10th NPT Review Conference: Why It Was Doomed and How It Almost Succeeded

October 2022
By Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

Widely expected to be a disaster, the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) came surprisingly close to adopting a final outcome document. Although most delegations were disappointed with the draft outcome document, which was short on forward-looking disarmament steps, all the states-parties, except Russia, were prepared to join the consensus in an apparent effort to shore up the NPT regime, which has not had an agreed outcome in more than a decade.

Gustavo Zlauvinen (Seated, Center) of Argentina, president of the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, presides as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addresses the conference at the UN on August 1.  (Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)The conference, originally scheduled for 2020 and repeatedly postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, convened in New York on August 1–26 in an extraordinarily difficult international environment. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had entered its sixth month, and as the conference’s first week drew to a close, news came of the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, exacerbating concerns about the risk of a nuclear accident. More than a political backdrop, the war was of direct relevance to treaty implementation and the review conference deliberations, from the violation of security assurances provided to Ukraine when it acceded to the NPT to the safety and security of nuclear facilities and the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to continue implementing safeguards in occupied Ukrainian facilities.

The 10th NPT review cycle, which began in 2015, had already been difficult before Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022. Nuclear-weapon states failed to implement most of the disarmament steps agreed by previous review conferences and signaled continued or growing reliance on nuclear weapons for their security. The crisis in U.S.-Russian arms control turned into near-total collapse while modernization of nuclear arsenals continued in all five nuclear-weapon states and the trend toward overall reduction of global nuclear stockpiles began to reverse.1

There was little reason to expect the review conference to be successful in agreeing on the review of the implementation of the treaty and a set of further measures on disarmament. Why then, on the morning of the last day of the conference, did many delegations believe they were about to adopt by consensus a final document, however underwhelming they found it? Several factors can account for this situation: the surprisingly business-like atmosphere at the conference that raised expectations among the delegates, the relatively low level of engagement by the Russian delegation, and, most importantly, the commitment of the majority of states-parties to achieving an agreed outcome.

Another contributing factor was an early agreement between Egypt and the United States on language regarding the Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which quietly settled a usually divisive issue. The text reaffirmed the importance of establishing such a zone and acknowledged the developments in the first two sessions of the new conference process on the Middle East zone established by the UN General Assembly in 2018.2 In the end, however, the NPT review conference failed over the impossibility of reconciling the positions between Ukraine and the West on the one hand and Russia on the other on the war against Ukraine and occupation of its nuclear facilities.

The Rooms Where It Happened

The review cycle was characterized by increasingly acrimonious interactions between some of the key states. It was manifested particularly in the more frequent resort to the right of reply, a practice under conference procedural rules when a delegation takes the floor to respond to (perceived) criticism directed at it by another delegation. Given that relations between Russia and the United States and the European countries continued to deteriorate, there was a risk that once the conference formally convened, it would collapse from the beginning. In the run-up to the review conference, however, U.S. diplomats indicated that, unlike their predecessors from the Trump administration, they had no intention of engaging in multiple rounds of right of reply. For his part, Gustavo Zlauvinen of Argentina, the conference president, used both personal rapport with the delegations and procedural methods to “keep the temperature down.”

A business-like atmosphere was conducive to serious negotiations, but it could not make up for substantive disagreements among states-parties on a wide range of issues. By the middle of the third week of the conference, it became clear that none of the three main committees dealing with disarmament, nonproliferation and regional issues, and the peaceful uses of nuclear technology would be able to agree on substantive reports for inclusion in the final document.

The Russian war in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats have raised concerns about the possibility of the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Russia's short-range Iskander system (9K720), shown here, can carry nuclear warheads. (Photo by Boevaya mashina via Wikimedia Commons)At that stage, Zlauvinen invited a small group of states to conduct parallel negotiations on the disarmament and nonproliferation sections, based on the main committees’ drafts. These negotiations were convened at the Mission of Finland, chaired by Jarmo Viinanen, the Finnish ambassador for arms control. Separately, following the president’s request, Ingeborg Denissen of the Netherlands, the chair of Main Committee III, continued consultations on the peaceful uses section of the outcome document. Additional smaller groups negotiated directly on such matters as the status of the IAEA additional protocol, naval nuclear propulsion, and language addressing North Korea’s nuclear program. Zlauvinen also continued discussions on the draft final document with all the delegations in the closed plenary sessions. All of these processes fed into the revisions of the draft outcome document, the third and final version of which was released on the evening of August 25 and rejected by Russia at the closing plenary the next day.3

The practice of negotiating in small groups away from the conference floor has become a feature of NPT review conferences, but has been criticized for lack of transparency by civil society and smaller delegations who are left out of such groups. Although some of the small group participants, such as Indonesia, briefed other delegations on their involvement, it was difficult to get an accurate picture of where things were for a large number of NPT states-parties, let alone nongovernmental observers. At the same time, the small group approach is the most efficient way to find common language on the more contentious issues. With states-parties as divided as they are, small group negotiations will likely remain a staple of future conferences, but those on the inside should consider ways to keep their counterparts better informed on the progress of such talks.

