Be a lion not a mouse

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

VIEWPOINT BY TARIQ RAUF IN THREE INSTALMENTS

— Part 3 —

2022 NPT Review Conference in Vienna

Following my article of 20 April, in which I had made the case for postponing the review conference from the proposed dates of 4 to 29 January 2021 to later in that year; in light of current developments my views have evolved further in the context of promoting a successful outcome. An out-of-box unintended opportunity is to do something new, even ambitious, and to hold the review conference in Vienna in 2022 (not 2021), during the April-May time frame scheduled for the first session of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2025 review conference – and to add two weeks to the regular proceedings to enable 20 working days, the norm. A one-day PrepCom session could be included in these 20 working days to agree on procedural matters for the 2023-2024 PrepCom sessions. Thus, the 2022 PrepCom’s substantive discussions would be subsumed within the review conference.

As I have noted previously, NPT review conferences are not UN conferences – rather, they are conferences of the States parties to the NPT, paid for by them separately from UN membership dues and are governed by their own rules of procedure (RoP). Thus, while the President-designate and States parties need to take into account the advice of the UN secretariat which is always given in good faith, they are not bound in any way to accept it and are fully empowered to make their own decisions under the RoP for NPT review conferences taking into account international political developments.

Contrary to popular belief in some circles, the UN formally has nothing to do with the NPT as it was written and adopted in 1968 – this is not a criticism of the UN which does valuable work internationally but merely a factual observation. The only international organization to which the Treaty accords a formal role is the IAEA – the role of implementing safeguards or verification of the non-proliferation obligations of non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS) parties (article III). The inalienable right of States parties (article IV) to utilize nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes by NNWS, especially developing countries, in practice has come to be implemented through the technical cooperation programme of the IAEA.

The reality is that of the present 171 member States of the IAEA, 163 are NNWS party to the NPT. Currently, at the IAEA there are 848 active technical cooperation projects underway covering development priorities in areas such as human health and nutrition, food and agriculture, water and the environment, nuclear safety, nuclear security, nuclear power generation, nuclear waste disposition, nuclear sciences, industrial applications, nuclear knowledge development and management, and legislative assistance (nuclear law); as well as to develop solutions for future energy needs, and standards for radiation safety and nuclear security worldwide. Presently, the Agency is assisting developing Member States with real time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (real time RT-PCR) methodology for detection of COVID-19 infections in people – previously, RT-PCR technology was utilized by the IAEA to diagnose diseases such as Ebola, Zika, MERS-Cov, SARS-Cov1 and other major zoonotic and animal diseases.

The first NPT review conference was held in 1975, for which a preparatory committee had been formed of 26 States parties serving on the IAEA Board of Governors or represented at the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament – that held two meetings in 1974 and one in 1975, all in Geneva. The PrepCom decided on Geneva as the venue for the review conference. The IAEA and UN participated under paragraph 3 of rule 44: “The Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or their representatives, shall be entitled to attend meetings of the Plenary and of the Main Committees and to receive the Conference documents. They shall also be entitled to submit material, both orally and in writing”. Thus, the IAEA and the UN have equal status and the rule continues unchanged as does the participation of the IAEA and the UN – review conferences are addressed by the UN Secretary-General and the IAEA Director General in succession.

The IAEA is an autonomous international organization subject to its own governance structure, and like most international organizations the Agency has a relationship agreement with the UN on a common system for personnel management and related administrative functions.

The UN capably and professionally has been providing services to review conferences and PrepCom sessions, such as, secretary-general of the conference, meeting rooms, interpretation, summary records, and secretarial services including officers to support the president and the chairs. While the UN provides the official secretary to main committee I (nuclear disarmament), credentials and drafting committees, and prepares the elements of their draft reports; the IAEA covers main committees II and III (non-proliferation and peaceful uses) and prepares their draft reports – though the UN also covers items such as regional issues, universality, and the review process, but it is not the secretariat for the NPT, nor is one needed.

