Politics and Protection: Why the 2005 NPT Review Conference Failed

1 November 2005

Rebecca Johnson

Though few were surprised when the seventh Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) closed in New York on May 27, 2005 without any substantive agreement on the tough challenges facing the treaty, the magnitude, reasons and manner of the failure convey important warnings for the future of non-proliferation and security.

The conference, which was attended by 153 of the 188 NPT parties in good standing, foundered on procedural wrangling, but its failure was due to political manoeuvring and the self-protection rackets run by a small number of states who wanted to keep their own nuclear options as unfettered as possible. By the last day, only the bare bones of a final document could be salvaged, which did nothing more than list the participants, officials and documents of this exercise in reality-avoidance.

The charade of this document's adoption has rather oddly been cited by some diplomats as proof of success. Assessment, of course, is comparative. Some had feared that the conference would explode under the pressure of its contradictions and tear a great hole in the non-proliferation regime; avoiding such a public meltdown may be counted as a victory for the conference president, Ambassador Sergio de Queiroz Duarte of Brazil. Others wanted to make sure that nothing was adopted in 2005 that would supersede or roll back the agreements and commitments made in 1995 and 2000. On this basis, no agreement in 2005 constituted a success, underlining the primacy of the previous undertakings, which remain to be carried forward and implemented.

In providing an overview of the conduct and outcome of the conference, this report examines the role and motivations of key players and considers the implications for international security and the future of the regime.

A Regime Under Pressure

NPT states were confronted with a very difficult task when they assembled on May 2 in New York. All agreed that non-proliferation faced some tough and unresolved challenges to its integrity and effectiveness, but they differed in how they characterised the major threats and what they wanted to be done. The major challenges were[1] (and still are):

  • North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship and its apparent ease of withdrawal from the treaty in order to demonstrate its development of nuclear weapons.
  • The nuclear fuel cycle road to nuclear weapons, as pursued by the P-5 permanent members of the Security Council (United States, Russia, Britain, France and China) and the D-3 de-facto states with nuclear weapons (India, Israel and Pakistan), by Iraq until 1991, and by North Korea. Brought to a head by Iran's intentions to enrich uranium, purportedly for peaceful purposes, this issue has divided the NPT regime between those who want limits to be placed on the nuclear fuel cycle and those who believe the curbs should be placed on 'states of concern' rather than on the technologies. The question lies at the heart of the NPT 'bargain' that provides access to nuclear energy in return for renouncing nuclear weapons. It is especially sensitive for countries with dependencies on reprocessing and enrichment, including Britain, France, and Russia and developed non-nuclear weapon state parties such as Japan, Brazil, Australia and South Africa, as well as for the NPT's safeguards overseer, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
  • Institutional weaknesses exposed not only by North Korean noncompliance, but also by the compliance and enforcement problems brought into the open in connection with the programmes of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Dr Khan's nuclear blackmarket, and states with nuclear weapons. Undoubtedly a valuable contribution to addressing the weaknesses inherent in the pre-1990s trust-based 'comprehensive' safeguards system, the IAEA's Additional Protocol suffers from slow accession, with many pious expressions but inadequate implementation. The major institutional deficit, as identified by Ireland, Canada and others, is that the NPT has no implementing mechanism or organisation, other than the IAEA, whose mandate covers not the treaty per se, but bilateral safeguards arrangements in conformity with article III. For strengthening non-proliferation, dealing with cases of suspected or proved noncompliance, and addressing the challenges of blackmarket trade in nuclear-related technologies and non-state actors, the treaty parties must rely on the Security Council or ad hoc arrangements among states riven with regional and political rivalries.
  • Nuclear disarmament and doctrine may not have appeared as prominently divisive in 2005, but they remain for most NPT parties the key to sustainable non-proliferation. This was shown not only in the opening statements, where practically every speech emphasised the importance of early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and two-thirds underscored the necessity for more effective progress in implementing the "13 Steps" plan of action on nuclear disarmament agreed by the 2000 Review Conference. Concern that the nuclear disarmament commitments of 2000 should not be sidelined was an important factor in Egypt's blocking of the President's draft agenda because it failed to make reference to the outcome of the 2000 review conference.
  • Egypt, Iran and others also made use of the fact that Israel is the only state in the Middle East not to have renounced its nuclear weapon programme and joined the NPT. In a wider context, Israel is one third of what is euphemistically called "the three-state problem", i.e. the regime challenges arising from the D-3. Having never been party to the NPT, these states cannot be accused of violating it. Yet they are free-riders on the regime, deriving security benefits from the fact that rivals and neighbours are kept in check by the NPT and its associated instruments. Pressure on the non-proliferation regime has been intensified by recent moves to normalise the nuclear programme of India and require the D-3 to behave "as if" they were responsible nuclear weapon states.
  • Finally, increased awareness of terrorist threats has doubled the attention paid to the safety and security of nuclear weapons, materials, technologies and facilities. While measures such as cooperative threat reduction (CTR) initiatives, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and UN Security Council Resolution 1540 go some way to address the gaps in the regime, issues of safety and security have increased in salience since the end of the cold war and many feel that more must be done.

