Opinion: The 2020 NPT Review Conference: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous!

By Tariq Rauf

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and coincidentally the tenth quinquennial (five yearly) review conference is scheduled to be held at the United Nations in New York from 27 April to 22 May. With 191 States parties, the NPT is the cornerstone of the global regime for nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. An unexpected complication is that of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on the NPT review conference – thus far, there is an inexplicable thundering silence from the UN regarding the postponement of the conference.

COVID-19

The World Health Organization (WHO) already has declared the COVID-19 to be a global pandemic affecting 135 countries with more than 142,500 people infected, 5,393 fatalities and many thousands more fighting for their lives in hospitals (WHO data current as of 14 March, 10:00 AM CET).

In the United States, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the total number of cases as of 13 March is 1,629, total deaths 41, in 47 states and the District of Columbia). The New York State Department of Health is reporting 269 cases in New York City including 613 in the State (data current as of 14 March).

Thus, it is clear that New York City is affected by COVID-19 and there is a high risk of the further spread of the virus. Add to this, the expected arrival of more than 400 delegates from all parts of the world, to attend the NPT conference, including obviously from countries and regions already afflicted with the corononavirus.

Should this transpire, it would not take a virologist or a rocket scientist to predict a rapid transmission of the virus to many of the delegates all concentrated in the UN General Assembly chamber for several days and in other large meeting rooms for another three weeks. Furthermore, the US may restrict entry to delegates coming from countries afflicted with coronavirus and either deny visas or place them under quarantine for two weeks or more? In fact, President Donald Trump already has suspended all travel from Europe for 30 days.

So, why has not the UN ordered the postponement of all large conferences till the virus infections subside and the environment is safe again for large and small congregations of people drawn from all corners of the world? And, why have not the diplomats accredited to the UN in New York, from States parties to the NPT, already decided to postpone the NPT review conference? What is it about COVID-19 that they do not understand and why are they delaying taking the common sense decision to postpone the event?

The UN Secretary-General’s “Message on COVID 19” is limited to bulleted points such as, “All of us face a common threat – the coronavirus – COVID 19. Today’s declaration of a pandemic is a call to action – for everyone, everywhere”, which is not reassuring!

UN General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, on the other hand, has stated that the coronavirus will only be tackled “through a multilateral response” in which the UN “must lead by example” and that the UN should take a “coordinated and coherent approach” regarding decisions on whether major meetings can go ahead. He added that at the UN Secretariat “we have started the process looking at scaling down, postponing and/or cancelling meetings, as appropriate”. Well, it’s high time to do so – the sooner the better!

Options for the NPT Review Conference

Reportedly, “options” are being considered but no decision has been taken as yet. One option seemingly gathering support, and reportedly pushed by some States, is to convene the NPT Review Conference as scheduled on 27th April but then to immediately prorogue (or adjourn) it to August or later this year after possibly adopting a statement or declaration commemorating 50 years of the NPT. The stated rationale being that the NPT conference is a scheduled quinquennial event according to the Treaty and therefore must be convened – if only for a day under present circumstances – going from the sublime to the ridiculous!

The logic of such a bizarre “option” can only emanate from New York and capitals, as oftentimes they tend to be oblivious to the calendars of events and meetings in other UN capitals that deal with nuclear matters, namely Vienna (Austria) and Geneva (Switzerland).

Not surprisingly, the reaction in Vienna and Geneva has tended to be one of shock and disbelief. What were these diplomats/officials thinking? Are they not aware that the third session of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is scheduled for 3 August to 18 September? And, do they not realize that in Western Europe the civilized practice of annual vacation in August is nearly sacrosanct! Just because in the United States the concept of taking an annual vacation is generally frowned upon is no reason to subject others to this stress of giving up their vacation time.

Postpone to 2021 and Convene in Vienna

As I have recommended earlier this month, there is only one sound course of action: that to postpone the NPT review conference to 2021 (possibly 26 April to 21 May) and to convene it from then on in Vienna. The following are the reasons for my recommendation, which is beginning to get some traction:

