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Proposal to Convene NPT Review Conference in January 2021

Why Peaceful Vienna Is More Suitable than Toxic New York

Viewpoint by Tariq Rauf *

Photo: Vienna Hofburg, the former principal imperial palace of the Habsburg dynasty rulers; which and today serves as the official residence and workplace of the President of Austria. It is located in the center of Vienna and was built in the 13th century and expanded several times afterwards. Credit: Robert Fischer, Pixabay

VIENNA, (IDN) – In my previous posts on IDN InDepthNews, Update: Postponed 2020 NPT Review Conference, Challenge for the NAM: Move the NPT Review Conference to 2021 in Vienna, and Postpone the NPT Review Conference to 2021 and Convene in Vienna, I had provided information and perspectives on the Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty scheduled at the United Nations in New York from 27 April to 22 May that had to be postponed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. [2020–04-20]

 

Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen (Argentina), President-designate of the NPT review conference in his letter of 27 March had notified States parties to the Treaty that the “2020 NPT Review Conference is…postponed to a later date, as soon as circumstances permit, but no later than April 2021”.

He had assured “States Parties that as President-designate…along with the other members of the Bureau and the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs [he would] continue to monitor developments and update States Parties as the situation evolves, including regarding possible new dates for the Conference”.

Ambassador Zlauvinen stated further that the “Review Conference will be held, and it will undertake its important responsibilities as a pillar of international peace and security, and as the lynchpin of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. In the interim…[he encouraged] all States Parties to consider how they can work together to ensure success at the tenth NPT Review Conference”.

Proposed New Dates

Continuing his serious and focused efforts to secure an appropriate date for the postponed NPT review conference, the latest development is that on 17 April President-designate Zlauvinen circulated a new letter to States parties (attached below) in which he is proposing to convene the conference at the United Nations in New York from 4 to 29 January 2021.

 

Ambassador Zlauvinen cautions that “these dates remain tentative and can only likely be confirmed once activities resume at UN Headquarters” and that “if prompt action is not taken to secure them, these dates will likely be assigned to another meeting”. He notes that he has “asked the UN Secretariat to place a tentative hold on those dates for the Review Conference and to advise me as soon as they can be confirmed. At that time, if the COVID-19 situation would allow it and no alternative dates can be confirmed, I will seek a formal decision from States Parties to hold the Review Conference from 4-29 January 2021”.

President-designate Zlauvinen also advises States parties that, “in light of the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves, settling dates for the Review Conference as soon as possible should be the utmost priority. Ensuring it is able to undertake its critical responsibilities should be our primary goal”.

The Way Forward

It is obvious that President-designate Zlauvinen faces an unenviable challenge to find appropriate dates to convene the postponed 2020 NPT Review Conference, the importance of which cannot be overestimated.

In these times of the COVID-19 pandemic that to date has claimed 2,241,359 victims including 152,551 fatalities according to the latest situation report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), the matter of convening a diplomatic conference pales in importance and significance.

Nonetheless, the NPT remains the single most important multilateral nuclear arms control and disarmament treaty with 193 States parties and provides the underpinning for the peaceful applications of nuclear energy and technology, nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament.

In March this year, the NPT marked 50 years of it being in force and 25 years of its indefinite extension in 1995. Thus, the 2020 NPT Review Conference is of significant importance and though it inevitably had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic it remains important to convene it as soon as practical and at a suitable venue.

At first glance the dates proposed by Ambassador Zlauvinen, 4 to 29 January 2021, on the advice of the UN secretariat, could be acceptable to States parties and some might even consider it an appropriate way to usher in the New Year.

However, in this regard, it is important not to lose sight of certain important considerations:

(a) the US presidential election is scheduled for the third week of November 2020 and the President will start his term in the third week of January 2021—whether it is a re-elected Donald Trump or his challenger Joe Biden is elected—in either eventuality, obviously this may create problems or a distraction for the review conference;

(b) countries that observe religious or national holidays based on the Orthodox (Julian) calendar that is 13 days behind the near universal Gregorian calendar; such as the Russian Federation, Ukraine and others (Belarus, Bulgaria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, and Serbia) very likely may not find the proposed dates acceptable as they clash with Orthodox New Year and Christmas holidays; and

(c) it is not certain as yet whether the COVID-19 pandemic and its after effects are truly over by January next year and it would be safe to closely pack together 300-400 delegates and civil society representatives in a conference room in New York.