Key Issues

Not all statements to the Conference identified all the challenges noted above; some were ignored or given very different emphasis and priority depending on a state's regional circumstances or political grouping. Other familiar and less-familiar issues were also highlighted. Many of these made their way into the bracketed drafts of the committee and subsidiary body reports. Though it should be stressed that only Main Committee I on disarmament actually managed to transmit its report and text to the drafting committee (albeit with many brackets denoting that little had been agreed), the text generated by all three Main Committees (MC) and Subsidiary Bodies (SB) are given in the documentary annex that follows this article.

Much of the deliberation on these drafts was behind closed doors, but the texts and their brackets provide a useful picture of the major issues and areas of dispute and contention, obviating the need for a detailed summary of the speeches in this report. Below, however, I have selectively provided a thumbnail sketch of general debate contributions on some of the most critical and interesting issues.


Almost every statement highlighted this multilaterally negotiated treaty, viewed as a prime objective of the NPT since the treaty took legal effect in 1970. By the time the NPT conference opened, the CTBT had 175 signatories, of which 120 had ratified, including 33 of the 44 states listed as necessary for entry into force. Britain and France ratified together in April 1998, and Russia had ratified just before the 2000 Conference.

It was made clear that everyone except the United States wanted the Review Conference to give a strong endorsement to CTBT entry into force. From all sides, the CTBT was very strongly supported, and it was noted that a ban on all nuclear tests was promised in the NPT's preamble and then underlined as of the highest priority in 1995, when the treaty was indefinitely extended, and again as the first item in the practical steps for nuclear disarmament agreed in 2000. The EU gave a very strong affirmation of the "utmost importance" it attaches to the entry into force of the CTBT at the earliest possible date. Pending this achievement "the EU urges all states to abide by a moratorium and to refrain from any actions which are contrary to the obligations and provisions of the CTBT".

China, which (like the US) has so far failed to ratify the CTBT, lamented that the entry into force of the CTBT had been diluted and declared, "China supports an early-entry-into-force of the CTBT and is now working actively on its internal legal proceedings for ratifying the treaty." This might have been more convincing if China had not used a similar excuse five years ago, telling the 2000 Review Conference that it was awaiting the decision of the People's National Congress.

It was politically and substantively important that the first working paper from the G-10[2] group of ten Vienna-based states was on the CTBT and clearly underlined the centrality of entry into force of the CTBT to the NPT compact, as well as the profound proliferation dangers attached to holding open the option to resume nuclear testing. In their totality, the general statements and working papers made it clear that the overwhelming majority of NPT states are concerned about the fate of the test ban regime if entry into force of the CTBT continues to be so wantonly delayed. A stark warning was sent to those of the nuclear weapon states that have failed to ratify the test ban (China and the United States), thereby holding open the option to test. It was also suggested that other states (North Korea for example) may take advantage of a failure to lock down the CTBT and conduct a nuclear test that would jeopardise the test ban norm and therefore the NPT as well, because of the intextricable link between the two treaties.

Fissile materials ban

A large number of states also mentioned the necessity to negotiate a ban on the production of fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium) for weapons purposes. The chief controversy over this is about the failure of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to get negotiations underway and whether (if they ever take place) they should be on the basis of the 'Shannon mandate' agreed by the CD in 1995, which called for negotiations on "a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty" or on a different basis, in view of the US policy decision to support only negotiations on a treaty without verification.

This unilateral decision, which followed a yearlong interagency review in the United States, was announced at the CD by Ambassador Jackie Sanders in July 2004, to the shock of many CD delegations and the gratitude (whether expressed or not) of at least India, Israel and Pakistan, who all had misgivings about the proposed cut-off treaty, since they were its primary targets. Four of the declared nuclear weapon states (Britain, France, Russia and the United States) already abide by unilateral moratoria on production, and France is in the process of dismantling its military fissile material production facilities at Pierrelatte and Marcoule.

Most NAM statements continued to call for a "a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty", while many west-leaning statements fudged the question of verification, calling in shorthand just for an (undifferentiated) treaty or FMCT. The EU, for example (from which many others appear to have taken their cue) calls for negotiations on "a non-discriminatory and universal treaty". Nevertheless, verification or no-verification, the urgency of halting fissile material production has appeared in almost all the statements.

North Korea

A large number of statements raised concerns about North Korea, which announced its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003 (after previously declaring an intention to withdraw in 1993, which was subsequently halted by the 1994 Framework Agreement with the United States). In particular, South Korea's Deputy Minister, Chun Yung-woo, castigated the NPT's "inherent limitations" and bluntly argued that "the Korean peninsula suffers from diminished security because of the miserable failure of the NPT to contain the nuclear spectre".

In a very hard-hitting statement that condemned North Korea's "complete disregard for and defiance of all nuclear non-proliferation norms" and called for Pyongyang to take "the strategic decision to abandon and dismantle once and for all its entire nuclear weapons programmes", South Korea welcomed the exposure of the A.Q. Khan network and the adoption of UNSC resolution 1540 but warned that of themselves, these will not put an end to trafficking: "One should never underestimate the resourcefulness of black market peddlers and determined proliferators to outsmart and outmanoeuvre governments."

