Sleepwalking towards the 2020 review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

First published in opencanada.org, 8 May 2018

If ensuring smooth proceedings was your chief criterion for judging the second preparatory committee for the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference that concluded May 4, then the meeting was a clear success.

This was the second of three preparatory committee meetings held in the run-up to review conferences, which are held every five years to review implementation of the treaty and decide on future action. With 191 state parties, the NPT embodies the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. Some 105 of these states participated in the recent two-week session in Geneva, alongside many NGO representatives.

Key procedural decisions were taken, such as the selection of the chair of next year’s preparatory committee, or PrepCom (Malaysian Ambassador to the United Nations in New York Muhammad Yaakob), and the setting of dates for the 2020 Review Conference (April 27 to May 22).

This year’s PrepCom chair, Polish Ambassador to the UN in Vienna Adam Bugajski, also duly produced a 19-page factual summary of the proceedings issued under his personal authority, which avoided the difficulties that would be attendant on any effort to have the meeting adopt such a summary as its own. (This did not spare the chair from numerous expressions of disappointment by delegates, however.)

Despite these procedural accomplishments, it was clear to anyone observing the proceedings that this gathering was not really coming to grips with the serious challenges the NPT-based global nuclear order currently faces.

Delegates seemed to be going through their paces with little sense of urgency or appreciation for the magnitude of the stresses the NPT is under. The quiet in the Assembly Hall at the UN complex was described by one delegate as “the quiet in a crowded room into which a hand grenade has just been tossed.”

This dramatic metaphor alluded to the major problems that have recently surged in the international arena and which constitute a dire threat to the continued authority of the treaty. Notable among these threats are: i) the breakdown of the strategic relationship between the United States and Russia (the two leading nuclear weapon states possessing over 90 percent of the global arsenal), accompanied by increasingly pugnacious statements and accusations of treaty violations; ii) the multi-billion dollar nuclear force modernization programs underway in nuclear weapon possessing states; iii) the schism within the NPT membership over the proper course for fulfilling the nuclear disarmament commitments under Article VI of the NPT, with two thirds supporting the new nuclear weapon prohibition treaty while a dissenting minority of the nuclear armed states and their allies reject it; and iv) the very recent decision of the Trump administration to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA), with its negative implications for the viability of that agreement and the future of multilateral nuclear diplomacy in general.

A few weeks ago one would be obliged to add North Korea and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs to this list of threats. Recent positive developments hold promise that a resolution of the North Korean crisis may be forthcoming, although many observers stress the problematic history of Korean denuclearization efforts in the past and the serious practical challenges that any new effort would face, provided that the parties could eventually arrive at a common understanding of what denuclearization would actually mean in practice. The US decision to repudiate an agreement it had concluded just three years earlier will likely give Pyongyang pause in codifying any deal it arrives at with the Trump administration.

While echoes of what the chair described as “the deteriorating security environment” were evident in the statements and working papers of the PrepCom, little effort at overcoming the divisions that have opened up was attempted at the meeting. One of the few initiatives that seemed directed at bridging these gaps was put forward by the 12-nation Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), a grouping that includes “middle power” non-nuclear weapon states such as Canada, Mexico, Australia, Germany and Nigeria. NPDI has the particular attraction within the NPT context of including both supporters and opponents of the new nuclear weapon prohibition treaty.

Two significant working papers were submitted by the NPDI that might be able to move the NPT membership into a more constructive avenue than merely repeating the clashing positions on the many issues in dispute. One of the papers laid out a template for reporting on NPT implementation and suggested that specific time be devoted at future meetings to consider such reports. Current practice has not provided for such time and it has been difficult to encourage more reporting from states, as the effort in producing such reports was not rewarded by any specific consideration at the meeting itself. Reports — ideally following a common format — as espoused by the NPDI are a crucial basis for holding states to account regarding compliance with their NPT commitments. Providing dedicated time for commenting on reports and thematic working papers would inject a degree of interactivity into NPT proceedings, a desirable condition that has proved elusive in the usual repetitive and disassociated nature of delegation statements.

The second NPDI working paper picked up on the theme of institutional reform for the NPT that Canada has championed on a national basis for several years. These ideas, designed to help overcome the “institutional deficit” of the barebones NPT, have included establishing empowered annual meetings of states parties, providing for emergency meetings, creating some continuity between NPT meetings via a standing bureau or chairs’ circle and setting up an implementation support unit. These reform proposals have enjoyed some support, but to date have tended to be eclipsed at the decision-taking Review Conferences by other issues perceived as more important.

The innovation put forward in the NPDI paper this time is to propose that a working group be established at the Review Conference (or sooner) that could generate proposals for enhancing the review process. Establishing such a body would likely yield reform proposals that could be considered and adopted at the 2020 Review Conference. It would also demonstrate the ability of the NPT membership to adapt their working methods in order to better respond to the expectations of the participants and to facilitate the accountability that is essential for the effectiveness and credibility of the NPT. Some enhancements in the modus operandi of the NPT may prove to be rare common ground at a Review Conference that will find it difficult to reconcile the conflicting approaches to nuclear disarmament within its membership.

Besides its constructive actions as part of the NPDI, Canada will need to reflect further on its own stance within the context of the NPT and its goals. Canada’s explicit affirmation of the security benefits it enjoys through nuclear deterrence raises issues of consistency with both its nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation postures. How is one to reconcile assertion of the security utility of nuclear weapons on one hand with the traditional espousal of total nuclear disarmament on the other? Similarly, it is difficult to simultaneously promote the objective of nuclear non-proliferation while claiming the security benefits of nuclear arms. If these weapons provide such important security benefits then surely every sovereign state should be able to access these benefits through alliance with nuclear-armed states, or by national acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Canada and all non-nuclear weapon states will need to become more engaged with the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime embodied in the NPT if this “cornerstone” is to be maintained. The five nuclear weapon states under the NPT also bear special responsibility for sustaining progress on nuclear disarmament as an essential counterpart to the commitments made on non-proliferation. The NPT will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its entry into force at the 2020 Review Conference. On the basis of the present PrepCom and the state of the geopolitical environment, it is an open question whether that Review Conference will be an occasion for celebration or mourning.