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Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: 

Nuclear Disarmament Commentary Index




Published by the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy,

New York

24 May 2000 Volume 2, Number 3




The NPT: A Positive Step Forward

— But Not Enough


William Epstein


              The sixth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was held at the United Nations from 24 April to 19 May 2000. The Conference was faced with many challenges and the outlook for its agreeing on a consensus final document seemed bleak.

              The Conference in fact was quite hectic and at times seemed to be really chaotic. During the final week it often worked until midnight and on 19 May the clock was stopped at midnight and the Conference adjourned just before dawn on 20 May and resumed later that morning and continued until its final adjournment after 6.00 P.M.

              As has become customary, the last day of the Conference was a cliffhanger, but this sixth Conference was the third one that succeeded in reaching a consensus Final Document. In good part this was due to the continuing optimism and unrelenting efforts of President Abdallah Baali. There is also a general feeling that the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) was the main driving force throughout the Conference.

              Although the lengthy Final Document was the result of many compromises, and its text is obviously watered down and rather vague and conditional in places, it was the best that could be achieved. There is a deep and abiding gulf between the few nuclear weapon states (NWS) who are reluctant to give up their nuclear arsenals and the vast majority of non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), who want the total elimination of all nuclear weapons, at an early predictable date. This gulf led to the failure of all three annual sessions of the Preparatory Committee to agree on any substantive recommendations to the Conference. Many delegations therefore said privately that the Final Document exceeded their best expectations.

             As usual, good progress was made by Main Committees II and III (mainly safeguards and the peaceful use of atomic energy). The main areas of disagreement were related to nuclear disarmament, dealt with by Committee I and Subsidiary Body I, and also regional issues including mainly the Middle East, which were dealt with by Subsidiary Body II. The Chairmen of the three Main Committees and of the two Subsidiary Bodies each presented Working Papers that were included in the Reports of the Main Committees. The working papers contained interesting and useful ideas or conclusions for inclusion in a final document, but many of them were opposed by the NWS.

             An important turning point was reached on Wednesday May 17, at a meeting of the NWS and the seven members of the NAC (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden) in an effort to reach a compromise agreement on practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI of the NPT and paragraphs 3 and 4(c) of the 1995 Decision on "Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament". The joint meeting attempted to reach agreement on the basis of new formulations in the Working Paper originally produced by the Chairman of the Subsidiary Body I, Ambassador Clive Pearson of New Zealand. On Thursday 18 May, after hours of diplomatic persuasion all the NWS and other groups accepted the new formulations in the Working Paper and they were incorporated in the Final Document in paragraph 15 under the heading "Article VI and preamble paragraphs 8 to 12."

             It still seemed that the Conference might end in failure on Friday, 19 May when Iraq opposed a paragraph in the report on Regional Issues produced by the Chairman of Subsidiary Body II, Ambassador Christopher Westdal of Canada. The paragraph dealt with the question of the compliance or non-compliance by Iraq with its obligations under the IAEA safeguards and under the Security Council’s Resolution 687. After hours of delay a solution was found that was accepted by both the United States and Iraq.

             Thus the final consensus was achieved for the adoption of the Final Document.

Regional Issues

             For the first time this Review Conference created a new Subsidiary Body to deal mainly with the Middle East but also included other regions. The report of Subsidiary Body II dealt extensively with the Middle East and particularly with the implementation of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East, and it also covered South Asia and other regions.

             The report called on Israel, India, and Pakistan in effect to give up their nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon capabilities and programs by becoming parties to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the NPT, and to place all their nuclear facilities under full-scope IAEA safeguards.

              It also called on Israel and the other states of the Middle East to support the early establishment of a Middle East-zone free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles. It added that states should submit their declarations of support to the UN Secretary-General and also take practical steps toward the desired objective. The Conference also requested its President to convey the final documents of the Conference to all states including non-parties to the NPT, and requested the UN Secretariat to compile reports of the practical steps taken by states for consideration at the Preparatory Committee meetings and the 2005 Review Conference.

              The report of Subsidiary Body II also called on India and Pakistan to comply fully with the unanimously adopted Security Council Resolution 1172 (1998) and with all the measures set out therein.

               In addition the report covered the cases of Iraq (as noted above) and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, both of which are parties to the NPT but are suspected or charged with non-compliance with the Treaty. The report urged both parties to cooperate fully with the IAEA.

Gains and Losses

              The lengthy Final Document contains a number of agreed conclusions and recommendations related to nuclear disarmament that can clearly be regarded as significant gains in the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI of the NPT. The main ones are listed here.

               For the first time ever, all the NWS made "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to total nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI". While the NWS managed to delete the phrase calling for "an accelerated process of negotiations" during the period 2000 – 2005, the unequivocal undertaking is a historic achievement.

               The Conference also agreed on "the necessity of establishing in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) an appropriate subsidiary body with a mandate to deal with nuclear disarmament," and called for the immediate establishment of such a body. It is true that this formulation is much weaker than that calling for an ad-hoc committee to negotiate nuclear disarmament, but it is much stronger than the proposal of the 5 NATO States which some NNWS have described as a body to hold "talks about talks".

               The Conference also called for further efforts by the NWS to reduce their nuclear arsenals unilaterally, and for further reductions of nonategic nuclear weapons based on unilateral initiatives, and as an integral part of the nuclear disarmament process.

               The Conference also called for the engagement as soon as appropriate of all the NWS (meaning China, France, and the United Kingdom) in the process leading to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons.