South Korea favoured a much tougher approach to the fuel cycle, safeguards and export controls and said it was open to various options to make withdrawal from the treaty more difficult, including requiring Security Council approval. Recognising the importance also of addressing security concerns, South Korea argued for the crisis to be resolved peacefully and for the incentive of better security assurances for non-nuclear weapon states that are in compliance with their NPT obligations.

While the majority of states devoted only a few sentences to the problem of North Korea, Japan's Foreign Minister, Nobutaka Machimura, committed several paragraphs to what he called "a direct threat to the peace and stability of Northeast Asia". Japan called on the Conference to deliver a clear message to the DPRK that it must return to the Six Party Talks without preconditions, "completely dismantle all of its nuclear programmes, including its enrichment programmes, subject to credible international verification".

NPT states and international lawyers may be in disagreement about whether North Korea has legally accomplished its withdrawal and is no longer a party to the NPT, or whether it is still bound by its treaty obligations and needs to be brought back into compliance; what is incontestable is that both the UN Security Council and the NPT have proved incapable of addressing this issue intelligently.

After intensive consultations, Ambassador Duarte received agreement to follow the procedure first used by the Chair of the 2003 PrepCom, Ambassador László Molnár, in which the DPRK nameplate was held by the Secretariat in the Conference room "without prejudice to ongoing negotiations". This was done early on the first day of the Review Conference. While not opening a debate among states parties into the specific status of the DPRK, Duarte acknowledged that many states wanted to have a general discussion about the withdrawal provision (Article X) and indicated that space would be found for this to take place.


Unlike North Korea, Iran was in the Conference chamber and determined to prevent any formal criticisms from getting through. Toning down some of the rhetoric in evidence at the 2003 and 2004 PrepComs, as well as from various Washington podia, the head of the US delegation, Stephen Rademaker, noted, "Britain, France, and Germany, with our support, are seeking to reach a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, a solution that given the history of clandestine nuclear weapons work in that country, must include permanent cessation of Iran's enrichment and reprocessing efforts, as well as dismantlement of equipment and facilities related to such activity. Iran must provide such objective and verifiable guarantees in order to demonstrate that it is not using a purportedly peaceful nuclear program to hide a nuclear weapons program or to conduct additional clandestine nuclear work elsewhere in the country."

Varying in degree rather than kind, while trying to avoid explicitly accusing or jumping to conclusions, a significant number of other states called on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment and fully and transparently cooperate with the IAEA to reassure the world that its programmes were indeed peaceful. On behalf of the EU, Nicolas Schmit, Luxembourg's Minister-Delegate for Foreign Affairs, said it was important "for Iran to re-establish trust", making clear that the EU was "united in its determination not to allow Iran to obtain military nuclear capabilities, and to see the proliferation implications of its nuclear programme resolved." Iran was enjoined to respect and implement the provisions of the Paris Agreement of November 15, 2004 and the relevant resolutions of the IAEA Board of Governors, especially regarding the suspension of its enrichment related and reprocessing activities.

Iran responded with a combative speech from Dr Kamal Kharrazi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in which he declared that Iran "is determined to pursue all legal areas of nuclear technology, including enrichment, exclusively for peaceful purposes..." Stating that "arbitrary and self-serving criteria and thresholds regarding proliferation-proof and proliferation-prone technologies and countries can and will only undermine the Treaty", Kharrazi argued that Iran "has been eager to offer assurances and guarantees that [its programme] remain[s] permanently peaceful." Moreover, he warned, "Cessation of legal activity is no objective guarantee against so-called break-out; it is indeed a historically tested recipe for one."

Most of Iran's statement was devoted to trying to turn the tables on the nuclear powers by first identifying issues of concern such as the research and development of new nuclear weapons and missile defences that could instigate a new arms race in outer space, and then suggesting that the Conference take decisions on: universality; a legally binding instrument codifying the commitment not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons; ensuring and promoting "the basic rights of states parties to unhindered access to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes without discrimination"; and implementation of the 13 practical disarmament steps. Though its expressed concerns about new nuclear weapons and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in doctrines by codifying a commitment not to use or threaten to use them are shared by many of those who have castigated the inadequate progress on nuclear disarmament since 2000, it is unlikely that such diplomatic devices will distract the other NPT parties from the serious concerns many of them harbour about Iran's programme and intentions.


Universality - accession to the Treaty by all UN-recognised states - was accorded little more than lip service by many, but raised strongly by a few, especially the Arab states. Unlike in 1995 or 2000, many states have come to accept that India and Pakistan are unlikely to become non-nuclear weapon states except by a process of disarmament that involved also the P-5 NPT nuclear weapon states. Recognising that the Treaty could not be re-opened to admit any additional nuclear weapon states as such, a growing number of parties want India and Pakistan to behave as if the NPT applied to them (as states with nuclear weapons) and abide by the relevant responsibilities and obligations, something that both have professed a desire to do (particularly as it would come with de facto recognition, which India has long craved). Sweden, for example, proposed that India and Pakistan should simultaneously sign and then ratify the CTBT as a confidence-building measure and first step.

