Opinion: Challenge for the NAM – Move the NPT Review Conference to 2021 in Vienna

Photo: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the 2010 High-level Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Viewpoint by Tariq Rauf

It is sometimes said that it is easy to try to herd cats than to get the States parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to agree on anything practical! This certainly seems to be the case now, as after dithering for several weeks the earth shaking announcement coming out of New York on March 27 is that “In light of the situation related to the COVID-19 pandemic, States Parties have decided to postpone the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to a later date, as soon as the circumstances permit, but no later than April 2021. Information on the new dates of the Review Conference will be posted in due course”.

In one respect, this lack of agreement among NPT States parties reflects the prevailing underlying tensions regarding the failure by the nuclear-weapon States (NWS) to honour their commitments on nuclear disarmament, the failure to make progress on establishing a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the region of the Middle East, the start of a new Cold War between the West and the Russian Federation, unravelling of nuclear arms control treaties and agreements, and growing friction between the United States and China, among other related factors.

…what is the back story to the current impasse on the relatively simple matter of postponing the 2020 NPT Review Conference…?

At last, even the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed by one year; so what is preventing NPT States parties from postponing the review conference to April-May 2021 and to hold it in Vienna?

So, what is the back story to the current impasse on the relatively simple matter of postponing the 2020 NPT Review Conference, scheduled to be held at the UN in New York from April 27 to  May 22, due to the rampant spread of COVID-19 in the New York area, and on agreeing on a later date and venue? In previous weeks I have written extensively on this matter and readers can find the stories here.

Proposed meeting on April 27

Let’s briefly recap how we got to where we are. In late January, NPT States parties agreed to the nomination, as President-designate of the 2020 NPT Review Conference, of Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen (Deputy Foreign Minister of Argentina until late 2019, and previously along with me an Alternate Head of the NPT Delegation of the International Atomic Energy Agency).

Given his experience and being a highly competent and professional diplomat, Ambassador Zlauvinen is no stranger to NPT diplomacy. He quickly tried to grapple with the matter of convening the review conference on the scheduled dates in light of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic and canvassed the views of States parties on the matter as well as those of the UN Secretariat.

Surprisingly, even under the dire circumstances, he met with indecision, confusion and obstinacy on the part of some NPT delegations which were reluctant to consider postponement citing the reason that 2020 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the NPT entering into force and as such it was important to hold to the agreed dates or at worst to convene in the Fall (August-September) this year. Now, even as COVID-19 unfortunately is rampant in New York, some of these same delegations remain undeterred and are touting that the conference could be held in November-December.

Reportedly, there also seems to have been some indecision and confusion in the UN Secretariat regarding the convening of scheduled conferences and meetings, likely in light of a similar situation prevailing in the US government and the absence of clear recommendations and guidelines. Thus, valuable time was lost when common sense suggested that it would not be possible to hold the review conference as scheduled and to take the necessary decision to postpone it – as I and others had suggested, to the same April-May window in 2021 and to move the venue to Vienna (Austria).

Now, even though the old Cold War ended in 1991, in NPT and other nuclear arms control diplomacy the Cold War political groupings still persist as diplomats seem incapable of recognizing the new realities and organizing NPT consultations along other more practical lines. Though there are various regional and issue-based groups in the context of the NPT review process, the principal political groupings are the Western and Others Group (WEOG) chaired by the United Kingdom, the East European and Others Group (EEOG), currently chaired by Poland, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) currently chaired by Azerbaijan – China unilaterally has created its own “Group of One”.

Thus, NPT review conference presidents, and its preparatory committee chairs, still go through the group coordinators in order to solicit the views of States – these coordinators then reach out to their group members and convey their views.

Accordingly, President-designate Zlauvinen addressed a communication to the chairs of the three political groups on March 13, attached below, in which he inter alia proposed that “the Review Conference meet, conditions permitting, as scheduled, on 27 April for one meeting only and for New York-based delegates only” to decide on a number of procedural issues and to make their views known to him by 20 March using a “silence procedure”—under which if no objections are received the proposed action is agreed.

