An Unequivocal Landmark: The 2000 Review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty

Tasneem Jamal

Doug Roche

The Ploughshares Monitor June 2000 Volume 21 Issue 

The 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (April 24-May 20) took a big step forward through securing from the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) “an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” For the first time in an NPT setting, nuclear disarmament has been clearly separated from general and complete disarmament. This achievement was termed by the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), whose negotiating skills brought it about, “an important landmark on which to build a nuclear weapons free world.” Since the NWS continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals, the obstacles to nuclear disarmament remain formidable. But they can no longer be considered overwhelming, because active work leading to the goal has been politically validated. The “unequivocal undertaking Y to total nuclear disarmament” accepted by the NWS puts them in direct contradiction with their own nuclear deterrence doctrines. NAC has become the central force leading the abolition movement in challenging the NWS to live up to their commitment to Article VI of the NPT.

The NPT Final Document B the first to carry a genuine consensus in 25 years B has strong implications for more effective UN work in nuclear disarmament and NATO’s current review of nuclear weapons. The conditions are now right for a grand coalition of like-minded states and the advanced wing of civil society to work together to press the NWS to B at last B fulfill their commitments to Article VI of the NPT.

NAC moves; NWS responds

NAC, recognizing that it had strong support, seized the initiative on the opening day of the Conference. Its Working Paper, “Nuclear Disarmament,” set out in Operative Paragraph 1 the “unequivocable undertaking” demand that became the leitmotif of the conference:

“The five nuclear-weapon States make an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals and, in the course of the forthcoming review period 2000-2005, to engage in an accelerated process of negotiations and to take steps leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States Parties are committed under Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”

After calling for a speed up in START III negotiations, NAC called for the “integration” of all five nuclear weapons states into the process leading to total elimination and urged all five to take these steps:

a) To adapt their nuclear policies and postures so as to preclude the use of nuclear weapons;

b) To proceed to the de-alerting, to the removal of nuclear warheads from delivery vehicles and to the withdrawal of all nuclear forces from active deployment pending their complete elimination;

c) To reduce tactical nuclear weapons and to proceed to their elimination as an integral part of nuclear arms reduction;

d) To demonstrate greater transparency with regard to their nuclear arsenals and fissile material inventories;

e) To further develop the Trilateral Initiative between the United States, the Russian Federation and the IAEA so as to include all five Nuclear Weapon States in similar arrangements and to ensure the irreversible removal of fissile material from weapons programs;

f) To apply the principle of irreversibility in all nuclear disarmament, nuclear arms reduction, and nuclear arms control measures.

NAC also called for ratification of the CTBT, a fissile ban treaty, a subsidiary body at the Conference on Disarmament to “deal with” nuclear disarmament, nuclear-weapon-free zones in the Middle East and South Asia, legally binding negative security assurances, and measures to improve safeguards.

Recognizing that the NAC had stolen a march on them, the NWS, led by France, responded with a joint P5 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) statement which papered over their differences on NMD and tried to respond to the “unequivocal” demand:

“We reiterate our unequivocal commitment to the ultimate goals of a complete elimination of nuclear weapons and a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

By using the word “ultimate,” and maintaining their decades-long stand that nuclear disarmament was linked to general and complete disarmament (a linkage rejected by the International Court of Justice), the NWS revealed that they saw the NPT Review as business as usual. They did declare that “none of our nuclear weapons are targeted at any State,” and called for the conclusion of START III as soon as possible “while preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons.”

The statement was widely viewed as disingenuous, since nuclear weapons can be re-targeted at a moment’s notice, and “strengthening” the ABM can mean whatever you want it to mean. It was surprising that China signed on to the statement, given its strong criticism of the US NMD program. A few days later, China issued its own statement, once more stating that any amendment to the ABM would undermine it. In other moves that separated it from fellow nuclear powers, China called for a no-first-use policy, criticized the “hegemonism and power politics” of NATO, called for an end to Western policies of nuclear-sharing, and regretted that the Conference on Disarmament had not started negotiations on legally binding instruments to prevent an arms race in outer space.

NAC responded directly to the P5 statement, stating it “falls short of our expectations regarding nuclear disarmament.” NAC stressed that “the total elimination of nuclear weapons is an obligation and a priority and not an ultimate goal, and even less a goal that is linked, subject or conditioned to general and complete disarmament.”

The Non-aligned Movement (NAM) joined in the criticism of the P5 statement, drawing on the language of the NAM Working Paper, introduced early into the conference, stating that the NWS “conditionalities” on their obligations to nuclear disarmament were unacceptable. NAM insisted on its principled positions on nuclear disarmament, which included adherence to the ICJ unanimous conclusion that “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” The NAM repeated its familiar demand for

“The early commencement of negotiations on a phased programme of nuclear disarmament and for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons within a specified framework of time, including a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, employment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination.”