Israel is in a different position, having neither tested nor sought to declare itself or be accepted as having nuclear weapons. Whether its policy of ambiguity and opacity is sustainable in the long run is open to question, but the majority of Western parties are less concerned with Israel's nuclear programme itself, than with the political problems its existence poses for the regime - as a central choke point in successive NPT PrepComs and review conferences, and as an implicit (and sometimes explicit) justification for some countries to stay outside other non-proliferation agreements, and acquire or trade in missiles and other WMD-related technologies.

Nuclear Weapon Free Zones

Nuclear weapon free zones (NWFZ) no longer play the political role that they did during the 1960s-70s and again in the 1990s when political changes strengthened the Treaties of Tlatelolco (covering Latin America and the Caribbean) and Rarotonga (South Pacific), and zones covering Africa and South-East Asia were negotiated and institutionalised by means of the Treaties of Pelindaba and Bangkok.

Just prior to the Review Conference, April 26-28, Mexico had hosted in Tlatelolco a "Conference of States Parties and Signatories to Treaties that Establish Nuclear Weapon Free Zones". Mexico presented the main proceedings and declaration to the NPT Review Conference. This underlined that the existence of nuclear weapons constituted a threat to humanity's survival, supported the implementation of the existing NWFZs and encouraged the development of further zones "on the basis of agreements entered into freely among the States of the zone concerned", specifically mentioning South Asia and the Middle East. Expressing "deep concern with new strategic security doctrines, which assign a broader role to nuclear weapons, imply intentions to develop new types of nuclear weapons or rationalisation for their use", the declaration reaffirmed that "the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons constitutes a breach of international law and the United Nations Charter".

The declaration supported disarmament education and urged more effective progress in implementing nuclear disarmament commitments and respecting NWFZ agreements in full. It expressed support for Mongolia's international nuclear weapon free status and welcomed progress on establishing a NWFZ in Central Asia. Paragraphs also expressed deep concern about the hazards of radioactive waste and radiological warfare and expressed the conviction that "the most effective way to prevent non-State actors from acquiring nuclear weapons is through the total elimination of those weapons".[3]

Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons

Non-strategic nuclear weapons are being raised as an issue of concern by a growing number of states, including Germany, although Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher did not make any announcement about the deployment of US non-strategic nuclear weapons in European bases, including Germany, despite having been quoted on the subject in the German newspapers just prior to the Review Conference. The UN Secretary-General alluded to nuclear sharing when he noted in his opening statements (reproduced below) that, "Many states still live under a nuclear umbrella, whether of their own or an ally. Ways must be found to lessen, and ultimately overcome, their reliance on nuclear deterrence."

Terrorism, Plutonium and HEU

Far more statements than in 2000 referred to concerns about non-state actors, a euphemism for armed groups and terrorists. This emphasis reflected the changed security perceptions since 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Though not everyone accepted the United States' priority focus on terrorism above all other issues, there was general support for strengthening measures to prevent terrorists from gaining access to nuclear materials.

There were many expressions of endorsement for UNSC Resolution 1540 (2004) on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and the recently agreed Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Terrorism, the G-8 Global Partnership, global and cooperative threat reduction (CTR) approaches, physical safety and preventing access to nuclear materials or weapons by terrorists, including useful proposals for securing and reducing stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium (HEU).

Civil society, particularly groups from Japan and Britain, raised similar concerns about the proliferation and environmental dangers of plutonium separation through reprocessing. Evoked by Iran as its desired example, Japan was more defensive than at previous review conferences, as pertinent questions were asked about its intention to start reprocessing spent fuel at a new facility at Rokkasho.

Japanese and international experts held packed meetings, presented detailed papers and circulated an appeal signed by high level scientists and senior figures in non-proliferation and cooperative threat reduction, calling on Japan not to fly in the face of non-proliferation and fuel-cycle trends by going ahead with reprocessing at Rokkasho. In the NPT meeting rooms, however, the British-French-Japanese alliance did its best to divert attention from reprocessing. Where the fuel cycle was concerned, they seemed to prefer there to be a focus on HEU. Professor William Potter, acting as an advisor to Kyrgyzstan, was responsible for some useful proposals on controlling and preventing access to HEU, which were taken up by a number of delegations in a working paper.[4]

Though concerned about terrorism, some states warned against over-legislating in ways that would erode other treaty commitments or arrangements. South Africa's Ambassador Claudine Mtshali, for example, raised a question concerning amendments to the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA) and Protocol, which would "include a substantial broadening of the range of offences included in Article 3 of the SUA Convention and the introduction of provisions for the boarding of vessels suspected of, inter alia, transporting material, equipment or technology intended to be used in a nuclear weapons programme" similar to those of the Proliferation Security Initiative".

