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After four weeks of diplomatic arm-wrestling, the 2005 Review Conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York ended on 27 May in failure. The final document adopted by the 153 delegations listed conference officials and how many meetings were held, but did not contain a single decision or recommendation on any important issue.
It is true that the 1980 and 1990 NPT Conferences also failed to achieve substantive agreements, and the nuclear non-proliferation regime with the NPT at its core nevertheless survived. However, this time failure comes at a particularly bad moment: since the last Review Conference, in 2000, North Korea has withdrawn from the Treaty and declared that it possesses nuclear bombs; Libya has acknowledged that it worked for years on a clandestine nuclear weapons programme; undeclared uranium enrichment activities have been discovered in Iran, and A. Q. Khan’s nuclear trafficking network has revealed the weakness of the regime vis-à-vis non-state actors. All this has plunged the NPT into a deep crisis of both compliance and confidence.
This situation made it particularly important to send a strong political signal in support of the Treaty and adapt the regime to the challenges of the 21st century. Given the diversity of interests among states parties, it was clear from the outset that this would be achievable only on the basis of a bargain involving all three pillars of the NPT: non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful use of nuclear energy. Consequently, there was a long list of items to be addressed, ranging from the implementation of the Additional Protocol as the new verification standard, the future of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the management of sensitive fuel cycle activities.
However, instead of using their four weeks to tackle these challenges and debate practical steps for implementing the Treaty’s commitments, delegations spent 15 out of 20 conference days on purely procedural battles. During the little time that was left for discussing substance, a few important states obstructed all initiatives which they found incompatible with their national priorities: the US blocked any reference to the disarmament commitments made by the nuclear powers at the 1995 and 2000 NPT conferences; Iran blocked proposals to limit access to the nuclear fuel cycle by non-nuclear states; Egypt blocked a resolution on the universalisation of the NPT because of Western tolerance vis-à-vis Israel’s nuclear activities. At the end, an unholy alliance of states with diametrically opposed interests made any trade-off between non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful use impossible. As a result, none of the pressing issues was tackled, and the conference became, as one observer put it, ‘one of the most shameful exhibitions of cynical time-wasting seen outside the Geneva Conference on Disarmament’.
This outcome is a severe setback for the NPT regime in general, and the European Union’s non-proliferation strategy in particular. The way in which a small minority hijacked the conference and substantive opportunities were ‘squandered by procedural brinkmanship’ (Ambassador Meyer of Canada), shows how difficult it is to make multilateralism effective if a few key actors refuse to play the game. This was particularly regrettable, since the EU came to New York with a Common Position which many considered a good basis for a substantive Final Document. Presenting 43 recommendations covering all three NPT pillars, the EU sent a clear message that the Treaty must be defended in its integrity. At the same time, the Common Position demonstrated that a compromise between Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Weapons States is possible. However, bad timing greatly reduced the Union’s influence: if the Common Position had been adopted weeks rather than days before the conference, the EU could have already used the run-up phase to test the ground for broader compromises. Once the conference had started, however, there was not even enough time to discuss the EU proposals.
In particular the way the Review Conference failed was so discouraging that many delegations and observers left New York deeply frustrated and pessimistic. At least in the short term, it will indeed be difficult to revitalise the NPT. Kofi Annan proposed using the UN summit in September as an opportunity to break the nuclear deadlock. However, it is hard to imagine that a meeting of more than 170 heads of state and government with a wide-ranging agenda is the appropriate framework in which to achieve this objective. Specific non-proliferation issues will certainly be dealt with in specialised forums, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group. However, the next opportunity to discuss the NPT as a whole will not come before 2007, when the first PrepCom meeting for the 2010 Review Conference will take place. In other words, the world will have to live for at least several years with a weakened NPT regime that risks eroding even further.