The States party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) convene every five years to review the implementation of this nuclear disarmament regime in three sessions. In run-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference, the first session of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) will meet from May 2-12 in Vienna.
The Austrian capital, which serves as the associate headquarters of the UN, has come to play a historic role in the world body’s efforts for a legal treaty aimed at ushering in a nuclear-weapons-free world. In December 2014, it was the venue of the third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons – after Nayarit (Mexico) in February 2014 and Oslo in March 2013 – which paved the path to the ‘Austrian Pledge’, also known as the ‘Humanitarian Pledge’, to “stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons”.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted the pledge in the form of Resolution 71/258 of December 23, 2016 for the nuclear ban conference in March and June–July 2017.
The first session of the PrepCom is taking place in the midst of a rising tension between the U.S. and Russia, which according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) together possess 93 percent of a total of 14,900 nuclear weapons. The rest are in the hands of seven countries including Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
While North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – DPRK) continues to test nuclear explosive devices of increasing magnitude, the other nuclear-armed states “appear to plan to retain large arsenals for the indefinite future,” instead of planning for nuclear disarmament, warns FAS.
The significance of the forthcoming PrepCom – with Ambassador Henk Cor Van der Kwast of the Netherlands as the Chair – is also underlined by the fact that it is taking place nearly one month after the first session of the UN conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination. The second session of the conference is scheduled about one month later, from June 15 to July 7, 2017.
Another reason for the importance of the forthcoming PrepCom is that, as in 2005, the 2015 Review Conference (from April 27 to May 22, 2015) in New York was unable to reach agreement on any substantive outcome documents. Three States parties – the U.S., Britain and Canada – crashed the conference because of objections of a non-state party, Israel.
The three nuclear-armed states charged that Egypt had wrecked the conference with its demands that the Review Conference’s final declaration reiterate the call for creation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone.
Such a zone was, however, envisaged by the 2010 Review Conference, which produced conclusions and recommendations for follow-on actions in the areas of nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation, peaceful uses of nuclear energy and the Middle East, particularly implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East.
Earlier, the 2000 Review Conference agreed to a substantive final document, including practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI of the Treaty on nuclear disarmament.
The NPT entered into force in 1970 and was extended indefinitely in 1995. The Treaty is regarded as the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and an essential foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament.
As the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) website says, it was designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, to further the goals of nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament, and to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Under the Treaty, the nuclear-weapon States are obliged not to transfer possession or control to any recipient nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, and not in any way to assist, encourage or induce non-nuclear-weapon States to manufacture, acquire or control over such weapons or devices.
The non-nuclear-weapon States are obliged not to receive any transfer of or control over nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices, and not to manufacture or otherwise acquire such weapons or devices as well as not to seek or receive any assistance in this regard.
The non-nuclear-weapon States further undertake to accept safeguards administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on all source or special fissionable materials in all peaceful nuclear activities within their territory or under their jurisdiction or control, with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.
The Treaty guarantees the right of all States parties to research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with their basic non-proliferation obligations.
Article VI of the NPT includes the only legally binding treaty-based obligation requiring States to pursue in good faith effective measures related to nuclear disarmament.
Article VIII of the NPT provides for the convening of a conference of Parties to the Treaty every five years in order to review the operation of this Treaty with a view to assuring that the purposes of the Preamble and the provisions of the Treaty are being realized.
In 1995, in connection with the decision to extend the Treaty indefinitely, State parties agreed to strengthen the review process and continue to hold Review Conferences every five years. The PrepCom normally holds sessions of 10 working days in each of the three years leading up to a review conference.
As decided by States parties in 2000, the purpose of the first two Preparatory Committee sessions is to consider principles, objectives and ways in order to promote the full implementation of the Treaty, as well as its universality, and to make recommendations thereon to the Review Conference.
The third session is specifically mandated to make every effort to produce a consensus report containing recommendations to the Review Conference, taking into account the deliberations and results of its previous sessions.
Within the NPT context, there are other reasons too, lending significance to the first of three PrepComs for the 2020 NPT Review Conference.
“The action plan from the 2010 NPT Review Conference remains only partially implemented. The disarmament actions suffered the most – of 22 action points, only five saw substantial forward movement. Before 2010, the last agreement was reached in 2000 – and the implementation of the “13 practical steps” from that outcome is also woefully inadequate,” notes the ‘2017 NPT Briefing Book’, published by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Its disarmament programme is Reaching Critical Will, headed by Ray Acheson.
The broader context outside of the NPT is even more alarming, warns the Briefing Book, adding that the current situation is characterised by “a new nuclear arms race, with more players and more money and more “kill power” than ever before”.
Disarmament groups opine, “Meanwhile, even rhetorical commitment to nuclear disarmament is wavering – if it still exists at all”. Far removed from President Barack Obama’s vision of a nuclear-weapon free world – spelt out in Prague in April 2009, President Donald Trump’s administration has expressed doubts that nuclear disarmament is a “realistic objective”, and there are warnings that it may resume explosive nuclear testing.
The policy review under way in Washington, D.C. is expected to plead for a new nuclear posture in the face of mounting tension with Russian ruled by President Vladimir Putin, and the DPRK threatening to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. if it feels threatened enough to do so.