High Risks and Low Gains

Nuclear disarmament traditionally has dominated the debates at the review conferences. For most non-nuclear-weapon states, the urgency of progress on disarmament has only grown since the most recent conference, in 2015. Nuclear-weapon states, however, point to the deteriorated international security environment as the reason to continue their reliance on nuclear weapons. This fundamental difference in approaches meant that, after days of intensive negotiations in New York, little movement could be made on updating existing commitments on nuclear disarmament, enhancing transparency, and reducing nuclear risks.

Most states-parties believed it was necessary for the conference to express concern about growing nuclear risks and condemn threats of use of nuclear weapons. For European and other Western countries, however, such condemnation was mostly specific to Russia’s rhetoric and nuclear threats issued soon after invading Ukraine, while for most of the developing countries, as well as Austria and Ireland, it was important to condemn all threats of use of nuclear weapons, direct and indirect. The latter group’s concern was that condemning only specific threats in the context of a military conflict would legitimize implicitly the more “general” threats that underlie the policies of nuclear deterrence.

Several states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) proposed to draw on the text of the Vienna Declaration adopted in June 2022, in which they “condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.”4 Disappointingly but not surprisingly, the final draft of the outcome document contained no explicit condemnation of any threat of use. Instead, it expressed deep but vague concern that the threat of nuclear weapons use was “higher than at any time since the heights of the Cold War.” The draft document did commit the nuclear-weapon states to implement risk reduction measures, including keeping nuclear forces at the “lowest possible alert levels,” placing the need for such measures in the context of concern over the humanitarian consequences of any nuclear weapons use.

The TPNW itself was once feared to be a potentially contentious point for the review conference, given the fierce opposition from nuclear-weapon states to its negotiation in 2017 and their insistence that the new treaty undermines the NPT. Although disagreements on the TPNW persist, they did not threaten to derail the conference. Well before the conference started, the TPNW states indicated they would not seek to place the ban treaty at the center of the disarmament debates and would rather focus on commitments adopted by past NPT review conferences. Although the TPNW states did propose language recognizing the treaty’s complementarity with the NPT, its contribution to implementing Article VI, and reinforcement of nonproliferation obligations, in the end they were prepared to accept only a short factual reference acknowledging the existence of the treaty and its entry into force.

It was important for this review conference to reaffirm the validity of commitments agreed by past conferences, including the 2010 action plan and the 13 practical steps for nuclear disarmament adopted in 2000. The central point of the debate on past commitments, however, was the need to build on them. The African Group, Austria, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Switzerland, and Thailand, among others, called for the adoption of specific benchmarks, timelines, and targets on disarmament to better measure progress in the future. That said, the non-nuclear-weapon states made few if any specific proposals on such quantitative targets and timelines, while the nuclear-weapon states rejected the idea of benchmarks and measurability altogether. The final draft of the outcome document contained only one time-bound disarmament-related commitment, for the United States and Russia to pursue negotiations on a “successor framework” for deeper, irreversible arms reductions before the expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 2026.

The lack of implementation of past commitments and resistance to establishing benchmarks for progress undermine the credibility of the review process. Enhanced accountability on nuclear disarmament was one of the key points of debate on the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and lies at the basis of decisions on strengthening the review process and principles and objectives for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament that were adopted together with the decision to extend the treaty indefinitely.5 More than a quarter century later, non-nuclear-weapon states would be right to question if the strengthened review serves its purpose when “looking forward” amounts to reaffirmation of measures previously agreed but not implemented.6 The conference agreed to establish a working group on further strengthening the review process, and states-parties should take this opportunity to critically review the current structure and ways to make it more efficient and fair.7

No Common Ground

Perhaps the biggest question ahead of the conference was how it would address the war in Ukraine in general and its nuclear aspects in particular. During the general debate, many states-parties condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and threats to use nuclear weapons.8 As the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant deteriorated, many states also expressed concern about the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities and argued that the conference document should reflect these concerns and call on Russia to return the occupied facilities to Ukrainian control. Russia hit back with accusations that Ukraine itself, with support from NATO states, was shelling the power plant.

As the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant deteriorated, many states-parties at the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty expressed concern about the safety and security of this and other nuclear facilities in Ukraine. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)On the conference floor, Russia’s reaction to any text referencing Ukraine’s nuclear facilities was to request its deletion. Speaking in Main Committee III, the Russian representative argued that any paragraph on Ukraine, however “nominally neutral,” would provoke acrimonious debates that would “destroy any chance for consensus” and therefore the best solution would be to delete all such paragraphs.9 Many states objected to such proposals, and the paragraphs addressing the situation at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities remained, with some changes, in the draft texts until the end. The one notable change during the final days of the conference was the appearance and then removal of a direct reference to Russia, calling on it to return control over the nuclear facilities to Ukraine.

