The 2012 NPT PrepCom: Hopes and prospects

By Tim Street


This week will see a new cycle of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commencing in Vienna.  The city is hosting this year’s NPT Preparatory Committee meeting ('PrepCom', to use the jargon) between 30 April and 11 May.  NPT Prepcoms meet for two weeks in each of the three years leading up to a five-yearly Review Conference (‘RevCon’) for the treaty, where the nations which have signed the treaty assess progress and agree on future steps they wish to take to help meet the treaty's goals.  Prepcoms pave the way towards reaching agreement at the Revcon: diplomats table statements, working papers, summaries, and reports which the Chairman uses to help guide the Revcon. None of these documents are binding – they are for use as assessment tools at the Revcon where a consensus document is (hopefully) produced to map out actions for the future.

Under the NPT, the US, UK, France, Russia and China – sometimes also known as the 'P5' as they are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – are the 'official' nuclear-weapon states recognised by the terms of the treaty. India and Pakistan have never joined the NPT and have also developed nuclear arsenals, and Israel, too, is considered to be a non-signatory to the treaty which possesses nuclear weapons, although it has never officially declared whether it has a nuclear capability. North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003 and, having subsequently tested a nuclear weapon, is considered to be in non-compliance with the terms of the treaty. The 'grand bargain' between NPT members – the nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states – is that the nuclear-weapon states will initiate negotiations to eliminate their arsenals and not assist efforts by non nuclear-weapon states to acquire nuclear weapons. At the same time, the NPT requires the non-nuclear weapon states to forgo the acquisition of nuclear weapons and to place all their nuclear facilities under international safeguards.   The treaty gives all states an 'inalienable right' to develop peaceful nuclear power programmes.

The last NPT Review Conference, which took place in 2010, was considered to be a moderate success.  The conference took place in the aftermath of President Obama's speech in Prague, in which he outlined a vision of a world without nuclear weapons.  The final document of the 2010 Conference saw its members adopt a 64-point action plan.  This plan has several important implications and commitments for the nuclear-weapon states, as it  requires them to:

  • commit to undertake further efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate all types of nuclear weapons through a range of measures;
  • comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law at all times (this has particular relevance to the deployment of nuclear weapons and doctrines such as deterrence);
  • make special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons;
  • convene a conference in 2012 with the aim of beginning negotiations on implementing a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ);

Following the 2010 NPT RevCon, the P5 have met to undertake follow-up discussions on their disarmament obligations. At the meeting, which took place in Paris in 2011, they also explored issues such as transparency and mutual confidence-building, including nuclear doctrine, capabilities and verification. The challenge now for the P5 and other states with nuclear weapons is how to make the next leap forward to a formal process of multilateral negotiations which have the goal of agreeing a binding global treaty to abolish nuclear weapons – sometimes referred to as a nuclear weapons convention.

A strong civil society presence at this year's Prepcom will be vital if the nuclear weapons states are to start overcoming the obstacles to abolition. In recent years non-governmental organisations (NGOs) observing the conference have actively scrutinised the behaviour of government delegations, provided new ideas on how to drive forward and reframe debates, and held state representatives and officials accountable so they take action on their responsibilities. NGOs have thus become significant, visible and important players at NPT conferences. Were it not for Reaching Critical Will, Abolition 2000, Global Zero, Mayors for Peace, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) – to name but a few – the P5 would not feel so much pressure to report concrete progress on disarmament at the next NPT Revcon in 2015.  For example, many NGO voices are currently questioning what 'special efforts' the P5 have made towards agreeing a ban on nuclear weapons. Tim Wright of ICAN Australia points out that 'the Conference on Disarmament remains at a standstill, modernization efforts continue unabated, and no formal process is as yet underway for a nuclear weapons convention'.

As always, discussions at the Prepcom will face considerable obstacles.  Tensions over Iran's uranium enrichment programme and uncertainties over North Korea's test programme have the potential to cast shadows over the negotiations.  Elsewhere, Israel has announced that it will not attend talks on a Middle East WMDFZ until there is 'comprehensive peace in the region'. Israel's UN Ambassador Ron Prosor stated that until this is achieved, Israel sees the planned conference on this matter as 'absolutely not relevant'. As Kate Hudson, Chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, recently highlighted, concrete action to advance a disarmament agreement in the Middle East must be taken now if we wish to avoid 'consigning future generations to a lifetime of insecurity'. The indefinite extension of the NPT as a treaty in 1995 was agreed to by a number of Arab states and several members of the Non-Aligned Movement on the understanding that such progress would be made, and failure to do so could cast their commitment to the NPT regime into question.

While there are many barriers preventing an agreement on a global ban on nuclear weapons there are also many opportunities for NGOs to push forward the agenda at this year's Prepcom – and beyond. Vibrant, young international campaign groups such as ICAN, with fresh approaches to disarmament, have drawn on the successes of anti-landmine and cluster munitions campaigns and attracted new supporters. They are using humanitarian arguments to delegitimise nuclear weapons, ensuring that government representatives and officials have no choice but to begin discussing and acting on these matters. There is a long way to go, but previous agreements to ban Biological and Chemical weapons as well as landmines and cluster munitions, and the example of nuclear weapon free zones, show that nuclear abolition is possible as well as urgently necessary.

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