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After the NPT, green light for a Nuclear Weapons Convention

Rebecca Johnson
Director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy. Vice Chair, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
Rebecca Johnson

Rebecca Johnson

On May 28, the Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) adopted a 29-page final document containing principles, recommendations and 64 specific actions on: nuclear disarmament; non-proliferation and safeguards; nuclear energy, safety and security; and commitments to hold a regional conference in 2012 to make progress towards negotiating a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, as well as a review section which was meant to consider how well the treaty has operated to date.

Though intensively debated by the conference committees, the review section contained disagreements over issues such as Iran's compliance, plans by the nuclear weapon states to replace, update and modernise their current arsenals, and also the way in which past agreements (such as the 13 practical disarmament steps adopted by the 2000 Review Conference) had not been adequately implemented.

Adoption of this outcome document means that the 2010 Review Conference goes into the records as a "success". But what does it mean for those who want nuclear weapons to be abolished, not just controlled?

In terms of substance, there was a wide gap between what civil society and the vast majority of nuclear free countries proposed and argued for and the rather weak language, especially on disarmament, accepted for the sake of consensus after heavy pressure from the nuclear-weapon states. During the conference there had been serious and heated debates on proposals relating to devaluing nuclear weapons, nuclear doctrines and use, NATO's nuclear sharing arrangements, and eliminating tactical nuclear weapons, but for the sake of obtaining agreement these ended up either watered down to the level of the "13 Steps" adopted in 2000 (which, as many states complained, had been reneged on or barely addressed for most of the past decade) or left out altogether.

After Baroness Catherine Ashton had delivered a nondescript statement on behalf of the European Union, Spain was responsible for developing joint positions and statements. Brokering a common EU position was not easy, given the predominance of NATO members in the EU, with varying levels of dependence and belief in the theory and utility of nuclear deterrence, as well as Britain and France, which attempted to do all they could to remove references to a nuclear weapons convention, to prohibiting the use of the nuclear weapons, applying international humanitarian law to nuclear decision-making, de-alerting and reducing the role and value of nuclear weapons in doctrine and policy. Germany took the lead in European initiatives to reduce and eliminate tactical nuclear weapons. The strongest collective EU positions were in favour of strengthening the safeguards regime and promoting nuclear energy. Austria, however, made clear that it could not support the headlong rush to spread nuclear energy production technologies to developing countries, as pushed by the nuclear industries of a number of European countries, led by France and Britain. Other than that, the EU was not a major player in the NPT Review Conference, though specific delegations played important roles in the outcome, including Austria and Ireland.

There were two main drivers behind the successful adoption of the final document: a collective desire to support President Obama's initiatives and demonstrate that the non-proliferation regime is still relevant and important; and the breakthrough on the Middle East, in which Irish diplomats brokered a critical deal between the nuclear-weapon states and the Arab League to hold a regional conference in 2012 and establish a process to pursue the denuclearisation of the Middle East. Without these motivations, it is doubtful whether such a final document could have achieved consensus, as the commitments on nuclear disarmament and safeguards were much weaker than most states thought necessary.

Though the Middle East agreement was the media's big new story, the recognition of a nuclear weapons convention as a legitimate way forward to fulfil the NPT's main objectives and obligations will prove to be a more historic breakthrough. For the first time in an NPT context, a majority of states explicitly advocated comprehensive negotiations as well as incremental steps, citing the UN Secretary-General's 2008 Five Point Plan and its reference to a nuclear weapons convention as a way to realise President Obama's vision of security in a world without nuclear weapons. The weapon states fought hard to get all mention of a nuclear weapons convention deleted from the text, while key non-nuclear delegations strategised cleverly – and succeeded in keeping it in.

Despite these modest gains, however, the 2010 NPT conference proved incapable of dealing with the tough decisions on compliance and implementation or adopting concrete commitments to devalue nuclear weapons or make the IAEA additional protocol a verification standard, let alone to undertake multilateral negotiations on nuclear abolition. But it did make clear that preventing nuclear threats and proliferation requires not only concrete disarmament steps but the establishment of 'the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons'. Though shorn of any target dates, time-lines or commitments to negotiate, the concept of a nuclear weapons convention is set as a framing objective in the consensus action plan on disarmament, providing an important bridge between the partial non-proliferation approach of the NPT and the comprehensive abolition objectives of a nuclear weapons convention.

Instead of just lamenting about the weak language on disarmament and inability of the NPT machinery to deal with noncompliance and to strengthen its own safeguards agreements, we have to use the 2010 NPT outcome to dismiss the oft-heard government claims that a nuclear abolition treaty is premature or incompatible with the NPT and get a real negotiating process underway to ban nuclear weapons once and for all. Our task now is to build coalitions between traditional disarmament campaigns and organisations working on international humanitarian law, human rights and environmental protection.

The NPT has done its best for forty years to contain nuclear threats, but the message from the 2010 Review Conference is that dealing with nuclear weapons dangers in the 21st century will require establishing a truly universal approach, drawing in India, Pakistan and Israel, that will comprehensively ban nuclear weapons for everyone, reinforce what is best in the nonproliferation regime and establish stronger verification and safeguards mechanisms to prevent nuclear proliferation or terrorism. From now on, governments and civil society need to forge closer links and develop effective strategies for negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention to take over from these ineffective NPT review conferences where paper exhortations take precedence over real, verifiable actions to prevent the acquisition, use and threats posed by nuclear weapons.