South Africa was particularly concerned that a "savings clause" and its related definitions of direct and dual-use nuclear material, equipment and technology, undermined understandings in the NPT, particularly relating to articles I, II and VI. "The text of the so-called "savings clause" that was accepted by the IMO Legal Committee, despite the concerns raised, essentially specifies that It shall not be an offence within the meaning of this convention to transport an item or material (direct and dual-use)... if the item or material is intended for the delivery system of a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device of a state party to the NPT, the holding of such weapon or device is not contrary to that state party's obligations under the NPT." Though such questions were raised during the debates, they were seldom given satisfactory answers, and as the Review Conference wore on, these and other concerns tended to get lost amidst the wrangling.

Enhancing the NPT's decision-making powers

Significantly, given its position on the proliferation front line, South Korea joined Ireland, Canada, Sweden and a growing number who advocated giving the NPT more powers for enforcement, including annual meetings and 'emergency' powers.

Building on the Irish initiative from 2000 and Canada's own paper on addressing the NPT's "institutional deficit" that was circulated at the 2004 PrepCom, Canada's Assistant Deputy Minister Jim Wright gave the following argument, which due to its complexity and importance is quoted in detail: "More sustained attention is required, as well as greater opportunity for States Parties to discuss and promote implementation, to express their views on critical issues affecting the Treaty's health and authority and to take decisions on pressing matters. It is no longer adequate to do this only once every five years. The existing preparatory process, with its inherent limitations, fails to provide for an annual forum worthy of this Treaty and our collective interests in it. Hence, our proposal to have the NPT membership adopt a new arrangement for its meetings within the existing time envelope we currently devote to the Treaty's gatherings. We propose an annual one week Meeting of States Parties, to provide us with a regular policy forum, a feature now standard in the operation of most other treaties in the disarmament field. Our proposal would retain the necessary time for preparing the Review Conferences. Recent experiences have demonstrated that States Parties also require a rapid reaction capacity, the ability to come together and take necessary action in cases of extraordinary circumstances involving threats to the Treaty, its norms and its authority, such as an announcement of withdrawal. The outside world expects no less of us. The ability to call such meetings would be vested in a standing bureau. This rapid reaction capability would not detract from the mandate of the IAEA nor the role of the UN Security Council, but rather be complementary to any action by these bodies, conveying the strongest possible messages on behalf of the Treaty's members."

The Review Conference Unravels

The Review Conference began to unravel from the first day, when it opened without an agenda. This section summarises the procedural tactics and politics that delayed adoption of the agenda until midway through the second week, the controversies that prevented the committees from starting work until well into the third week, and the various ways in which the conference got tangled in conflict, lost time, and then, under the benign auspices of the president, gave up any pretence of trying to achieve a substantive outcome.

Agenda Agreed on Day 9

Though Duarte had shuttled around the world holding consultations on the agenda and other issues in the intervening year, he failed to pin down agreement before the start of the meeting. This was not his fault. In a strategic move that turns out to have doomed the 2005 Review Conference, the United States refused to acknowledge the consensus outcome of the last Review Conference in 2000 as the basis for reviewing and evaluating progress on the Treaty in 2005. The New Agenda Coalition (NAC) and others refused to accept an agenda that ignored the 2000 outcome. As a consequence, the 2004 preparatory committee (PrepCom) meeting was unable to agree either the agenda or background documents for the review conference, leaving Duarte to try and sort things out.[5] Even so, during meetings in the run-up to the Review Conference, he appeared rather too sanguine, seeming to assume that the agenda would fall into place in time. It didn't.

During his consultations, Duarte tried out various formulae to bridge the gap between those (principally the United States) who continued to try and erase references to the important agreements adopted by consensus by NPT States Parties in 2000, and those who resisted such rewriting of history. The latter group had included the NAM and the NAC in 2004, but their arguments were left largely up to Egypt at the Review Conference.

When, shortly before the review conference opened, the United States belatedly accepted the compromise option that it had rejected in 2004, when it was proposed by the Chair of the PrepCom, Ambassador Sudjadnan Parnohadinigrat of Indonesia, Egypt refused to go along. Although this option listed by date all the review conferences with agreed outcomes (1975, 1985, 1995 and 2000), Egypt insisted that the focus should be on 1995 and 2000. Its stand came at a high price, however, when Egypt was later confronted with an agenda that failed to mention 2000 at all. Egypt's rejection of the date-listing option also soured relations within the fragmenting NAC even further, particularly with Sweden, whose ambassador, Elisabet Borsiin-Bonnier, was Chair-designate of Main Committee III, and so part of Duarte's management team.

At the end of the first week, Duarte thought he had obtained acceptance for a US-leaning, pared down 'chapeau' (lead-in sentence) to paragraph 16 of the agenda on "Review of the operation of the Treaty" that mentioned none of the previous review conferences by date. A 32-word statement from the Presidency was meant to provide reassurance that the review would be conducted "in the light of the decisions and the resolution of previous conferences" and "allow for discussion of any issue raised by States Parties". However, when it came to decision-time, Egypt objected and offered an amendment making specific reference to "taking into account" the "outcomes" as well as the decisions and resolution of previous conferences.

