NPT Review Conference: A Worrying COVID-19 Casualty

Cesar Jaramillo Featured, Nuclear Weapons

By Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 2 Summer 2020

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), widely considered the bedrock of the global nuclear disarmament regime, has not been immune to COVID-19. The latest in a series of Review Conferences (RevCon) of NPT states parties, which are held every five years, was to have taken place this past May at UN Headquarters in New York, but was postponed. According to an official UN announcement, the RevCon will now be held “as soon as the circumstances permit, but no later than April 2021.” However, with the future of COVID-19 still unknown, even that end date could be pushed back.

However necessary, the postponement of the RevCon constitutes a great blow to nuclear-disarmament efforts. While meetings of NPT states parties are always significant, several factors underscored the critical importance of this year’s gathering. The breakdown in the strategic relationship between Russia and the United States was perhaps most significant. But also critical were the long-unfulfilled objective of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, the overt policy of nuclear deterrence endorsed by all members of NATO, and the growing impatience by non-nuclear-weapon states over the lack of credible progress toward nuclear disarmament.

The state of nuclear disarmament in 2020

In March of this year, states parties to the NPT marked the 50th anniversary of the treaty’s entry into force. In August, the world will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet nuclear weapons still exist.

The complete and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons is long overdue. And, while the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been instrumental in addressing the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, it has failed to deliver nuclear abolition, a foundational objective of the United Nations.

Nuclear disarmament, as distinct from right-sizing and reconfiguration of nuclear arsenals, is a non-priority for the United States—and for China and Russia and the United Kingdom and France (the NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states). And no one is predicting that Israel, Pakistan, India or North Korea—all outside the NPT framework—will give up their nuclear weapons anytime soon.

And so the question today is not only if the world is better off with the NPT than without it, but whether this treaty will actually lead to complete nuclear disarmament. History does not encourage optimism. The last RevCon, held in 2015, failed to reach agreement on a consensus outcome document, typically seen as a minimum measure of success. Such a failure indicated profound shortcomings and difficulties with the nuclear-abolition enterprise.

Had this year’s NPT RevCon been held, there would have likely been considerable denunciation and lamentation from civil society and many states about the shortcomings of a deteriorating nuclear-disarmament regime as well as the increasing risk of a nuclear-weapons catastrophe.

Urgent attention required

The fragile strategic stability between the United States and Russia, which together possess approximately 95 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, has some international observers worried—with good reason. The past few years have seen the undoing of many of the arms-control agreements that provided the little predictability present in the relationship between the two superpowers. The combative personalities of both national leaders do little to defuse tensions.

On August 2, 2019, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia, which bans certain types of ballistic missiles, expired amid mutual accusations of treaty violations. This past May, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which allows for unarmed reconnaissance flights over the territory of parties to the Treaty. Again, the United States and Russia each issued accusations of noncompliance against the other. The consequential New START Treaty, which places a limit on the number of deployed warheads held by the United States and Russia, is set to expire in February 2021, but there seems little traction to renew it, under current leadership.

The pursuit of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East has been a thorny source of disagreement. Despite a concrete commitment made under the framework of the 1995 NPT RevCon, no such zone yet exists. Several states, notably in the Arab world, are keen to see progress on this objective, but the road to it is rocky. The near-collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, which has been unravelling since the Trump administration announced its unilateral withdrawal from the agreement in 2018, will almost certainly make the achievement of the Mideast goal considerably harder and could derail the next RevCon.

The stationing of U.S. nuclear weapons in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon states Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Italy, and the Netherlands is seen by many to directly contravene  Articles 1 and 2 of the NPT, which refer, respectively, to the undertaking by nuclear-weapon states not to transfer nuclear weapons to others, and the undertaking by non-nuclear-weapon states not to receive them. Recurring challenges to this arrangement at earlier NPT gatherings did not persuade NATO to amend its practice of sharing nuclear weapons, which members of the alliance strongly and unapologetically endorse.

The denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is another recurring hurdle to broader nuclear disarmament. However, there could be fertile ground for creative diplomatic solutions, if negotiators can link nuclear weapons with the official end to hostilities in the Korean peninsula and a peace agreement between North and South.

Overcoming barriers to progress

The step-by-step approach long advocated by nuclear-weapon states and their allies has come under increased scrutiny and will certainly be challenged at future NPT meetings for its lack of depth and specificity.

Because there is no well-articulated plan for nuclear abolition.

Although this “pragmatic” stepped approach has been discussed repeatedly at past NPT meetings, a search of the documentation yields no response to key questions of substance and process. There is no strategy that ends in nuclear abolition. The two key steps this approach emphasizes—ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty—while important, have thus far been pursued in a haphazard, piecemeal manner with no clear linkage to an explicit and credible abolition effort.

The universalization of the NPT has been a constant objective that remains elusive and with no near-term solution. The NPT is often touted as nearly universal, but is it? Four of the  nine nuclear-armed states are outside the NPT framework. It is unlikely that the international community would accept these countries as nuclear-weapon states under the NPT regime, and just as unlikely that these four states would agree to join the Treaty sas non-nuclear-weapon states. How could the NPT be seen as a realistic vehicle to zero nuclear weapons when almost half of the states with nuclear weapons are neither bound by its obligations nor restricted by its limitations?

The complete abolition of nuclear weapons must remain the ultimate goal. But in the meantime, NPT states parties should consider concrete actions that will decrease nuclear insecurity and encourage disarmament.

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