By Sara Medi Jones
CND staffer Sara Medi Jones participated in a major UN conference exploring the progress of the landmark nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee is over, and we are now less than a year away from a Review Conference which may well determine the fate of this crucial agreement. This will take place in New York from April 27th to May 22nd, 2020.
The Prep Com ended on an ominous note, as states couldn’t agree on a final document. The Chair’s initial draft report was amended to include the views of the vast majority of countries which took to the floor to call for more disarmament progress. Predictably, this did not go down well with the nuclear-armed countries, who accused the Chair of ‘moving away from consensus’ and undermining the NPT. This meant the final document was published as a working paper from the Chair.
What this says about next year’s Review Conference is clear; it will be incredibly difficult to get the nuclear states to agree any concrete steps towards them fulfilling the commitment they made as signatories of the NPT – to pursue negotiations towards nuclear disarmament.
And it is also apparent that the non-nuclear states that have largely kept to their side of the bargain by not developing nuclear weapons are fed up of the status quo. Emboldened by their success in securing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), these countries are prepared to loudly demand some progress. It can only be hoped that the nuclear states are willing to listen.
During the conference, the UK government published a draft National Implementation Report, outlining how it is adhering to the NPT. A final version will be published at next year’s Review Conference. The document barely included anything concrete on how the government intends to disarm, instead focusing on what it calls a ‘step-by-step approach’. In reality, this means working on technical processes such as developing effective measures for verification of disarmament, which – while useful – does not realistically take us any closer to a world without nuclear weapons.
Since the Prep Com finished, the UK government has continued to talk about the ‘challenging security environment’, a mantra the nuclear-armed states have adopted en masse to justify their possession of these weapons.
As mentioned in a previous blog, the UK is now Chair of the P5 group of nuclear states until next year’s Review Conference, so their approach will be crucial to a successful event. The government has said it will focus on engagement with civil society, as it wants our input. CND will be glad of the opportunity to play a part in this. A key point for campaigners however, is that the government acknowledges the importance of the TPNW and engages with the process. So far, we are yet to see any positive development on this.
But we must stay positive overall. As the Chair noted, there are a lot of aspects in which NPT signatories are united, including their conviction on the importance of the treaty itself. The Prep Com was a preview of the battles to come next year, with the ultimate prize being a safer world.
As most of the world’s governments gather this week to discuss the NPT, many disarmament topics are under discussion, both in the main chamber and on the sidelines. One issue getting some attention is the Iran nuclear deal.
After over a decade of talks, a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme was agreed in 2015. Under the agreement, Iran accepted restrictions in return for the easing of economic sanctions.
Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran has reduced its enriched uranium stockpile, removed over 13,000 centrifuges and associated infrastructure, removed and made inoperable the core of the Arak plutonium reactor and allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) unprecedented access to sites in Iran.
The negotiations showed what can be achieved through dialogue and negotiation, even in the face of intense opposition. But this agreement is now at risk, following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the deal, a move previously branded as ‘dangerous and irresponsible’ by CND and condemned by the international community. Trump has subsequently imposed further heavy sanctions on Iran.
Ahead of the 2019 NPT conference, Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif said that leaving the NPT was now one of Tehran’s numerous choices following the US decision. This would be an extreme action for Tehran to take, a decision that would undoubtedly make the world a more dangerous place.
In their opening statement to the NPT conference Iran wasn’t quite as explicit, but they did use the opportunity to heavily attack the US. The government representative claimed that the US administration ‘is driven by the Rule of the Jungle in its international relations’ and accused it of violating its NPT commitments by modernising its nuclear arsenal and withdrawing from international treaties.
In its statement to the plenary, the EU delegation expressed regret that the US has withdrawn from JCPOA and called for the sanctions to be lifted. The IAEA confirmed in its statement that Iran is implementing its commitments under the deal and that the monitoring of its activities is the most comprehensive verification in the world.
