Return to the NPT Page

Strategic Blockade
By Rebecca Johnson

Sixth NPT Review Conference, Briefing No 16, May 17, 2000

The Sixth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty ran another marathon past midnight, as delegations began to talk of it being 'make or break' time on nuclear disarmament. Although on the surface the problem appeared to be disagreements between the non-nuclear weapon states, in this case represented by the New Agenda Coalition (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden), and the nuclear weapon states (NWS), it became clear that the central conflict was between the NWS themselves. Russia's attempts to put everything into the context of 'strategic stability' was inextricably bound with its concerns about US relations and its own need to maintain reliance on nuclear weapons. Having been swept under the carpet by the P-5 statement, this became, as predicted, the ugly ghost at the wedding.

During the day the open talk was of final compromises falling into place on Main Committee II and III issues (safeguards and non-military uses of nuclear energy). But the real focus was on a series of closed meetings between members of the New Agenda Coalition and the NWS. Although the P-5/NAC group began meeting privately last Saturday, on the initiative of a P-5 member who wanted to work out where common ground might be possible, it is understood that by Tuesday they were working on a draft of forward-looking steps on nuclear disarmament, with the knowledge and agreement of the President of the Conference, Abdallah Baali of Algeria, who hoped that this might become the basis of a document for the Conference to adopt. After several drafts had been worked on within the closed group, facilitated by Norway, a paper was circulated among the 50 or so delegations participating in President's Consultations, with the understanding that though the New Agenda and most of the NWS had made concessions to bridge the considerable gaps, there were still some deep-seated differences.

The most fundamental problem now appears to be the context in which practical steps are to be envisaged. The nuclear states at first wanted everything to be considered in the context of 'strategic stability'. The New Agenda refused, on grounds that at least some of the NWS equate strategic stability with the retention of nuclear weapons, so that the concept implies a condition that is incompatible with nuclear disarmament. Little by little, as the New Agenda states weakened their language, most of the nuclear weapon states also sought ways to meet the NNWS concerns.

Politically, Britain started closest, which enabled it to play a more active role in negotiating language to bring the other NWS towards less rigid positions. The United States and China indicated greater flexibility, giving hope that a package acceptable to them could be crafted. France, which opened with positions that were quite hostile to the New Agenda approaches, has in the end been prepared to come a long way to bridge the gaps. Although presently holding out for less, France is thought ready to accept something along the lines of the US-British formulation on an "unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI".

By the time the P-5/NAC group reported back to the Conference President, the main block seemed to be Russia's continued insistence that everything must be conditioned on strategic stability. The P-5/NAC statement set out its task as providing "practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI …and paragraphs 3 and 4 c of the 1995 Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non Proliferation and Disarmament". This was identical with the mandate given to Subsidiary Body 1, chaired by Clive Pearson (New Zealand), and the paper developed by the P-5/NAC group covered similar ground. The attempts to get P-5 agreement, however, meant that the paper was watered down considerably from Pearson's last draft, given to Baali on Tuesday. Nevertheless, it offered a balanced package, with interim realisable steps that, if implemented, would contribute towards genuine progress on nuclear disarmament.

There are 13 paragraphs, most of which cover the familiar territory of early entry into force of the CTBT; a moratorium on test explosions; fissban negotiations, linked at China's insistence with a Conference on Disarmament programme of work; a CD subsidiary body on nuclear disarmament; reference to the principle of irreversibility; completion and implementation of the Trilateral Initiative; placing 'excess' fissile material under safeguards; mention of the ICJ Advisory Opinion, rather oddly tacked onto a paragraph about regular reports from the NWS on the implementation of Article VI and the Principles and Objectives; and the further development of verification capabilities, which Britain has been particularly keen to promote.

Then there is the obligatory reference to START II and III and "preserving and strengthening the ABM as a cornerstone of strategic stability", based on the paragraph in the P-5 statement of May 1. In addition to the modified language of paragraph 6 giving an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons, Russia's principal problem centres on paragraph 9, which calls for "steps by all the nuclear weapon states leading to nuclear disarmament in a way that promotes international peace and security, strategic stability, and based on the principle of undiminished security for all". This acts as a 'chapeau' or context for the six practical steps identified: further unilateral steps; increased transparency; reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons; measures to reduce the operational status of nuclear weapon systems; a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies; and "the engagement as soon as appropriate" of the NWS "in the process leading to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons". Russia wanted the entire section to be placed in the context of strategic stability. Russia also sought to weaken the paragraph on tactical weapons even further, and opposed the language on security policies. China still wanted the paragraph on transparency out, although late in the evening there were indications that this could be resolved. France too had problems, especially disliking the reference to engaging all the NWS in the disarmament process, but was thought willing to go along if necessary.

When the P-5/NAC paper was put forward late on Wednesday, there was a hostile reaction from a few states, notably Germany. Ambassador Jean Lint of Belgium expressed concern that 139 states parties risked becoming hostages to the failure of twelve. Frustrated by the deadlock with Russia, the New Agenda countries seemed willing to hand the task of resolving the differences back to the Conference, but when Russia argued for further closed consultations, Baali insisted that the P-5/NAC group should try again. That meeting broke up after 1.30 am, having failed to move any closer on the main issues.