               The Conference also called for a "diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination". In addition, the Conference called for "concrete agreed measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapon systems". It is not entirely clear as to what specific measures these provisions allude to. If it had meant to abandon the long held doctrine of "launch on warning", or to undertake the process of de-alerting and separation of warheads from their missiles, or the adoption of a no-first-to-use policy for nuclear weapons, it would have been much more understandable and meaningful if it had said so. The present text does, however, open the door to argue for all those safety measures. The Conference also called for regular reports by all state parties on the implementations of Article VI and paragraph 4(c) of the 1995 Decision on Principles and Objectives.

               The Conference also called for "preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability" which was the language used in the joint statement of the five NWS at the end of the general debate in the plenary sessions of the conference. Although the NWS are far apart in their interpretations of this text, its use in the statement served to avoid a long and acrimonious debate on the plans of the United States for a national missile defense.

               In addition to the above measures, the Conference also called for the early entry into force of the CTBT, and for a moratorium on nuclear explosions pending its entry into force; also for immediate commencement of negotiations in the CD for a treaty banning the production of fissile material for the nuclear weapons; also the early entry into force and the full implementation of START II and the conclusion of START III as soon as possible. All of these Treaties were called for in the joint statement of the five NWS as well as in the proposals put forth by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the NAC. There may, however, be some delay before the United States can ratify the protocols and agreements that were agreed by Russia and the United States together with Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine in September 1997.

               The Conference also noted the International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion on the "Legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons" in July 1996. Some NWS refused to replace the word "notes" by the word "welcomes", and deleted the sentence referring to the unanimous conclusion of the ICJ that there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion, negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.

               The Conference also took note of the proposal made by Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the convening of a major international conference that would help to identify ways of eliminating nuclear dangers be considered at the Millennium Summit.

              The Final Document also omitted or deleted a number of recommendations related to nuclear disarmament that had been proposed by the NAM or NAC and were included in the Working Paper of the Chairman of Main Committee I, Ambassador Camilo Reyes of Columbia and by the Chairman of Subsidiary Body I, Ambassador Clive Pearson of New Zealand. The omission or deletion of these measures insisted upon by all or some of the NWS can clearly be regarded as significant losses in the efforts to implement Article VI and the 1995 Principles and Objectives Decision.

              First of all were the various safety measures that would reduce the risk of a nuclear war. These measures would de-alert the thousands of nuclear weapons that remain on high-alert and the separation of the warheads from their delivery vehicles; also the adoption of a policy and negotiation of a treaty of no first-use of nuclear weapons by all the NWS. Such measures would improve the safety of all states and prevent the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons by accident, error or miscalculation.

              One glaring loss is the failure to provide for negative security assurances by the NWS to the NNWS. Such assurances in the form of a legally binding instrument were mentioned in the 1995 Decision on Principles and Objectives.

              The Conference did reaffirm that the total elimination of nuclear weapons is the only absolute guarantee against the threat or use of nuclear weapons. The only action called for, however, was that the Preparatory Committee should make recommendations to the 2005 Review Conference on legally binding security assurances.

              Another failure is the omission, pending the negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons (which the Final Document calls for by 2005), of a joint undertaking by the NWS of a moratorium on the production of weapons grade fissile materials, and for greater transparency by disclosing their present stocks of weapons grade fissile material.

              It would also be useful if the Final Document had called for the withdrawal of all tactical or subategic nuclear weapons to the territory of the state that owned them.

              It would also have been useful if the Final Document had called for specific reductions of nuclear weapons by fixed target dates as have already been announced for the proposed reductions in START II and START III.

              In addition, the conference did very little to promote the cause of universality of membership in the NPT. It noted that only four states, Cuba, India, Israel and Pakistan were not parties to the treaty and it called on them to accede to the treaty, and requested the President of the Conference to inform all non-parties of the views of states parties and to report their responses to the parties.

             All of these omissions and failures can be considered as unfortunate losses. Had the Conference taken more positive action on more of them it would certainly have strengthened the entire non-proliferation regime.

Strengthening the Review Process

             President Baali himself took the initiative on this matter. He presented a formal proposal for improving the effectiveness of the 1995 strengthened review process for the NPT. It was adopted with minor amendments.

             The Conference decided that subsidiary bodies could be established at future Review Conferences to address specific relevant issues, after the precedent created at the present Conference. It also decided that each session of the Preparatory Committee should consider specific substantive issues, and at its final session the Preparatory Committee should make every effort to produce a consensus report containing recommendations to the Review Conference. In addition the Conference decided that a meeting be allocated to NGOs to address each session of the Preparatory Committee and the Review Conference.

              If these decisions are implemented it would certainly improve and strengthen the review process.

The Future

              It is not possible to be able to predict whether and to what extent the decisions of the 2000 Review Conference set forth in ins Final Document will be implemented, but it is clear that they contribute an important positive step forward for the NPT. Much more, however, remains to be done.

             We shall have an early opportunity to see how effectively they are being implemented because the Conference on Disarmament has already resumed its second 2000 session in Geneva, and the Disarmament Commission is scheduled to begin its 2000 session on 26 June in New York.

              Perhaps most important of all, the Millennium Assembly will consider the proposal of Secretary-General Kofi Annan that a major international conference be convened that would help to identify ways of eliminating nuclear dangers. Such a conference could replace the failed attempts to convene the fourth Special Session on Disarmament of the General Assembly. It can also play an important role in removing the danger that the Secretary-General warned about in his address to the 2000 NPT Review Conference on 24 April, namely that "nuclear conflict remains a very real and terrifying possibility at the beginning of the 21st Century".


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