In 1995, the NPTREC was moved to New York on the claim that all UN Member States have representation there and thus would enable the maximum number of States parties to participate in the conference’s main objective – to decide on the Treaty’s extension. A review of the record of participation by States parties shows that in various years up to 30 or more States do not take part or only show up for one or two sessions in order to be registered in the list of participants. Therefore, the argument of participation is not a sufficient reason to keep the review conference in New York.

Starting in 2007, the first session of the PrepCom was moved to Vienna (from New York) in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the IAEA and its contributions to the implementation of the NPT. The UN has successfully organized PrepCom sessions in Vienna in 2007, 2012 and 2017 – thus there is no compelling reason why it would be unable or find it difficult to organize the review conference in Vienna with the assistance of the conference services offices of the UN Office in Vienna (UNOV) and of the IAEA at the Vienna International Centre and its adjoining Austria Center Vienna.

The 50th anniversary of the Treaty entering into force already has been marked by some States, on 5 March 2020, at the UN in New York, as well as in Moscow and Washington. The 25th anniversary of its indefinite extension on 11 May 2020 likewise can be appropriately recognized in 2022 – without in any way adversely affecting the Treaty or its review process.

There is no overly pressing matter to be resolved at the review conference which in any case has been postponed to 2021. Instead of scrambling for dates next year that could yet have to be changed, holding the review conference in 2022 takes away the pressure of uncertainty of dates in 2021. In the meantime, (hopefully) a new US administration could be in place, perhaps improved US-Russia/China relations, EU recovery, New START extension by a Democrat president in the US, as well as some form of rescue of the “Iran deal” (JCPOA), among other developments possibly could improve both the prospects and atmospherics of the review conference – though of course there is no certainty, just as it is absent for 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of life and well-being, even in the richest and most heavily armed nuclear-weapon States. The best estimates for a preventive vaccine that is properly tested and is safe likely will take some time – perhaps one or two or more years. In this regard, it is important not to forget the painful lessons of the use of thalidomide in the late 1950s and 1960s that led to the birth of more than 10,000 deformed babies due to inadequate testing and incorrect administration to humans. The point being that there is no need whatsoever to hurry to convene the NPT review conference anytime in 2021 in New York, as there still may be significant risks from mutations of the coronavirus, new strains of influenza or other maladies.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic where more than four million people are infected and unfortunately 275,000 have perished, we need to break out of the straitjacket of typical bureaucratic thinking that is fixated on dates, conference rooms, working papers, consultations and other mundane clerical matters but take a broader strategic perspective. (I must admit that I too have been influenced by such type of bureaucratic thinking at times during my stint at the IAEA and it took some effort to shake it off and break the mould – that is how we managed to get the PrepCom to Vienna starting in 2007, launched the “IAEA 2020: Vision for the Future” and the IAEA Low Enriched Bank/Reserve, among other bold initiatives – it can be done as long as one can overcome defeatist and negative advice and attitudes!)

The accountability for compliance with the NPT’s non-proliferation obligations is not done in the NPT review process but it is done in Vienna by the IAEA and the assessment is released in the annual Safeguards Implementation Report – the latest report was issued by the IAEA on 29 April 2020 and the next one will be in April-May 2021. The IAEA’s annual reports on nuclear safety, nuclear security, technical cooperation programme, and nuclear technology are reviewed in Vienna at the General Conference in September. The Preparatory Commission for the CTBT Organization (CTBTO) is the logical venue to discuss any issues related to nuclear weapon testing, even though the CTBT has yet to enter into force.

At present, the necessary and sufficient conditions are absent to hold the review conference in January 2021 or even later that year in New York. All this to show that the NPT review conference can easily be postponed to April-May 2022 in Vienna without any adverse implications for the NPT review process. There are no insurmountable obstacles to holding the review conference in 2022 in Vienna other than mental blocks and policy inertia.

Given its direct relationship to the NPT, it is now time for NPT States parties to relocate the review conference to Vienna to be closer to the Agency without whose verification and technical cooperation programme the NPT would be reduced to a hollow shell.