It remains to be seen whether Ambassador Zlauvinen is given the go ahead by States parties to convene the NPT review conference from 4th to 29th January 2021—hopefully, he gets the go ahead. Should that not be possible, I refer back to my suggestion to hold the conference from 17 May to 11 June 2021, or later in the year; doing so would avoid conflict with another religious month, that of Ramadhan which will fall in April-May next year.

Venue: New York or Vienna?

Whether to hold the NPT review conference in New York, though, is another matter? It is not surprising that the advice given to President-designate Zlauvinen by the UN secretariat calls for convening the conference in New York – as that is based on practice since 1995, prior to that the conferences were held in Geneva, Switzerland.

As I have noted previously, NPT review conferences are not UN conferences – rather, they are conferences of the States parties to the NPT, paid for by them separately from UN membership dues and are governed by their own rules of procedure (RoP).

Thus, while the President-designate and States parties need to take into account the advice of the UN secretariat which is given in good faith, they are not bound in any way to accept it and are fully empowered to make their own decisions under the RoP for NPT review conferences.

As such, in my view, in 2020-2021, the time has come to shift the NPT review conference from New York to Vienna for reasons I have described previously, Postpone the NPT Review Conference to 2021 and Convene in Vienna; which might be gaining some interest in certain States parties. These reasons include, for example:

1. The United Nations in New York is no longer an appropriate venue to convene an NPT review conference as it is now riven with petty rivalries of the so-called “great powers” – recently the Security Council could not even agree on a joint statement on the COVID-19 pandemic, its members could bring themselves only to express support for the Secretary-General’s efforts concerning the potential impact of the pandemic to conflict-affected countries – and given the existing tensions between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-weapon States over nuclear disarmament, the highly politicized environment there cannot be conducive to narrowing differences and building common ground. Convening the review conference in Vienna will provide a welcome change in venue from the near toxic political milieu at the United Nations in New York over issues such as Syria, the Middle East, Iran, North Korea, collapse of multilateralism and rise of jingoistic unilateralism and tribalism, and sanctions among others.

2. It is indeed both ironic and inefficient that the preponderant majority of delegates attending an NPT review conference in New York pack their bags and travel there from Vienna [home of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO)], from Geneva [home of the sole multilateral nuclear arms control negotiating forum—the Conference on Disarmament], and from national capitals. Very few New York based diplomats take part in the NPT review conferences and for the most part they are devoid of expertise on NPT intricacies but are consummate political actors with the “gift of the gab” or “maudlin magniloquence” though this affliction also is spreading to both Vienna and Geneva.

3. Bleak prospects at present for any progress on nuclear disarmament – a key element of the NPT – an issue on which some previous conferences have failed to agree on an outcome document. This impasse over nuclear disarmament already is creating tensions. If any proof is needed regarding near universal dissatisfaction one need only look at unhinged comments verbally attacking those in countries promoting fulfilling the nuclear disarmament obligations under the NPT. Thus, relocating the NPT conference in 2021 to Vienna could possibly help in lowering the temperature of the discussions and restoring some semblance of much needed civility in discourse

4. The location of Vienna in Central Europe will greatly reduce distances to be travelled by delegates from Asia, Africa and Oceania, as well as of course by European countries – these regions put together comprise the largest number of countries in the world – thus reducing the carbon footprint of the review conference. Only the North and South American delegates will have increased travel distances, but these obviously are a minority compared to those from other regions.

5. Costs of hotel accommodation and meals in New York are inordinately high as compared with Vienna, even after taking the Euro / US dollar exchange rate into account. It is a total myth that Vienna is more expensive than New York. Such savings would be beneficial both for official delegates as well as for civil society representatives.

6. In addition, now the rationale is questionable to hold NPT review conferences at any location in any nuclear-weapon State (NWS). The majority of NPT non-nuclear-weapon States repeatedly assert that the nuclear-armed States have not delivered on nuclear disarmament to the level expected; rather to the contrary nuclear weapons are being modernized in some NWS, the threshold of possible use of nuclear weapons has been lowered, and existing nuclear arms reduction treaties are either being dismantled or are under threat. Thus, it is logical to hold “nuclear non-proliferation” treaty review conferences in a militarily “neutral” non-nuclear-weapon country such as Austria that has consistently been a strong promoter of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament and hosts important international nuclear governance organizations such as the IAEA and the CTBTO.