  1. The year following an NPT review conference always is a gap year; hence there should not be any impediment to moving it to next year. No important decisions need to be taken this year and the 50th anniversary of the NPT can be marked by speeches and statements by ministers in capitals, New York, Geneva and Vienna.
  2. At present, there are no prospects for any progress on nuclear disarmament – a key element of the NPT. Both the Russian Federation and the United States are engaged in modernization of their nuclear weapons; and the United States is pursuing a policy of steadily abandoning treaties, multilateralism and striking out in favour of unilateral nationalistic policies. Last year, the United States abandoned the 1987 Intermediate- and Shorter-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as well as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) limiting Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme; earlier in 2002 it pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that formed the basis of strategic stability between Russia and the United States. In addition, thus far, the United States has not indicated any interest in extending the 2010 New START Treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons that will expire in February 2021, and in preserving the Open Skies Treaty that permits confidence-building aerial overflights. In addition, some officials now are openly verbally attacking those in countries who promote fulfilling the nuclear disarmament obligations under the NPT. Thus, postponing the NPT conference to 2021 provides a respite of a year with the possibility of an improved climate in 2021?
  3. The technical and policy expertise for nuclear verification, safety and security, and peaceful uses always has resided in Vienna (Austria) at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA provides secretariat support and expertise to the NPT review conference on two of the three pillars of the NPT – nuclear non-proliferation and peaceful uses.
  4. The expertise and experience for negotiating multilateral nuclear arms control resides at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva (Switzerland) – the third pillar of the NPT.
  5. UN New York has no diplomatic or technical expertise related to the NPT; it is basically a political talk shop. Negotiations on resolutions on nuclear arms control matters in the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, as well as in the UN Disarmament Commission, normally are conducted by diplomats coming over to New York from Geneva and from capitals.
  6. Staff from the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (ODA) in New York, together with IAEA staff form the “secretariat” for NPT review conferences and their preparatory committees. UN ODA New York staff travel to Vienna and Geneva, respectively, to service the preparatory committee sessions held there along with UN ODA staff based in these two European cities. Thus, UN ODA New York staff can easily support the review conference held in Vienna.
  7. The claim that participation in NPT review conferences held in New York is higher as all Member States of the United Nations are represented there is not credible. Of the 191 States Parties to the NPT, generally not more than 150 attend review conferences and then too small delegations only make a showing on the first and last days in order to be listed in the official list of participants. It need not be a burden for small States to attend review conferences in Vienna.
  8. Given concerns about the effect on the climate from air travel and current tendency to minimize long distance travel by air to reduce the carbon footprint; convening the review conference from 2021 onwards in Vienna also can have a positive impact in reducing the carbon burden of attendance. The geographic location of Vienna in Central Europe will greatly reduce distances to be travelled by delegates from Asia, Africa and Oceania, as well as of course by European countries – these regions put together comprise the largest number of countries in the world. Only the North and South American delegates will have increased travel distances, but these obviously are a minority compared to those from the regions noted above.
  9. It is obvious that costs of hotel accommodation in New York are inordinately high with tax upon taxes, as are the high costs of food and meals. Hotel and food costs in Vienna are much cheaper than in New York or Geneva, as are hotel costs. Thus, significant savings can be incurred by foreign ministries in connection with participation in the review conference held in Vienna. Such savings would be even more beneficial for civil society representatives, who obviously cannot draw upon tax payer funding as can official delegates.
  10. Finally, there is now no rationale to hold NPT review conferences at any location in any nuclear-weapon State (NWS), especially since 25 years after the indefinite extension of the NPT the deficit in nuclear disarmament remains significant, nuclear weapons are being modernized in some NWS, the threshold of possible use of nuclear weapons has been lowered, and existing treaties are under threat. Better to hold review conferences in a “neutral” country such as Austria that is a strong champion on nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament.

Decide Now

The longer this decision is delayed to move the NPT review conference to 2021 in Vienna, the higher the costs incurred this year in cancelling New York flights and hotel rooms. While government delegates may well be able to afford such penalties as tax dollars pay for their expenses, for civil society participants cancellation costs would be onerous and unaffordable as they either self-finance or rely on charitable donations. Thus, as I have described in some detail above, there are no compelling reasons at all to convene the presently scheduled NPT review conference in New York this year. It makes eminent common and fiscal sense to convene it next year in April-May and to hold it in Vienna – the historic capital location of important conferences for more than two centuries and imbued with the intangible “spirit of Vienna” that encourages harmony and compromise.

Tariq Rauf, board member of Atomic Reporters, has attended all nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meetings since 1987 as a delegate, including as senior adviser to the chair of Main Committee I (nuclear disarmament) in 2015 and to the chair of the 2014 preparatory committee; as alternate head of the International Atomic Energy Agency delegation to the NPT; and as a non-proliferation expert with the Canadian delegation from 1987. Personal views are expressed here.

The original article was published by IDN InDepthNews here.