Return to the NPT Page

Equivocal Commitments
By Rebecca Johnson

Sixth NPT Review Conference, Briefing No 5, May 1, 2000

The NPT Review Conference general debate continued, hearing 11 national statements, from Armenia, Mozambique, Iraq, Sudan, Andorra, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Guatemala, Mauritius, and Madagascar. Samoa delivered a statement on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), France gave a statement on behalf of the five nuclear weapon states, and a statement was made on behalf of the Organisation for the Latin American and Caribbean nuclear weapon free zone (OPANAL). The first session of subsidiary body 2 (on regional issues and the Middle East) heard statements discussing the universality of the Treaty, and Main Committee III continued its discussions of issues relating to nuclear energy, safety, waste and transport etc.

The first two meetings of Main Committee I on nuclear disarmament illustrated the divergent views the Conference will need to bridge. It was clear from the nuclear powers' statements in general debate and MC.I that they want approval and appreciation for what they have done so far. And indeed, in comparison with other periods during the NPT's duration, most have made some significant accomplishments in reducing arsenals, cutting out dead wood, cooperative threat reduction programmes, and providing more transparency on facilities and holdings, as well as giving better information about dismantlement, safety, health and environmental records. But many delegations are also making clear that this is not enough. Prominent among the concerns is that while numbers may be reducing, nuclear weapons are being augmented in security concepts and military doctrine. The gulf between the positions is clearly revealed by the papers put forward in the first week by the NAM (briefing # 4), the New Agenda Coalition and the European Union, and the statement on Monday from the five declared nuclear weapon states.

The New Agenda Coalition

In introducing the New Agenda Coalition working paper on nuclear disarmament, Mexico noted that despite the 1996 ICJ ruling, which strengthened the international obligation to bring to conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects, "events in the field of disarmament and international security have not been encouraging". The NAC working paper underlined the necessity for the NWS to make an "unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals and, in the course of the forthcoming review period 2000-2005, to engage in an accelerated process of negotiations..." The seven-nation coalition wanted the disarmament process to be more transparent, irreversible and accountable. As well as emphasising the importance of the CTBT, fissban and universality of the NPT, they proposed several interim steps, including: measures to adapt nuclear policies to "preclude the use of nuclear weapons"; de-alerting and the removal of warheads from delivery vehicles; reducing and eliminating tactical nuclear weapons; transparency; and further measures to remove fissile material from weapons programmes.

The European Union

The EU statement to MC.I was less bland than in past years, noting that the programme of action (paragraph 4 of the Principles and Objectives) adopted in 1995, which provided "concrete standards against which progress in the field of nuclear disarmament can be measured" had not been completed and that further steps needed to be identified. The statement referred to the US Senate rejection of the CTBT as a "setback" and said that the tests by India and Pakistan in 1998 ran "contrary to global efforts towards nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament". Regretting that "annual haggling" over the adoption of the CD work programme had prevented concrete negotiations on a fissban to move forwards, the EU urged NPT parties to commit themselves to getting the negotiations underway without further delay and without conditions. Pending conclusion, the EU wanted a complete moratorium and halt to the production of military plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Underlining the principles of "transparency, accountability, confidence-building and irreversibility", the EU backed the START process "with a view to achieving further deep reductions in strategic nuclear weapons and the verified dismantlement of warheads destined for disarmament under this treaty".

In a new move, the EU highlighted the problems of tactical nuclear weapons, and called for them to be brought into negotiations "with the objective of their reduction and eventual complete elimination". Reaffirming the importance of the ABM Treaty, the EU said it shared concerns about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles, but that in responding, it was important not to take actions "which have the effect of harming the integrity and validity of the Treaties which underpin nuclear non-proliferation and strategic stability". There was also a section on 'general and complete disarmament' making reference to the CWC, BWC, conventional arms, and the importance of regional peace and stability.

N-5 Statement

Expressing a willingness "to contribute in a positive manner to the work of the Review Conference", Ambassador Hubert de la Fortelle of France presented a statement on behalf of the five nuclear weapon states, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. This group is generally known as the "P-5". However, at least one delegation was at pains to stress that the statement was in their role as nuclear weapon states and not permanent members of the UN Security Council, so in keeping with international attempts to de-link political status with nuclear weapons possession, I will break with diplomatic convention and refer to the "N-5 statement".