See communication of President-designate Zlauvinen

While the details of the views of the EEOG and the WEOG communicated to Ambassador Zlauvinen are not fully known, reportedly some objected to the one-day meeting on April 27 on the grounds that New York based diplomats were not mandated to decide on NPT matters and that either a video conference or a web-based meeting be arranged or the decision postponed to a later date; while others held fast to holding the conference at some unspecified date later this year, or to agree on new dates through communications between the President-designate and the coordinators of the political groupings.

It is noteworthy that the adults in this process to decide on the postponement of the review conference appear to have been the NAM States – with more than 115 NPT States parties

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. Their position as communicated to Ambassador Zlauvinen apparently was that States party should “adopt a decision as soon as possible on the postponement of the Review Conference scheduled from 27 April to 22 May 2020 to another date no later than the end of 2021, preferably during suitable window of dates in April and May 2021”. The NAM position was outlined in a communication as attached.

The NAM position noted above, to postpone to April-May 2021, is the only practical and rational way to proceed for reasons that I have previously discussed.

See NAM position

Postponement to an unspecified date

On March 25, Ambassador Zlauvinen addressed another communication to the group coordinators, attached below, in which he inter alia stated that “the possibility of holding a web-based meeting on 27 April 2020 in order to open the Review Conference on the date set by the Preparatory Committee, given the symbolism that would have been entailed by the 50th anniversary of the Treaty’s entry-into-force and the 25th anniversary of its indefinite extension, as well as the need to ensure the integrity and credibility of the review process… due to reasons of technical feasibility and some concerns raised by States Parties, I do not believe such an option is viable for a formal meeting of the Conference . In the absence of other options, I believe the best course of action is for the States Parties to agree on the postponement by correspondence”.

See communication of Ambassador Zlauvinen

So, the proposed one day meeting on April 27 will not be held and the Office of the UN Secretary General posted a Note to correspondents – in response to questions on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)that dryly stated that, “In light of the situation related to the COVID-19 pandemic, States Parties have decided to postpone the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to a later date, as soon as the circumstances permit, but no later than April 2021. Information on the new dates of the Review Conference will be posted in due course”. 

NPT Review Conference Presidency

The job of a NPT review conference president is never easy, normally it is a thankless exercise where the president is subjected to a range of inducements (such as being appointed UN Secretary General), threats, electronic eavesdropping and other pressures. Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala (Sri Lanka), who presided over the crucial 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, at its gruelling end was quoted by Barbara Crossette of the New York Times in her article, Man in the News: Jayantha Dhanapala; The Helmsman for the Nuclear Arms Pact, in the Sunday, 14 May 1995 issue of her paper as saying, “The President of a conference is not a magician who can produce a rabbit out of a hat. The rabbit must be in the hat and must want to come out. All we can do is to coax it occasionally. I wish there was more ‘coaxing’ at international conferences so that we could have more agreements through consensus on the vital issues that divide us.”

Given that the NPT has reached a milestone of 50 years in force, several NPT States are interested in ensuring in some sort of a successful outcome to the review conference no matter how minimal in content and obligations.

Hence, I would not be surprised if Ambassador Zlauvinen already has discovered the pressures and frustrations that come with the job and these can only multiply as the discussions continue on the selection of the dates of the postponed review conference and especially on any proposals to move the venue to Vienna.

…I would recommend that the NAM States parties.. . request the President-designate to implement the modality of taking the required procedural decision by a vote.

Whether there will be a live rabbit or a dead rat in the outcome “hat” of the now postponed 2020 NPT Review Conference remains to be seen – though the prospects of a live rabbit seem remote at present. Regardless, we can be confident that the indefatigable President-designate will work tirelessly to secure the best outcome possible – that is if States parties allow him to do so!

In an interview report published in the April 2020 issue of Arms Control Today, Ambassador Zlauvinen has wisely stated, “Once we can move back into the important discussions on all of the issues relating to the NPT, I hope the States-parties can think like a community and find common solutions to common challenges”.

