Opinion – The NPT Review Conference: Still Haggling for a Date

By Tariq Rauf

VIENNA, 2 May 2021

For more than a year a vain search has been continuing to find an appropriate date to convene the Tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), as the deadly COVID-19 pandemic rages taking millions of lives with it.

Originally scheduled to be held at the United Nations in New York in from 27 April to 22 May 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the UN premises and travel restrictions led to international travel grinding to a virtual halt.

It is a sad but uncomfortable truth that some diplomats and policy makers that attend the quinquennial NPT review conferences periodically display a stubborn tendency to lose no opportunity to get bogged down in dull administrative details and to make mountains out of mole hill issues. This was manifest as the President-designate of the 2020 (Tenth) NPT Review Conference, the consummate Argentine diplomat, Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen, found himself buffeted by competing proposals for alternative dates and formats for holding the postponed conference.

Postponement from 2020 to 2021

Not surprisingly, the diplomats and delegations lurched from impractical dates in April – May 2020 to January 2021 and finally to August 2021 – even though it was obvious to any clear headed observer that COVID-19 had brought about the most significant change in world affairs to date in the 21st century. And, that it would not be possible for a long time to safely hold meetings indoors that bring together a few hundred people – in the case of the NPT review conference, for a period of 20 working days. Undeterred the diplomats and delegations persevered in their (unrealistic) expectations that it would be safe to congregate from all corners of the world in New York in August this year.

“The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, and then expecting different results”……
Attributed to Albert Einstein, but first said by Rita Mae Brown (Sudden Death)

Some argued fiercely that the Tenth NPT Review Conference could not be postponed any further come coronavirus or a plague, so to speak. The conference had to be held in August or later but still during this year – even if it was to be some form of an online event with only one delegate per delegation in the meeting room. Others militated for a regular full-fledged conference involving hundreds of participants. Yet others, preferred a hybrid approach with a limited number of attendees in the room and others logging-in from all corners of the world – regardless of time differences.

A general pall seemed to prevail that either the world might end or a great proliferation cascade of new nuclear-armed countries might emerge, were this review conference to be postponed further.

The President-designate was to “consult” with NPT States parties in late April this year on whether to persist with the August 2021 dates “pandemic” permitting – but as is usual with diplomatic consultations, this consultation has slipped to mid- to late-May.

Now all this is rendered academic and wishful thinking, as the UN has informed that the UN premises would not hold large meetings until September this year. It seems that only the NPT conference aficionados would be surprised at this turn of events as they were getting hopeful given the pace of vaccinations in the US (even though only around 30% of the eligible population) – but oblivious to the facts that more that 70% of coronavirus vaccinations globally have been administered in some 10-15 countries and for many other countries vaccines may be available in adequate numbers only after another one to three years. Whomsoever, thought that it would be safe and practical to hold a month long NPT review conference in August this year in New York could only be considered an exuberant optimist dreaming of rainbows, butterflies and unicorns?

NPT Conference in 2022 in Vienna

On the other hand, I (perhaps an incorrigible pessimistic-optimist with long NPT experience) have been baying in the wind for more than a year that the NPT review conference should have been postponed to April-May 2022 and moved to Vienna. But, this was not something that the NPT aficionados were prepared to consider and they trotted out a number of ill-founded objections – such as, that the 2018 session of the NPT preparatory committee had decided on the dates and venue of the 2020 conference and this was immutable, or that NPT review conferences have been held in New York since 1995 and there is no reason to move them.

Having lost a year in being sensible and practical to move the NPT review conference to April-May 2022 and to Vienna, it now may be too late to secure sufficient meeting and hotel rooms in Vienna? Again, such common sense and practicalities, many a time escape delegations as the costs for international conferences are paid for by their governments and thus thrifty foresight often tends to be absent. One can find examples in abundance in international conferences on the NPT, the environment and on other matters.

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, the President-designate and NPT States parties are fully empowered to make their own decisions under the rules of procedure (RoP) for the dates and venues of NPT review conferences taking into account prevailing international political and health developments.

Nearly a year ago, in May 2020 following my article of 20 April of that year, I had made the case for further postponing the review conference from the new proposed dates of 4 to 29 January 2021 to later in that same year; in light of the continuing coronavirus pandemic restrictions. Given the onrush of the COVID-19 pandemic, subsequently my views evolved further in the context of promoting a successful outcome to push the review conference to 2022.

As such, a year ago, I had proposed an out-of-box innovative opportunity 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) in Vienna for the 2025 review conference – and to add two weeks to the regular proceedings to enable 20 working days, the norm for a review conference.

A one-day PrepCom session could be included in these 20 working days to agree on a Chair for the first PrepCom and on procedural matters for the 2023-2024 PrepCom sessions – thus putting in place the three chairs for the three main committees of the 2025 review conference. And, the 2022 PrepCom’s substantive discussions would be subsumed within the review conference.

The only international organization to which the NPT accords a formal role is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the role of implementing safeguards or verification of the non-proliferation obligations of non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS) parties (NPT article III). The inalienable right of States parties (NPT 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, but nearly all of the 186 NPT non-nuclear-weapon States, as well as the five (NPT) nuclear-weapon States all, have safeguards agreements in force with the IAEA including 80% of these with additional protocols in force.

Currently, at the IAEA there are 848 active technical cooperation projects underway covering development priorities in 140 countries 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.

In addition, the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) also is located in Vienna along with the IAEA at the  Vienna International Centre  (VIC) – thus an element of nuclear disarmament (NPT article VI) also is present in Vienna.