In his speech, de la Fortelle particularly highlighted paragraph 10, which declared that "none of our nuclear weapons are targetted at any State". While recognising that nuclear weapons can be retargetted relatively quickly (in some cases in minutes), this paragraph was welcomed as a confidence-building measure that would ensure that accidental or unauthorised launches of nuclear weapons would not annihilate targetted cities. Among 23 paragraphs covering non-proliferation, disarmament, safeguards and nuclear energy, the declaration on detargetting was all that was new. Faced with strong pressure from non-nuclear weapon states to make an "unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals", which the weapon states continue to avoid, the N-5 statement utilised the language of "unequivocal commitment" twice: for fulfilling all their obligations under the NPT and for the "ultimate goals of a complete elimination of nuclear weapons and a treaty on general and complete disarmament".

One problem for the non-nuclear weapon states is that the language of these two commitments turns the clock back and ignores the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice. The ICJ opinion, accepted by the majority of states, went beyond the Article VI language of pursuing negotiations in good faith (in part because for the first 20 years after the Treaty's entry into force, Article VI presided over an escalating nuclear arms build-up) and required that negotiations should be pursued and brought to a conclusion. The ICJ opinion had also de-linked general and complete disarmament (getting rid of all guns) from the obligation on the nuclear powers to eliminate nuclear weapons. The N-5 statement puts nuclear disarmament back into the distant context of total worldwide disarmament.

The N-5 welcomed indefinite extension and reaffirmed commitment to all the decisions adopted in 1995, including the resolution of the Middle East. In calling for India and Pakistan to undertake the measures in UN Security Council resolution 1172, adopted shortly after the May 1998 nuclear tests, the N-5 underline that those countries are not to be accorded any special status. Notwithstanding (and not mentioning) the failure so far of the United States and China to ratify the CTBT, the statement stressed that "no efforts should be spared to make sure that the CTBT is a universal and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty and to secure its early entry into force", and that there should be "no doubt as to the commitment of our five countries to that effect".

Their position was rather more equivocal when it came to the ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, as in paragraph 4 (b) of the 1995 Principles and Objectives. China's demand that the negotiations on a fissban be conditional on agreeing a programme for work in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) won out over the desire of the other four to have the negotiations start without delay or conditions. The CD's ability to negotiate a fissban or cut-off treaty is currently deadlocked because China and others want outer space issues and nuclear disarmament to be addressed as well. The United States opposes setting up a committee on 'prevention of an arms race in outer space', recognising that the pressure to address space issues arises from concerns about US plans for ballistic missile defences. Recalling that negotiations on the CTBT had gone ahead in 1995, when the CD was similarly unable to adopt a full programme of work, many delegations have pushed for a firm commitment from the NPT parties to commence fissban negotiations without conditions. But after days of tough negotiations with China, the N-5 seem to have accepted the linkage, which is likely to undermine attempts by others to get a stronger endorsement of immediate fissban negotiations into the NPT's final document.

The five also had tough negotiations on paragraph 11, dealing with the START process and the ABM Treaty. In the end, Russia and the United States welcomed Russia's recent ratification of START II and stressed the importance of "completion of ratification" of START II by the United States, which must still ratify the protocols. The N-5 "look forward to the conclusion of START III as soon as possible while preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons..." The rest of the statement: commits to putting fissile materials "designated by each of us as no longer required for defence purposes" under safeguards or international verification; supports nuclear weapon free zones, including in Central Asia and the nuclear weapon free status of Mongolia; expresses a willingness to discuss security assurances; endorses the strengthened safeguards developed by the IAEA and promises to ratify their own Additional Protocols; affirms the nuclear energy provision of Article IV, while promising "to maintain the highest practical levels of nuclear safety".

Reaction to the N-5 statement was mixed. Some welcomed it as a sign that deep divisions among the weapon states over missile defence and arms control priorities could be papered over and would not now derail the Review Conference. The commitment to preserving the ABM Treaty was welcomed, if it meant that the United States will not abrogate the Treaty. But there are concerns that each of the nuclear states has a different interpretation of what "strengthening" the ABM Treaty would entail, including the US argument for modifications to permit a limited NMD system.

On the one hand, the fact that there is an N-5 statement at all is viewed as an achievement, with credit due especially to France for its persistence and coordination. This is the first such joint statement in an NPT Review Conference, though there were N-5 statements at two of the PrepComs. On the other hand there is cynicism that despite their own deep divisions, the nuclear club will stick together to sustain their privileges in the face of concerted efforts by the non-nuclear states to press for the delegitimisation and elimination of nuclear weapons altogether. In particular, many NNWS are disappointed at the inability of the NWS to make a clear and unequivocal commitment to eliminating their nuclear arsenals, without conditions or nebulous, far-off concepts like 'in good faith' and 'ultimate goal'.

2000 The Acronym Institute.

Return to top of page

Return to the NPT Page

Return to Acronym Main Page