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Part I: The NPT and Early RevCons

Acronym Report No.13

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) entered into force in 1970 and now has 187 States Parties. Only Cuba, India, Israel and Pakistan remain outside. The NPT is frequently described as the "cornerstone of nuclear non-proliferation" and its near-universal membership reflects the importance of the Treaty for international security.

The impetus behind the NPT was a series of resolutions to the United Nations initiated by Ireland in 1958. By 1965 the major nuclear powers, recognising that the value of their own nuclear forces would diminish if many others acquired the capabilities, were prepared to negotiate. A prime concern was to limit the acquisition of nuclear weapons potential without closing off the development of nuclear energy, in which there was growing interest. The nuclear weapon states (NWS) sought to protect their own weapons programmes, but accepted the need to prevent the transfer of nuclear weapons technology and devices to countries which did not already have them. Non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) sought a balance of responsibilities on the nuclear and non-nuclear states, demanding a commitment to nuclear disarmament in return for their own undertaking not to acquire nuclear weapons. Two questions arose early: those renouncing the option of nuclear weapons wanted security assurances from the nuclear powers guaranteeing not to attack them (negative security assurances - NSA) and promising to come to their aid in the event of a nuclear armed attack against them (positive security assurances); and nuclear sharing among allies of the NWS, an issue of particular significance for NATO members and the Soviet Union.

Although the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee had been negotiating multilaterally, the final text of the NPT was largely the product of bilateral negotiations between the United States and Soviet Union.

The rest of the short treaty, which was concluded in 1968, deals with administrative and procedural issues. Of these, the most unusual was Article X, which set the Treaty's duration at only 25 years, with a further decision to be taken to determine for how long it should be extended. This provision was insisted on by Italy, Germany and other Western European negotiators, who were unsure if the NPT regime would effectively halt the spread of nuclear weapons, and who did not want to be stuck with a permanent Treaty obligation if others were going to develop nuclear capabilities with impunity. Similarly, Article VIII provided for optional interim review conferences among the Treaty parties every five years. In June 1968, in conjunction with the NPT, the UN Security Council approved a resolution providing positive security assurances to those states acceding to the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states (UNSC 255).

Background on the Review Conferences 1975-1990

The First and Third Review Conferences (RevCon), in 1975 and 1985, adopted final declarations. In 1985 different views on the CTBT nearly scuppered agreement, but the President, Mohamed Shaker of Egypt, pulled together a declaration in which para 12 of the section on Article VI acknowledged the different views in two "they said; they said" sub-paragraphs.(1) First Review Conference, 1975

By 1975 the NPT had 91 States Parties.

Second Review Conference 1980

By 1980, the NPT had 110 States Parties. The Second Review Conference took place after the First UN Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSOD I) in 1978 and it underlined many of the priorities and concerns raised there. Lack of agreement between the NPT members in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the NWS regarding nuclear disarmament issues caused a breakdown which prevented the RevCon from adopting a final declaration.

Third Review Conference 1985

By 1985 there were 128 NPT Parties. The Third RevCon, taking place at the height of US-Soviet Cold War confrontation in Europe, was the first meeting to divide the work among three, rather than two, Main Committees: Main Committee (MC) I, dealing with nuclear disarmament, as in Article VI and preambular paragraphs 8-12, as well as Articles I and II; MC II dealing with nuclear safeguards (Article III) and related issues, including NWFZ; and MC III dealing with 'peaceful uses' of nuclear energy. Security assurances were addressed in both MC I and MC II. Export controls were raised in both MC II and MC III.

The 1985 RevCon nearly foundered like its predecessor over differing assessments of Article VI implementation. Determined that there should not be a second 'failed review' in a row, the President crafted a final document which contained paragraphs reporting that certain issues and concerns were raised, as well as elements that had consensus agreement.

Fourth Review Conference 1990

By 1990, there were 138 States Parties in the NPT. As happened in 1980 and was only narrowly avoided in 1985, the 1990 RevCon dissolved in acrimony over the issue of nuclear disarmament, particularly the refusal of the NWS to commit themselves to negotiate a CTBT.


(1) This section has been compiled from various publications by the Programme for Promoting Nuclear Non-Proliferation (PPNN) and Jozef Goldblat, Arms Control: A Guide to Negotiations and Agreements, PRIO, Sage Publications, 1994.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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