NPT Review Conference: Vienna 2021

The practical and logical way forward is to convene the NPT’s 50th anniversary review conference, because of the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic, one year later instead of this year. The time frame of April 26 to May 21, 2021 mirrors that of the schedule for this year and changing the venue to Vienna makes eminent sense because two of three pillars of the NPT always have been based there – nuclear verification and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Such a procedural decision can be taken by a majority vote by the States parties, as discussed below.

Should the Western and Eastern Groups be unwilling to agree on the dates and venue noted above, I would recommend that the NAM States parties – which clearly form the majority of the present 191 adherents to the Treaty – request the President-designate to implement the modality of taking the required procedural decision by a vote.

According to the Rules of Procedure for NPT review conferences, with regard to adoption of decisions, Rule 28.2 stipulates that, “Decisions on matters of procedure and in elections shall be taken by a majority of representatives present and voting” (emphasis added).

Furthermore, according to Rule 28.5, “If the question arises whether a matter is one of procedure or of substance, the President of the Conference shall rule on the question. An appeal against this ruling shall immediately be put to the vote and the President’s ruling shall stand unless the appeal is approved by a majority of the representatives present and voting” (emphasis added).

According to the custom and practice of NPT review conferences, matters pertaining to dates, venue, election of office bearers, programme of work, and suspension of the conference among others are procedural – as is evident above in the March 13 communication of the President.

Therefore, the President-designate of the review conference has agency and authority to rule on the matter of calling a vote on the dates and venue of the postponed conference, as provided for in Rule 28.5 of the rules of procedure, if requested by States parties. (Substantive matters pertain to items such as nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, peaceful uses of nuclear energy, security assurances, and strengthened review process among others.)

While decisions in the NPT review process normally are taken by consensus or without a vote, as noted above, the rules of procedure clearly stipulate that on procedural matters decisions “shall be taken by a majority of representatives present and voting”. The NAM States parties, accordingly, should insist on taking the procedural decision on dates and venue by voting should the President-designate not be accorded consensus on this matter by the Eastern and Western Groups.

It might be recalled in this context that in 1995 when the crucial decision on the extension-in-force of the NPT was to be taken, a vote on this matter was envisaged by several States should consensus not be forthcoming and I had collected 111 signed pledges supporting indefinite extension from among the-then 179 States parties as part of my responsibilities in the Canadian delegation.

In the end, the Conference President with the support of certain States managed to devise a package of decisions and a resolution that enabled the States parties to agree on indefinite extension of the NPT “without a vote” – see my write-up here.

Furthermore, to cite more recent examples, in its 2018 session the First Committee of the UN General Assembly (on disarmament matters) decided on a procedural matter concerning the admissibility of a draft resolution by a vote. Similarly, in 2017 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and in 1996 the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), both were adopted by the General Assembly by voting – as were the Open-ended Working Groups on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations (OEWG), in 2016 and 2013 respectively.

There are many other such examples. In the context of the NPT review process, it also is relevant to consider Rule 28.6 that stipulates, “In cases where a vote is taken, the relevant rules of procedure relating to voting of the General Assembly of the United Nations shall apply, except as otherwise specifically provided herein”:

It is abundantly clear, therefore, that according to the Rules of Procedure, should consensus not be forthcoming, NPT States parties are legally entitled to decide by a majority vote on the dates and venue of the review conference. They should go ahead and do so, if necessary and in that case the NAM States must initiate this process as soon as possible.

While “Conference Services” at the Vienna International Centre, serving the IAEA, CTBTO and UN organizations, might not be overly enthusiastic at taking on the onerous task of servicing a NPT review conference next year among their other responsibilities; it must be understood that they serve the international organizations and their Member States and thus are obligated to follow and implement instructions albeit they can easily request additional staff such as conference room officers and interpreters and book additional facilities.

Read the full article originally published by InDepthNews here.

Tariq Rauf, board member of Atomic Reporters, is former Head of Nuclear Verification and Security Policy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, and former Alternate Head of the IAEA Delegation to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) review conferences. Personal views are expressed here.

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