point of discord is that the five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states act as if the treaty will last forever in its present form, thus legitimizing their perpetual possession of such arms.

In the last couple of decades or so, the word “disarmament” seems effectively to have disappeared from the lexicon of some of the nuclear-armed states. They continue to affirm their right to keep their nuclear arsenals for as long as they consider necessary for their own security interests and “as long as nuclear weapons exist,”11 a self-serving tautology for everlasting possession. Such a posture entails a grave threat to all members of the international community, including the nuclear-weapon states themselves, and constitutes in fact a powerful incentive to proliferation.

In fact, in recent years, sections of the public in some developed non-nuclear-weapon states have been openly advocating the acquisition of an independent nuclear weapons capability. Episodes of alleged clandestine programs in that direction by a few other countries have been resolved by a combination of political, diplomatic, and sometimes military means.

Review Process

The deep divisions among NPT parties are underscored by the fact that five out of the nine quinquennial treaty review conferences held since the treaty’s inception have failed to produce a consensus final document on the status of treaty implementation. Further, important agreements reached on two such occasions—the 13 “practical steps” of 2000 and the plan of action of 2010—still await implementation.

Algerian Ambassador Taous Feroukhi (on screen), president of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, closes the conference May 22, 2015 with delegates failing to produce a consensus outcome. The next review conference is planned for 2020.  (Photo: Eskinder Debebe/United Nations)The 1995 review and extension conference succeeded in extending the NPT indefinitely and adopted a decision to strengthen the review process. A preparatory committee meets in each of the three years prior to the review conference to consider principles, objectives, and ways to promote full treaty implementation and to make recommendations to the conference. According to the decision, review conferences should look at past experience and identify areas and means through which further progress should be sought. In practice, however, the outcomes of the preparatory committee’s sessions and review conferences held since have not gone much beyond recording the disagreement over substantive issues.

Unfortunately, the gulf between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon parties over compliance and other issues has widened considerably over the decades and still prevents meaningful dialogue. This trend was particularly noticeable at the 2005 review conference, which was unable to agree on an agenda and program of work until well into the middle of the third of its four weeks’ duration, due to lack of flexibility and unwillingness to negotiate on the part of some key states. The most recent review conference, in 2015, was equally unable to adopt a final document despite much effort. The hardening of positions since the beginning of the 21st century also explains the absence of any mention of disarmament in the outcome document adopted by the 2005 World Summit held at UN headquarters.12

Challenges and Prospects

The 2020 review conference will take place in a particularly uncertain international environment due to two recent major developments: the U.S. abandonment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and the possibility of advancing toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as a result of the June 12, 2018, meeting between the U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Also relevant for the outcome of the 2020 conference is the strong sentiment of frustration among several Middle Eastern states with the difficulties surrounding the proposed establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in that part of the world.13

Still, the NPT can be considered successful in helping contain the spread of nuclear weapons. Several reasons explain the decision by the vast majority of the members of the international community not to develop their own nuclear arsenals. Much has been written on this subject, which falls beyond the scope of this article. Obviously, a large number of states do not possess the scientific, industrial, and financial capability to undertake the effort to build a credible nuclear arsenal. Further, the nuclear-weapon possessors exert constant pressure on prospective proliferators against such moves and have extended positive security assurances to some of them.

Last but certainly not least, most of the latecomers to the NPT concluded that their security was better protected by not embarking on a nuclear weapons development program and therefore decided to join the treaty. The recognition of the inalienable right of all its parties to pursue peaceful nuclear energy activities was certainly important in making that decision. Some non-nuclear-weapon states have developed national programs in that direction, including uranium enrichment under IAEA safeguards.

Nuclear-weapon states and a number of non-nuclear ones that depend on security arrangements based on the possible use of nuclear weapons have been persistently proposing and supporting the adoption of measures to enhance verification procedures needed to determine the absence of declared and undeclared nuclear activities. Some of these proposals envisage unorthodox methods that would, in effect, turn existing voluntary agreements into compulsory commitments subject to sanctions and intervention.