Instead of putting Egypt's modest amendment to the conference and requiring that any objectors (i.e. the United States) give their reasons openly, Duarte suspended the meeting and entered into several more days of shuttling back and forth between delegations and groups. In the end, by means of a tactically placed asterisk, the agenda was adopted in the second week. The asterisk was understood by the NAM to connect the agenda with the President's statement and a NAM understanding, putting both on the record.

The president's statement read: "It is understood that the review will be conducted in the light of the decisions and the resolution of previous Conferences, and allow for discussion of any issue raised by States Parties."[6]

The statement from Malaysia on behalf of the NAM read: "The Non-Aligned States Parties to the NPT welcome the adoption of the agenda of the 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT. The agenda establishes the framework for conducting the review of the operation of the Treaty in accordance with article VIII, paragraph 3 of the Treaty, the decisions and the resolution of previous Conferences, in particular the 1995 Review and Extension Conference and the decision of the 2000 Review Conference to adopt by consensus its Final Document."[7]

With these understandings linked to the agenda by the asterisk (or so the NAM believed), the agenda was adopted. The meaning of the asterisk, however, was to cause problems in the last week, when the UK delegation persuaded the conference to accept a different interpretation of the agenda agreement from the one that the majority of states parties, including many Western allies, thought had been agreed.

Work Programme Adopted on Day 17

The next procedural standoff concerned the work programme and delayed the start of substantive debates until late in the third week. The issue here was about which subsidiary bodies (essentially a subcommittee or working group) would be convened and under what terms. The subjects on the table were practical disarmament steps, security assurances, regional issues (including the Middle East), and withdrawal from the Treaty (Article X), but the main disagreement was between the United States and the NAM over negative security assurances (NSA), by which the nuclear powers pledge not to attack the non-nuclear NPT states (since they have renounced the option of developing nuclear weapons).

The NAM, which has a long-standing demand for a legally binding agreement containing unconditional security assurances, originally wanted two separate subsidiary bodies on practical disarmament steps and on security assurances. Pressed by the president, the NAM reluctantly agreed to just one subcommittee to cover both issues. To the frustration of its Western allies, the US opposed the mention of security assurances in the title or mandate, thereby wasting more time.

Finally, at the very end of the sixteenth day on May 18, agreement was reached on three main committees and three subsidiary bodies, as follows:

  • Chair of MC.I (nuclear disarmament), Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat (Indonesia);
  • Chair of SB.I (focussing on practical disarmament and security assurances), Tim Caughley (New Zealand);
  • Chair of MC.II (safeguards and NWFZs), László Molnár (Hungary);
  • Chair of SB.II (focussing on regional issues, including implementation of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East) Antonio Nuñez Garcia-Sauco (Spain);
  • Chair of MC.III (nuclear energy and safety), Elisabet Borsiin-Bonnier (Sweden);
  • Chair of SB.III ('other provisions of the treaty' including Article X on withdrawal), Alfredo Labbé (Chile). [8]

Bracketed and Blocked: the Committees run out of time and patience

Once the committees got going, the Conference had little more than five days to discuss the many working papers and proposals on issues as diverse as further practical steps on disarmament; nuclear doctrines and nuclear sharing; the nuclear fuel cycle; making the IAEA additional protocol the safeguards standard and a condition of supply; universality; nuclear weapon free zones; nuclear safety and security; and keeping weapons and materials out of the hands of terrorists.

The six chairs of the committees and subsidiary bodies did a valiant job of trying to pull very disparate ideas and political perspectives together into some semblance of reflective assessments and recommendations. As can be seen from the drafts, which are reproduced below in as final a form as the Acronym Institute was able to obtain, there were clichéd exhortations and euphemistic generalisations mixed in with interesting proposals and some real attempts to address the toughest issues. But the Chairs had a near-impossible uphill struggle, deprived as they were of both the time and the political will among States for serious negotiations to take place.

The signals coming from the president were that he didn't expect them to deliver much by way of agreed substance. The indications from the P-5 were no better: though some would have liked the Conference to have a constructive outcome, the weapon states were themselves failing to agree a joint declaration, principally because of the US refusal to endorse the CTBT. By this time, too, key NAM states were letting it be known that in view of the US refusal to acknowledge its obligations from 2000, no agreement on substance would be better than a lowest common denominator agreement that ignored or diluted previous commitments on disarmament.

Not all the Chairs' efforts met the President's exhortation to be "short and concise and yet balanced and comprehensive", but that was far from the main problem. Self censorship and restricted horizons prevailed, as the texts annexed to this article show.

MC.I on Disarmament

The report from MC.1 on disarmament and its subsidiary body on practical disarmament turned out to be the only report transmitted to the president, though it was so peppered with brackets that he decided not to work on it further or send it to the drafting committee. In annexing the two documents, Sudjadnan formally noted that "they did not reflect fully the views of all states parties".