As CND’s side meeting at the conference discussed, the current attacks on the rules-based international system are making the world a more dangerous place and US withdrawal from the JCPOA is a prime example. The agreement has achieved its central aim: Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons programme. Diplomats at this event, and elsewhere, must step up and protect successful agreements such as the JCPOA, before their erosion is allowed to undermine the NPT itself.
The NPT does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, progress – or lack of it – is dictated by events outside the UN headquarters. And already this week we’ve heard from nuclear-armed states justifying their lack of disarmament progress on the basis of the ‘current security situation’. In fact, the US has even launched a new initiative based on this, entitled Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament (CCND); another impressive procrastination to distract us from the fact that none of the nuclear states have got rid of their nuclear weapons as planned, since the NPT entered into force.
And who is causing this deterioration in international security? CND analysed this question in our side event at the United Nations, looking at how the US is attacking the current system by pulling out of treaties and agreements.
We were joined at our meeting by incredibly knowledgeable speakers, including a representative from the UK mission, who faced a barrage of questions on what constitutes the ‘right situation’ to start disarming. It was an incredibly useful session, which got everyone thinking about the work we as civil society need to do to highlight the current threats.
CND was also delighted to participate in another side meeting, hosted by the International Peace Bureau, to update fellow campaigners on developments with the Trident nuclear weapons system. Organisations from across the world are always interested to hear about CND’s work and this meeting was no different, with plenty of discussion had on political developments in the UK.
Talking of the UK, their statement was as predictable as it was disappointing. The government representative talked about how essential Trident remains to its security, while in the same speech highlighting how another country’s nuclear programme poses a threat (North Korea’s). We look forward to later in the week, when the UK is due to publish a draft national implementation report on its operational policy and doctrine.
One of the UK’s priorities at this conference seems to be promoting nuclear energy. The third pillar of the NPT guarantees states the right to develop this technology, despite the known links with nuclear weapons. In a joint session with the Nigerian government on the third morning, the UK delivered an uncritical presentation of the benefits of nuclear energy, despite the industry’s problems back home. Luckily other countries are more aware of the issues. As Austria cautioned in the plenary chamber, the problem of how to safely dispose of nuclear waste is yet to be solved, and the world has experienced several serious nuclear power catastrophes.
The UK’s position on the future of the NPT is particularly important at the moment as it will coordinate the P5 group of recognised nuclear-armed countries in the period running up the Review Conference. There is certainly plenty to do.
There is no excuse for inaction and it would be wrong to aim low for next year’s Review Conference. It is by aiming high in the first place that the NPT was achieved. It’s all our responsibility to ensure the preservation and progression of this important agreement.
Middle East Nuclear Weapons-free zone
The nuclear NPT Review Conference in 2015 failed to reach a formal agreement reportedly due to one issue: the formation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. And this issue is once again coming to the fore ahead of the next NPT Review Conference, due to take place in 2020.
In many ways, it was a curious matter to be the defining issue of a conference which takes place every five years to monitor progress made on a crucial treaty which aims to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
The fundamental and persistent clash in 2015 was the lack of disarmament progress by the nuclear weapon states, with the non-nuclear weapon states pushing for concrete targets. However, it was the failure to move forward with a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East which ultimately scuppered the talks; Washington accused Egypt of being ‘unrealistic’, while Cairo in turn blamed the US, UK and Canada for rejecting their demand to set a date for a conference to make progress on this, with or without Israel’s participation.
Fast forward to this week, where governments are getting ready for 2020 with a Preparatory Committee at the UN in New York, and this issue was being raised again and again by delegates on the opening day. Russia plans to participate in a planned conference on the topic later this year, but the US voted against the conference taking place at all, with the UK abstaining. Numerous other countries, including China and the African Group, talked about the importance of the issue on their opening statements.