NPT parties undoubtedly recognize the important contribution of the treaty, not only for their individual security but also for strengthening the confidence of the international community as a whole in the existing norms-based regime and in the need for its improvement. The exacerbation of divergences is not in the interest of any of the parties and would result in gradually discrediting the NPT as a valid and reliable international legal norm.

Obstacles to Progress

In one way or another, all existing instruments in the arms control field deal with nonproliferation by prohibiting nuclear weapons only where they do not exist (outer space, the Antarctic, the seabed, nuclear-weapon-free zones). Yet, none of the instruments in force so far establishes legally binding, time-bound, and effectively verifiable provisions aimed at the elimination of nuclear arsenals. This is considered by many parties the main flaw of the existing regime.

The nuclear weapons possessors keep arguing in favor of a step-by-step approach that, in their view, would facilitate progress toward nuclear disarmament, but there has been no effort to state in clear terms the objective of the proposed steps or to define the timelines along which such steps should be undertaken.14 There has not been a clearly articulated sequence that would lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons within a reasonable, realistic horizon.

For this reason, the promise of nuclear disarmament contained in the NPT remains unfulfilled, and the task of achieving agreement on meaningful measures leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons is still unfinished.15 The strengthened review process established by the 1995 conference has contributed to the identification of areas of divergence and clarification of the concerns of different states. The bottom line is that nuclear-weapon states remain convinced that their exclusive possession of such armament protects their security, while non-nuclear ones see the existence of nuclear weapons as a threat to their own security and that of humanity as a whole.


As the arms race continues, it is imperative to find a solution to this conundrum. The 2020 review conference is the proper forum to start work on reducing those differences and enlarging the areas of coincidence. The practice of merely recording divergent views should be discontinued. The third session of the preparatory committee on April 29–May 10, 2019, must recognize the achievement of nuclear disarmament as the common objective and recommend that the review conference adopt a clear commitment by all parties to that end. Such a commitment would provide the basis for further action.

The adoption on July 7, 2017, of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was designed to provide effective ways of filling the gap between nonproliferation and disarmament norms. Promoted by several states in the General Assembly since 2015 and drawing on the fruitful and patient work of some governments and NGOs over a number of years, the mere idea of negotiating this treaty elicited fierce opposition from nuclear-weapon states since it was first proposed several years ago.

The adverse reaction of nuclear-weapon states and their allies to the prohibition treaty may delay attainment of the number of ratifications needed for its entry into force. Nevertheless, the coming into being of this treaty, adopted by 122 states, and the progress of its signature and ratification process represent an eloquent rejection of nuclear weapons by the majority of the international community. It seeks to reinforce the trend to delegitimize these weapons and consolidate a specific norm against their use, based mainly on humanitarian considerations.

In fact, the prohibition treaty should not be seen as an opponent of the NPT; nor does it contradict the idea of progressing by sequential, organically complementary steps. Rather, it supports this notion by providing a path for the phased fulfillment of the obligations contained in NPT Article VI.

In the present climate of persistent insecurity, to which the continuing armaments race to a large extent contributes, total global expenditures on instruments of war stand at higher levels than the estimated resources that would be needed for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN. New and more powerful nuclear weapons systems and advanced warfare technologies under development increase global insecurity and the chance of war between the major powers. The risk of a nuclear conflagration remains high, and its effects will not be confined to the belligerents. At the same time, local conventional conflicts in peripheral areas undermine prospects for social and economic progress.

In 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed a five-point plan for nuclear disarmament that advocated for, among other measures, the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the negotiation of a convention to prohibit the manufacture, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons. In his recently unveiled disarmament agenda titled “Securing Our Common Future,” Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the “existential threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity must motivate us to accomplish new and decisive action leading to their complete elimination.”

