An Introduction to the 2010 NPT Review Conference

2 February 2010

Back to the main page on the 2010 NPT Review Conference

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is scheduled to hold its 8th Review Conference during 3-28 May in New York 2010.  All countries except India, Israel, and Pakistan have joined this Treaty, although in 2003 North Korea withdrew in order to develop nuclear weapons, which it demonstrated with nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

The NPT, which entered into force in 1970, deals with preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and contains commitments on nonproliferation, safeguards, nuclear disarmament, nuclear energy and nuclear-weapons free zones.  Its first paragraph explained the reason why the NPT was negotiated and needed: “Considering the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples...”

The priorities identified during the 2007-09 review process, since the 2005 Review Conference failed so abysmally are:

  • making the treaty universal –189 states are members, but not India, Israel, Pakistan or North Korea;
  • nuclear disarmament, with most states emphasising the need to update and reaffirm the 13-steps agreed by the 2000 Review Conference, although a growing number now support laying the groundwork for future negotiations on a universal nuclear weapons convention;
  • persuading more non-nuclear countries to adhere to the Additional Protocol to strengthen safeguards and prevent proliferation;
  • promoting nuclear energy for non-military purposes, in accordance with Article IV;
  • safety and security for nuclear materials and programmes;
  • regional non-proliferation and disarmament, particularly the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East that was agreed in 1995;
  • measures to deter countries from emulating North Korea and withdrawing from the NPT to use their civilian nuclear programmes to make nuclear weapons;
  • institutional measures to implement decisions and strengthen the regime; and
  • enhancing the role of civil society, including support for disarmament and non-proliferation education. 

These will be the issues debated in three main committees (open to NGOs). It is expected that three subsidiary bodies will be established, to address practical disarmament steps and security assurances, regional issues including the Middle East, and withdrawal from the treaty.

The review process may not have succeeded in forwarding agreed recommendations on these difficult challenges, but it has accentuated the degree to which the NPT, as currently interpreted and implemented, lacks the institutional rules, practices and powers to deal effectively with proliferation challenges.

When the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) announced its withdrawal in 2003, there was no role for NPT parties, and the Security Council appeared paralyzed. Unable even to address whether Article X could be legitimately evoked for withdrawal by a state that was already being investigated for noncompliance, the NPT meetings were reduced to having the Chair take custody of DPRK’s name plate to avoid debate and decision on whether to classify that country as a non-party or a noncompliant party that is temporarily not being seated.  That solution might have been expedient at the time, but its avoidance of the compliance questions surrounding DPRK’s withdrawal made the NPT appear weak and ridiculous.

With concerns fuelled by Iran’s uranium enrichment programme and suspicions that the recent burst of interest in building nuclear energy facilities has less to do with wanting to reduce carbon emissions and more to do with countries hedging their bets, the nonproliferation regime in 2010 has to deal with many problems that the treaty is ill-equipped to address.  A growing number of states parties believe that the NPT’s institutional deficit should be addressed, with different proposals such as establishing a standing secretariat, replacing the current review process with short, annual meetings of states parties with decision-making powers and the ability to convene special sessions to address emergencies such as a state party announcing its intention to withdraw from the treaty, as North Korea did in 2003, or other kinds of actions contrary to a state party’s obligations under the treaty.  In this regard, a number of states argue