Considering the positive atmosphere in which Russia came to this Review Conference, straight from Duma ratification of the CTBT and START II, it seems extraordinary that it should now be perceived as the main obstacle blocking agreement, possibly risking the outcome of the meeting as a whole. The United States, meanwhile, whose ballistic missile defence plans are a major reason for Russian insistence on 'strategic stability', has managed to go from acute defensiveness at the beginning of the Conference to quiet confidence that however the Review Conference turns out, the US will avoid carrying the blame. This change is attributable in large part to the P-5 statement, which swept missile defence off the board. For this, the United States spent its allies' money on China's need to address outer space issues in the CD, which Washington continues to oppose. Linking the fissban with a CD programme of work has effectively stymied all attempts to take a strong message from the NPT to the CD to accomplish negotiations on a fissile materials (cut-off) treaty.

The concerns of Germany and others that the closed P-5/NAC negotiations risk giving too much away miss the point. Text on the fissban and ABM Treaty ceased to be meaningfully negotiable after the P-5 statement. Instead of the pressure being on the United States, Russia and China are now in conflict with the non-nuclear weapon states parties, who have reached their bottom line; they cannot keep agreeing to let the nuclear powers distance themselves from their nuclear disarmament obligations without making a nonsense of the NPT altogether. The New Agenda has done the best it could in such adverse circumstances; if the NNWS want to prevent the outcome of the Sixth Review Conference sliding into complete irrelevance, it is incumbent on both the Non-Aligned states and the NATO states, Japan and Australia -- all of whom have put forward constructive proposals not very far removed from the steps in the P-5/NAC paper -- to reinforce what remains and refuse to be forced below.

MC.II and III developments

The Review Conference managed to obtain agreement on all the remaining outstanding issues from Main Committee III (non-military uses of nuclear energy) except export controls, which overlap with MC.II and are being addressed in a working group. On liability for nuclear-related harm, New Zealand held out against Japan and France, to prevent the definition being narrowed to cover only direct harm from ionising radiation. New Zealand did not, however, succeed in widening the definition to cover economic harm arising from nuclear-related activities or accidents, but accepted the text put together by 'Friends of the President', which referred to the 1997 Protocol to Amend the 1963 Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage, and noted the existence of various national and international liability mechanisms.

Due to opposition principally from Samoa, on behalf of Pacific Island states, and New Zealand, a paragraph on sustainable development, supported by Iran, which sought to identify nuclear power as having a role "in achieving sustainable development in developing countries and in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions through … the Kyoto protocol…" has now been deleted. It is replaced by text from 1995 which called on the IAEA to fulfil its Article IV requirements with due regard for the principle of sustainable development. An additional problem has cropped up in an agreed paragraph which narrowed the right to technical cooperation and exchange to NPT parties. This had been proposed by Egypt, wanting to restrict Israel's access to technical cooperation, but others have now realised that acceptance of such a provision could set an unwelcome precedent for other treaties and negotiations.

After sessions running into the evening, the Conference is likewise much closer to agreement on a number of outstanding issues from Main Committee II. Most importantly, the 1995 principle on full-scope safeguards as a condition of supply has been affirmed, but China may evoke its reservations made in 1995. There are attempts to incorporate different elements from three difficult paragraphs (4,5 and 67) to two: these encompass universality, the importance of 'full compliance' with the Treaty, and the call for the four non-Parties, Cuba, India, Israel, and Pakistan, to join the NPT and accept comprehensive safeguards. The United States and Egypt are reportedly close to an agreement on the text, whereas Syria still has doubts. The US is reportedly ready to mention the four states by name, pending agreement on the actual language. The contentious question on the non-transfer of nuclear devices to any recipient is still open and Egypt has proposed consultations on the text. Export controls need further work as Egypt is still holding out in its opposition to referencing the Zangger Committee, of which it is not a member, and referring to the two seminars arranged by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), although it now appears that compromise Iranian text might be accepted.

Belarus' push for the Conference to promote its proposal on a Central and Eastern European nuclear weapon free space continues to take up Conference time. Belarus has the support of China, Malaysia and Russia, but strong opposition from many of the States in the region, who are joining or seeking to move closer to NATO and the EU. These countries, with the support of the EU, refer to the UN Disarmament Commission's guidelines, that NWFZ must be established only on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the countries in the region. It is understood that Belarus feels that the 'space' is particularly important because NATO did not reaffirm at the 1999 Washington Summit its earlier statement that NATO had no plan, no intention and no need to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of the new member states. Regardless of the level of opposition and the risk of alienating potential allies among other States Parties, Belarus appears determined to get some mention of its proposal in the Conference documentation.

Written by Rebecca Johnson, with thanks to Jenni Rissanen and Mary Beth Nikitina. During the NPT Rebecca Johnson and Jenni Rissanen can be contacted at mobile phone 917 302 2822 and fax 212 935 7690.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

Return to top of page

Return to the NPT Page

Return to Acronym Main Page