Is Trouble Brewing for the 2015 NPT Review Conference?

04/22/2015 12:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

Since its adoption in 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has become a critical mechanism to achieve nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament goals. With only a week to go before state parties to the NPT gather at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York to review progress on the implementation of this landmark treaty, it is worthwhile to take stock of key developments and events in recent years and consider how they may affect proceedings in New York.

One of the unavoidable topics in the context of the upcoming meeting will be the progress on actual implementation of the commitments that were decided at the last NPT Review Conference held in 2010. The review conference was largely deemed a success and produced an outcome document that contained a range of disarmament action items. However, since then, progress has stalled. While the five nuclear-armed states recognized by the NPT have focused primarily on non-proliferation, a series of new disarmament initiatives has reinvigorated the debate and mobilized non-nuclear weapon states and civil society groups to bring the longtime vision of a world free of nuclear weapons into reality. Three initiatives in particular stand out for reminding the international community of three key nuclear disarmament truths: First, it is primarily a humanitarian endeavor; second, it is underpinned by clear legal obligations; and, third, practical proposals for its realization exist.

A humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament.

Since 2010, the "Humanitarian Initiative" -- a series of joint statements on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament -- has gained momentum with the latest joint statement co-sponsored by 155 states and most recent conference attended by 158 states. Three international conferences in Norway, Mexico and Austria followed, which heard testimonies from victims of the use of nuclear weapons, examined the capacity at the international level to provide appropriate humanitarian assistance in the event of a nuclear explosion (hint: There is none), scrutinized the chilling risks inherent to nuclear weapon systems (hint: There are many) and examined the state of international law as it applies to nuclear weapons.

David versus Goliath in the International Court of Justice.

A second crucial initiative was launched on 24 April 2014 when the Marshall Islands took the nine nuclear-armed states to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for violations of international law, with respect to their nuclear disarmament obligations under article VI of the NPT and customary international law. For the Marshall Islands, the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons are not a theoretical matter -- the small island nation was used for 67 nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958, including the "Bravo Shot", a 15-megaton device equivalent to a thousand Hiroshima blasts, and has suffered the trans-generational effects of radiation exposure, including high cancer rates, displacement and environmental poisoning. The Marshall Islands seeks declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the nine nuclear-armed states to comply with their obligations.

The cases are going ahead against those states that have accepted the jurisdiction of the ICJ -- i.e. the UK, India and Pakistan -- and have already served the purpose of underlining the failure of the nuclear-armed countries to uphold their legal obligations with regard to nuclear disarmament.

How to move forward on nuclear disarmament.

It was also this failure that underpinned the creation of the third initiative: the UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG). Set up by the UN General Assembly in November 2012, the OEWG was convened "to develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons." The move was fueled by widespread frustration at the lack of progress in other forums, including the Conference on Disarmament, which has been deadlocked since 1996.

The OEWG met over 15 days in 2013 and saw active participation of a large number of UN member states, as well as international organizations and civil society groups. Importantly, it discussed a range of practical proposals to start multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament.

While these three key initiatives have focused the debate and have re-energized the disarmament community, they have also uncovered another uncomfortable truth: There seems to be no political will among the nuclear-armed states to join the rest of the international community in ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

None of the nuclear-armed states (or NATO "nuclear umbrella states") signed up to the joint humanitarian statements, and they largely boycotted the humanitarian consequences conferences, calling it a "distraction." With the exception of India and Pakistan, the nuclear-armed states also boycotted the OEWG sessions. It leaves us wondering how serious they can really be about achieving a world free of nuclear weapons -- a goal to which they have all professed their commitment. In fact, the nuclear-armed states are in the process of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on modernizing their nuclear weapon systems and continue to place critical importance on these weapons in their security doctrines.

The NPT nuclear powers have been kept occupied by a series of nuclear crises, and have focused their efforts primarily on halting proliferation and preventing nuclear terrorism.

Different priorities, missed opportunities and crises.

At the initiative of U.S. President Barack Obama, three Nuclear Security Summits have been held on the topic of bringing nuclear materials, technology and facilities under safer and more secure control, in order to prevent nuclear terrorism. The summits enjoy high-level political participation, with leaders of around 50 states -- primarily those with nuclear technologies and materials -- attending.

The P5 have also given considerable attention to the Iranian nuclear program. The possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons has kept diplomats busy for over three decades, but talks between Iran and the P5+1 (Germany) on a deal allowing Iran to have nuclear power, while reducing the likelihood of it gaining nuclear weapons, have intensified in the last five years. On 1 April 2015, the welcome news came that negotiators had agreed on a "broad framework of understanding," with more time still needed to reach agreement on the final details.

For all the legitimate concerns the P5 raise over the threat of nuclear proliferation, they also benefit from equating the public perception of nuclear threat with Iran and terrorists, not with the 16,300 nuclear weapons still in the arsenals of the nine nuclear-armed states, many of which are ready to be launched at a moment's notice and would cause unimaginable damage and suffering.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East -- which could prove a solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis and remove the double standards over Israel's nuclear weapons -- remains as elusive as ever. Lack of progress on implementing a 1995 resolution to establish such a zone has been the cause of animosity, concern and frustration at every NPT Review Conference since its adoption.

The 2010 NPT Review Conference had offered hopeful signs with inclusion in its final document of specific steps towards the Zone's establishment, including convening a conference for all regional states by the end of 2012 on the creation of such a zone. However, the conference was postponed without setting a new date. With, thus, very little to show for at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, it will be one of the potential key sources of tension and acrimony.

While the P5 have cooperated relatively well in forming a united front on the Iranian nuclear program, the crisis in Ukraine has brought back Cold War-esque tensions between Russia and the Western nuclear-armed and allied states. Since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014, relations between the West and Russia have steadily deteriorated. Consequences have included the suspension of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia on reciprocal inspections of nuclear facilities and discussions on possible further bilateral stockpile reductions, as well as a rise in bellicose nuclear rhetoric and posturing.

But perhaps most worrying is Russia's violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which the U.S., Russia and UK pledged to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in return for Ukraine giving up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union, and to join the NPT as a non-NWS. The legacy of Ukraine's decision (together with Belarus and Kazakhstan) to relinquish nuclear weapons has been one of the few positive examples in proving disarmament is a viable option. However, some commentators (in Ukraine and abroad) have already posited that if Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons, it would have been more secure against Russia. It would be hugely detrimental to the global non-proliferation regime if that decision will now go down in the history books as a mistake.

Is the existing nuclear disarmament machinery up to the task?

The new disarmament initiatives of the last five years, though different in origin and purpose, are born of the same frustration: 70 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 45 years since the entry into force of the NPT and 18 years of deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament, what is currently on offer as constituting progress on nuclear disarmament is simply insufficient.

Einstein famously described insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And so it is with the NPT. We cannot keep meeting every five years for another half-century and simply expect the NPT to deliver.

The longer key promises of the NPT and other disarmament machinery remain unfulfilled, the more strain these regimes will come under. Frustration with lack of progress on nuclear disarmament will force those states committed to nuclear disarmament to look for ways forward outside of the existing architecture. Indeed, a range of practical proposals for the start of a negotiating process aimed at the complete elimination of nuclear weapons has already been put forward.

Although it is not yet time to give up on the NPT, its credibility will certainly be put to the test at the NPT Review Conference in May.