As can be seen from the drafts reproduced below, MC.I's report contained 8 principal paragraphs that focussed mainly on the article I and II obligations, and included two paragraphs supporting the recommendations of the Report of the UN Secretary General on disarmament and nonproliferation education. Although much was bland, the text notably exhorted the nuclear weapon states to refrain "from nuclear sharing for military purposes under any kind of security arrangements, among themselves, with non-nuclear-weapon states and with states not party to the Treaty". The non-nuclear-weapon States were called on "to refrain from any activities designed to develop nuclear weapons capability". Passing references were made to non-compliance, UNSC Resolution 1540 and keeping weapons out of the hands of non-state actors.

The section on practical disarmament steps under article VI tried to build on the decisions from 1995 and 2000. It reiterated the basic principles of transparency, irreversibility and verifiability and offered rather mild exhortations relating to further reductions of strategic and non-strategy nuclear weapons; despite its modest tone, the United States earmarked virtually the whole of SB.I's text for deletion. A seven paragraph chair's draft on security assurances was also discussed (see below), but the United States made clear that it did not find this draft acceptable in any way.

MC.II on Safeguards and Regional Issues

Main Committee II dealt with safeguards, and its subsidiary body bore the same unwieldy title as in 2000: "regional issues, including with respect to the Middle East and implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East". MC.II's report was blandly crafted to minimise contention, but the report of SB.II was blocked by Iran and Egypt. As a consequence, none of the report was transmitted to the drafting committee.

The subsidiary body report contained sections about the 1995 Resolution and reporting on steps to fulfil it; a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East; India and Pakistan; safeguards and the Additional Protocol. It called on Israel to accede to the NPT and welcomed Libya's deproliferation. The five NPT participants involved in the six-party talks (China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States) met separately to try to get consensus on a paragraph dealing with North Korea, which would no doubt have materialised if the rest of the report had looked set for adoption; in the event, the text on North Korea was never circulated.

The main issues of contention were a lengthy paragraph on Iran, which Iran insisted should be deleted in its entirety, and a paragraph that went further than the traditional exhortation to Israel and called for NPT parties to take additional measures to induce Israel to accede to the NPT. It also referred to convening a standing committee and denial of transfers of technology and cooperation in the nuclear and research fields. This paragraph was opposed by the United States and some of the Western parties as going beyond the 1995 Resolution and being impractical (or likely to backfire).

The paragraph on Iran stated the current situation, including the IAEA assessment and diplomatic initiatives of the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany). It noted that Iran has signed the Additional Protocol and called for its ratification and full implementation. It also exhorted Iran to "respect the Paris Agreement and the relevant resolutions of the IAEA Board of Governors, in particular suspension of the enrichment-related and reprocessing activities".

Iran's objections were not so much about the specific wording as the fact that Tehran was determined to prevent any paragraph at all that suggested non-compliance with the NPT or Iran's safeguards agreements. Iran argued that it should not be singled out because it was complying with IAEA inspections and had signed the Additional Protocol. Even though this paragraph was in brackets, Iran chose to block transmittal of the report.

MC.III on nuclear energy and withdrawal

Main Committee III had the task of dealing with nuclear energy and institutional issues. Though the main report contained little that any advocate of nuclear energy could object to, it came to be blocked by the United States after Egypt refused to accept annexation of the text of SB.III on Article X (withdrawal) and other issues.

Only a couple of days earlier, it had appeared that MC.III's rather conservatively-worded report, shorn of most of the contentious safety and security questions raised during the debates and in working papers, would get transmitted in a bracketed form. Some had also hoped that by lowering its sights to finding language that only clarified the interpretation and expectations of article X on treaty withdrawal and pointed some ways forward (without proposing decisions or commitments on strengthening the treaty's institutional capacity or states parties' powers), agreement on the text from the subsidiary body might also be achieved.

Late in the process, Egypt submitted an informal paper to MC.III on universality of the NPT. When this did not get taken on board, Egypt refused to allow SB.III's report to be annexed, reportedly on the grounds that a revised text from the Chair of SB.I had not been properly discussed. Despite holding an additional session to try to resolve the problem, Ambassador Borsiin-Bonnier was forced by Egypt's rejection to drop the text on withdrawal. Just as she was about to bring the gavel down on the report of MC.III minus anything from the subsidiary body, up popped the United States to lodge an objection and block the report's adoption and transmittal.

Brought to a Whimpering Close

Having rushed to finish their deliberations in barely a week, the committees reports went nowhere but onto NGO websites. The Drafting Committee, chaired by Ambassador Doru Romulus Costea of Romania, had been given no authority to synthesise any of the substance from the committees into the Conference report. Instead, it just worked with the Secretariat to write up a 'technical report' summarising the formal conduct of the conference.

Whether it might have been possible to get some agreement on specific issues by other means, such as stand-alone decisions or resolutions, used to such good effect in 1995, will never be known, because Duarte made no attempt to convene further negotiations on issues of substance. Reportedly, he wanted to close the Conference on Thursday, but was persuaded that this would not look good; an early finish with no substance would expose the charade too obviously and give rise to suspicions that no real outcome had been envisaged.

