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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 15, May 1997

The NPT Steps Into the Future: The Preparatory Committee and the Enhanced Review Process
By Ben Sanders


The Preparatory Committee for the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of the year 2000 held its first session in New York from 7-18 April. The two week event was the first major move in the follow-up of the decision taken at the NPT Review and Extension Conference in 1995 to strengthen the review process for the Treaty (1).

To start at the end, according to the norms applied to previous review conferences - whose outcome was judged by whether or not they managed to agree a substantive report with which to conclude - this first session was a success (2). The Preparatory Committee did adopt a report, although, as I shall show below, it was a somewhat contrived product. The Committee did manage to formulate indicators of the way future sessions could best proceed. It adopted a set of rules for future working methods. It devoted more than half its working time to substantive preparations, in a departure from previous practice, which tended to concentrate on procedure. And - what in quantitative terms was perhaps the most important aspect of its success - it was attended by 149 States, which is only five fewer than the number of delegations that participated in all four sessions of the Preparatory Committee for the 1995 Review and Extension Conference combined.

The degree to which the Committee's first session was truly a success will become apparent at the second session, when one will see how, and to what extent, the material in the 'Chairman's Working Paper', characterised in the note that explained the structure of the report of the Preparatory Committee as "points of general agreement", will indeed be treated as such. As stated in paragraph 3 of the Paper, "At this stage, there was general agreement, subject to review and updating at subsequent sessions of the Preparatory Committee, and pending final agreement on all draft recommendations at the last session..." The phrase "review and updating" can have many interpretations, ranging from polite disregard through "serving as a general guide" to constituting "a base on which to build further". The history of the events surrounding the eventual adoption by the Committee of its final report does not give clear guidance, but the truth will probably be somewhere in the middle.

The Adoption of the Report

The events that led to the adoption of the Committee's report deserve a brief mention, because they are indicative of things to come. From the beginning of the session, questions of how the Committee should report to its next session on the substantive issues with which it had dealt, what the form and substance should be of recommendations it would make to that session, and whether and how it could make recommendations to the 2000 Review Conference, were primary subjects of interest of dissension, both in plenary and in the informal discussions held by the Chairman.

Mainly to deal with these issues, Finnish Ambassador Pasi Patokallio, had called on a limited group of key delegations, who met in closed session, to advise him on matters regarding the conduct of business, the preparation of the final documents of the Committee, and the drafting of specific texts. It had been Ambassador Patokallio's conception to get the Preparatory Committee to adopt a report consisting of several parts. The first part was to be prepared by the Secretariat and consist of a factual introduction, a summary on the organisation of the work of the Committee and of its proposals for the work of the 2000 Review Conference, together with an agreed set of recommendations to the next session of the Preparatory Committee. The report would further include the summary records that were kept of the first session and a 'Chairman's Paper' consisting of:

  • points of general agreement, subject to review and updating at subsequent sessions of the Preparatory Committee, and pending agreement on all draft recommendations at the last session;
  • specific proposals put forward by delegations for consideration by the Preparatory Committee on the understanding that the proposals were without commitment by the Preparatory Committee and without prejudice to the position of any delegation, and that the list was not exclusive and delegations were free to submit new proposals or modify or withdraw old ones at any further session of the Preparatory Committee; and
  • official documents submitted by delegations during the first session of the Preparatory Committee.

The form and content of the Committee's report were the subject of increasingly intensive discussions during the last few days of the session, when it became obvious that there was resistance among delegations from States belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to the idea of a Chairman's Paper that would serve as a basis for further work on the same level as proposals submitted by delegations. There also seemed to be opposition on the part of a number of Non-Aligned delegations to having the Preparatory Committee express conclusions on substance at this early stage of its work. In fact, there were several States that gave the impression that they would not have been overly concerned had there not been an agreed report at the end of the Committee's first session.

The recommendations as proposed by the Chairman were drafted in very general, procedural terms and referred to the way the Committee should operate, rather than to the issues with which it would deal in the future. The first recommendation as drafted referred to the annexed Chairman's Paper as forming the basis for further recommendations to the Review Conference. The second recommendation would say that at its second session the Committee should continue the consideration of all aspects of the Treaty, again clustered in the way they had been considered at the first session of the Committee and subdivided according to the Principles and Objectives. It further stated that time should be allocated at the second session for discussion and consideration of three subjects which, in the eyes of a number of delegations, had not received adequate attention during the substantive discussions at the first session, to wit:

  • security assurances for parties to the NPT (a point stressed in particular by South Africa);
  • the resolution on the Middle East (to which Egypt attached particular importance); and
  • a ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices (which was added upon the urging in particular of Canada and Germany).

