Postpone the NPT Review Conference to 2021 and Convene in Vienna

17.03.2020 - IDN InDepthNews

Postpone the NPT Review Conference to 2021 and Convene in Vienna
(Image by Collage with images from Arms Control Association and the Doomsday clock.)

by Tariq Rauf

The writer has attended all nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meetings since 1987 as a delegate, including as senior adviser to the chair of Main Committee I (nuclear disarmament) in 2015 and to the chair of the 2014 preparatory committee; as alternate head of the International Atomic Energy Agency delegation to the NPT; and as a non-proliferation expert with the Canadian delegation from 1987. Personal views are expressed here.

VIENNA (IDN) – Finally, some moves are afoot in New York to postpone the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) tenth quinquennial (five yearly) review conference presently scheduled to be held at the United Nations in New York from 27 April to 22 May.

President-designate’s proposal

The distinguished President-designate of the review conference, H.E. Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen (until recently Deputy Foreign Minister of Argentina), following consultations with States parties and the NPT conference bureau, on 13 March, circulated a letter proposing postponement to an unspecified date because of the novel corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic..

Ambassador Zlauvinen in his letter stated that,

“The risk assessment that was conducted by the Bureau for the NPT Review Conference, based on the risk matrix provided by the Secretariat, concluded that the Review Conference was in the high risk category for COVID-19 and that utilization of risk factors such as downscaling or excluding overseas participants may not be a viable option. It also concluded that the criticality of the Review Conference being held was moderate. That is, complete cancelation would have dangerous ramifications, but suspension to a later date when the public health situation improves could mitigate many of these”.

The “Bureau” for the NPT review conference, along with the President, comprises the chairs of the preparatory committee sessions held respectively in 2017 (Vienna), 2018 (Geneva) and 2019 (New York) – who will at the review conference respectively chair the three main committees. Accordingly, based on past practice, Main Committee I (nuclear disarmament and security assurances) will be chaired by Ambassador Syed Mohamad Hasrin Aidid of Malaysia (representing the Group of Non-Aligned States); Main Committee II (nuclear verification and nuclear-weapon-free zones) by Ambassador Adam Bugajski of Poland (representing the Group of Eastern European States); and Main Committee III (peaceful uses of nuclear energy and strengthened review process) by Ambassador Marjolijn van Deelen of The Netherlands (representing the Western Group).

Representatives of the UN ODA and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assist the Bureau. In addition, the depositary States of the NPT – the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States – also weigh in with their views, often times inordinately. The chairs of the three main political groupings, noted above, also bring to bear the perspectives of their respective groups. All this to say, that usually it is optimistic to expect the Bureau to act in a manner that is other than conservative; what it needs is to be innovative and agile in dealing with unexpected situations.

The President-designate’s letter continued that,

“The combination of a high COVID-19 risk with relatively moderate criticality and difficulty in utilizing risk reduction measures indicates that the Review Conference should not proceed as currently planned. I have been advised that, at this time, due to the number of meetings being postponed, and the uncertainty over how long the current circumstances will last, the Secretariat is unable to provide possible options for new dates and rooms. I take this opportunity to assure States Parties that I will undertake all efforts, in coordination with the Secretariat, to ensure that the Review Conference is held as soon as possible and that it is able to undertake its important mandate”.

Proposal by the Non-Aligned Movement

In contrast, a letter circulated by the chair of the NAM stated that,

“Given the central importance of the NPT as an essential pillar of international security, the NPT Review Conference is not an event that can be scaled down to a limited period of time and/or participants”.

The NAM includes more than 110 of the 191 States parties of the NPT. The NAM communication goes on to note that,

“Given the severe gravity of the evolving situation with regard to the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) around the world and its impact on public health, and taking into consideration the NPT Review Conference has to be convened in an appropriate manner that fully allows for a thorough, balanced, and comprehensive review of the implementation of the Treaty, as well as ensuring that States Parties to the Treaty have undertaken all the necessary preparations, it is advisable that the States Parties to the Treaty, on an exceptional basis and without setting any precedence, adopt a decision as soon as possible on the postponement of the Review Conference scheduled from 27 April to 22 May 2020 to another date no later than the end of 2021, preferably during suitable window of dates in April and May 2021”.

Convene the NPT Review Conference in 2021

In recent weeks, I have proposed that in light of the COVID-19 pandemic the practical way forward would be to postpone the NPT review conference by one year – to April-May 2021. I have pointed out that the year after a scheduled review conference is a follow year with the preparatory committee for the next review conference starting in the second year following the conference.

Hence, the nuclear arms control calendar for spring 2021 in unencumbered and the review conference easily can be postponed to that time window. Doing so would provide sufficient time for the COVID-19 pandemic to subside, for effective vaccine to be developed, and things to settle down such as airline flights and the global economy. There is no rush to try to squeeze in the review conference in the already crammed fall 2020 calendar and in any case there is no certainty that the effects and after effects of the pandemic will have been resolved by then.

