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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 41, November 1999

Preparing For The 2000 NPT Review Conference
By Rebecca Johnson

There are only four months before the next review conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and things are not looking good. The bargain between the non-nuclear weapon states, who pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons, and the nuclear weapon states, who pledged to pursue negotiations to get rid of theirs is coming apart at the seams. While many of the problems are politically, requiring security solutions outside the Treaty, more can be done through the NPT to reassure those who renounced nuclear capabilities and exert pressure on countries inside and outside the Treaty.

The 2000 Review Conference, the first since the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995, will be held in New York, April 24 to May 19. The designated President, Ambassador Jacob Selebi, has pulled out, after being appointed South Africa's Chief of Police. Deciding that it did not have an alternative candidate of Selebi's calibre, South Africa withdrew from the presidential nomination altogether, handing the question back to the Group of African States. At time of writing, the African States have proposed Ambassador Abdallah Baali, the Permanent Representative of Algeria to the United Nations in New York, who has been nominated by the 'non-aligned' states party to the Treaty. Ambassador Baali is regarded as an unknown quantity in NPT terms. If he is confirmed by a special meeting of states parties in December, as is now widely expected, he will have his work cut out for him.

The non-proliferation regime is in crisis and the NPT review process since 1995 has disappointed more than it has satisfied. There is a correlation between the risk of losing consensus and the relevance and significance of the issues addressed. Failure to review the important issues might make consensus easier but would soon turn the review process into a pointless, empty exercise that could harm the commitment of non-nuclear countries to the regime.

If judged on its ability to address substantive issues, which are fundamental to the health and longevity of a strong non-proliferation regime, the preparatory committee meetings must be judged far from successful. The 2000 Review Conference will have to address two distinct kinds of problem: procedural and political, with some overlap between the two.


  • deepening crisis in international relations
Though much was achieved between 1990 and 1995, arms control has dried up and conditions have deteriorated since 1995. Worrying signs include:

- the ways in which the value of nuclear weapons is being reinforced;

- US 'neo-isolationism' and unilateralism (CTBT rejection, missile defences, weakening of the ABM Treaty etc.);

- the South Asian tests and development of doctrines and weapons;

- NATO's 'new' strategic concept;

- China's modernisation programme;

- Russia's re-emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons;

- reconsideration by some NNWS members of the NPT of their renunciation of the right and option to acquire nuclear weapons

  • Middle East
Despite the more flexible approach of Prime Minister Ehud Barak on a number of security and regional issues, the Israeli nuclear programme is treated as inviolate; the US 'protects' Israel from pressure to comply with the NPT; and there are no indications of an Israeli willingness to give up its nuclear capabilities. Everything depends on regional security and the peace process, but Arab parties to the NPT continue to use the Treaty as a platform and lever mechanism to get at Israel and the United States.
  • nuclear disarmament
The five NPT nuclear weapon states appear unable to understand that the options are not proliferation versus non-proliferation, the latter assuming the continued possession 'for the foreseeable future' of five nuclear arsenals, with perhaps some arms control limitations and management. Since the end of the Cold War it is now clear that the alternative to proliferation is disarmament. The greater transparency offered by some of the NWS through the review process is welcome, but cannot be a substitute for real disarmament measures.


The problems revealed by the review process are systemic rather than specific to particular meetings, although the conduct of the meetings varied according to factors such as preparation and international environment. There is a lack of clarity or agreement about the meaning and function of the 1995 decisions: for example, what kind of recommendations should be made and what is their status? what role should the individual PrepComs be accorded? and so on. There is a political corollary to the procedural difficulties, which must be acknowledged and worked on, namely the rift between the understandings, aspirations and expectations of the non-nuclear weapon states and the intentions and understanding of the nuclear weapon states. The minimalist approach to the review process shown by the nuclear powers risks undermining the NPT's credibility as an instrument for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

The NPT may be indefinitely extended, but it could still fall apart if non-nuclear countries lose confidence that the regime can deal with proliferators and that the Five genuinely accept that Article VI requires nuclear disarmament.