7. Over the past year, many Western NPT States have been highlighting the “under-appreciated” peaceful applications of nuclear energy made possible under the framework of the NPT assuring their use exclusively for peaceful purposes under IAEA safeguards (verification) – made available under the various technical cooperation programmes of the IAEA. These include nuclear applications in the areas of human health, energy, water, agriculture, environment, sciences and animal health, among others. The IAEA now is providing diagnostic testing for COVID-19 to many countries based on the nuclear-derived technique of reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (real-time RT-PCR) developed by the Agency at its laboratories in Seibersdorf near Vienna (Austria). Bringing the NPT review conference to Vienna next year would be an important affirmation of the benefits of the NPT and of the work of the IAEA – the international Agency charged with the responsibility to verify peaceful uses of nuclear technology across the world and to prevent its misuse for nuclear weapons – as opposed to sponsoring diplomatic workshops on the matter in various regions of the world attended in most part by locally posted diplomats who would not be attending the NPT review conference.

Epilogue

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its horrifying cost in human lives and suffering, as well as the economic damage to the global economy as well as national economies, gives pause as nearly half of the world’s population languishes in one form or another of lockdown to contemplate the “security value” of nuclear weapons and the costs of “investments” in the nuclear weapons and related enterprises of nuclear-armed States and of their allies.

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrates the total and complete disutility of nuclear weapons and of misplaced priorities and investments. All nine States with more than 14,000 nuclear weapons between them as well as their allies have been laid low by an unseen virus. Critical shortages and absence of treatment centres, lack of personal protective equipment, fraying health care infrastructure and the inability to quickly arrest the spread of the pandemic has rendered meaningless and absurd national security policies based on nuclear deterrence and are testament to grossly misplaced priorities.

Visions of solidarity among the members of the surviving Cold War nuclear alliance—NATO—evaporated when the alliance leader reportedly pirated for its own national use protective masks and supplies purchased by other countries leaving them to scramble to find alternative supplies – so much for an attack on one being an attack on all members. The interior minister for Berlin Stae in Germany, Andreas Geisel, was quoted in The Guardian as characterizing the diversion to the US of masks as “an act of modern piracy” and complained that “This is no way to treat trans-Atlantic partners…Even in times of global crisis there should be no wild west methods”; Valerie Pecresse, the chief of France’s most populous region complained, “We lost an order to the Americans who outbid us on a shipment that we had lined up”; as did Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who voiced concerns over reports that medical supplies originally designated for Canada had been shipped to the United States.

This sorry state of affairs highlights the risks faced by the international community – in particular by the overwhelming majority of non-nuclear-weapon States – of any detonation of nuclear weapons, whether by accident or design, and the total lack of capabilities to adequately deal with the humanitarian and environmental consequences of such an eventuality that would dwarf the consequences of COVID-19 that we are presently facing. If dealing with a virus pandemic has unleashed the forces of tribalism and unilateralism for national gain, it is unimaginable what the situation for acquiring relief supplies would be in the event of a nuclear detonation in one or more major cities?

This is not news but has been clearly described in NPT review conferences and meetings. It is now time to extend support and encouragement to empower President-designate Zlauvinen to take the necessary steps to move the NPT review conference out of a major city in the world’s most heavily armed State in both conventional and nuclear weapons – and to bring it to the peaceful neutral venue of Vienna where stressed delegates could waltz away their woes “An der schönen, blauen Donau" (beautiful blue Danube) and imagine what it is to be free of the shadow of nuclear arms.

* Tariq Rauf is former Head of Nuclear Verification and Security Policy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, and former Alternate Head of the IAEA Delegation to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) review conferences. Personal views are expressed here. [IDN-InDepthNews – April 20, 2020]

Photo: Vienna Hofburg, the former principal imperial palace of the Habsburg dynasty rulers; which and today serves as the official residence and workplace of the President of Austria. It is located in the centre of Vienna and was built in the 13th century and expanded several times afterwards. Credit: Robert Fischer, Pixabay

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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