More than Empty Promises at the NPT

Tasneem Jamal Nuclear Weapons

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2010 Volume 31 Issue 2

The storyline adopted by many nongovernmental organizations in the immediate wake of the 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was one of “empty promises” (Deen 2010). But now, with broad expressions of disappointment out of the way, observers increasingly point to the achievements.

A primary and notable accomplishment was avoiding the disaster of the 2005 Conference. But there were others. Indeed, assessments by states ranged from “historic success” to “re-launched momentum” to Canada’s characterization of the Conference final document as “a modest product” that contains “seeds of hope.” Mexico might have put it best: “While not bringing us to heaven, it does distance us from hell, the hell of nuclear war” (Roche & Regehr 2010).

The final document (2010 RevCon 2010b), agreed to by consensus, is divided into two parts, with the first the Conference President’s report on the discussions. It notes issues of general agreement and other issues favoured by a majority of states. This overview is followed by a set of conclusions and recommendations, referred to as the Action Plan (AP), with 64 actions. States parties accepted both parts as the official final document. The President’s overview is taken to accurately reflect the sense of the meeting, but the proposals and measures included there are not politically, and certainly not legally, binding. AP measures, on the other hand, represent firm commitments made by all states parties.

Much of the disarmament language in both parts of the final document is familiar and aspirational. The pledge to “achieve the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” (2010 Rev Con 2010b, p. 17) may raise suspicions of ‘empty promises’, but, on the other hand, it was the complete absence of such pledges that earned the 2005 Review Conference the label of ‘disaster’. And this time, the final document goes beyond platitudes.

Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone

Arguably, the most prominent and far-reaching action is in support of “the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction” (p. 27).

In 1995, when the NPT was transformed into a permanent Treaty, the Middle East was a central point of contention. Arab States were unprepared to permanently disavow nuclear weapons when one state in their midst, Israel, was not party to the Treaty, would not make the same commitment, would not admit that it was in possession of nuclear weapons, and would not open all its nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). To bridge that commitment gap, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia set out a resolution, agreed to by all Parties to the Treaty, in support of a nuclear weapons free zone in the region – an old idea, but with a new impetus to serious treatment.

Of course, this proposal wasn’t taken seriously. Now, in 2010, the NPT States have made another promise – with two core elements.
First, they promise to convene a conference in 2012, “to be attended by all States of the Middle East” (p. 27). At this time, Israel says it will not attend (Teibel 2010). The conference is to be convened by the UN Secretary-General and the co-sponsors of the 1995 resolution. In addition, the IAEA, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and other relevant international organizations are tasked to prepare appropriate background documentation.

Second, the UN Secretary-General and the 1995 co-sponsors, in consultation with the states of the region, are to appoint a “facilitator” with a mandate to support implementation of the 1995 resolution, to support preparations for the 2012 conference, to carry out post-conference follow-on activities, and then to report to the 2015 Review Conference.

Nuclear weapons convention

Another notable breakthrough is the final document’s clear affirmation of a nuclear weapons convention (NWC).While the idea of an NWC has wide public appeal, some governments that support the idea in principle, including Canada, argue that now is not its time. They say that more of the specifics of nuclear disarmament – e.g., a test ban and a ban on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes – need to be in place before a convention is doable. But others argue that the convention is precisely what is needed to guide the disarmament yet to come.

This latter view prevailed at the Review Conference. In “noting” Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s disarmament proposals, the Conference drew special attention to his call to “consider negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention or agreement on a framework of separate mutually reinforcing instruments, backed by a strong system of verification” (para 82, p. 11). In that context the final document concludes that “the final phase of the nuclear disarmament process and other related measures should be pursued within an agreed legal framework, which a majority of States parties believe should include specified timelines” (para 83, p. 11).

The Action Plan itself includes an indirect reference to a convention: “The Conference calls on all Nuclear Weapons States to undertake concrete disarmament efforts and affirms that all States need to make special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.” The reference to a framework is immediately followed by another reference to the Secretary-General’s support for negotiations toward a convention or a framework of separate mutually reinforcing instruments (B.iii, p. 18).

As a result, there is now an informal mandate for supportive governments and civil society to convene international consultations to thoroughly explore the focus, scope, verification, and other elements relevant to a nuclear weapons convention.

Institutional deficit

Canada has for some time led efforts to build an institutional infrastructure for the NPT, and to improve its review and decision-making processes. A working paper (2010 RevCon 2010a), initiated by Canada but with a broad group of co-sponsors, proposed three specific and fairly far-reaching changes.

The first proposal was to change the present arrangement in which a Treaty conference occurs only every five years, supported by three Preparatory Committee meetings. The proposal was for every five-year review cycle to include three annual decision-making conferences, plus the Review Conference, supported by one Preparatory Committee meeting. This proposal was ultimately rejected and received no mention in the final document.