These NPT-related attributes or connections are lacking in New York and Geneva. Accommodation and food costs in Vienna are lower than in New York and Geneva, and delegations have not experienced visa problems as has been the case in New York.

With increasing attention devoted to the carbon footprint of international travel, especially in the run up to the climate change conference COP26 in Glasgow scheduled in November this year; it is not inconsequential that the location of Vienna in Central Europe will greatly reduce distances to be travelled by NPT delegates from Asia, Africa and Oceania, as well as of course from European countries. These regions put together comprise the largest number of NPT States parties and countries in the world – thus reducing the carbon footprint of the review conference. Only the North and South American delegates will have increased travel distances, but these obviously are a minority compared to those from other regions.

The argument no longer passes muster that the 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee had decided on New York as the venue for the tenth NPT review conference to be held in 2020; and that New York is the appropriate venue for NPT review conferences as all UN member States have representation there.

COVID-19 put paid to the April 2020 dates, and in my view now also to the location or venue as being New York. Furthermore, if up to 196 States can send delegations to Conferences of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to venues such as Paris and Kyoto, and later this year to Glasgow; then it is perfectly logical to convene the NPT review conference of 191 States parties in Vienna.

It may be recalled that starting in 2007, the first session of the NPT PrepCom was moved to Vienna (from New York) in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the IAEA and the Agency’s contributions to the implementation of the NPT.

The UN/NPT Secretariat 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 (ACV).

Serious consultations on the Vienna venue and dates for 2022 need to start now, otherwise it may be difficult to find conference rooms at the Vienna International Centre as these might be booked for IAEA/UN or other events.

Already, two weeks would have been inserted in the Vienna calendar of meetings for 2022 for the first session of the NPT preparatory committee for the 2025 review conference – thus, this would need to be extended by another two weeks to enable a full 20 working day conference as is the norm.

Obviously, this is not a totally radical or out-of-the-blue proposal, any intelligent follower of NPT meetings could have made it, hence no special credit or insight is being claimed here but only reminding of the old adage, “a stitch in time saves nine”. Had the decision been made a year ago to move the review conference to 2022, we would not be in the pickle NPT States find themselves in now.

Hybrid or Regular Review Conference

It is important to hold a regular NPT review conference over 20 working days with full participation of as many States parties and civil society representatives as possible; and for full negotiations to be carried out in the main committees and their subsidiary bodies.

In a Note circulated on 23 April 2021 the Group of Non-Aligned (NAM) States parties to the NPT inter alia asserts that, “Given the nature and scope of the Conference, the number of its committees, the variety and sensitivity of the topics within its purview, and the copious amount of documentation involved, the Review Conference needs to be convened in a full-fledged format, that allows for a thorough, balanced, and comprehensive review of the implementation of the Treaty. Therefore, the Group is of the view that scaling down the number of in-person meetings or the number of participants must be avoided”. But, then the NAM goes on to state that, “With a view to making timely and comprehensive decisions on the convening of the Conference, the Group requests as early as possible an assessment of the possibility of the convening of the Conference during the tentatively agreed period of 2-27 August 2021”.

Having a hybrid conference in August, with some delegates in the conference room and others piped in online is undesirable and contrary to the requirements of the Treaty’s strengthened review process. Given heightened nuclear weapons risks and continuing modernization of nuclear forces, it is essential that a full and normal review conference is convened to hold nuclear-weapon States to account regarding their disarmament obligations; as well as to discuss non-proliferation challenges and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Such a conference, given current COVID-19 pandemic conditions, logically can only be held in April-May 2022 – or even later, if the pandemic cannot be effectively controlled.

Be a Lion, not a Mouse!

It is clear, therefore, that the President-designate must now exercise leadership, “take the bull by the horns”, and commence serious consultations on new review conference dates in 2022 – possibly April-May – and to convene the conclave in Vienna. There is nothing to fear except fear itself – the success of the tenth review conference to a large extent rests on the leadership and initiative of the President-designate; this is not a time to be timid.

Again, as I had pointed out a year ago, 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 it 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 the President-designate and diplomats covering the NPT were they to put their minds to it, shake off any timid views and attitudes, and think boldly and 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). Consequently, the first humans landed on the Moon on 20 July 1969 and returned safely to Earth – mission accomplished more than half a century ago.

Bringing the review conference to Vienna in 2022 obviously is a much lesser challenge – courage, determination and initiative is all that is required! One small step for the NPT, one giant leap for the review process. “Be a Lion, not a Mouse”, could become the mantra for NPT diplomats were they to put their mind to it!

Speaking at a recent webinar held in Vienna, President-designate Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen cited “the great Nelson Mandela [who] said: Where people of goodwill get together and transcend their differences for the common good, peaceful and just solutions can be found even for those problems which seem most intractable”. Hopefully, he and NPT diplomats together will find the necessary goodwill and reach amicable concord to meet in April-May next year in Vienna to review the implementation of the NPT during 2015-2022 and to set new targets for the three pillars of the Treaty for the 2022-2025 period. And, in a salute to their Treaty, NPT States could issue special postage stamps as commemorative tokens albeit in a digital age to mark the 50th anniversary of the NPT.


Tariq Rauf, board member of Atomic Reporters, is the former Head of Verification and Security Policy Coordination, and Alternate Head of NPT Delegation, International Atomic Energy Agency; Non-Proliferation Expert with Canada’s NPT delegation 1987-2000. He has been a Delegate at all NPT meetings since 1987; and was Senior Advisor to the Chair of Main Committee I (nuclear disarmament) at the 2015 review conference and to the Chair of the 2014 session of the NPT preparatory committee. Personal views are expressed here.


The original article was published by IDN InDepthNews here.