The Experience of the NPT Review Process and the 2022 Review Conference

March 9, 2023

Since the time when it was debated at the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC), from 1985 to 1968, the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons has been the subject of disagreement and controversy. There was no consensus on the draft submitted by two co-Chairs of the ENDC. Nevertheless, it was brought to the General Assembly and finally adopted by 95 votes in favor, four against and 21 abstentions. This result shows that about one fourth of the membership of the United Nations were not ready to adhere to the Treaty. At the 1975, 1980, 1985. 1990 and 1995 Review Conferences those divergences came to the fore and explain the lack of a substantive Final Document in some of them. However, this did not prevent the NPT from gaining increasing acceptance over the decades and becoming the most successful instrument in the field of non-proliferation. As we know, only four countries today are not party to it, all of which acquired nuclear weapons.

The following is a sketchy appraisal of the review process since its inception in 1995 and a more detailed overview of the 2022 Review Conference, which took place in August 2022 in New York.

The 1995 Review and Extension Conference only dealt with the extension of the NPT and did not review the operation of the instrument. The extension was secured in exchange for a set of decisions on strengthening the review process and a last-minute resolution on the convening of a Conference on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Many non-nuclear states had argued in favor of extending the Treaty for 25-year periods, but agreed with the indefinite extension in the hope that it would be a catalyst for much awaited progress on effective measures of nuclear disarmament, in accordance with Article VI. Unfortunately, as we know, this did not happen. The lack of progress on nuclear disarmament continues to be the major reason for continuing dissatisfaction among many parties.

The 2000 Conference was the first since the adoption of the decision to extend the Treaty indefinitely. The new millennium started in that year with very promising prospects for progress in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Indeed, there seemed to exist a favorable attitude of the five nuclear-armed states recognized by the Treaty to examine new proposals and suggestions to advance negotiations.

Based on the agreements reached in the 1995 Conference which I just mentioned, the 2000 Conference agreed on “13 practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement article VI of the NPT”. It also agreed on the necessity of establishing in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva an appropriate subsidiary body with a mandate to deal with nuclear disarmament. The Final Document of the 2000 Conference also recorded the “unequivocal undertaking” by the nuclear weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament. These recorded agreements, together with adoption of the “Thirteen Steps” were taken by many as an indication that new breakthroughs would follow.

However, only four years later, when the Parties to the NPT met in 2004 at the Third Preparatory meeting for the 2005 Review Conference, the atmosphere in international relations had deteriorated to a point where the commitments reached in 2000 had been put into doubt. In that short time span the confidence that the commitments toward progress in disarmament would be honored had disappeared. By the time I was chosen to chair the 2005 Conference the previous optimistic prospects had changed radically. Because of the deep mutual lack of trust among the main nuclear powers and between them and non-nuclear parties, the 2004 Preparatory meeting failed to take key decisions that would have enabled the Review Conference to proceed smoothly.

As a result, the Review Conference opened without an agreed agenda to guide the sequence of activities of the Conference. It was the first time ever when a Review Conference had to face such a situation. The first two and a half weeks of the 2005 Conference were wasted in heated and sometimes sterile debate on the formulation of the agenda.

A formula was finally agreed by all and the Conference could move forward but the three Main Committees of the Conference obviously had no time left for their own discussions. In practice, the Conference had only one and a half weeks to accomplish the work it should complete in four weeks. This in turn made it impossible to prepare a draft Final Document. The Conference ended with a bitter feeling of frustration.

I am convinced that the failure of the 2005 Conference was entirely due to the inability of parties to move from inflexible positions and establish a constructive atmosphere for their discussions. I thought, however, that the failure could stimulate the parties to the Treaty to behave more seriously during the next five years in anticipation of the 2010 Conference.

 I felt that all delegations were resigned not to have a Final Document because the lack of an agreed outcome allowed everyone could say that they did not lose or gain anything. The harm done was not to any national position but rather to the credibility and authority of the Treaty. The 2005 Conference was the fourth time in eight attempts that the parties had failed to achieve a consensus document.

This made the parties to the NPT come to the conclusion that a second failure in a row could have quite dangerous consequences for the regime instituted by the NPT. Accordingly, their delegates came to New York in 2010 with the firm intention to prevent impasse on a Final Document. I believe that this was what the chair of the 2010 Conference, Ambassador Libran Cabactulan, meant when he said to me that “2005 was doomed to fail but 2010 was doomed to succeed”.

In fact, the 2010 Conference did achieve progress in starting a process of consultation regarding the Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction. It also adopted a 64-point program of action that touches in a large number of issues related to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Unfortunately, that program had no useful follow-up. In my view the main achievement of the 2010 Conference was to register in the Final Document, without dissent, the concern of the parties with the humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. As a result of that recognition, three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations were held and later blossomed into the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which finally entered into force in January 2021. It has today 68 parties and 91 signatories.

