Despite growing threats to the nonproliferation and disarmament regime, states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) failed to bridge fundamental policy differences during a July 31-Aug. 11 meeting in Vienna.
The results of the first preparatory committee meeting for the 11th NPT Review Conference underscored deep fissures over the implementation of key treaty obligations, differences between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states over disarmament and deterrence, and simmering disputes about nuclear weapons sharing arrangements.
Ideally, NPT preparatory committee meetings should end with a formal agreement on the draft rules of procedure and provisional agenda that is reflected in a formal summary and the chair’s recommendations for the review conference. But increasing geopolitical tensions are making it difficult to reach an agreement on even some of the most fundamental matters.
Due to the objections of various delegations, the Vienna meeting collapsed without the chair issuing a formal summary. That document is meant to put on record what states discussed during the meeting and serve as a blueprint for further discussion. (See ACT, September 2022.)
Instead, the chair’s recommendations to strengthen the preparatory process for the next review conference were issued as a working paper, which has become a common outcome.
Under the NPT, the 191 states-parties are obligated “to pursue good faith measures to the cessation of an arms race at an early date and to disarmament,” while non-nuclear-weapon states are committed to forgo acquiring or developing nuclear weapons and to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy under safeguards.
Preparatory committee meetings are intended to review and promote the full implementation of the NPT and forward findings to the review conferences, which are scheduled to take place every five years. (See ACT, July/August 2023.) As with the NPT review conferences, preparatory meetings operate on the basis of consensus.
At the Vienna meeting, numerous states-parties expressed support for implementation of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which restricts the size of the U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals and is the last remaining arms control agreement between them. (See ACT, April 2023.)
“Countries with the largest nuclear arsenals must continue to fulfill their special and primary responsibilities for nuclear disarmament, effectively implement…New START…and further significantly and substantially reduce their nuclear arsenals in a verifiable, irreversible, and legally binding manner,” the Chinese delegation said in a statement.
Beijing and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) stressed the importance of Russia and the United States furthering the disarmament process by committing to deeper reductions in their arsenals.
Many states, including Australia, France, Japan, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden, and the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), comprising Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa, expressed concern about Russia’s suspension of its implementation of New START. Some countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary Norway, Poland, Slovenia, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, called on Russia to return to full compliance with New START.
In a statement on Aug. 3, the Russian delegation insisted that Russia “continue[s] to adhere to the central quantitative limits stipulated in…New START…, inform the United States of launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles through an exchange of relevant notifications, and observe a unilateral moratorium on the deployment of ground launched intermediate- and shorter-range missiles until similar U.S.-made weapons emerge in relevant regions.” (See ACT, March 2023.)
In addition to urging Russia and the United States to resume a bilateral arms control dialogue, China, the NAC, and the NAM called for sustained engagement in multilateral formats on NPT Article VI by the five states authorized to possess nuclear weapons under the NPT (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States).
The U.S. delegation reported that it had organized a working-level expert meeting with the four other nuclear-weapon states on Aug. 2 in Vienna to discuss strategic risk reduction measures.
States-parties clashed over nuclear sharing agreements. This discussion was spurred by Russia’s announcement in March that it planned to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and prompted states belonging to the NAC and the NAM to broaden criticism of nuclear sharing practices.
“[A]ny horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear-weapon-sharing by states-parties constitutes a clear violation of non-proliferation obligations undertaken” under the NPT, the NAM said in a statement Aug. 4. “The [NAM], therefore, urges these states-parties to put an end to nuclear weapon-sharing with other states under any circumstances and any kind of security arrangements in times of peace or in times of war, including in the framework of military alliances.”
The NAC previously criticized nuclear sharing practices in a working paper issued on June 31. On July 2, China called for a “withdrawal of nuclear weapons deployed overseas.” This marked a shift from the 10th NPT Review Conference in 2022, when Beijing criticized nuclear- sharing arrangements more generally and noted that they “run counter to the provisions of the NPT and increase the risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear conflicts.”
The Vienna meeting also highlighted deep divisions over disarmament and the role of nuclear deterrence. “We cannot rely with any degree of certainty that nuclear deterrence is or will be effective, but we know for sure that nuclear deterrence can fail,” the Austrian delegation said in an Aug. 10 statement.
The Polish delegation responded by asserting that nuclear deterrence is essential for the security of some states under prevailing security circumstances and that the security of states cannot be diminished in the pursuit of the goals of the NPT.
Brazil on Aug. 3 criticized attempts by various delegations to distinguish between “responsible” and “irresponsible” nuclear-armed states, arguing that the concept of “responsible” possession of weapons of mass destruction is an oxymoron. “Responsibility is not binary,” said Flávio Soares Damico, Brazil’s representative to the meeting. “Neither are behaviors. Nuclear deterrence doctrines, even the most defensive in nature, always rest upon a credible threat of use of nuclear weapons.”
Some states-parties raised nonproliferation concerns about the AUKUS agreement by which the UK and the United States will supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines fueled by highly enriched uranium. (See ACT, July/August 2022.) Delegates from China, Iran, and Russia described the agreement as a challenge to the nonproliferation regime while other states took a less confrontational approach. “Discussions regarding nuclear naval propulsion should be aimed at strengthening safeguards verification mechanism under the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] framework in a transparent, inclusive, and accountable manner,” the Indonesian delegation said.
The UK and the United States stressed that their arrangement would be done in cooperation with the IAEA and conform with safeguards arrangements. The Australian, UK, and U.S. leaders “have made clear that the provision of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines to Australia will be carried out in a manner that sets the highest nonproliferation standard and strengthens the global nonproliferation regime,” according to a U.S. statement on Aug. 3.
Summary Report Debate
According to a brief by Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, an expert on the NPT review cycle process, NPT states-parties “have never agreed on substantive recommendations, and no factual summary has been adopted by a [preparatory committee] session since 2002. Instead, [the preparatory committee] chairs usually issue draft summaries and recommendations as working papers in their own capacity.” At the Vienna meeting, some states-parties took issue with the chair's summary and argued against including it in the procedural report, while others argued that it should not be included in the documentation of the review cycle altogether.
“A summary should contain facts.… [I]t should not look like the perceptions of the chair,” the Iranian delegation argued on Aug. 11. Indonesia and South Africa, among others, also complained that the factual summary was problematic. “We agree that the text cannot be considered factual,” the South African delegation said on Aug. 11, highlighting how the summary elevated nonproliferation over disarmament issues in the first paragraph.
The chair’s summary said that states-parties reaffirmed the central role of the NPT “as the cornerstone of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the foundation of the pursuit of nuclear disarmament.” But New Zealand, South Africa, and other countries took issue with the chair's language, which they argued implies a hierarchy of objectives by making disarmament aspirational rather than legally binding.
Iran, backed by Russia and Syria, objected to the summary being listed even as a working paper. The Iranian delegation alleged that the summary negatively singled out Iran and presented a one-sided view of the situation relating to the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and that the chair had given preference to the Western group of delegations.
As a result, the meeting chair, Jarmo Viinanen, Finnish ambassador for arms control, removed the factual summary altogether from the review cycle documents, a sign of trouble ahead at the next NPT review conference in 2026. The second preparatory committee meeting is set for July 22-Aug. 2, 2024, in Geneva and will be chaired by Akan Rakhmetullin, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United Nations.