The month-long 10th NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty) Review Conference (RevCon) ended on Friday 26 Aug in New York with the 191 signatories to the treaty unable to reach a consensus on the final draft document. This slow-motion-train-crash conclusion to the world’s most significant nuclear conference was predictable, perhaps from late February when Russia began its military attack on Ukraine.
The NPT which came into force in 1970 is a flawed document, in the sense that it is deeply iniquitous and sought to divide the world permanently into the five nuclear weapon possessing states (USA, former USSR now Russia, UK, France and China)—the nuclear haves or NWS (nuclear weapon states)—and the rest of the world was expected to remain non-NWS, aka NNWS in perpetuity.
One clause in the NPT (Article VI) did exhort the NWS to renounce their Hiroshima-Nagasaki like apocalyptic capability and progressively move towards total disarmament. But, like the Holy Grail, it has remained elusive for more than half a century. For the record, the NWS earnestly commit themselves to this ultimate goal—global zero—but this is more rhetorical than substantive.
The month-long 10th NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty) Review Conference (RevCon) ended on Friday 26 Aug in New York with the 191 signatories to the treaty unable to reach a consensus on the final draft document.
The NPT which came into force in 1970 is a flawed document.
A significant development in the global nuclear domain has been the formation of a new group of nations who have introduced another treaty – the TPNW (Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons) at the United Nations.
At the RevCon, "Behind closed doors, diplomats from the five nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—rejected pragmatic proposals for specific, time-bound commitments to fulfil their NPT disarmament obligations”.
The breakdown in attaining consensus was attributed to Moscow, which was apparently unhappy with certain references to the war in Ukraine.
Jostling Between the Nuclear Haves and Have Nots
There has been an uneasy status quo between the NWS and those NNWS who have the protection of a nuclear umbrella (Japan and Germany among others ) to not to rock the boat. However, a significant development in the global nuclear domain has been the formation of a new group of nations who have introduced another treaty – the TPNW (Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons) at the United Nations. This came into force in January 2021 but the NWS do not accept this treaty and its provisions.
With 66 states that have joined this group and 86 signatories, the TPNW is indicative of the push-back by the NNWS. While their objective is clear, in the run-up to the 10th RevCon a formal statement was also issued on behalf of 145 nations by Ambassador Martiza Chan of Costa Rica who noted: “The catastrophic effects of a nuclear weapon detonation, whether by accident, miscalculation or design, cannot be adequately addressed. All efforts must be exerted to eliminate the threat of these weapons of mass destruction.”
Nuclear-Weapon States Never Walk the Talk
The NPT signatories meet every five years for the RevCon and the 10th such meeting could not take place in 2020 due to the covid pandemic and was slotted for August this year.
However, the five NWS—despite their current intractable bilateral discord (US-Russia and US-China)—closed ranks when it came to their disarmament commitments under the NPT. Derek Kimball of the US NGO 'Arms Control Today', an observer at the RevCon, noted, “Behind closed doors, diplomats from the five nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—rejected pragmatic proposals for specific, time-bound commitments to fulfil their NPT disarmament obligations”.
He also added, “The nuclear-weapon states clearly failed to bring new, creative yet realistic ideas and the necessary political will to meet those obligations, instead arriving with every intention to prevaricate when pressed upon their lack of progress towards nuclear disarmament.”
This primary fault-line in the NPT edifice remains an abiding challenge but at the current RevCon, the breakdown in attaining consensus was attributed to Moscow, which was apparently unhappy with certain references to the war in Ukraine and the Russian military action that compromised the safety of the nuclear power plants.
Is it All Russia's Fault?
The relevant paragraph (34) of the draft final document notes, without explicitly referring to Russia: “The Conference expresses its grave concern for the military activities conducted near or at nuclear power plants and other facilities or locations subject to safeguards under Ukraine’s comprehensive safeguards agreement, in particular the Zaporizhzya nuclear power plant, as well as the loss of control by the competent Ukrainian authorities over such locations as a result of those military activities, and their profound negative impact on safety, security, including physical protection of nuclear material, and safeguards.”
Moscow objected to this formulation in the final stages of the RevCon, describing certain references as lacking ‘balance’ and furthermore, deemed to be blatantly political in their finger-pointing. Consequently, the 10thRevCon ended without a final consensus document but one silver lining was discernible to an otherwise dark cloud.
Unexpected but Welcome Washington-Moscow Cooperation
It is accepted that any meaningful movement towards global nuclear weapon reduction in the first instance and subsequent dilution of the salience of the relevance of nuclear weapons in the security doctrines of the NWS will have to begin with the USA and Russia—for they still possess almost 90 percent of the global nuclear arsenal.
Thus, it was encouraging that despite the prevailing geo-political tension between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine, the relevant paragraph on arms reduction noted, “The Russian Federation and the United States commit to the full implementation of the New START Treaty and to pursue negotiations in good faith on a successor framework to New START before its expiration in 2026, in order to achieve deeper, irreversible, and verifiable reductions in their nuclear arsenals.”
India Urged to Accede Unconditionally to NPT
This commitment by the USA and Russia to work towards implementing a New START and a successor framework before the 2026 deadline is to be cautiously welcomed. But as always, the final outcome will have to be monitored very carefully—a thimble at a time.
India is not a signatory to the NPT, though it is a state with nuclear weapons (as are Pakistan and Israel) and the mandatory reference was made by the draft document of the RevCon where it noted, “States parties reaffirm the urgency and importance of achieving universality of the Treaty and call upon India, Israel and Pakistan to accede to the Treaty as non-nuclear-weapon States, promptly and without conditions.”
This refusal to acknowledge the strategic reality of 2022 and viewing the world through the outdated 1970 prism is a structural limitation of the NPT. And alas, the current global political leadership does not have the sagacity or the statesmanship-like qualities to address the complex techno-strategic challenges that pose a threat to the safety of both humanity and the planet. The NPT RevCon train-crash is a manifestation.
(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)