NPT: challenging the nuclear powers' fiefdom

16 June 2010
The NPT Review provided a bridge between the partial non-proliferation approach of the NPT and the comprehensive abolition objectives of a nuclear weapons convention. It will no longer be possible for governments to dismiss calls for a comprehensive nuclear abolition treaty.

By Rebecca Johnson

Back to the main page on the 2010 NPT Review Conference

The NPT Review provided a bridge between the partial non-proliferation approach of the NPT and the comprehensive abolition objectives of a nuclear weapons convention. It will no longer be possible for governments to dismiss calls for a comprehensive nuclear abolition treaty.

Two weeks after the Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was proclaimed a success, what does it all signify

The representatives of some 190 governments applauded vigorously when the Conference Chair, Libran Cabactulan, tapped his gavel on adoption of a final document.  They had reason to be relieved, as two deadlines for adopting agreed conclusions and recommendations had already been postponed on the last day and time was running out.

Once the draft final document had been circulated to the conference participants on the last evening, it was clear that success was in reach.  The United States and Egypt had agreed on a package for taking forward the goal of a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.   This redirected the spotlight to the Iranian delegation, which reportedly had instructions to oppose a final document on the stated grounds that it did not contain a commitment to negotiate on time-bound nuclear disarmament. As this is a traditional demand of the non-aligned NPT parties that the nuclear weapon states have blocked for many years, Iran’s real motivation was assumed to be avoidance of criticism over its nuclear programme, the subject of an impending UN Security Council resolution

Having got most of what they wanted on the Middle East, including a regional conference in 2012 and a facilitator to bring all states in the region into a process before and after this conference, Egypt and the Arab states were determined to have the final document adopted by consensus.  And since Egypt was in the position of coordinating the Non-Aligned Group of 116 NPT parties, Cairo’s wishes carried considerable weight. With time running out and the Iranian government and delegation divided over the pros and cons of blocking the NPT outcome, Egypt’s President Mubarak and senior ministers from several countries (reportedly Russia, Brazil and Turkey, among others) as well as civil society persuaded Tehran to join the consensus.

The adopted document contained a forward looking section on “Conclusions and recommendations for follow-on actions”, containing framing principles and objectives and four action plans requiring 64 specific actions on: nuclear disarmament;  non-proliferation and safeguards; nuclear energy, safety and security; and the Middle East. This was fully negotiated and agreed, unlike the preceding section, titled “Review of the operation of the Treaty”, which assesses progress on all the treaty’s articles since 2000.  In view of the determination of the nuclear-weapon states to avoid being criticised, and the heated debates that had taken place over issues such as the modernisation and replacing of nuclear weapons systems by Britain and others, together with disagreement over how to characterise the previous “decade of deadlock”, when past agreements had been ignored or reneged on, it was decided that this review section of the final document should be adopted under the Chair’s “responsibility”.

There were two main drivers behind the successful adoption of the final document: a collective desire to support President Obama’s initiatives and demonstrate that the non-proliferation regime is still relevant and important; and the breakthrough on the Middle East, in which Irish diplomats brokered a critical deal between the nuclear-weapon states and the Arab League to hold a regional conference in 2012 and establish a process to pursue the de-nuclearisation of the Middle East. Without these motivations, it is doubtful whether such a final document could have achieved consensus, as the commitments on nuclear disarmament and safeguards were much weaker than most states thought necessary. 

Iran had apparently been banking on some of the weapons states obstructing agreement. Notably, the United States held out a long time against naming Israel as the only country in the region with a nuclear programme outside the NPT. In the end, Alison Kelly the skilled Irish diplomat tasked with coordinating the Middle East package, persuaded Washington to accept language that the Clinton administration had