Dreaming of butterflies and unicorns as the nuclear arms control architecture collapses (Pt2)

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.

The Roots of Division and Discord

Nuclear disarmament

From the very first NPT review conference held in 1975, and every five years thereafter, the main area of division and discord is nuclear disarmament as required under Article VI of the Treaty . The five nuclear-weapon states (NWS) parties, along with their allies, traditionally have linked disarmament to national and international security considerations, as well as to disarmament, also covering conventional and other types of weapons. In contrast, in general, most of the non-nuclear-weapon states have emphasized the implementation of NPT Article VI as it pertains to nuclear disarmament. Over the years, the Western states have promoted a so-called “step-by-step approach”, or “building blocks” to achieve disarmament – i.e., the NPT to be followed by a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, then a fissile material control treaty, and then other unspecified steps . In contrast, the NAM have been proposing a phased programme and a specified time frame for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons through a nuclear weapons convention or other similar legally binding treaty.

At the 2000 NPT review conference, the NWS agreed on an unequivocal undertaking towards the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals through 13 practical steps for systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI of the Treaty in accordance with the principles of transparency, verifiability and irreversibility. And, at the 2010 NPT review conference reference was made to the catastrophic consequences of any use of nuclear weapons that led to three international conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons – Oslo (2013), Nayarit (2014) and Vienna (2014). These were followed by UN General Assembly mandated “Open-ended Working Groups to develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations” that met in 2013-2014 and in 2016 – these meetings were boycotted by the NWS and their allies. In 2016, the General Assembly, on a vote of 123 in favour, 68 opposed and 16 abstentions, mandated negotiations in 2017 on a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. These negotiations, again boycotted by the NWS and their allies, led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that was adopted by 122 states in July 2017 – currently it has 70 signatories with 23 ratifications, and will enter into force when 50 states have ratified. The TPNW has further exacerbated divisions between its supporters and opponents, NATO as well as the five NWS and India and Pakistan have vociferously opposed the TPNW.

The proponents of the TPNW wisely opted not to make this treaty the centrepiece of their statements in the disarmament cluster thus disappointing the strident opponents who feared that the PrepCom would be “highjacked” by the TPNW. A new element, however, was introduced by the US at the 2018 NPT PrepCom in Geneva when it proposed “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament” (CCND), sweeping aside previously agreed measures from the 1995, 2000 and 2010 NPT review conferences. At this year’s PrepCom the US reformulated its CCND proposal to “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND) and based its new approach on the grounds that the “step-by-step” approach had failed to deliver results and thus a completely new track was needed to create the conditions and environment that could lead to further nuclear arms reductions involving all possessors of nuclear weapons.

The US’ CEND approach has left its unquestioning loyal allies, who have doggedly supported the step-by-step or building blocks or “stepping stones” approaches, squirming in the 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 in which everyone would live happily ever after!

Middle East

In addition to discord and divisions over nuclear disarmament, the second contentious issue concerns the establishment of a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the region of the Middle East (MEWMDFZ). At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference the decision had to be taken on the future course of the Treaty. In order to get the support of the states of the Arab Group and of Iran, the three depositary states of the NPT – the Russian Federation (USSR), UK and the USA – co-sponsored a Resolution on the MEWMDFZ that became an integral part of the inter-linked package that allowed for the indefinite extension of the NPT. The 2000 NPT review conference called upon Israel by name to accede to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state and for the implementation of the 1995 resolution. The 2010 NPT review conference mandated a regional conference on the zone to be convened by 2012; however, the US unilaterally postponed that conference leading to criticism by the Arab states, Iran, the Russian Federation and the NAM

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. The 2015 NPT review conference collapsed into failure when the US followed by Canada and the UK vetoed a proposal to hold such a conference by 2016 under the aegis of the UN Secretary General. Last year, the General Assembly adopted a decision by vote mandated the UN Secretary General to convene a MEWMDFZ conference before the end of 2019. According to unconfirmed reports circulating at the PrepCom, it is alleged that some Western states are working behind the scene to prevent the convening of such a conference, but it is known that some states remain opposed to the proposals advanced by the Arab states.

In general, led by the US, the Western Group and EU states have opposed putting pressure on Israel to attend such a conference leading to unhappiness and anger on the part of the Arab states, Iran and the NAM. This issue once again stumped agreement at the 2019 NPT PrepCom. Even though now there are serious divisions between some members of the Arab Group, and also with Iran and Syria; nonetheless on the matter of the MEWMDFZ the group manages to coalesce behind a common position.

The Blame Game

Given the precipitous decline in international relations over the past few years, not surprisingly there is growing fatigue and frustration in the inability and powerlessness of the majority of non-NWS to move on nuclear disarmament through the NPT review process. Consequently, many diplomats and research institute experts are flailing around attacking the efficacy of the review process, while largely ignoring the corrosive effects of worsening political relations, hardened positions, lack of flexibility, decline in negotiating skills for compromise and growing ignorance of the sophistication of the strengthened review process.

NPT review conferences were never designed to be forums for either negotiating legally binding treaties or conventions on nuclear weapons, for nuclear verification measures for IAEA safeguards, or for battling over major international political controversies and resolving differences especially relating to ‘compliance’ with IAEA safeguards by non-NWS.

Since 2014 in particular, the NPT review process has been eroding and deteriorating with a loss of civility and respect in discourse; a lack of political will and competence to develop common ground in support of the NPT; retracting agreed steps and actions under the NPT review process; disregarding international law while touting the preservation of a so-called “rules based international order;” and blaming the review process for the inability of states parties to join hands to strengthen the integrity and authority of the NPT.

Just as the band playing on the deck of the Titanic could not prevent its sinking, diplomats are unable and unwilling to reverse the steady undermining of the NPT strengthened review process as they persist in defending entrenched positions, are unwilling to find common ground in the interest of preserving the NPT, and are failing to fully implement the relevant guidance from the 1995, 2000 and 2010 NPT review conferences.


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 Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.