Some observe that this is used as a way to attack Israel (the only nuclear state in the region) by that country’s adversaries. But there is rightly a real frustration that Israel is allowed to possess these weapons, outside of the framework of the NPT, without any repercussions, while heavy sanctions are being applied on Iran by a US administration accusing it of trying to develop this capability. This is happening even though Iran does not have a single nuclear weapon, and according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, is not trying to develop one either. Israel faces no such punitive actions in spite of its possession of nuclear weapons.
The main hope for this issue not to hijack next year’s Review Conference seems to be to try to resolve it outside of the NPT framework, as a satisfactory outcome is not expected in the next twelve months. But countries in the region would want at least a mention of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East in the conference’s final document. A region that is well used to conflict and discord could find itself once again a bone of contention in international affairs.
It is impossible to ignore the world becoming a more dangerous place: the threat of climate change, the rise of the far-right and a US President intent on ripping up the international rules-based system.
At the UN headquarters this week, government representatives are discussing another danger – a new nuclear arms race. Politicians from most of the world’s countries are gathered in New York to discuss the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), one of the most important nuclear weapons agreements. Signatories – including the United Kingdom – review progress on the treaty every five years. Last time they met to do this in 2015, countries failed to agree a formal conclusion. Ahead of next year’s Review Conference, the situation is even worse.
There’s a lot to do, with not even the Chair of the Review Conference yet agreed on. There is a lot at stake in 2020, perhaps even the future of the NPT.
The basics of the NPT can be summarised as follows: states with nuclear weapons at the time the treaty was adopted agreed to get rid of their nuclear weapons, while those without agreed not to acquire them. The deal has been partially successful – only a handful of countries have developed nuclear weapons since the NPT entered into force in 1970. However, none of the nuclear weapons states have dismantled their nuclear weapons. In fact, many countries pointed out in the opening session of this conference that the nuclear states are actually upgrading their arsenals.
On the first morning, Kazakhstan spoke on behalf of the Central Asian nuclear weapon-free zone. Its message was that these zones make a real contribution to guaranteeing a safer world and it hopes to see the entire planet becoming a nuclear weapon-free zone.
The Japanese government representative gave a disappointing speech. Pointing out that it’s the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, he nevertheless set out to defend nuclear states, calling for ‘realistic’ disarmament measures. The minister may have been speaking about the other huge change since 2015 – the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
122 countries voted for this global ban on nuclear weapons, largely due to frustration with the NPT and its lack of progress. Iran made the point very clearly that nuclear states have not kept their side of the bargain.
Other issues addressed today were the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.
While the European Union representative criticised the erosion of a rules-based international system signified by the breakdown of the latter, the main protagonist chose not to mention it. Instead, the United States focused on North Korea, Iran and Syria, and spoke in vague terms about how to meet the challenges of the next fifty years.
Acknowledging that the international arms regime faces erosion, the Chinese representative called for states to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines and to guarantee they would not threaten non-nuclear states. Both positive steps, although of course no substitute for disarmament.
So noticeable differences in views are already apparent. The UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs opened the conference, calling for ‘real dialogue’ yet finding common ground will not be easy if states are rigid in their positions.
Regrettably there seems to be no flexibility on show so far. While Norway speaks of the need to reaffirm a common goal of a world without nuclear weapons, Russia attacks American plans to send one to space.
Discussions will continue for the next two weeks, with civil society also playing an important role in the conference. CND is hosting a side meeting on the second day, to analyse the impact of the tearing up of the INF and the attacks on the rules-based system. We’ll also be talking at another meeting to give the latest news on Trident to an international audience.
As previously mentioned, a lot has happened on the world stage in the last few years, both positive and negative. We have a new treaty seeking to ban nuclear weapons, supported by most of the world. But Trump has also been elected, bringing a perilous change in US politics. All nuclear-armed states are modernising or upgrading their nuclear arsenals, spending billions in the process. The next two weeks could be important in deciding what impact these changes will have on an important treaty that has played a part in avoiding nuclear war over the past 50 years.