Canadian NPT Delegation Report to NGOs: NGOs and the NPT Review Process

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

Sixth NPT Review Conference

In an NGO discussion group at the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) a veteran disarmament campaigner described her decades of work as “pushing the ocean back with a broom.” It may not be an image to inspire excessive confidence, but it would not be a surprise if it generated interest in bigger brooms. NGO reflections on their participation in this Review Conference, set in these final days before the end of the conference amid rumours of deadlock and failure, lead some NGOs to wonder aloud about the effectiveness of the overall process, but most still regard the NPT reviews as cardinal events on the disarmament calendar and they do indeed want a wider broom to help keep the nuclear ocean at bay.

The NPT remains the only multilateral legal instrument requiring all states party to the Treaty to rid themselves of, or to forego the acquisition of, nuclear weapons. Furthermore, it now includes an agreed upon mechanism by which all states that are party to the Treaty are to hold each other accountable for the progress, or lack of it, in implementing their obligations under the Treaty (including, notably, the requirement that the NWS account for their efforts toward meeting their Article VI obligation “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”).

The 1995 indefinite extension of the Treaty included a decision to formalize a review process, through a full Conference every five years and annual Preparatory Committee sessions in each of the three years prior to the Conference (with the possibility of a fourth Preparatory session), to assess performance in the previous five years and set objectives for the next. As mandated in 1995, the current Review Conference includes, as will future Reviews, an examination of ways to strengthen this accountability process, and Canada has given leadership to an effort to make formal provision for routine and more extensive NGO participation.

In his address to the Conference plenary, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy emphasized that real accountability needed real transparency, and that NGO participation would make a significant contribution to both. Recalling the landmines convention experience, he said “the active contribution of NGO representatives can do a great deal to enhance the openness of our work, to involve people in the issues, and to mobilize public support and participation in our efforts.”

Canada subsequently submitted a working paper to the Conference, introduced by Tariq Rauf, advisor to the Canadian delegation, at a special plenary session. The paper recommends that “each Review Conference, including its full Preparatory Committee process, encourages greater transparency, including increased NGO access and participation and enhanced media awareness.”

Current participation is informal and depends on a recommendation from the PrepCom and on the goodwill of the Conference President, but NGOs generally have a positive view of current access and would welcome action to formalise that access and extend it to include the Preparatory Committee sessions and to include the opportunity to address all the Main Committees in all PrepComs and Review Conferences – which is essentially the aim of the recommendation put forward.

That is not to say that the proposal to regularize and expand NGO participation and access has received an easy ride. Some delegations, of course, are actively opposed, many are indifferent, and some that support NGO involvement in principle believe that the appropriate mechanisms are national delegations.  The Canadian delegation includes two NGO advisors, and some other countries have single NGO reps on their delegations, but the Canadian proposal, of course, affirms the broader principle that civil society, as a global social institution or phenomenon that is independent of governments, has a key and constructive role to play in building global norms and consensus. Thus, the proposal calls for additional and direct NGO access and participation.

NGOs at this Conference have generally had a positive view of their participation. At a formal level it involved a special plenary session with 10 NGO presentations, as well as access to the conference plenary and to delegations outside of the closed committee sessions. In each of the Review Conferences that have made provisions for NGO representatives to address them, the attendance at the NGO sessions has increased.  In their review of this year’s NGO access, much of the NGO criticism is directed at their own internal organization of the NGO session. In the future, they say they will seek to make NGO presentations geographically more representative, there should be less emphasis on seeking out “celebrity” speakers, and the structures of the presentations should more closely follow the mandate of the Conference (that is, the NGO presentations should explicitly review disarmament progress in the previous five years, set out recommendations for action in the next five-year period, and then include cross-cutting themes of ethics, human rights, gender, democracy, and so on).

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