Highlights of the 2015 NPT Review Conference

UN Building

The 2015 Review Conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty has finished. There was so much that could have been done, but regrettably, this year’s conference failed to produce a final consensus document (which also happened in 2005). This means that previous commitments have still not been achieved, and worse, no plans have been made to remedy this.

Rose Gottemoeller, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, conveyed the U.S. appraisal of the Review Conference during her closing remarks on May 22. While reiterating that the U.S. was firmly committed to a world without nuclear weapons, a lack of consensus on other issues at this Review Conference made it impossible for the U.S. to endorse a final document. The sticking point for the U.S. was language in the proposed final document regarding the convening of a conference to discuss the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. The Arab states, headed by Egypt, insisted that a conference could be held with or without Israel, but Gottemoeller said that the suggested language for the final document was “incompatible with our [U.S.] long-standing policies.”

A nonproliferation policy expert from the Arms Control Association noted that in order for a Middle East conference to become a reality, leaders from Israel, Egypt, and other regional states would have to agree on an agenda which addressed the regional security priorities of all interested parties in the region. The U.S. could not support language in the final document of the Review Conference which did not include such stipulations. Gottemoeller blamed Egypt and the Arab League states for their inflexibility and insistence on what she called “unrealistic and unworkable conditions” in the draft text.Lamenting that progress was not made toward the establishment of such a zone,  Gottemoeller recognized that “If all the states in the region show the political will to resume the process of building such a zone through consensus, direct dialogue and a broad-based agenda, the United States stands ready to be their strongest supporter.”

Week one of the Review Conference was primarily dedicated to nonproliferation-related presentations by NGOs from around the world. Opening statements were also delivered by States parties to the Treaty on the floor of the General Assembly Hall. Most of the speakers tended to stress the same concerns: the importance of nuclear disarmament, the role of peaceful nuclear energy, and concern for nuclear terrorism. Many delegates also voiced support for the pending Iran nuclear deal and reaffirmed backing for the US-Russian New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Unfortunately, the 2010 Action Plan which was agreed to during the previous review conference remains generally unimplemented, according to a monitoring report by nuclear watchdog Reaching Critical Will.

A delegate from the Slovak Republic emphasized the need for turning words into actions, saying, “We need to work together and focus on finding a consensus in order to take our multilateral efforts forward. However, the efforts to reach a consensus should not lead to ignoring or omitting issues relevant in the NPT context. Such an approach would jeopardize the basic aim of the Conference”.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the first use of nuclear weapons against Japan, and the delegates by and large voiced strong support for a shift in thinking at the Conference in order to consider the horrible humanitarian consequences which could result from intentional or accidental nuclear explosions.  The delegate from Ireland provided an interesting perspective regarding the study of gender and nuclear weapons, and the disproportionate affect which a nuclear explosion has on women and children. According to him, for every two men that die of radiation cancer as the result of a nuclear explosion, three women are likely to die.

The delegate from the Marshall Islands, who witnessed a nuclear explosion from U.S. weapons testing in the Marshall Islands in 1954, gave one of the most compelling speeches. He said, “There are many different avenues towards achieving a world without nuclear weapons, but our worst fear is merely continuing the status quo…patting ourselves on the back and expecting accolades for making zero progress at this NPT Review Conference is totally unacceptable to all peoples and nations.”

Although this Review Conference fell far short of its expectations, it is good to recognize the positive achievements of the Nonproliferation Treaty. It has been described as the “world’s singular most important nuclear arms control agreement” and boasts an impressive 187 states parties. Under the auspices of the treaty, several nations have abandoned their nuclear weapons programs. Five treaties have been ratified to establish nuclear weapons free zones in Latin America and the Caribbean, in the South Pacific, in Southeast Asia, in Africa, and in Central Asia.

The NPT has facilitated continued work to achieve an entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which completely bans all types of nuclear explosions, whether in the atmosphere, underwater, or underground) and the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (which would ban the production of weapons-usable fissile material). All of these successes have contributed to a safer world, and yet there is much more work to be done. Let’s hope that more progress can be made between now and the 2020 Review Conference.