Out of this round of exchanges, two main points emerged. In pulling themselves together to stave off demands for comprehensive negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons, the NWS took the NMD issue off the table, a distinct plus for the US. Also, in their cohesiveness and moderation, the NAC emerged as the catalytic element of the conference, eclipsing the NAM. The NWS would have to deal with the NAC.

NWS negotiates with NAC

Main Committee I, dealing with the Article VI disarmament issues, became the centre of attention. This committee was headed by Ambassador Camillo Reyes Rodriguez of Colombia, who had chaired the Third PrepComm and produced a 61-page final paper which, while not going as far as the NAM desired, went well beyond what the Western NWS would accept.

In order to break the logjam on the two thorniest issues of the conference, nuclear disarmament and the Middle East situation, the NAM, led by South Africa, had argued at the PrepComms that subsidiary bodies be established at the review conference on these two subjects. Baali succeeded in overcoming US resistance and thus Main Committee I was charged with reviewing the past performance on Article VI issues while a new Subsidiary Body I, chaired by Ambassador Clive Pearson of New Zealand, would handle the forward-minded issues of Article VI.

Pearson convened four meetings and produced a document that went through several versions. His Chairman’s Paper was a blend of NWS caution and NAC advances. For example, Pearson used the NWS formulation of concluding START III while “preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of Strategic Stability.” But he also used the whole of NAC’s operative paragraph 1 from their Working Paper.

At first rejecting Pearson’s paper, the NWS later asked to meet with the NAC and several hours of negotiations ensued with NAC’s chief negotiators, Darach MacFhionnbhairr of Ireland, Peter Goosen of South Africa, and Amb. Antonio de Icaza of Mexico. Here NAC gave up the elements of Operative Paragraph 1 which would have the NWS engaging in an accelerated process of negotiations in the forthcoming NPT review period 2000-2005. Also, NAC agreed to put a number of NWS action steps under an umbrella heading that said these steps would be taken “in a way that promotes international stability and based on the principle of undiminished security for all.” What exactly does that phrase mean? Does it mean that a NWS would not have to take a step, e.g., the further reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons, if it felt that the step would diminish its security? Only time will tell if the NWS inserted that umbrella to give themselves an out. NAC agreed with the criticism of some NGOs that too much dilution had occurred, but stated that it had agreed to compromises so that the conference would not fail to achieve consensus on NAC’s principal demand.

Even after protracted NWS-NAC negotiations, it appeared that Russia and France would not agree to the compromise text. Russia kept insisting it could not take any disarmament steps that threatened its “strategic stability.” It berated the NAC for holding “arrogant positions.” In the end, Russia acquiesced to the text. France, insisting that NAC did not have a monopoly on good will, said it also wanted a positive outcome and accepted the text. China held out for a further 24 hours to get a no-first-use clause inserted, but as the conference entered its final day, it too agreed. Some non-nuclear Western states were chagrined that they had been excluded from the determining NWS-NAC negotiations, so a final round of talks was held under Norway’s chairmanship. When efforts were made to make still more changes, it was agreed that to open the package would be to lose it.

By holding to a bottom-line position on “total elimination,” NAC obtained a significant advance when the NWS dropped the word “ultimate” in qualifying nuclear disarmament and agreed for the first time to de-link nuclear disarmament from general and complete disarmament. Though giving up a time period for negotiations, NAC obtained a clear-cut commitment from the NWS that “systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI” would include:

“An unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI.”

Other practical steps agreed on include:

  • A moratorium on nuclear test explosions pending entry into force of the CTBT
  • Obtaining a negotiated fissile ban treaty within five years
  • A subsidiary body in the Conference on Disarmament with a mandate to deal with nuclear disarmament
  • The principle of irreversibility to apply to nuclear disarmament
  • The conclusion of START III “while preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability.”

Under the “undiminished security” umbrella, these further steps were agreed upon:

  • Further unilateral disarmament
  • Increased transparency by the NWS
  • Further reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons
  • Concrete measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems
  • A diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies
  • The engagement as soon as appropriate of all the NWS in the process leading to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons.

Finally, the forward-minded document also called for

  • All fissile material no longer required for military purposes to be placed under IAEA or other relevant international verification
  • Reaffirmation that the ultimate objective in the disarmament process is general and complete disarmament under effective international control
  • Regular reports on progress of the 1995 Principles and Objectives, and “recalling the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice of 8 July 1996”
  • Further development of verification capabilities.

