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Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: 

Nuclear Disarmament Commentary Index




Published by the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy,

New York

May 2000 Volume 2, Number 2



The NPT: Where Do We Go From Here?


William Epstein


Challenges to the NPT

               Midway through the Sixth Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference the positions of the main parties are so far apart that it is not possible to predict what the outcome could be. In his opening address the President of the Conference, Ambassador Abdallah Baali, noted that "this Conference, the first since the Treaty was extended indefinitely, is taking place in a very uncertain international context which poses many challenges." He called on the parties to bridge their differences and reach agreement on realistic measures towards "the fullest realization of the goals of the Treaty from now until the next review conference in 2005 and beyond."

               In his address, Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the "the unmistakable record of achievement and hard-won progress," but warned that "nuclear conflict remains a very real and terrifying possibility at the beginning of the 21st Century." Among the major challenges to the NPT he mentioned: the discovery of clandestine nuclear weapons development programs and called for bringing into force the IAEA’s Protocol to enhance assurances of compliance with IAEA safeguards; the serious setback by the nuclear tests of India and Pakistan in 1998; the fact that some 35,000 nuclear weapons remain in the arsenals of the nuclear powers, with thousands still deployed on hair-trigger alert; no nuclear disarmament negotiations had taken place for many years concerning strategic or tactical nuclear weapons; no progress on nuclear disarmament and other issues in the Conference on Disarmament (CD); the re-affirmation of the nuclear weapons doctrines of all the nuclear weapons states (NWS); some NWS retain first-use nuclear doctrines and some do not exclude the use of such weapons even against non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS); and the growing pressure to deploy national missile defenses which was jeopardizing the ABM Treaty and which could lead to a new arms race, setbacks for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and create new incentives for missile proliferation. He also called on the Conference to focus on specific benchmarks such as: the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); irreversible reductions in the stocks of nuclear weapons; consolidation of existing nuclear weapon-free-zones (NWFZ) and negotiation of new ones; binding security guarantees to NNWS Parties; and improvement in transparency of nuclear weapon arsenals and nuclear materials. Finally, he called on the Parties to re-affirm at the highest political level their commitment to reduce the dangers that arise from existing nuclear weapons and from further proliferation.

Differences Among the NNWS

               Since the three sessions of the Preparatory Committee had failed to reach a consensus on any substantive recommendations to the Conference, the proposals of the main Parties were substantively the same as before without any far-reaching changes. As was customary, the work of exploring and attempting to achieve a consensus on the various issues was given to the three Main Committees: I on nuclear disarmament, II on safeguards, and III on peaceful uses of atomic energy. For the first time, however, the Conference established two subsidiary bodies to meet in private. Subsidiary Body I would work under Main Committee I to discuss and consider the practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement nuclear disarmament; Subsidiary Body II would work under Main Committee II to examine regional issues including the implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution.

               During the first days of the general debate, the Main Parties introduced working papers outlining their positions on the major substantive issues relating to nuclear disarmament.

               Indonesia spoke on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of some 110 states and made proposals dealing with many aspects of nuclear disarmament, which were set out in a working paper. Portugal spoke on behalf of the European Union (EU) that also made a number of proposals on nuclear disarmament. Mexico spoke on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) consisting of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden and also submitted a working paper that set out in detail the NAC’s proposals.

               There was a considerable amount of overlapping and similar language in the working papers submitted by the three groups of NNWS, but they all contained differing shades of meaning and emphasis. It was clear, however, that there was general agreement among most of the NNWS on many issues, which are listed below.

  1. There was practically unanimity on the need for universality of membership in the NPT. Only 4 states are not parties to the Treaty—India and Pakistan, which had conducted nuclear tests in May 1998, Israel, which was believed to have a nuclear weapons capability and program, and Cuba, which had no nuclear capability of any kind. All were called upon to accede to the NPT, give up all nuclear weapons they possessed and accept IAEA full-scope safeguards.

  2. There was also near unanimity in support of the CTBT and calls on all states to sign and ratify that Treaty.

  3. IAEA safeguards were also supported by nearly all speakers, with the EU and many other parties urging that the Additional Protocol to strengthen the safeguards system should be signed and ratified by all NPT parties.

  4. Security assurances by the NWS to all NNWS in a legally binding instrument was supported by both the NAM and NAC, while the EU merely called for "pursuit of the consideration of the issue of security assurances." Egypt submitted a detailed working paper calling for a system of both negative and positive security assurances.

  5. Both the NAM and NAC emphasized the unanimous conclusion of the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that there was an obligation under the NPT to conduct and conclude negotiations for nuclear disarmament in all its aspects. The NAM called on all states, in particular the NWS to inform the UN Secretary-General on the efforts and measures they had undertaken to implement that obligation.

  6. The NAM called for the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee by the CD to negotiate the elimination of all nuclear weapons within a specified time frame. The NAC called for the establishment by the CD of "an appropriate subsidiary body with a mandate to deal with nuclear disarmament." The EU called for the establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group by the CD on "cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament" subject to a consensus on a mandate for such a group.

  7. The NAC called on the NWS to make an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals, and to engage in the period 2000 to 2005 in an accelerated process of negotiations and to take steps leading to nuclear disarmament. The NAM called on the current Review Conference to engage immediately, in good faith, for the speedy and meaningful implementation of the obligations under the NPT and at the 1995 Conference. Furthermore, to ensure the effective implementation of the NPT and of the decisions, resolutions and documents adopted by this Conference, NAM proposed that an inter-sessional standing committee should be established to follow up recommendations for the implementation of the Treaty.

  8. All three groups called for the full implementation of START II and the early beginning of negotiations for START III.