In the discussion on the recommendations, the Mexican delegate objected to the singling-out of these issues because she felt that this seemed to allocate a lower priority to the issue of nuclear disarmament. She called for the addition of a reference to that issue. Also, because she did not want the Chairman's Paper to take precedence over the proposals submitted by delegations that would be part of the annexes to the report, she sought to reword the reference in the draft recommendations to that paper in a manner that would have downgraded its value and deprived it of its status as the basis for the further work in the Committee. This move was widely interpreted as not only an obvious wish to underline the supremacy of the issue of nuclear disarmament, but also as a reflection of the hesitation, reputedly shared by some other delegations, to have the Preparatory Committee at this early stage of its work adopt agreements that would virtually set the course for the Review Conference of 2000.

In the end, a way out was devised whereby the Chairman read his formulation of the second recommendation into the record, while the Mexican delegate made a recorded statement that reflected her disagreement with the entire approach. One of the conditions set by Mexico for not blocking the adoption of the Committee's report was the downgrading of the Chairman's Paper to the present 'Working Paper'.

Altogether, the report on the first session is now made up of the traditional 'administrative part', prepared by the secretariats and consisting of an introduction; a section on the organisation of the work of the Preparatory Committee and the 2000 Review Conference; the recommendations to the next session of the Preparatory Committee, consisting of two brief paragraphs of text which must be read in conjunction with the summary records containing the statements by the Chairman and the delegate of Mexico; Annex I containing those summary records; and Annex II, with the title 'Chairman's Working Paper' - this is made up of the text of that paper; a summary of the specific proposals made by delegations; and, as an 'appendix', all official documents submitted by delegations.

Assessment of the Cautious Approach

The excess of caution with which all this was prepared is demonstrated by the way the paper summarizing the proposals by delegations was annotated, viz with the note that these proposals were presented "...on the understanding that [they] are without commitment by the Preparatory Committee and without prejudice to the position of any delegation, and that the list is not exclusive and delegations are free to submit new proposals or modify or withdraw old ones at any further session of the Preparatory Committee."

Why was it necessary to follow such a complicated procedure?

From the beginning all went smoothly. The Chairman and the Secretariat had made excellent preliminary arrangements. There had been extensive consultations with key delegations. Procedural problems had all been identified and faced squarely, and solutions for likely problems had been foreseen. There were some novelties in the early stages, such as the debate on the way in which the Committee should operate, what the product of its session should be, and how that should be passed on to the next session. There seemed to be a general preference for the production of a 'rolling report' or 'evolving Chairman's Paper'; into which the result of each session would be incorporated until, at the end of the preparatory cycle, those results would be used to formulate recommendations to the Review Conference and would possibly also serve as the basis for a description of the Committee's work.

That, however, was more easily said than done. The problems that arose at the end of the session and the many reservations and conditions that had to be added to the report even at this relatively smooth and uncontroversial session to make it generally acceptable, are a portent of the difficulties one may expect when at a future session the Preparatory Committee becomes engaged with the kind of divergences one has seen at previous NPT review debates. What the Committee had to face on this occasion was the need to bridge the gap between the wish of participants to make the session as productive as possible and save the product for future use, and a hesitation on the part of many to commit themselves too early and too deeply.

The situation at the end of the session also demonstrated the difficulties that arise when one insists on the adoption of a report by consensus, and illustrated the compromises that must be made to achieve such a consensus, even on the lowest common denominator of agreement. If indeed the quest for consensus means that any indication of divergence is suppressed for the sake of ostensible unanimity, one may well wonder if, in circumstances where participants hold widely different views, it is at all possible to adopt consensus reports without ignoring reality and thus detracting from the validity of one's work.

It is a refreshing novelty that the presentations on substance took up more than half the session. The statements were delivered within three 'clusters' of subjects, along the lines of division of items among the Main Committees of all NPT Review Conferences since 1985. Except for some suggestions regarding ways in which the strengthened review process might be used to promote progress on specific subjects, such as the proposal by South Africa to start negotiations on an internationally binding instrument on security assurances, few statements contained much that was new. Virtually all interventions struck one by their moderation. The fact that the five recognised nuclear-weapon States presented a joint statement was praised on the one hand as the first evidence of nuclear-power willingness to speak as one and jointly acknowledge their special responsibilities; on the other hand the statement was criticised because, while reiterating Treaty commitments, it contained no concrete undertakings to proceed to the elimination of nuclear arsenals.

