By Tariq Rauf
The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) marked its “Golden Anniversary” on 5th March and the “Silver Anniversary” of its indefinite extension in force on 11th May this year. If there had been no COVID-19 pandemic, 191 NPT States parties would have met at the United Nations in New York, from 27 April to 22 May, at the tenth quinquennial review conference of the Treaty to mark these anniversaries and to chart the way forward to the next review conference in 2025.
The NPT is the cornerstone of nuclear governance across its three pillars – nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear materials and technologies. It is the only multilateral nuclear arms control treaty on the books that commits the five nuclear-weapon States (NWS) – China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and the United States – to nuclear disarmament. Four nuclear-armed States, India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan remain outside the NPT. Under the Treaty, 186 non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS) have committed to accept intrusive on-site inspections of their nuclear activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) based in Vienna.
NPT States meet every five years starting in 1970 to review the implementation of the Treaty. The review conferences of 1995, 2000 and 2010 produced a comprehensive menu of commitments and actions across the three pillars of the Treaty. It was also agreed to establish a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the region of the Middle East – where Israel remains the only country outside the NPT and has nuclear weapons.
While the non-nuclear-weapon States have carried out their obligations not to develop nuclear weapons, the five nuclear weapon States still have about 13,500 nuclear weapons located at 107 bases in 14 countries. Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey host a total of nearly 200 US nuclear weapons for the defence of NATO countries, which is a sore point for many NNWS. Russia and the US are the two largest possessors of nuclear weapons with nearly 12,500 between them.
In general, many NNWS are dissatisfied with the pace and extent of nuclear disarmament and with the slow but steady erosion of the Cold War architecture of nuclear arms control and reduction treaties. In 2000, the five NWS committed to an unequivocal undertaking to reduce nuclear weapons and their role in national security policies. However, in recent years, new types of nuclear weapon delivery systems have been under development, such as hypersonic missiles. and The threshold for using nuclear weapons has been lowered to enable the use of low-yield nuclear weapons thus putting at risk the 75-year taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, as well as disavowing the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
In 2017, 122 non-nuclear-weapon States adopted a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW);these States also have highlighted the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. This treaty unfortunately continues to be rejected by all nine nuclear-armed States, and by NATO and other countries with defence alliances with the US. Not only that, the US in particular is walking away from the nuclear disarmament commitments agreed in 1995, 2000 and 2010. No progress has been made on ridding the Middle East of nuclear weapons.
As the prospects of reaching agreement on nuclear disarmament and on the Middle East at the NPT review conference scheduled for this year, but postponed to next year, were very low some States took initiatives to try to develop common ground.
Sixteen States promoting the Swedish-led “stepping stones” initiative held a ministerial meeting in Berlin in February and issued a “political declaration, underpinned by concrete stepping stones”—that importantly “underline[d] that past NPT commitments remain valid and form the basis for making further progress in fully implementing the treaty and achieving a world free of nuclear weapons”, a view that is no longer supported by the US and many of its allies. The Berlin Declaration of The NPT at Fifty got it right when it stated that: “We underline that past NPT commitments remain valid and form the basis for making further progress in fully implementing the treaty and achieving a world free of nuclear weapons”. Characterizing reaffirmation of existing past commitments as “conventional wisdom that is at least a generation out of date” wins no friends, not to mention being disingenuous. These 16 States were hoping to herald positive steps for the review conference, but their focus on “risk reduction” and “transparency” and silence on actual disarmament steps does not cut the mustard as the majority of NNWS are impatient to see further reductions in nuclear weapons not transient measures.
Now, 17 States from different parts of the world – Algeria, Austria, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa and Thailand – have issued a Joint Communiqué. The full document is posted below. However, some of its salient points include:
- The 50th anniversary of the entry-into-force of the NPT coincides with the 25th anniversary of its indefinite extension. It is important to recall that the indefinite extension of the NPT was part of a package of decisions including a decision to strengthen the Treaty’s review process, identify principles and objectives for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and a Resolution on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
- These decisions together with the Middle East Resolution are considered inseparable from the indefinite extension of the NPT, and must be honoured by all States Parties.
- It should also be stressed that the indefinite extension of the Treaty cannot in any way be interpreted as a justification for the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons.
- The deep concern at the continued threat posed to humanity by nuclear weapons and the possibility of their catastrophic humanitarian impacts also underline the urgent need for significant and tangible progress. In this regard, we recall the concern expressed by all States Parties at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons as reflected in the Final Document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference.
- Five decades since its entry into force, the NPT remains an invaluable instrument in contributing to international Peace and security. As the cornerstone of the global nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation regime, the NPT has been instrumental in supporting international efforts to curtail the threats posed by nuclear weapons and their proliferation, while providing a foundation for global nuclear disarmament leading to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons in order to rid humanity of the existential threats they pose.
- Though some progress on nuclear disarmament has been achieved over the last five decades, it is far from sufficient and the obligation of nuclear disarmament has still not been fulfilled. Current modernization and upgrading programmes put the progress achieved in danger of reversal. At the same time, we see a highly concerning erosion of the multilateral nuclear disarmament and arms-control architecture with existing agreements being terminated and others in danger. The contemporary global security environment and challenges warrant urgent progress.
- It is urgently necessary to implement concrete, transparent, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament measures in order to fulfill the obligations and commitments within the framework of the NPT. We must uphold and preserve the NPTs credibility, viability and effectiveness, and the only way to protect the NPT is to implement it.
- The NPT has played a pivotal role in promoting the diverse peaceful uses of nuclear energy, ensuring that nuclear non-proliferation does not impede the rights and access of States Parties to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In this regard, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has succeeded in playing an effective role towards NPT implementation.
- It is now time that States Parties translate words into concrete actions backed by clear and agreed upon benchmarks and timelines. Only through such efforts can we look ahead towards a successful next 50 years of the NPT, improving on the important achievements of the last 50 years, which we presently commemorate.
This initiative by Algeria, Austria, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa and Thailand is commendable but these 17 States must now follow up on the Joint Communiqué and work to translate words into deeds. One important step that they can take and urge all other NPT States to join them is to reschedule the NPT Review Conference slated for this year to 2022, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and other negative developments, and to convene it in Vienna. For more on this matter see my article, 25 Years After the Indefinite Extension of The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: A Field of Broken Promises and Shattered Visions also available on this site of Atomic Reporters.
Tariq Rauf is a Director of Atomic Reporters – and 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, 2002-2010
See also: UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), Tariq Rauf, Is Past Prologue? Examining NPT Review Conference Commitments, (18 February 2020) and Jayantha Dhanapala and Tariq Rauf, Reflections on The Treaty on The Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Review conferences and the future of the NPT, (SIPRI: April 2017).