During the first two weeks of May, delegates from 188 state parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) gathered in Vienna for a preparatory committee meeting (PrepCom), marking the beginning of the process for the 2020 NPT Review Conference (RevCon). The PrepCom cycle, which starts three years prior to each RevCon, is significant as it aims to develop a substantive agenda and set the tone for the issues to be discussed at the RevCon, which takes place every five years. Considering the failure to reach a consensus at the 2015 NPT RevCon and the presence of numerous other mounting challenges, there were already mixed expectations for the 2017 NPT PrepCom.
The PrepCom cycle began on the heels of the first round of negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons held at the United Nations headquarters in New York from March 27 to 31. The ban negotiation process manifested the disappointment of non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWSs) over the lack of progress in the fulfillment by the nuclear-weapon states (NWSs) in fulfilling their disarmament commitment under article VI of the NPT. The negotiations also reflected the sharp divide among the NPT member states. While the ban proponents made every effort to express their support to the NPT during the first round of negotiations, the NWSs, along with US allies in the Nato countries and Asia/Pacific (the “umbrella states”), oppose the ban process, calling it a threat to the NPT.
While the smooth conduct of discussions during the PrepCom was appreciated by many member states, one could see a conspicuous effort to conceal the simmering tensions over the ban issue in the room.
Some fireworks had also been expected on the issue of the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. However, the PrepCom only exposed deep fissures among the Arab league states, who were unable to agree on a joint way forward. The chairman’s summary underlined the importance of the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and many states, notably Egypt and Russia, regretted the failure to convene a conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, as endorsed at the 2010 Review Conference.
It is important to recall that the resolution on the establishment of the WMD-free zone in the Middle East in the 1995 review conference formed the basis for the indefinite extension of the NPT without a vote.
The four outliers of the NPT, namely India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, were called upon by many states to abandon their nuclear weapon programmes and to join the NPT as NNWSs. North Korea was the subject of specific condemnations for its aggressive nuclear posture and the states parties to the NPT, including the NWSs, all urged the DPRK to cease its nuclear activities and missile tests. Nonetheless, the NWSs and their allies focused on the need to “create the conditions” for the international security environment to be conducive before the NWSs could fulfill their pledge to disarmament under the NPT. Interestingly, in parallel to the criticism on modernisation plans of the NWS, the United States test-launched a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile just a day after its opening remarks at the NPT PrepCom. This manifested an increasing gap between the deterrence and disarmament communities.
A number of state parties hailed the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action concluded between Iran and E3/EU+3 and expressed their strong support for other existing international mechanisms such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, especially against the backdrop of impending resistance from the Trump administration in the United States. States parties also called for early negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Many countries, notably Brazil, strongly emphasised the need to take into account existing stocks of fissile material in an FMCT.
Overall, the 2017 NPT PrepCom was hailed as a success because it effectively avoided a deadlock by not attempting to move forward on the contentious issue in the first place. If it is incorrect to equate inaction with failure, then it is safe to say the NPT PrepCom 2017 was successful and provided a display of smooth international diplomacy.
In the age of Twitter, such meetings are no longer confined to the participants alone and anyone can get the sense of the debate even remotely. Perhaps nothing remains behind doors (except for the closed meetings, of course), as each word of the national positions during the open sessions goes on line in real time. However, coming from one of the four “outlier” states, it was indeed a unique experience for the author to witness nuclear diplomacy first hand at the NPT PrepCom.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 23rd, 2017.