Ordinarily, pursuant to the NPT and the 1995 package of decisions to extend the Treaty indefinitely, review conferences are to be scheduled quinquennially (every five years). However, today’s unprecedented situation is one where the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the COVID-19 to be a global pandemic affecting more than 135 countries with more than 142,5000 people infected, 5,393 fatalities and many thousands more fighting for their lives in hospitals.

Hence, innovative thinking is called for to find a practical solution that provides both sufficient time to clear the pandemic and does not disturb the calendar of other scheduled events such as the third session of the Conference on Disarmament, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, and the General Assembly itself – all of which are to take place between August to November/December this year.

NPT Review Conferences are not UN conferences but are conferences of NPT States parties and paid for by them. The dates and venue are decided by the States parties themselves at one of the sessions of the preparatory committee based on consultations carried out by the Bureau and agreed by consensus or by no dissenting views being voiced.

Ambassador Zlauvinen has proposed, in his letter cited above, that the 2020 NPT Review Conference meet “conditions permitting, as scheduled, on 27 April for one meeting only and for New York-based delegates only”. At this meeting the delegates would take the required procedural decisions for the conduct of the conference, including:

  • Election of the President of the Conference;
  • Election of Chairs and Vice-Chairs of the Main Committees, the Drafting Committee and the Credentials Committee;
  • Election of Vice-Presidents;
  • Confirmation of the nomination of the Secretary-General;
  • Programme of Work; and
  • Suspension of the Conference to a later date when the conditions are such that the meeting may be held and the necessary rooms and services are available.

Hopefully this one day meeting can place as called for on 27 April and the delegates should be able to agree on the six agenda items noted above without rancour or controversy.

As regards, item 6 above, concerning the date and venue, in my view the NAM States need to pursue their proposal of a “suitable window of dates in April and May 2021” as that makes eminent sense for the reasons I have outlined in this article.

2021 NPT Review Conference in Vienna

With respect to the venue, the NAM States would be well advised to propose convening the review conference in Spring 2021 in the capital city of Austria – Vienna – which not only is the headquarters of the IAEA but also hosts the United Nations Offices in Vienna (UNOV), the UN ODA Vienna branch, and the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). Thus, Vienna has the capacity to host the review conference much as it is the venue for the first session of the preparatory committee for NPT review conferences.

States parties from the other political groupings, as well as the five nuclear-weapon States (NWS), should not block or stand in the way of a clear majority of parties to postpone the conference to next year and all States parties must agree to meet in Vienna in the higher interest of strengthening the authority and integrity of the NPT – which all concur is the cornerstone of the global nuclear governance system of nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

In my opinion pieces, The 2020 NPT Review Conference: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous, published on 12 March, and in Relentless Spread of Coronavirus Obliges Postponing the 2020 NPT Review to 2021 of 2nd March, as well as in The NPT at 50: Perish or Survive?, I have laid out several convincing reasons why States parties are better off holding the NPT review conference in Vienna next year. These include, for example:

  1. 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 aggressive comments verbally attacking those in countries promoting fulfilling the nuclear disarmament obligations under the NPT. Thus, postponing the NPT conference to 2021 provides a respite of a year with the possibility of an improved political climate next year, not to mention subsidence of COVID-19.
  2. Convening the review conference in Vienna will provide a welcome change in venue from the near toxic political climate at the United Nations in New York over issues such as Syria, the Middle East, visas and sanctions among others.
  3. 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. Only the North and South American delegates will have increased travel distances, but these obviously are a minority compared to those from other regions.
  4. 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. Such savings would be beneficial both for official delegates as well as for civil society representatives.
  5. In addition, now the rationale is questionable to hold NPT review conferences at any location in any nuclear-weapon State (NWS). It is arguable that the NWS 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 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 organizations such as the IAEA and the CTBTO.

If Not Now, Then When?

Despite the promises under the NPT, more than 13,000 nuclear weapons still exist in the five nuclear-weapon States party to the Treaty – with nearly 3,000 on ready to launch status, as well as nearly two million kilogrammes of weapon-usable nuclear material. The danger of nuclear war whether by accident or design is at an all-time high, the Doomsday clock is teetering at 100 seconds to midnight – that is 100 seconds to possible nuclear Armageddon! In these circumstances, the NPT remains the sole multilateral nuclear arms control treaty and its integrity and authority must be preserved if we are to have any chance of avoiding a nuclear holocaust.

On 27 April, or whenever, as proposed by President-designate Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen, NPT States parties meet to decide on procedural matters concerning the NPT review conference, the only correct decisions regarding dates and venue are: late April-early May 2021 in Vienna. If NPT States parties do not live up to their responsibilities now, then when? [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 March 2020]

Photo: Collage with images from Arms Control Association and the Doomsday clock.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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