The next Review Conference took place in 2015. It failed when an objection to the draft Final Document painstakingly negotiated by President Ambassador Thaos Feroukhy was raised by the United Kingdom and Canada. That draft was considered very bland by most delegations, but even so they were willing to agree in order to avoid the failure.

The next Review Conference, held in New York last August, met a similar fate. As you know, It had to be postponed for two years due to the Covid pandemic, and by the time it opened in August 2022 the international atmosphere was at one of its lowest point ever. It failed to achieve consensus on a Final Document when Russia raised an objection to the draft Final Document presented by President Gustavo Zlauvinen. In the view of many delegations, the draft document would have done very little to take forward the objectives of the NPT. Just like in 2015 the overwhelming majority would be willing to accept substantive conclusions well below their expectations for the sake of at least showing unity in support of the NPT. There was great interest in avoiding two failures in a row.

Perhaps the key difference between the parties to the Treaty lies in the fundamental understanding of the role and impact of nuclear weapons. While the nuclar weapon parties and their allies continue to frame their weapons as a supreme security guarantee, the rest of the international community considers them the primary threat to international security and stability. These mutually exclusive beliefs help to explain the basic tensions that led to the failure of the 10th NPT Review Conference.

The fact that most delegations to the Tenth Review Conference were ready to adopt a document that would not meet the expectations can be interpreted as the evidence of a general will to support and uphold the NPT. A large number deplored the lack of ambition of the final document proposed by the President but made clear that they would support it mainly to preserve the regimes instituted by the NPT. During the debates, many parties indicated they had their own “red lines” concerning the final text, but in the end seemed to be willing to drop their reservations for the sake of consensus. With that objective in mind, some sections of previous versions of the draft were deleted in order to accommodate the objections that would have been raised by different delegations.

Russia blocked consensus because the text crossed one of its “red lines.” All other nuclear-armed states party to the NPT were ready to do the same if one of their own red lines were crossed. This they made clear, repeatedly, at the Plenary, Main Committees, and Subsidiary Bodies. Somehow, they were more successful than Russia in keeping anything they couldn’t live with out of the draft outcome document. In the end, Russia reportedly objected to the mention of borders with Ukraine. We will never know if other states would raise objections if they believed that their concerns had not been adequately reflected in the draft Final Document finally presented by the President.

For instance, China did not want a mention to a moratorium on the production of fissile materials to be included in the draft. France had references to no-first-use removed. The United Kingdom ensured that no commitment to offer unconditional negative security assurances to NNWS was in the final document. AUKUS partners were very careful to ensure that the wording on naval nuclear propulsion did not negate their positions on this matter.

Iran and other Middle Eastern states wanted Israel mentioned by name in the outcome document’s section on the pursuit of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, but this was not acceptable to the United States. Iran led a group that expressed strong concerns about not being included in consultations that resulted in the wording on this issue.

Nuclear-armed states rejected any references in the outcome document to “benchmarks”, “targets,” or “timelines” for the implementation of concrete disarmament measures. The five nuclear weapon states also prevented even a factual mention to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Increasingly, the experience of past Review Conferences brings forth for many of the parties the fundamental question of whether the regime does – or does not – present a credible path to the actual elimination of the existential danger posed by the existence of nuclear weapons.

The basic reason for disagreement concerns different views about the performance of the treaty in fostering nuclear disarmament. The wide majority of non-nuclear parties that are not allied with nuclear weapon states contend that progress toward disarmament has been slow and insufficient, particularly as compared to the success of the treaty in curbing horizontal proliferation. In the view of those states the net result over the decades has been a weakening of the NPT’s credibility as a framework for the elimination of nuc lear weapons.

 Due to the two-year delay forced by the COVID pandemic, a new review cycle will begin in a few months, leading to the 2026 11th Review Conference. If anything, the 10th Conference made clear once again the commitment of parties to the NPT and its objectives. What seems increasingly disfunctional is the structure of the review system itself. It was conceived and adopted as part of package, but many point out that some elements of that package had no effective follow-up.

Despite the perceived shortcomings of the Treaty, most stakeholders seem to agree that it remains the centerpiece of the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. The absence of an outcome document does not mean that the Tenth NPT Review Conference and some of its prdecessors had no value of any kind. The willingness of the parties to continue meeting regularly to appraise the performance of the instrument reflects their positive commitment to the treaty and its objectives.

Despite the near universality the NPT, its long history of controversy and the continuing lack of a clear common understanding at the successive Review Conferences is harmful to the authority and credibility of the Treaty. The parties to the NPT have not yet come to an agreement on the basic question of the role and need for nuclear weapons. While most non-nuclear states want to build a path to their elimination, the nuclear states and their allies seem to want to extend the current status quo indefinitely.

In spite of its shortcomings, the NPT has been for a long time the centerpiece of the global disarmament and non-proliferation regime. It remains to be seen how long humanity will continue to live with the threat of its own annihilation represented by nuclear weapons.

First presented at Zagreb, Croatia (22/23 November, 2022)

Key words: NPT