The second proposal was for a “Chairs’ Circle” comprised of the past, incumbent, and incoming chairs or presidents of the annual preparatory committee meetings and the Review Conference. This group would meet as required to share best practices, provide advice, and transfer knowledge to produce a more effective review process. This proposal was well received, and although it was not part of the Action Plan, the Conference President reported (para 111, p. 14):

The Conference recognizes the importance of ensuring optimal coordination and continuity throughout the review cycle. In this context, the Conference encourages the past and incumbent Chairs to be available for consultations by the incoming Chair, if necessary, regarding practical matters relating to their responsibilities. Participation in these meetings will be voluntary and without affecting the costs assessed to States parties.

Though not a fully mandated action, the incoming chairs obviously would have the support of Treaty states parties to implement the proposal.

The third recommendation in the Canadian working paper was to establish a Treaty support unit, consisting initially of one officer, to support the Chair and the Chairs’ Circle by providing administrative and logistical support, as well as background documentation and analysis. This proposal was endorsed by the Review Conference – again, not as a mandated action, but as a general recommendation for a dedicated staff officer to support the Treaty’s review cycle from within the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (para 112, p. 14).

Cost implications are a particularly sensitive matter, but the working paper offered a detailed assessment of the costs of all the recommendations, including a three-person support unit, and showed enough potential savings from a reduction in overall meeting days to more than cover the new costs. But as the recommendation to change the pattern of meetings was not accepted, these savings will not be realized. The support unit, if pursued, would have to be financed through special contributions. There was a specific call to further consider institutional changes during the next review cycle (para 113, p. 14).

Reporting and transparency

The importance of transparency in all nuclear activities and of providing specific reporting on actions taken in support of implementing the Treaty received renewed emphasis in the Review Conference. The primary reference is in the Action Plan (Action 20, p. 21), which repeats the 2000 agreement:

States parties should submit regular reports, within the framework of the strengthened review process for the Treaty, on the implementation of this Action Plan, as well as of article VI, paragraph 4(c) of the 1995 Decision on “Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament”, and the practical steps agreed to in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference, and recalling the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice of 8 July 1996.

For the first time States added a more specific call for Nuclear Weapon States to report (Action 21, p. 22):

As a confidence building measure all the nuclear-weapon States are encouraged to agree as soon as possible on a standard reporting form and to determine appropriate reporting intervals for the purpose of voluntarily providing standard information without prejudice to national security. The Secretary-General is invited to establish a publicly-accessible repository which shall include the information provided by the nuclear-weapon States.

Nuclear weapon states have been reluctant to submit formal reports – that is, they have been reluctant to acknowledge that they are accountable to all states parties for action taken, or not taken, to meet their obligations under Article VI of the Treaty. However, there are signs of that resistance breaking down. China and Russia reported formally in 2005 and did so again in 2010 (documents NPT/CONF.2010/31 and NPT/CONF.2010/28 respectively). The United States also reported, but still refused to acknowledge its paper as a report under the reporting provision. Instead the US referred to it as “United States information pertaining to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” (NPT/CONF.2010/45).

Reaffirming the basic disarmament agenda

The 2010 Review Conference reaffirmed the important decisions and agreements reached at the 1995 and 2000 Review Conferences (para 5, p. 2). In doing so, the 2010 action plan endorses the overall nuclear disarmament agenda contained in those decisions.
The nuclear weapon states reaffirmed their commitment to an “unequivocal undertaking” to “accomplish… the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals” (para 80, p. 11), and in the course of implementing that undertaking they committed “to undertake further efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate all types of nuclear weapons, deployed and non-deployed, including through unilateral, bilateral, regional, and multilateral measures” (Action 3, p. 18).

They accepted the call to further diminish the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies, develop measures to prevent their use and reduce the risk of accidental use, and to increase transparency. Notably, the nuclear weapon states are “called upon to report the above undertakings to the Preparatory Committee at 2014” (Action 5, p. 19).

In the action plan states resolve to “achieve the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons, in accordance with the objectives of the Treaty” (I.A.i, p. 17). The final report highlights a number of specific policies:

  • Entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (paras 84-86, p. 11; Actions 10-14, p. 20),
  • Negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and encouraging nuclear weapon states to declare surplus fissile materials and bring them under IAEA safeguards (Actions 15-18, p. 21).
  • Honouring negative security assurances (Actions 7-8, p. 19), and
  • Promoting nuclear-weapon-free zones (Action 9, p. 19).
  • The importance of universality. India, Israel, and Pakistan were called upon to join the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states (para 115, p. 15), and the weapons tests of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were deplored (p. 28).



2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 2010a. Further strengthening the review process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons:Working paper submitted by Canada, Australia, Austria, Chile, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand and Ukraine. March 18.

———. 2010b. Draft Final Document. May 27.

Deen, Thalif. 2010. U.N. nuke meet ends with good intentions and empty promises. Inter Press Service, May 29.

Roche, Douglas & Ernie Regehr. 2010. No heaven, farther from nuclear hell. Embassy Magazine, June 2. ;

Teibel, Amy. 2010. Israel rejects UN call to come clean on nuclear program. The Globe and Mail, May 30.

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