The euphoria of agreeing on the forward-minded document gave way to a replay of bickering when delegates returned to the Main Committee 1 report, reviewing the past five years. Whereas Chairman Reyes had inserted a sentence in the draft calling attention to the threat to humanity posed by weapons which remain on high alert, the US objected to this language and the text was diluted to express concern at the “continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these nuclear weapons could be used.” Reyes had inserted a section noting Secretary-General Annan’s proposal for a major international conference that would help to identify ways of eliminating nuclear dangers. Mexico called this a worthy initiative and Canada recommended that the idea of the conference be considered at the Millennium Summit in September, 2000. The US allowed this indirect recommendation to go forward. Again, Reyes had a section noting “the unanimous conclusion of the International Court of Justice in its 1996 advisory opinion that there exists an obligation to pursue, in good faith and bring to a conclusion, negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” The US refused to let this description of the ICJ Opinion go forward, allowing only a reference to the title of the Advisory Opinion, “Legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons.” Malaysia was aghast that the US would not even agree to descriptive language.

Conclusion: forward from the ‘landmark’

What conclusions can we draw from the remarkable Sixth NPT Review? What steps can the informed leaders of civil society now take to move forward on the long journey to the elimination of nuclear weapons?

Certainly many NGOs appear unimpressed and if one can judge early public opinion at the local level from the editorial in the Edmonton Journal (my home city), some think the NPT Review amounted to not much more than a rearranging of words. The writer of this editorial wanted to see a time-bound program for real nuclear disarmament B and who can blame the writer? It is not an easy task to mobilize public opinion by pointing to an “unequivocal undertaking.” The nuances of change, real but cloaked, at the NPT Review will doubtless be lost on many. Nonetheless, a new moment in nuclear disarmament has occurred.

First, we must recognize that we now have a momentous opportunity. The final document is worth far more that a grudging acknowledgment. True, it does not include the necessary steps of a no-first-use pledge, de-alerting, or a commitment to legally binding negative security assurances. It certainly does not have a time-line for nuclear disarmament or even an explicit commitment to comprehensive negotiations. But it has something that gives the nuclear weapons abolition movement the strongest political base it has ever had: the door to the longstanding NWS doctrine of nuclear deterrence has cracked open. The total elimination of nuclear weapons is now accepted by the NWS. If total elimination, not merely reductions, is lifted off the pages of the final document to become the operative policy, then nuclear deterrence cannot remain as the permanent justification for the retention of nuclear weapons. Whether the NWS fully accept it or not, the principle of “total,” not “ultimate,” elimination is institutionally formalized. When to that is coupled the “unequivocal undertaking” to accomplish it, the dawning of a new day is achieved.

For good reason did the NWS stoutly resist the first NAC resolution at the UN First Committee. They saw it (as the French Ambassador openly admitted) as an unacceptable challenge to the underlying doctrine of nuclear deterrence. NAC has always realized that if the fallacy of the nuclear deterrence doctrine could be exposed as the immoral, illegal, and militarily unsustainable policy it is, then the whole framework supporting nuclear weapons could crumble.

Of course, given the tenacity with which the NWS are holding onto nuclear weapons as the core of their military doctrine, it would be totally unrealistic to think that the NWS will immediately implement that to which they have signed onto. Nothing in their record over the 30-year history of the NPT could provide any confidence that they will suddenly honour their obligations. Indeed, the first signs of resistance emerged a day after the conference ended when New York Times correspondent Barbara Crossette quoted an unnamed US official as saying that the agreement did not represent a significant shift in United States policy. Nonetheless, from this point forward, the NWS cannot escape the fact that they joined with the international community in a consensus statement making “an unequivocal undertaking Y to total elimination.”

Two institutions are immediately affected by this commitment: the United Nations and NATO.

In recent years, the UN has been somewhat marginalized in nuclear disarmament work. The Final Document of the First UN Special Session on Disarmament (the “bible” of disarmament) has been pushed so far back on governments’ library shelves that it is scarcely referred to any longer. The UN First Committee annually adopts resolutions, which reflect the views of the world community, but the UN’s operating disarmament body, the Conference on Disarmament, has been virtually paralyzed for the past few years. But the UN is the repository of global security and its role in disarmament issues is foremost, the bilateral arrangements of the US and Russia notwithstanding. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (which, as everyone says, is the most important disarmament treaty in the world) is a UN instrument. Indeed, the present Under Secretary-General for Disarmament is Jayantha Dhanapala, who was himself President of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference.

The time has arrived to restore the UN to paramountcy in disarmament work. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for a major world conference to identify ways to eliminate nuclear dangers. The active body of NGO specialists in nuclear disarmament should promote this idea with their governments so that they would respond affirmatively when this idea is discussed at the UN Millennium Summit in September, 2000. In fact, NGOs have an opportunity to advance such a global conference by holding seminars and workshops around the world, which could be a form of a civil society “PrepComm.” The role of the UN as the gathering place for the growing aspirations of the worldwide community calling for the total elimination of nuclear weapons should now be highlighted.

