Little concrete progress towards disarmament as P5 meet to prepare for NPT Review Conference

The five nuclear-weapon states recognised under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) met in London at the beginning of February to prepare for the forthcoming NPT Review Conference, which begins in April in New York.

The meeting was the sixth time that the five nations have met since 2009 as part of an ongoing 'P5 process' on confidence building measures towards nuclear disarmament.

The five states – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States (also known as the P5) – used the opportunity to report on progress they have made towards implementation of the Action Plan agreed at the last 2010 NPT Review Conference in 2010.  However, little has been accomplished towards the majority of the 'concrete steps for the total elimination of nuclear weapons' outlined in the Action Plan, and the P5 are expected to receive heavy criticism at the 2015 Review Conference for the lack of progress in meeting their disarmament obligations, whilst at the same time modernising their nuclear forces.

The five unveiled a new common framework for reporting on the status of their nuclear stockpiles and doctrines at the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting.  They have also said that a multi-lingual glossary of nuclear terms will be launched at the 2015 Review Conference.  These modest achievements are unlikely to impress many non-nuclear-weapon states.

Other topics discussed at the meeting included nuclear doctrines, including an update on New START implementation and the verification experiences, and efforts to restart discussions in the Conference on Disarmament, which have made no progress since 1996.

According to Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood, “the conference was successful in positioning the UK well in the run up to the NPT review conference”, giving the unfortunate impression that the UK, at least, sees the conference more about presentation than concrete action on non-proliferation and disarmament.

For the first time a handful of non-nuclear weapon states – Australia, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates – were invited to observe the conference in the hope of demonstrating a greater level of openness and, possibly, persuading them of the difficulty of the task faced by the P5.  Delegates also visited the Atomic Weapons Establishment.

A joint statement released by the five following the conference restated their view that the NPT “remains the essential cornerstone for the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament”, and is “an essential contribution to international security and stability”.

In a barely concealed side-swipe at the Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons and resulting pressure for negotiation of a global treaty to ban nuclear weapons, the statement declared “that a step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament that promotes international stability, peace and undiminished and increased security for all remains the only realistic and practical route to achieving a world without nuclear weapons”.

Nevertheless, the 'step-by-step approach' advocated by the P5 appears to have stalled, with no progress having been made on entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, or a conference to discuss a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free-Zone in the Middle East.

One of the aims of the P5 process is “to develop technologies for the verification of nuclear disarmament”, and a number of initiatives relating to verification were discussed at the London conference.  Regular technical meetings between P5 experts aimed at enhancing the verification regime will continue, and the US government used the conference as an opportunity to announce the first meeting of the new International Partnership for Disarmament Verification, which will take place in Washington in March.  The partnership was first announced by Rose Gottemoeller, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security late last year in Prague, and is intended to build upon work done as part of the UK – Norway Initiative on Disarmament Verification and bring both nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states together to explore disarmament verification.

As well as work conducted as part of the UK-Norway Initiative, the UK has been working with the US since 2000 to explore verification technologies and procedures for nuclear warhead dismantlement.  The UK is also beginning to establish a verification dialogue with China, and it is possible that further information about this initiative may be announced at the Review Conference in April.

Five previous P5 meetings have taken place (London 2009, Paris 2011, Washington 2012, the Russian-hosted Geneva meeting in 2013, and Beijing 2014).  France has offered to host the next P5 conference, although no timescale has been announced for the meeting.

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