Dreaming of butterflies and unicorns as the nuclear arms control architecture collapses (Pt1)

A Special Report by Tariq Rauf

Tariq Rauf, Alternate Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) NPT Delegation 2002-2010, explains in this personal, three-part account how the third and final session of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) unfolded in May, and how it fizzled out in disagreements over the pace and extent of nuclear disarmament at United Nations headquarters in New York . Rauf is known as ‘an encyclopedia’ on nuclear non-proliferation and the NPT. Personal views are expressed here.

Part 1 – Introduction

A new approach, “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament,” has left unquestioning loyal allies, who have doggedly supported the “step-by-step” or “building blocks” or “stepping stones” approaches, squirming in a cesspool of unilateralism and dreaming of butterflies and unicorns to appear magically and sprinkle fairy dust leading to a new vision and new world of uncharted nuclear arms control.

The third and final session of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) collapsed in disagreements on 10 May 2019 at United Nations headquarters in New York over the pace and extent of nuclear disarmament.

Representatives of 150 states parties took part in discussion from 28 April through 10 May. There were 106 statements made in the General Debate followed by scores of sometimes repetitive statements under three clusters of issues: nuclear disarmament and security assurances; nuclear verification (IAEA safeguards), nuclear weapon-free zones, regional issues including the Middle East, North Korea and South Asia; and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the NPT review process and provisions for withdrawal from the Treaty.

In 2020, the NPT will mark its golden jubilee 50 years after it came into force in 1970, and 25 years since it was extended in 1995 to remain in place indefinitely, i.e. permanently . The NPT with 191 states parties is considered to be the essential cornerstone of the global nuclear governance regime covering nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The NPT is recognized to be a major success in halting the further proliferation of nuclear weapons and has contained their possession to nine states (USA, USSR/Russian Federation, UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea – in that chronological order) – though the last three states listed never signed the NPT and North Korea withdrew from the Treaty in 2003.

Many Western states are focusing on marking the Golden Jubilee of the NPT in 2020 by highlighting the widespread peaceful applications of nuclear energy such as, for example, in agriculture, electricity production, human health and salinity, and strengthening the nuclear verification capabilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), while downplaying the failure to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. On the other side, many non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) from Asia, Africa and Latin America are pointing out that the promise of the NPT to end the age of nuclear weapons remains largely unfulfilled.

At NPT meetings, states set themselves up in political groupings, the largest of which is the Group of Non-Aligned states (NAM) numbering around 122; the Western and Others Group (WEOG) that includes Western countries (EU, NATO, Canada, USA) along with Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand; and the Eastern Group that includes the Russian Federation, Belarus, Hungary, Poland and some other East European countries (even though some are in the EU and NATO). In addition, there are issue-based groupings, such as: the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) with Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa; the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) with Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates; the Vienna Group of Ten with Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden; the “de-alerting” (of nuclear weapons) group with Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden and Switzerland; the “P-5” nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russian Federation, UK and USA); the Group of Arab states, among others. Thus, there is a bewildering array of groupings of states each pushing their converging and diverging views and as a result making the achievement of consensus or agreement even more difficult.

The mandate of the Preparatory Committee is two-fold: (1) to complete the procedural preparations for the next NPT review conference, which includes agreement on the dates of the next two sessions of the PrepCom, the rules of procedure, the agenda and programme of work, endorsement of the President of the review conference; and (2) to make “recommendations” on issues pertaining to the “three pillars” of the Treaty – nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, in addition to security assurances for non-nuclear-weapon states and regional issues.

This year’s session of the PrepCom, like its predecessors, managed to complete the procedural preparations and endorsed in principle the candidacy of Ambassador Rafael Grossi (Permanent Representative of Argentina to the International Atomic Energy Agency and other international organizations in Vienna) as President of the 2020 NPT Review Conference. However, as in previous years, states parties were unable and unwilling to overcome their deep differences and thus did not agree on any “recommendations” even though these are only indicative and not binding for the review conference.

While much ink was spilled on concerns and allegations regarding the current sorry state of international relations, political and military conflicts, the decline of multilateralism in favour of unilateralism and the pursuit of narrow national interests, in effect the gathered diplomats fiddled verbally unable to do anything to prevent the collapsing architecture of nuclear arms control

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. The US has unilaterally withdrawn from the 2015 “Iran nuclear deal” even though 14 successive reports from the IAEA confirm that Iran is implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding limits on its nuclear programme; the 1987 US-USSR Treaty on Intermediate- and Shorter-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) is on track to be killed off in August this year; and the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and the Russian Federation is set to expire in February 2021 unless renewed. Just as the senators of Rome fiddled away while the city burned, today’s diplomats seem helpless in averting the total collapse of nuclear arms control thus paving the way for a dangerous new nuclear arms race with increased risks of accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons.


Tariq Rauf was Alternate Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) NPT Delegation 2002-2010, and has attended all NPT meetings as an official delegate since 1987 through 2019.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay.