A field of broken promises and shattered visions

25 Years after the indefinite extension of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty


— Part 1 —

“I long ago took to heart the words of Omar Bradley, spoken virtually a half century ago, when he observed, having seen the aftermath of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus: ‘We live in an age of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We live in a world that has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. We’ve unlocked the mysteries of the atom and forgotten the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living’.

US General (ret’d.) George Lee Butler, former C-in-C United States Strategic Command (Ottawa, Canada: 1999).

Attending my second NPT review conference as a member of the Canadian delegation, I can still recall that early afternoon on 11th May 1995 when delegates from 175 countries, after four weeks of hectic negotiations that went late into the night in a small conference room at the United Nations in New York that reeked of an admixture of cigarette smoke, perfume and disgusting body odour, finally came together in the General Assembly Hall to make the world less dangerous from the overhanging threat of nuclear devastation and agreed without a vote to indefinitely extend the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Resting under my seat was a briefcase with signed declarations by the heads of delegation of 111 NPT States parties that I had collected over the past three weeks, committing them to support the indefinite extension of the Treaty – that is, to render it of permanent duration meaning that it will never expire.

This was insurance in case of a rebellion, or change of heart, by States committed to indefinite extension to back away either because of insufficient assurances from the nuclear-weapon States (NWS) to reduce their weapons or dissatisfaction with the NWS’ intransigence in opposing agreement on an assessment of the review of the implementation of the NPT during the preceding quinquennium – 1990-1995.

Had rebellious States insisted on blocking a decision on indefinite extension or insisted on alternatives such as extending the Treaty for some fixed number of years, my instructions were to hand over the pile of signed declarations, neatly organized in the English alphabetical order, to my Canadian head of delegation who then would call for a recorded vote on the matter of indefinite extension; would remind the 110 other heads of delegation to vote in favour as they had already committed in writing to support such an outcome and that he had on his desk their signed codicils to this effect – 111 constituted a clear majority of the-then 178 parties to the NPT and a vote would be in accordance with Article X.2 and the rules of procedure that provided for a decision by a “majority”.

The process of deciding on the extension package is described below with a view to informing today’s delegates attending NPT meetings as to what transpired 25 years ago because most of them are not sufficiently aware of the history and process in 1995 of deciding on the future duration of the Treaty and what bargains or agreements were the catalyst to enable the indefinite continuation in force of the NPT. If these erode away, the future of the Treaty could be in jeopardy.

Decision on the Indefinite Extension of the NPT

The momentous decision to extend the NPT indefinitely was taken on Thursday, 11 May 1995, in the 17th plenary meeting of the review and extension conference starting at 12:10 PM New York time. The President of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference (NPTREC), Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala (Sri Lanka), began the meeting by saying that, “I apologize to all delegations for the delay in convening this meeting, but I assure them that it was for very good reasons. Consultations were taking place amongst delegations to ensure that our work should progress smoothly. We also commence a little after high noon to intensify the drama of the occasion”.

Dhanapala informed the delegates that three proposals were on the table regarding options for the extension of the Treaty, these were: (1) a proposal by Mexico, calling for indefinite extension along with a number of procedural elements; (2) a proposal submitted by Canada on behalf of 103 States parties and subsequently sponsored by eight additional States parties, calling for indefinite extension with no added elements; and (3) a proposal submitted by Indonesia and 10 States parties and subsequently sponsored by three additional States parties; calling for extension for rolling fixed periods of twenty-five years with a review and extension conference at the end of each fixed period to conduct an effective and comprehensive review of the operation of the Treaty, and for the Treaty to be extended for the next fixed period of twenty-five years unless the majority of the parties to the Treaty decided otherwise at the review and extension conference.

Dhanapala then noted that in addition to the three proposals for extension, the conference had before it three draft decisions: (1) on strengthening the review process for the Treaty; (2) on principles and objectives for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament; and (3) on the extension of the Treaty. He stated that these “three documents are the end result of considerable discussion over long hours”, that the discussions drew on the substance of the three proposals on extension of the Treaty, and that together they represented a fair and equitable balance of interests of different States.

The Conference President went on say that the “documents before representatives provide, in my humble opinion, an excellent basis for an understanding on principles and objectives for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, the strengthening of the review process for the Treaty and for the extension of our Treaty. It is also clear that a majority exists in terms of article X, paragraph 2, relating to the extension. This leads me to conclude that it will not be necessary to resort to a vote on the three draft decisions before us. Accordingly, if I hear no objection, I will take it that the draft decisions may be adopted without a vote”. The President then gavelled down the adoption of the three decisions – no objections were voiced.

Immediately following the adoption of the three decisions, Ambassador Dhanapala put up a resolution co-sponsored by the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America – the depositary States for the NPT. He introduced an amendment to operative paragraph 1 of draft resolution as follows: “Endorses the aims and objectives of the Middle East peace process and recognizes that efforts in this regard, as well as other efforts, contribute to, inter alia, a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction”. Dhanapala stated that, “It is my understanding that there is general agreement on the draft resolution as orally amended. I should like therefore to propose that we adopt this draft resolution without a vote”. The conference adopted the resolution on the Middle East without a vote, thus completing the package of decisions and resolution that together enabled the indefinite extension of the NPT.

This was followed by eleven statements by States parties. Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan and Syria inter alia emphasized the importance of the Middle East resolution, called upon Israel to accede to the Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon State, and enjoined the NWS to fulfill their nuclear disarmament obligations. Algeria referred to the decisions and resolution as a “package” that enabled reluctant States to not object to indefinite extension. China and France, NWS under the Treaty and recent adherents (1992), welcomed indefinite extension and portrayed it as necessary for movement on nuclear disarmament.

Nigeria stated that it was the second signatory to the Treaty and though it could not support indefinite extension as it had preferred a rolling extension, nonetheless it chose not to stand in the way of the majority even as the NWS were reluctant to abandon their nuclear doctrines in an international environment less antagonistic to their security interests . South Africa referred to the decisions as providing an interlinked and realistic framework to faithfully implement the Treaty, and as a “yardstick” to measure non-proliferation and disarmament achievements.

Malaysia declared that: the decision on indefinite extension “does not have the consensus of the Conference”; that the outcome would have been different had a secret ballot been called; that efforts to call for specific commitments on nuclear disarmament were “met with strong and determined resistance from the nuclear-weapon States and their supporters”; and that “in reality, indefinite extension provides a carte blanche to the nuclear-weapon States and does not serve as an incentive towards universality …[and]… fundamentally weakens all efforts towards the elimination of nuclear weapons”.

The last words of the session rightfully went to Canada, which reiterated that the Treaty now rested on permanence with accountability and that a template for accountability had been created. Canada thanked those States that “made the longer leaps of faith” to become “essential partners in our achievement”, “made our unity possible in the final, decisive stage [to] have bridged the larger gaps” and that “we [have] shared here a great, common victory for the better angels of our nature”

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. The historic session closed at 13:50 PM New York time (11 May 1995).

A further eleven statements were made in the afternoon session on the same day . Costa Rica stated that “the use or the threat of the use of nuclear weapons represents a violation of international law – and in particular of the jus cogens human rights norms – none of the provisions or recommendations in the decisions just adopted, nor the extension [of the Treaty] … should be interpreted as recognizing, directly or indirectly, the legality of the use, the threat of the use, or the possession of weapons of this type”. Indonesia stated that a rolling 25-year extension would have been the best option, as indefinite extension “will remove the sense of urgency from the obligations under article VI of the Treaty and will have the effect of perpetuating and legitimizing the possession of nuclear weapons”.

This outcome of indefinitely extending the NPT was the result of efforts by Canada’s for “permanence with accountability” that were supported notably by South Africa, Mexico and several other countries – for a detailed account of the extension decision see my article co-authored with Rebecca Johnson of the ACRONYM Institute, “After The NPT’s Indefinite Extension: The Future Of The Global Nonproliferation Regime”, and the publication co-authored with Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala (President of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference), Reflections on The Treaty on The Non-Proliferation Of Nuclear Weapons: Review conferences and the future of the NPT. Also see, Susan Welch, “Delegate Perspectives on the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference”, and the Digital Archive created by Michal Onderco as well as his, “Extending the NPT – A Critical Oral History of the 1995 Review and Extension Conference”.

In the afternoon on the next day, Friday, 12 May 1995, Conference President Dhanapala started the proceedings on a sour note as during the lunch break some of the Western Group (WEOG) ambassadors had given press interviews of a triumphalist note that did not go down well with most of the delegates from non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS) as the conference had not been able to agree on a review assessment of the 1990-1995 period mainly because of opposition from the nuclear-weapon States (NWS). The NWS and their allies had achieved their objective of indefinite extension, albeit a conditional one based on an integral “package” of three decisions and a resolution – to be discussed in some detail later in this paper – and were in no mood to agree on anything else. The only high note of the day was the announcement by the President at 22:30 PM that Chile had completed its parliamentary procedures and thereby had become a State party to the NPT.

The “most important arms control conference in history”, in the words of US Ambassador Ralph Earle, petered out and became a chapter of history at 00:35 on Saturday morning, 13 May 1995, but not without a reference to the movie “High Noon” – whose ending metaphorically has come to pass a quarter century later as the NWS and their allies apparently have quit (the) town (of nuclear disarmament).

Read part 2 in tomorrow’s Atomic Reporters update.

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. He has attended all NPT meetings as an official delegate since 1987. Personal views are expressed here.

Full image caption: Opening of the Review and Extension Conference of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 17 April 1995. Seated on the podium from left to right: UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; President of the Conference, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala (Sri Lanka); Secretary-General of the Conference, Prvoslav Davinić. (United Nations, New York, UN Photo Library: 17 April 1995, UN Photo by Evan Schneider # 68537)

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