All states should heed these calls for action. There exists the necessary tools, including the UN Charter, the CTBT, five nuclear-weapon-free zones, and other important instruments such as the nuclear weapons prohibition treaty.

After half a century, the NPT remains an essential element for the completion of this task. It does not provide a definitive answer to the concerns of the international community. Indeed, it is but a part, a crucial part, of the continuing search for stability and security that can only be attained by means of generally recognized, collectively elaborated, and legally binding norms that apply equally to every state.

Exceptionalism does not fit in today’s interdependent world. Established norms and principles of international law and respect for generally accepted standards of behavior among nations are the essential foundation for the achievement of an international order that ensures lasting peace and security for all. Nuclear disarmament, one of mankind’s highest aspirations and a stated goal of the NPT, must not be put on hold for another 50 years.



1. Proliferation continued after the Trinity experiment. The Soviet Union carried out its first successful nuclear test explosion in 1949; the United Kingdom followed suit in 1952, China in 1954, France in 1966, India in 1974, and Pakistan in 1998. Although officially not confirming or denying, Israel is believed to have acquired nuclear weapons in 1979. In the opposite direction, South Africa relinquished its nuclear arsenal. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine negotiated with the Soviet Union the return of the nuclear weapons stationed on their territories.

2. Dwight Eisenhower, Remarks at ceremony following ratification of the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency, July 29, 1957, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=10850.

3. The creation of the Treaty of Tlatelolco thus preceded the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and did not derive from it. It was first proposed in 1961 by the Brazilian delegate at the UN General Assembly and shortly afterward endorsed by other Latin American states. The establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones was a response to the belief that the absence of nuclear weapons enhances the security of states in a region. Principle (e) of UN General Assembly Resolution 2028 (XX) intended to affirm the right of states in a region to govern and define the requirements of the process of establishing their nuclear-weapon-free zones. Nuclear-weapon states have interpreted and qualified their pledges in the protocols on the nonintroduction of nuclear weapons that they are requested to sign, which in practice defeats the purpose of keeping the zone free of all nuclear weapons.   

4. The U.S. draft took the number ENDC/192, and the Soviet draft took the number ENDC/193.

5. At the review and extension conference in 1995, agreement that the NPT would remain in force indefinitely was found to exist.

6. In 1993, North Korea gave notice of its intention to withdraw from the treaty. It subsequently suspended this action and finally announced withdrawal in 2003. Several parties believe the move was not warranted under international law. The question is now of academic interest because the UN Security Council took no action and North Korea developed its own nuclear arsenal.

7. On June 19, 1968, after the endorsement of the NPT by the UN General Assembly, the Security Council adopted Resolution 255 with 10 votes in favor and five abstentions (Algeria, Brazil, France, India, and Pakistan).

8. UN General Assembly, “Report of the Conference of the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament,” A/7072, March 19, 1968.

9. UN General Assembly, A/7072/Add.1, March 19, 1968.

10. Only India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and South Sudan are not parties to the NPT.

11. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement by President Barack Obama on the Release of Nuclear Posture Review,” April 6, 2010, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/statement-president-barack-obama-release-nuclear-posture-review.

12. UN General Assembly, “2005 World Summit Outcome,” A/RES/60/1, October 24, 2005.

13. 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document,” NPT/CONF.1995/32 (Part I), 1995, annex (“Resolution on the Middle East”).

14. The 2000 NPT Review Conference agreed on “13 practical steps for the systematic and progressive effort to implement Article VI of the Treaty.” Only steps 2 and 5 can be said to have been fulfilled, although not in their entirety. The 2010 NPT Review Conference recommended 64 specific “actions,” but no timetable was defined for implementation, and in any case they remain as a mere declaration of intention.

15. See Hans Blix, “When Disarmament Goes Backward,” Arms Control Today, September 2018.


Sérgio Duarte, a former UN high representative for disarmament affairs, is president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. He was president of the 2005 Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.