The NAM and the new NPT Review Process

It should not have been surprising that the initial atmosphere of harmony and temperance did not last until the very end, nor that the disturbance of the earlier serenity came in the first instance from the States least sanguine about the way the NPT is implemented. Most of the delegates from developing States had left the running to the traditional leaders, notably Indonesia, Malaysia, and Mexico. But there also seemed to be some dissension within the NAM.

Mexico, whose views were no doubt shared by many members of the NAM, but whose obstructive approach did not find general support, did not want the session to end without a clear warning to the industrialised, and particularly the nuclear, nations that there was a price to pay for the indefinite and unconditional extension of the Treaty: nuclear elimination. As was stated repeatedly, many States expect the P-5 to commit themselves at the very least to multilateral nuclear negotiations at an early date and to nuclear disarmament with clearly set deadlines.

Some States also had other priorities. Egypt, in particular, wanted to see any agreed document of the Committee give emphasis to the implementation of the resolution on the Middle East that had been adopted as part of the extension package in 1995. South Africa, the main author of the elements in that package that dealt with the strengthening of the review process and the Principles and Objectives for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, seemed eager in the first place to demonstrate how well that strengthened process could work; it wanted specific mention of the need for a time to be allocated in future for a discussion of security assurances. South Africa had also been one of the two States that already at the NAM summit in New Delhi a week before had opposed the demand for time-bound nuclear disarmament negotiations. In the event it was Egypt and South Africa whose interventions led to a halfway solution that meant that the session would not end without some recorded agreement.

The situation shows a strange paradox in that the majority of the members of the NAM clearly want to show that, in the new era, NPT review is not "business as usual" - as they have repeatedly pointed out - yet not all of them seem fully prepared to use the new system. That system has been devised to lend the review process the impact it needs to have as an essential component of the NPT: the means to level the playing field on which the nuclear and non-nuclear nations meet.


The session has provided much food for thought. Among other issues, it raised three closely connected questions to which the answers have not yet been found. The first and most important one is how the new review process can be applied productively to bring the promises of the Treaty closer to fulfillment. One has seen how several delegations singled out specific issues for concentrated discussions at a later stage, while another remained focused on the priorities it had pursued - without much success - for the past 25 years. The second is how the achievements of any one session of the Preparatory Committee can be substantiated so as to serve as input into the work of the next session and, at the end of the preparatory process, into recommendations to the Review Conferences. This was the main issue that preoccupied the Committee especially at the end of this session. Lastly, there is a dual question. What degree of agreement must the product secure at one session to be passed on to the next, and what is the value of that product for future work if it is adopted by a consensus that does not allow it to reflect the disagreements that played a part in the deliberations, or, if it is not adopted by consensus, how can it serve as the basis for the Committee's further deliberations?

On the surface, these are procedural questions. In actual fact they are not, because they arise only as long as there are no obvious achievements in such salient areas as nuclear disarmament, security assurances, a cut-off treaty, and universality, and current prospects for early moves in any of those fields are dim. But even if there is progress in some of these areas, or on other issues mentioned in or related to the Treaty, the way the Preparatory Committee operates, adopts its decisions and passes them on to the next stage in the review process must be settled. There will always be issues to discuss and there will always be some disagreement in the Preparatory Committee on the way the Treaty is being implemented. The question probably is not so much how to overcome such disagreements, as how to live with them yet not let them impair the new review process and degrade it to the acrimonious debating level of past Review Conferences which made the validity of the old review process so questionable.


1. Document NPT/CONF.1995/32/DEC.1

2. Comparing a session of the Preparatory Committee to a Review Conference is, of course, not entirely appropriate, but since the new review process gives the Committee a share of the functions that used to be reserved for the Conference itself, the comparison seems workable, especially since it mainly regards decision-making.

The author served as consultant to the Secretariat for the first session of the Preparatory Committee. He has done his best in this article not to discuss information he gained in that capacity. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Committee's Secretariat.

Editor's note: documentation from the 1997 NPT Preparatory Committee will be featured in the next issue.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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