The second institution affected by the NPT Review is NATO. With the greatest reluctance, and dragging their feet, the NATO leadership accepted Canada’s plea that NATO’s nuclear weapons policies be reviewed. Prior to the NPT Review, practically no substantive work had been done, and, so hostile is the leadership of NATO to any change in their policies that they had begun to call Canada the “nuclear nag.” Nevertheless, four days after the NPT Review ended, Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy went to a NATO ministerial meeting in Florence and bluntly told his colleagues that they had to stop contradicting themselves on nuclear weapons policies:

“In the NPT and in the Conference on Disarmament, we are confronted regularly with the argument that if nuclear weapons are good for NATO, then they are good for others too. The contradiction in our declaration policy undermines the credibility of our non-proliferation and disarmament efforts.”

Axworthy called on NATO to make its nuclear policy “coherent” with the posture adopted at the NPT Review. He listed a number of penetrating questions NATO must explore:

  • “Can we not be more transparent about how many nuclear gravity bombs we have left, and where they are located?”
  • “Can NATO not unilaterally reduce the number of remaining bombs further, and call for proportional parallel action by the Russian Federation?”
  • “Should we not prepare a new comprehensive public statement of the Alliance’s arms control and disarmament policies that is relevant to today and tomorrow, rather than for yesterday?”

In the same speech, Axworthy directly challenged the US on its NMD plans. “A new arms race could be set in motion,” he said; “one that would undermine the stability that we have all come to take for granted.” He urged the US to take all the time needed to assess the potential impact on the international security system.

Axworthy’s strong message gives heart to all who recognize the impediment that NATO is to genuine nuclear disarmament. But if his voice is recorded as lonely and unsupported, NATO will ride out this criticism. To date, other non-nuclear states within NATO have not been noted for their bravery in challenging the three Western NWS, their brothers at the NATO table. The active NGOs in many of these NNWS countries now have an opportunity to press their governments to demand a change in NATO’s policies consistent with the NPT Review final document.

Although not formally an institution, the New Agenda Coalition has acquired, almost overnight, the status of a powerful force. The days of the NWS either patronizingly dismissing NAC as irrelevant or trashing it because of its upstart attitude are over. The NWS themselves signaled NAC’s new status in the world community by requesting a meeting with them to negotiate the final document of the NPT Review.

But what of the future of NAC? Will the heads of government and foreign ministers of these seven countries remain strongly committed to their cause B or will they succumb to the pressure from the Western NWS to stop rocking the boat. In politics and diplomacy, leaders like to get along with one another; all sorts of pressures, subtle and otherwise, are used by the stronger on the less strong. NAC leaders may be bold but they are not supermen and superwomen. They need an immediate manifestation of support from civil society, particularly within their own countries so that they can rebuff the importuning to stop upsetting the NWS.

NAC should proceed with its annual resolution at the UN, suitably modified to take account of the gains made. But NAC should not expect instant gains in numbers of supporting votes, particularly in the fall of 2000 when the NATO Review will not yet be complete, and NATO countries may hold to their abstention for the time being. But by planning a long-range strategy, pursued with relentless determination backed by an increasingly vocal civil society, NAC can take a commanding lead of the international community on the way into the 2005 NPT Review.

Finally, it should be obvious that the gains in nuclear disarmament, modest as they are, would not have occurred without the push exerted by civil society. Some have taken to saying that nuclear disarmament is off the radar screen, so let’s get on with something else. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The abolition of nuclear weapons is at the centre of world politics. The gathering momentum of world figures in the military, politics, religion, women’s groups, and civil society have put it there. The fallacies and dangers of NWS policies are being exposed. World consciousness is growing.

These conditions make it ripe for a new grand coalition B of like-minded governments and the advanced wing of civil society B to be formed. Such a powerful combination can not only dent but pierce the NWS self-serving, protective armour. The NWS, by their actions at the NPT Review, proved they are not impervious to the organized voices of the world community. The Anti-personnel Landmines Treaty came about as the result of the “Ottawa Process,” in which like-minded governments, in this case led by Canada, and highly knowledgeable, dedicated NGOs formed a working partnership. The partnership worked because both wanted the same goal B the elimination of the pernicious evil of landmines. Such a coalition of mutual interest can work again. True, the relative weight of the armaments is different. Nuclear weapons, unlike landmines, are central to the NWS doctrines. But the strength of the world community, working together and employing all the mechanisms to build public opinion around the world, can isolate the NWS and move them forward to take active steps to implement their “unequivocal commitment Y to total elimination.”

The unequivocal landmark represented by the 2000 NPT Review makes such a worldwide coalition possible.

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