  9. The three groups also called for the negotiation of a treaty to cut off the production of fissile material (FMCT) for weapons. The NAC called for a moratorium on the production of fissile material pending the ratification of the treaty.

  10. The three groups also called for supporting and creating additional NWFZ’s.

  11. All three groups called for greater transparency by the NWS and for the irreversibility of their nuclear disarmament measures.

  12. The NAM regretted that the NWS had not fulfilled their obligations under Article VI of the NPT and the 1995 Principles and Objectives decision.

  13. All three groups also supported the preservation of the integrity of and full compliance with the ABM Treaty.

  14. The NAC called for de-alerting all strategic nuclear weapons and the separation of their warheads. They also called for the NWS to adapt their nuclear policies and postures so as to preclude the use of nuclear weapons, which Mexico interpreted to include no-first-use of these weapons. In addition, they called for the reduction and elimination of tactical nuclear weapons, and for the early integration of all five NWS into the process of elimination of all their respective nuclear weapons.

               Bahrain spoke on behalf of the League of Arab States and submitted a working paper on the implementation of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East. Egypt also urged the Conference to consider the need for a mechanism to monitor and follow up the progress made in the implementation of the Middle East resolution.

Differences Among The NWS

               All five NWS played an active role in the Conference. It seems that they were in large part on the defensive, since they each made extensive statements on their past achievements related to nuclear disarmament, and some distributed documents and glossy brochures to highlight their efforts.

               China, as it has for many years, was the only NWS to call for all NWS to enter into a no-first-use treaty and to undertake the prohibition, elimination and destruction of all their nuclear weapons. It warned the US against the weaponization of outer space and called for the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee by the CD to negotiate a treaty to that effect. It also joined with Russia in strong criticism of US plans for national missile defense in violation of the ABM Treaty and in warning that this could lead to a renewed nuclear arms race.

               Nevertheless, China joined the four other NWS at the end of the general debate in a joint statement consisting mainly of general restatements of their well-known positions. Instead of a simple unequivocal commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons, or a willingness to begin immediate multilateral negotiations for nuclear disarmament, the statement merely reiterates their "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." The statement said nothing about the dangerous hair-trigger alert of their nuclear weapons but declared that "none of our nuclear weapons are targeted at any state." While this can reduce the risk of accidental or unauthorized launches of nuclear weapons, the weapons can be retargeted in a matter of minutes while de-alerted weapons with separation of warheads would normally require some days to be re-alerted. The only multilateral treaty that the NWS call for negotiation is the long delayed FMCT. Far from impressing the NNWS with their statement, it seemed to give added currency to a joke that is making the rounds of the Conference that says the NWS want to replace the NGOs’ "Abolition 2000" with their own "Abolition 3000."

                The NWS statement looked forward to completion of the ratification by the United States of START II and 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." While there was agreement on the language of the text, it seems clear that there are deep differences between the five on the interpretation of "preserving and strengthening" the ABM Treaty.

                For the first time, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) were invited to address a plenary meeting of a Review Conference and to attend meetings of the Main Committees. Fifteen activist NGOs, including the Mayor of Nagasaki, presented their views on the political, military or legal aspects of nuclear weapons and their proliferation. They covered much of the same ground as did the Parties to the NPT, sometimes in greater detail. Perhaps their most useful contribution was their emphasis on the moral and ethical aspects of the existence and possible use of nuclear weapons and the continuing efforts to modernize and develop new ones.

Possible Outcomes

                The divisions between the NWS and the NNWS, and among the two groups themselves, are obvious. Whether any compromise solutions are possible will depend on the reports of the three Main Committees and the two Subsidiary Bodies.

There are five possible outcomes that can be envisaged:

                The first possible outcome is that, in the absence of a consensus, there will be no agreement on a Final Document. Such a failure would be regarded as a disaster at this critical time.

                The second possible outcome is a weak compromise agreement on a Final Document that contains no important specific measures or steps leading to nuclear disarmament. This too may be regarded as a failure as it could mislead public opinion and leave many NNWS with feelings of deep frustration that might lead to a further weakening of the NPT and possible withdrawals from the Treaty.

                The third possibility is that if a consensus seems to be impossible on nuclear disarmament, it may still be attainable on safeguards and on the peaceful uses of atomic energy. In that case the Conference could adopt a truncated Final Document that dealt only with these two aspects. Such an outcome could be regarded as a partial success and as providing more time for further progress on nuclear disarmament.

                The fourth possibility is that the NWS make some real concessions to the many demands of the NNWS so that a consensus is attainable on a meaningful Final Document that really advances the cause of both nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation by calling for the negotiations of other treaties in addition to the FMCT. Such a desirable outcome would be something like a miracle, which does not seem likely at this Conference. Experience shows that it is very difficult for the US to agree to any compromise on controversial subjects in a Presidential election year.

                The fifth possible outcome is that, if it appears that no consensus is attainable, some NNWS Parties to the NPT will propose resolutions for adoption by a Two-Thirds majority vote under Rule 28 of the Rules of Procedure. Such draft resolutions would have to be submitted by Wednesday, May 12, at the latest, to allow for the 48 hours delay provided for by paragraph 3 of Rule 28. It is possible that the resort to the voting procedure could lead to a compromise Final Document that would be agreed by consensus, as in fact happened at the 1985 Review Conference.

                Even if no final consensus is achieved, it would be better for the Conference to adopt a number of resolutions by voting than for it to adjourn with nothing to show for its labors. The Conference would clearly be regarded as at least a partial success if the results of the voting made clear what the true feelings and desires of the Parties were. Although not the ideal outcome, this would serve to point the way towards future progress.


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