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Fiddling While the Nuclear Arms Control Architecture Collapses

Viewpoint by Tariq Rauf

Photo: Chair Syed Hussin addresses the 2019 NPT PrepCom. Credit: Alicia Sanders-Zakre, Arms Control Association.

The writer was Alternate Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) NPT Delegation 2002-2010, and has attended all NPT meetings as an official delegate since 1987 through 2019. Personal views are expressed here.

NEW YORK (IDN) – The third and final session of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) fizzled out in disagreements over the pace and extent of nuclear disarmament at United Nations headquarters in New York. [2019-05-20 | P05HINDI | ITALIAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF

At the NPT PrepCom held from April 28 through May 10, 2019, representatives of 150 States parties took part in the discussions, 106 statements were made in the General Debate followed by scores of sometimes repetitive statements under three “clusters” of issues: (1) nuclear disarmament and security assurances; (2) nuclear verification (IAEA safeguards), nuclear weapon-free zones, regional issues including with respect to the Middle East, and North Korea and South Asia; and (3) peaceful uses of nuclear energy, NPT review process and provisions for withdrawal from the Treaty.

In 2020, the NPT will mark its 50 years in force since 1970 and 25 years since the Treaty was extended in 1995 to remain in force indefinitely, i.e. permanently. The NPT with 191 States parties is widely considered to be the cornerstone of the global nuclear governance regime covering nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

It is considered to be a major success in halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons and has contained their possession to nine States (USA, USSR/Russian Federation, UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea – in that chronological order) – though the last three States listed never signed the NPT and North Korea withdrew from the Treaty in 2003.

Many Western States are focusing on marking the Golden Jubilee of the NPT in 2020 through highlighting the widespread peaceful applications of nuclear energy such as, for example, in agriculture, electricity production, human health and salinity, and strengthening the nuclear verification capabilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency; while downplaying the failure to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons.

On the other side, many non-nuclear-weapon States from Asia, Africa and Latin America are pointing out the promise of the NPT to end the age of nuclear weapons remains largely unfulfilled.

In general, at NPT meetings States set themselves up in political groupings, the largest of which is the Group of Non-Aligned States (NAM) numbering around 122; the Western and Others Group (WEOG) that includes Western countries (EU, NATO, Canada, USA) along with Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand; and the Eastern Group that includes the Russian Federation, Belarus, Hungary, Poland and some other East European countries (even though some are in the EU and NATO).

In addition, there are issue-based groupings, such as: the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) with Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa; the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) with Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates; the Vienna Group of Ten with Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden; the “de-alerting” (of nuclear weapons) group with Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden and Switzerland; the “P-5” nuclear-weapon States (China, France, Russian Federation, UK and USA); the Group of Arab States, among others.

Thus, there is a bewildering array of groupings of States each pushing their converging and diverging views and as a result making the achievement of consensus or agreement even more difficult.

The mandate of the Preparatory Committee is two-fold: (1) to complete the procedural preparations for the next review conference which include agreement on the dates of the next two sessions of the PrepCom, the rules of procedure, the agenda and programme of work, and endorsement of the President of the review conference; and (2) to make “recommendations” on issues pertaining to the “three pillars” of the Treaty – nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, in addition to security assurances for non-nuclear-weapon States and regional issues.

This year’s session of the PrepCom, like its predecessors, managed to complete the procedural preparations and endorsed in principle the candidacy of Ambassador Rafael Grossi (Permanent Representative of Argentina to the International Atomic Energy Agency and other international organizations in Vienna) as President of the 2020 NPT Review Conference. However, as in previous years, States parties were unable to overcome their deep differences and thus did not agree on any “recommendations” even though these are only indicative and not binding for the review conference.

Much ink was spilled on concerns and allegations regarding the current sorry state of international relations, political and military conflicts, decline of multilateralism in favour of unilateralism and pursuit of narrow national interests.

But just as the senators of Rome fiddled away while the city burned, today’s diplomats seem helpless in averting the total collapse of nuclear arms control thus paving the way for a dangerous new nuclear arms race with increased risks of accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are at the core of debate. From the very first NPT review conference in 1975, and every five years thereafter, the main area of division and discord is nuclear disarmament as required under Article VI of the Treaty. The five nuclear-weapon States (NWS) parties, along with their allies, traditionally have linked disarmament to national and international security considerations, as well as to disarmament covering conventional and other types of weapons.

In contrast, in general, most of the non-nuclear-weapon States have emphasized the implementation of NPT Article VI. Over the years, the Western States have promoted a so-called “step-by-step approach”, or “building blocks” to achieve disarmament – i.e., the NPT to be followed by a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, then a fissile material control treaty, and then other unspecified steps. In contrast, the NAM have been proposing a phased programme and a specified time frame for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons through a nuclear weapons convention.

The proponents of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that was adopted by 122 States in July 2017 wisely opted not to make this treaty the centrepiece of their statements in the disarmament cluster thus disappointing the strident opponents who feared that the PrepCom would be “highjacked” by the TPNW.

A new element, however, was introduced by the U.S. at the 2018 NPT PrepCom in Geneva when it proposed “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament” (CCND), sweeping aside previously agreed measures from the 1995, 2000 and 2010 NPT review conferences.

At this year’s PrepCom the U.S. reformulated its CCND proposal to “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND) and based its new approach on the grounds that the “step-by-step” approach had failed to deliver results and thus a completely new track was needed to create the conditions and environment that could lead to further nuclear arms reductions involving all possessors of nuclear weapons.

The U.S.’ CEND approach has left its unquestioning loyal allies, who have doggedly supported the step-by-step or building blocks or “stepping stones” approaches, squirming in the cesspool of unilateralism and dreaming of butterflies and unicorns to appear magically and sprinkle fairy dust leading to a new vision and new world of uncharted nuclear arms control. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 May 2019]

Photo: Chair Syed Hussin addresses the 2019 NPT PrepCom. Credit: Alicia Sanders-Zakre, Arms Control Association.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –



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