Non-Proliferation: Are we heading in the right direction?

In this article, the author reports from the first session of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee conference being held in Vienna, Austria. The international community, including Iran and the US, have gathered at the IAEA headquarters to discuss next steps while non-participants Israel, India and Pakistan follow the progress of the conference from the comforts of distance.

By David J. Franco, 2nd May, 2012

Ignored by the mainstream media, the world’s nuclear weapons and energy problems are being tackled by the international community gathered in Vienna. Attended by a gallant but tiny band of NGOs the meeting witnesses states from Iran to the US engaged in the debate, while the non-participants Israel, Pakistan and India cast a shadow over the proceedings.

On Monday, Ambassador Libran Cabactulan, of the Philippines, declared open the first session of the Preparatory Committee of the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. Ambassador Cabactulan led a successful process that culminated in the 2010 NPT Action Plan agreed with the consensus of all states parties to the NPT. After his opening statement, in which he emphasized the need to build upon pass success, Ambassador Cabactulan declared elected Ambassador Peter Woolcott, of Australia, as the Chair-designate for the first session of the 2015 NPT review conference cycle.

Ambassador Woolcott surely is a good choice. He is well respected and admired by the UN family. But Ambassador Woolcott and the NPT community face a daunting challenge. The Action Plan that resulted from the 2010 NPT Review Conference, while deemed a success especially when compared to the fiasco of 2005, presents serious practical challenges that risk turning the next Review Conference in yet another fiasco if the action points in the Action Plan are not properly implemented and if expectations are not managed adequately –especially relevant are the disarmament provisions contained in the 2010 Action Plan, in particular Action 5 which establishes that nuclear weapons states commit to accelerate concrete progress towards nuclear disarmament.

The NPT rests upon three pillars: Disarmament, Non-Proliferation, and the Peaceful use of Nuclear Energy. Some states place the emphasis of the treaty in non-proliferation while others place it in disarmament. Where they place the emphasis can be grasped simply by the order the pillars are granted in their opening statements. All states, however, insist on highlighting the fact that the NPT represents the corner stone of the global non-proliferation regime and that it is perhaps even more important today than it was in the past. It is not clear though whether this is the case because of, or despite of, the crisis of legitimacy that the NPT has suffered in recent times including putting more pressure to those within the NPT, like Iran, than to those outside the NPT, like Israel or India. So when Ambassador Woolcott addressed the committee for the first time he could not resist asking the participants the following question: are we heading in the right direction?

There were no major surprises yesterday as states adhered to their long-standing scripts. The EU and the US emphasized the need to tighten non compliance and referred openly to Iran and North Korea. Russia stated that a balanced implementation of the NPT contributes to the wellbeing of all states, while China emphasized its commitment to a peaceful world, in particular to a peaceful Korean Peninsula and North-Eastern Asia. Furthermore, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) highlighted the need to take more steps towards disarmament and universalisation of the NPT, and the Permanent Representative of Egypt, speaking on behalf of the NAM, referred directly to Israel calling upon the parties to take concrete steps towards bringing the outlaws into the law. Other states, including Switzerland and Ireland, noted that it is important that states parties do not forget the original foundation of the NPT. This is the grand bargain made explicit in Article VI of the treaty which establishes, I quote:

‘Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes 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, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control’.

This grand bargain, despite arguments a contrario, remains essential for the survival of the NPT and for the preservation of international peace and security. This was made explicitly clear by several delegations. Article VI of the NPT was the basis for the existence of the NPT in the first place, it was essential for the parties to agree to extend the treaty indefinitely in 1995, and it crystallized in the 2000 13 Practical Steps and the 2010 Action Plan.

What other reason(s) could the non-nuclear weapons states have, to agree to non-proliferation if this was/is not accompanied by early nuclear disarmament of those already possessing nuclear weapons? Certainly such another reason could not possibly be the peaceful use of nuclear energy, for this is an inalienable right as emphasized on numerous occasions in yesterday’s general debate.

Accordingly, more needs to be done on disarmament if we do not want the NPT to suffer yet another blow. Disarmament and non-proliferation are two faces of the same coin, they reinforce each other, whether for the better or for the worse (more proliferation is likely to result in more armament/less disarmament, and vice-versa, as history tells us). Interestingly, Belarus referred to its unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons in the early nineties, a decision that was accompanied by cuts in conventional arms from the Atlantic to the Urals. Conventional disarmament could therefore further help pave the road to less proliferation, more nuclear disarmament, and more stability at the regional and international levels. Likewise, more transparency and enhanced confidence building processes including the universalisation of the Open Skies Treaty, for example, could also help in the same direction.

Other subjects discussed during yesterday’s general debate include international terrorism and the need to continue to secure nuclear materials (this was the subject of the recent Nuclear Security Summit held in Seoul), the need for all states to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the concerning deadlock of the Conference on Disarmament, the need to revitalize the negotiations on a Fissile Materials Cut off Treaty (FMCT), the importance of a strong International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the vital necessity to continue to work towards implementing the 1995 Resolution on the establishment of a Middle East Free Zone of Nuclear and other Weapons of Mass Destruction (the Zone). In this regard, acknowledging the difficulties that lie ahead delegations emphasized the importance of this year for the establishment of a Middle East Zone, and gave their support to Jaakko Laajava, Finland’s Under Secretary of State, in his role as Facilitator of the Conference on a Middle East Zone that is scheduled for the end of this year.

So returning to Ambassador Woolcott’s opening question, it is too soon to tell whether or not we are heading in the right direction. There remain serious differences between those who have and those who don’t have nuclear weapons that seem very difficult to reconcile. But the spirit of cooperation of the previous review conference cycle remains healthy. The next ten days of debate and private negotiations are essential to preserve the good health and to look ahead with confidence in a year marked by general and presidential elections in several key players. Some efforts are already being made on nuclear disarmament, this we need to acknowledge. But these never seem enough. 25,000 remaining nuclear weapons simply is unacceptable. New initiatives and waves of fresh air are also very important in negotiations of this sort, where repetition and long-standing standard scripts are prone. This is why it is important to keep an eye on what the various coalitions, including the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), have to offer.

David J. Franco is a London-based researcher writing on international politics, security and culture. He is a research assistant at the SOAS Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, and is co-ordinating SCRAP, a project on Global Disarmament. He is also a qualified lawyer with extensive experience in tax law and dispute resolution.


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