Because several delegations who had concerns with specific formulations in the draft document engaged directly with Zlauvinen and each other to find compromise language until the final draft was issued on August 25, the lack of change in the text on Ukraine seemed to suggest there was agreement on it. It was only on the afternoon of August 26, when it was too late to negotiate, that Russia brought a set of proposed amendments to the president, leading Russia to break the consensus.

There are different possible explanations why events unfolded this way. It appears that Russia concluded early that there could be no middle ground between it and Ukraine, the United States, and the European countries and that it was never going to accept a document with any reference to Ukraine. Russia apparently did not seek direct consultations with other delegations to look for a compromise language on the subject. Some of the diplomats involved in the small-room negotiations also remarked on the relatively low level of engagement by the Russian delegation on other issues. It would suggest that Russia did not treat achieving an agreed outcome as a high priority.

Loathe to be completely isolated, Russia seemed to have been biding its time, perhaps expecting the conference to collapse on other issues. When by the morning of the last day no other state conveyed an intent to reject the final document, however, Russia had no choice but to act alone. Even then, speaking at the closing plenary, the Russian representative argued that there were “many other delegations” unhappy enough to object to the document. Statements over the next several hours proved him wrong.

Questions Ahead

The amount of hard work put into the preparations and negotiations at the 10th review conference and how close it came to an agreement despite the difficult circumstances and low expectations are a testament to the commitment of the NPT states-parties. Non-nuclear-weapon states were prepared to adopt the final document not because it delivered significant progress on disarmament but because they recognized that the moment required unity and continued faith in the regime. This was the second time in a row that the non-nuclear-weapon states were willing to set aside their disappointment with the final document for the sake of an agreed outcome, something the nuclear-weapon states should not take for granted.

A review conference without an agreed outcome would not precipitate a dramatic collapse of the regime, but there will be more questions in coming months and years about the meaning and purpose of the process and the degree to which states-parties wish to participate and commit resources to it. The first preparatory committee meeting of the next review cycle is due to take place in 2023, and it is difficult to foresee much positive energy there. In the meantime, more states are likely to be drawn to the TPNW, at least as observers to the meetings of states-parties. Closer engagement between TPNW and non-TPNW states could benefit the dialogue on nuclear risks, the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use, and victim assistance, and put pressure on the NPT and nuclear-weapon states to deliver on agreed commitments.



1. For information on nuclear weapon stockpiles and modernization, see Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Global Nuclear Arsenals Are Expected to Grow as State Continue to Modernize—New SIPRI Yearbook Out Now,” June 13, 2022, https://sipri.org/media/press-release/2022/global-nuclear-arsenals-are-expected-grow-states-continue-modernize-new-sipri-yearbook-out-now; Federation of American Scientists, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” n.d., https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/ (accessed September 17, 2022).

2. For more information on the Middle East zone conference, see UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, “Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction: Overview,” n.d., https://meetings.unoda.org/meeting/me-nwmdfz-2019/ (accessed September 17, 2022).

3. Draft final report of the conference, along with the draft reports of the Main Committees and Subsidiary Bodies, can be accessed on the Reaching Critical Will website, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/disarmament-fora/npt/2022/documents.

4. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Vienna Declaration of the 1st Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: ‘Our Commitment to a World Free of Nuclear Weapons,’” TPNW/MSP/2022/CRP.8, June 23, 2022, para 4.

5. See Jayantha Dhanapala and Randy Rydell, “Multilateral Diplomacy and the NPT: An Insider’s Account,” UN Institute for Disarmament Research, UNIDIR/2005/3, 2005, p. 36, https://www.unidir.org/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/multilateral-diplomacy-and-the-npt-an-insider-s-account-323.pdf; Michal Onderco and Leopoldo Nuti, eds., “Extending the NPT? A Critical Oral History of the 1995 Review and Extension Conference,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/uploads/documents/Extending%20the%20NPT%20-%20A%20Critical%20Oral%20History%20of%20the%201995%20Review%20and%20Extension%20Conference.pdf.

6. Decision 1 of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference mandates that “Review Conferences should look forward as well as back,” meaning that they should not only review the implementation of the treaty but also identify areas and means for making progress in the future. 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document: Part I, Organization and Work of the Conference,” NPT/CONF.1995/32 (Part 1), 1995, p. 8.

7. Although it was initially part of the draft final document, conference president Gustavo Zlauvinen was able to get an agreement on a separate decision to establish the working group.

8. For a detailed review of the general debate, see Ray Acheson and Allison Pytlak, eds., NPT News in Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (August 4, 2022), https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/NIR2022/NIR17.2.pdf.

9. Remarks at the ninth meeting of Main Committee 3 on August 18, 2022, https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1e/k1e5mw8k13.

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova is director of the International Organizations and Nonproliferation Program at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.