What is needed is that diplomats covering the NPT, including those in Vienna, need to discover “courage” in their heart – courage that seems to be missing in action much as the Lion in the Wizard of Oz seemingly was missing courage. The Lion does indeed have courage only to be discovered when he encounters the “Wicked Witch” and stands up to “Be a lion, not a mouse” and recognizes “Courage. What makes a King out of a slave? Courage!” The same can be true in spades of Vienna-based and other diplomats covering the NPT were they to put their minds to it, shake off any defeatist views and attitudes, and think strategically out of the box!

Recall, President John Kennedy’s inspirational speech on 12 September 1962, in which he threw out the challenge, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too” (emphasis added). Bringing the review conference to Vienna in 2022 obviously is a much lesser challenge – courage!

Epilogue

General Lee Butler, former commander of the US Strategic Air Command, insightfully observed that nuclear proliferation cannot be contained in a world where a handful of self-appointed nations both arrogate to themselves the privilege of owning nuclear weapons, and extol the ultimate security assurances they assert such weapons convey.

At an event that I attended in Ottawa (Canada), on 11 March 1999, addressing the Canadian Network Against Nuclear Weapons, as noted in the header (to this article), General Butler cited WWII General Omar Bradley, who had said on Armistice Day 11 November 1948 that,

We live in an age of nuclear giants and ethical infants, in a world that has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. We have solved the mystery 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 dying than we know about living. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner”.

The reason for recalling this admonition is a disturbing new tendency starting around 2013 for some States, especially some of the NWS, to push back on implementing agreed commitments on nuclear disarmament of 1995/2000/2010 while insisting on full implementation of NNWS commitments on safeguards, export controls, nuclear safety and security, among others. They posit that for nuclear disarmament it is important to take into account the international security situation, revived great power competition and regional instabilities, and to focus instead on nuclear risk reduction, motivations to hold nuclear weapons and on international arms control institutions. Furthermore, it is even argued that the NPT review process may no longer be fit for purpose as regards nuclear disarmament unless it takes account of the considerations noted above.

The NPT cannot resolve every problem related to the international security environment and strategic stability – that is not and never has been the purpose or objective of the Treaty or of its review process. The NPT review process included in the Treaty at the insistence of NNWS was and remains to ensure accountability for the implementation of its provisions and obligations. As discussed above, the 1995 NPTREC in deciding on indefinite extension instituted a strengthened review process that was further elaborated in 2000 to ensure “permanence with accountability”. The NPT is not the forum to discuss and review international relations or disputes, the appropriate venues for these are the UN Security Council and the General Assembly.

Furthermore, to prohibit nuclear weapon testing, the CTBT was negotiated in 1996 in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and adopted by the General Assembly; to prohibit nuclear weapons, 122 NNWS negotiated and adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) under the aegis of the General Assembly; nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) treaties are negotiated by the concerned regional States; and a FMCT/FMT to prohibit the production and stockpiling of weapon-usable nuclear material, also is to be negotiated at the CD. The fact that the CD is stymied on negotiations on a FMCT/FMT, nuclear and space weapons, and other matters, does not mean that these should be dragged into the NPT review process.

Other negotiations in other forums will be needed to address advanced emerging technologies, cyber and space weapons, and other related political-military and technological developments. The NPT is not the appropriate forum to negotiate on these matters, but it is the forum to negotiate on measures to further strengthen the authority and integrity of the Treaty across its three pillars and to review their implementation along with Treaty provisions.

The NPT is the only multilateral nuclear arms control treaty on the books that commits the NWS to nuclear disarmament and the NNWS to non-proliferation – it is the only multilateral forum in which the NWS are prepared to discuss their nuclear weapon policies with the NNWS, albeit within limits. If the foundations of multilateralism are attacked and weakened, the NPT will not escape its effects.

A key element for success at the next review conference will rest on clear acknowledgement of the continuing validity of the relevant elements of 1995/2000/2010 outcomes that along with the Treaty itself can be considered the “triptych” of the acquis communautaire of the NPT community. The Berlin Declaration on 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 is disingenuous.

Sometimes the most penetrating wisdom comes out of the “mouths of babes”, in this case a child at the United Nations kindergarten in New York who aptly observed:

“Why a country that makes atomic bombs would ban fireworks?”

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