  • There is a need to reinvigorate public awareness that nuclear dangers did not go away with the end of the Cold War, and that the continued possession of nuclear arsenals is irresponsible, irrelevant to actual security needs, internationally destabilising and life-threatening. In this regard, states parties to the NPT should view civil society (including NGOs) as partners in strengthening non-proliferation and achieving nuclear disarmament. Accountability would be stronger if more of the meetings were open to NGO observers.
  • States Parties should aim to be represented at the opening of the 2000 Review Conference by their Foreign Ministers or Heads of States to show the seriousness of their commitment to the NPT and the need for high level political will and involvement in effectively addressing proliferation concerns and the current impasse in nuclear arms control and disarmament efforts.
  • Nuclear disarmament was half of the NPT bargain, and has not been fulfilled. The review process must develop a credible mechanism, accepted by the NWS, for the non-NWS to participate in identifying qualitative and quantitative targets and steps for action and assisting the NWS to meet the objectives within reasonable time.
  • The Middle East question cannot be ignored but should not overburden the NPT. There is an urgent need for the countries directly concerned, particularly the United States and Egypt, to work out how to address Israel's nuclear weapons and Arab security concerns in the context of the NPT in ways that are appropriate to the powers and limitations of the review process, and to work more vigorously in parallel, regional meetings to reduce the threats that Israel perceives as justifying and necessitating its nuclear weapons.
  • The 2000 Review Conference needs to think through the important questions and clarify the powers, limits and tasks of the review process. This may require an additional review process decision document, building on - not supplementing - the 1995 decisions; or it could be done through a President's declaration endorsed by the RevCon.
  • The ways in which each of the three PrepComs between 1995 and 2000 were conducted show clearly the importance of preparation and advance consultation by the Chair, in soliciting ideas, trouble shooting likely problems, and building a sense of collective ownership and responsibility for the outcome.
  • The conduct of these PrepComs also showed the need for the NNWS to organise collectively and more effectively, with concrete proposals and not just grandiose expressions of criticism and wish-lists. In this regard, the New Agenda Coalition would be a very useful starting point for cross-group issue-based alliances, since cold war groupings are unhelpful on these issues, due to the dominance of nuclear possessors in all three, the NAM, the Western group and the moribund Eastern European.
  • The 2000 Review Conference needs to decide if the preparatory committees are solely to develop a rolling text for the five-yearly RevCons, or if they can/should have an independent function, for example to comment on contemporaneous events, as Canada proposed.


It would be better to view the primary task of the post-1995 PrepCom process as a review overseeing implementation of the previous RevCon's decisions, Principles and Objectives etc. rather than as preparing for the next RevCon. The three annual meetings should be regarded as 'implementing committees' rather than preparatory. These 'ImpComs' could then be structured for discussions aimed at agreeing an annual snapshot of progress and obstacles, taking into account the international and political environment at the time, which will fluctuate year by year. The snapshot could be in the form of a factual report, agreed declaration or a statement from the PrepCom Chair. The purpose would be to provide both a marker against which the following year's progress could be compared, and a mechanism for year-by-year accountability of implementation of the previous Review Conference's decisions and objectives. Where appropriate, the RevCon and PrepComs could set up subsidiary bodies and/or facilitators for intersessional work on implementing specific tasks or objectives.

The principles for non-proliferation are enduring. They do not need updating. They just need to be taken seriously. The objectives will need to be updated periodically, preferably as a result of successfully attaining some of them and moving on to the next ones! But this is not a task for annual meetings and it is not practical to formulate rolling text year by year. Since only the RevCons have the political authority to decide on new or updated objectives, this should be their job, as well as reviewing the previous five years. The information provided in the ImpCom reports on implementation would be a valuable input. It is time to work out what the NPT regime needs doing, and then do it.

Rebecca Johnson is Executive Director of The Acronym Institute. This commentary was prepared for a seminar on preparing for the NPT Review Conference, organised by The Monterey Institute for International Studies in New York, November 1, 1999.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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