2022 NPT Review Conference fails to deliver

Analysis and Commentary, Featured, News, Nuclear Weapons, Ploughshares Monitor

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 43 Issue 3 Autumn 2022

By Cesar Jaramillo

The official record will show that Russia tanked the long-delayed and much-anticipated 10th Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), that it was the sole NPT state party to block consensus on the outcome document, and that the disagreement was ultimately over references in the text relevant to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. This is all accurate—but only part of the story.

Profound rifts divided NPT States Parties from the beginning and prevented even modest progress. Ultimately, the main accomplishment of this conference was the further weakening of the NPT’s credibility as a framework for nuclear abolition.

Unmet expectations

The world needed this Review Conference, delayed for two years, to make progress. To many states and civil society, progress primarily meant that nuclear-weapon states (NWS) that were party to the treaty (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States) would commit to implementing concrete disarmament measures and reporting regularly on progress made.

But NWS wanted to retain their arsenals while still professing support for the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. At the Review Conference, they highlighted the centrality of nuclear deterrence in their security policies, spoke at length about the impossibility of committing to any type of nuclear disarmament schedule, and explained how international security conditions hindered implementation of their disarmament obligations. Seventy-seven years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more than 50 years after the entry into force of the NPT, and decades after the end of the Cold War, they insisted that undertaking disarmament measures was premature.

A cloud of discontent and frustration descended upon the conference as it neared its end. As states stepped forward to announce their intention to support the outcome document, most also lamented its lack of ambition, expressed disappointment at the weakness of the commitments, and acknowledged that they were signing on mainly to preserve the NPT regime.

Consensus on Ukraine elusive

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine dogged attempts to reach consensus. Most pertinent was the situation at the Zaporizhzya nuclear power plant, the object of active military activity and the subject of conflicting accounts – most of which placed primary or full responsibility on Russia.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that the plethora of “red lines” set out by NWS and their allies made tangible progress on nuclear disarmament commitments unlikely at best.

Ukraine, with support from many delegations, wanted a clear acknowledgement that Russia was the chief instigator of this nuclear safety and security crisis. However, everyone was certain that Russia would oppose any direct reference to its alleged responsibility, and no such reference appeared in drafts of the outcome document.

According to one account, Russia ultimately objected to a reference in the final draft to Ukraine’s “internationally recognized borders.” But these “internationally recognized borders” were non-negotiable for Ukraine, which would have predictably blocked consensus if the reference had been deleted. In the end, the words remained in the draft and Russia blocked consensus.

Red lines for all NWS

Russia blocked consensus because text in the outcome document crossed one if its “red lines.” All other nuclear-armed states party to the NPT were ready to do the same if one of their 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.

China was ready to block consensus if a moratorium on the production of fissile materials were 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 non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) was in the final document.

AUKUS partners Australia (although not a NWS), the United Kingdom, and the United States had to be on board with any wording on naval nuclear propulsion. Iran and other Middle Eastern states wanted Israel included in a section of the outcome document on the pursuit of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, but this was certain to be rejected by the United States, and so no mention of Israel appeared.

Nuclear-armed states rejected any references in the outcome document to “benchmarks,” “targets,” or “timelines” for the implementation of concrete disarmament measures.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that the plethora of “red lines” set out by NWS and their allies made tangible progress on nuclear disarmament commitments unlikely at best. Even if Russia had not blocked consensus, the final document would have been devoid of any serious commitment to change the policies that most other NPT States Parties were clamouring to see changed.

NNWS in a nuclear alliance

A group of states sought a reference in the outcome document to the role of NNWS in nuclear military alliances and their responsibility to report on steps taken to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines. NPT States Parties that are also members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) rejected any reference to commitments that it should assume. They also claimed that any reference to a NNWS subgroup would create a new category of states within the NPT that had not been agreed upon.

Yet NATO is itself a military alliance with an overt policy of nuclear deterrence and members that are both NNWS and NWS. Some NNWS European members host nuclear weapons owned by the United States on their territories. And all NATO members are States Parties to the NPT.

These complex relationships raise important questions about whether NATO members are complying with their obligations under the NPT. In Article 1 of the treaty, each State Party of the NPT with nuclear weapons “undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons.” Article 2 requires “each non-nuclear weapon State Party to the Treaty” not to receive them.

Familiar attacks on the TPNW

As predicted, nuclear-armed States Parties to the NPT dismissed and rejected the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). They alleged that the TPNW in fact undermined the NPT and was incompatible with it.

Supporters of the TPNW have countered that this new treaty is not only compatible with the NPT but constitutes a rare instance of its implementation. The NPT does not implicitly or explicitly dictate that nuclear disarmament efforts must be undertaken under its direct auspices.

TPNW supporters at the NPT Review Conference called for the outcome document to include a reference to the “complementarity” of the NPT and the TPNW. Of course, such a reference would have killed any chance for consensus and never appeared in any draft.

The final draft of the outcome document did acknowledge the existence of the TPNW, its entry into force, and the first Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW. A previous draft had indicated that the Meeting of States Parties of the TPNW had produced an outcome document and an action plan, but this factual reference was dropped. France and some other countries opposed any reference at all to the TPNW, but not to the point of breaking consensus.

Positive advances

The absence of an outcome document does not mean that the NPT Review Conference had no value. The mere fact that it was finally held and well attended is a positive measure of the ongoing commitment of states parties to the treaty and the objectives it embodies.
Each Review Conference presents a unique view of the thorny challenges facing the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime at that point in time. Important issues are aired, if not advanced or resolved.

The 2022 conference displayed a renewed emphasis on gender and the important role that women can and must play in nuclear abolition at every level of disarmament discussions. Champions including Canada, Sweden, and Ireland received widespread support for their new focus on the gender dimensions of the effects of nuclear-weapons testing and use.

Nuclear risk reduction – concrete measures taken to minimize the possibility of an accidental or deliberate nuclear detonation – was prominently featured. Calls abounded for each NWS to commit to not being the first to introduce nuclear weapons into a conflict (no first use or NFU). While the one NFU reference in the final draft of the outcome document was promptly dropped, the positive response to this measure in sessions ensures that it will be taken up in relevant forums in the future.

Negative security assurances by NWS, which would guarantee that they would not use nuclear weapons against NNWS under any circumstances, were clearly wanted by many NNWS at the conference. However, NWS consistently resisted calls for blanket unconditionality.

While important issues were raised and discussed, there was no clear progress on concrete disarmament measures. With demand for such measures growing, this failure constitutes a critical shortcoming of the conference.

The fundamental point of division at the conference was never the Ukraine conflict. Rather, the essential divide was that NNWS wanted to chart a credible path to nuclear disarmament with concrete commitments and good-faith implementation, while NWS wanted to maintain the status quo. And the NWS won. For now.

See Death by a thousand red lines: The colossal failure of the 10th NPT Review Conference for a more detailed response to the 10th NPT Review Conference.

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