So the Conference was dragged out to Friday afternoon. Morale had sunk so low that even the drafting committee had problems, although it was just outlining the conference proceedings. Conflict arose because the UK Ambassador, John Freeman, challenged the Secretariat's understanding of the decision on adopting the agenda, particularly what had been denoted and meant by the asterisk that had made possible the agenda agreement. The Secretariat had reflected its understanding by reproducing in adjacent paragraphs the short text of the statements of understanding from the President and from Malaysia on behalf of the NAM.

Freeman objected that this was not the understanding of the Western Group and Others (WEOG). His intervention surprised and angered a number of Western diplomats. Though they made clear in the corridors that they were happy to accept the Secretariat's characterisation of the agreement on the agenda, Freeman was allowed to go ahead with its objection because the UK had reportedly provided a different understanding to the Western group in its role as WEOG coordinator. Though it was emphasised later that the UK had not meant to make its objection on behalf of WEOG, the UK continued to insist that the asterisk referred only to the President's statement and not to the NAM's. After much wrangling and recourse to contradictory precedents - and to the disgust of the NAM and, it has to be said, several WEOG delegations - the text of the NAM's statement of understanding was removed from the report, while the one-sentence President's statement was retained.

The Conference limped to its predicted end on May 27, when it adopted a so-called 'final document' that did little more than list participants and officials and how many meetings had been held. As for the important issues states parties had identified before and during the conference - such as entry into force of the CTBT, nuclear disarmament, the nuclear fuel cycle and strengthening safeguards and the institutional powers of states parties - they had shown themselves devoid of the political will and responsibility even to have an honest debate about these issues, let alone adopt measures that would strengthen the world's capacity to deal with nuclear dangers and proliferation.

The Conference closed with a series of public statements. Though few stood out, Canada managed to say many of the things that - at the very least - should have been expected from the President. Sierra Leone acknowledged the "voice of the people", referring to the actual and "potential victims of nuclear weapons" and the contributions from civil society. From the NAM, Malaysia and South Africa spoke well, but lacked real conviction; while Cuba, the most recent party to the NPT, was impatiently determined in its calls for nuclear disarmament. Iran, and of course the United States, continued to abuse each other while refusing to take responsibility for their own parts in this proliferation mess.

One of the few to have been satisfied by the debacle, Iran managed to position itself to get practically the last word, which it used to excoriate the United States for that superpower's crimes against non-proliferation. Though few if any had wanted the NPT Conference to give Iran such a dangerously easy ride, its closing speech afforded some rare amusement, as a panicked US ambassador was seen rushing around desperately trying to get Britain, France or anyone to come to her aid - and being rebuffed, as Duarte began his closing statement. Iran's speech had been so outrageous that the ambassador knew she ought to object formally, but appeared incapable of making the decision and intervention on her own.

Duarte's speech was a wasted opportunity. Short, charming and innocuous, it summed up his presidency. Unfortunately, it did not do what was needed. Instead, he gave a metaphorical shrug and then a long list of thank-yous, managing (through intention or omission) to leave out civil society, whose constructive representation had included NGOs, mayors and parliamentarians from many countries around the world.

Reasons for Failure

The conference did not fail simply because there was no final document. For many states, this was a preferred outcome to a document that would have cancelled out or weakened previous commitments and agreements. It failed because no-one had a positive strategy for addressing the major issues and moving forward despite the political extremes. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some states did not care enough and others desired this impotent impasse.

Undoubtedly, the primary reason why the conference could not adopt consensus agreements was the unpropitious political climate. But the same could have been said about 2000, when there were similarly serious problems, most notably US non-ratification of the CTBT, the South Asian tests and concerns about the nuclear programmes of several states. The difference is that in 2000, key states responded to the political problems by trying harder to find workable compromises.

The failure to get a consensus final document was long predicted, but with different leadership and some constructive strategies, it might have been possible for the 2005 Review Conference to further the aims of non-proliferation with some other kind of statements, agreements or even resolutions. Instead, it was debilitated by a dismal lack of leadership and the entrenched positions and proliferation-promoting policies of a small number of influential states, including the United States and Iran, as they pursued their narrowly defined self interests and sought to keep open their different nuclear options.

In addition to the roles played by these countries, other factors that contributed to a more abject Conference failure than can be explained by the political situation included: lack of leadership from the P-5, the European Union, or the NAM, as well as the predicted disintegration of the New Agenda Coalition that had played such a determining role in 2000; weak conference management that went by the minimalist rule book rather than seeking out innovative and regime-building initiatives that might have identified ways to make progress; and the role of Egypt, which caused concern and attracted criticism from many quarters.

The US Banana Skin

Despite President Bush having identified nuclear non-proliferation as an urgent priority during his election campaign, the US was determined to block any reference to CTBT entry into force or a verifiable ban on fissile materials production, which Washington now opposes. Its obsession to destroy the CTBT even scuppered agreement on a joint NPT-related statement by the P-5.

The US strategy involved undermining the NPT's disarmament obligations, particularly the practical steps adopted at the 2000 Review Conference. Instead of arguing about these issues, which are supported by the vast majority of non-nuclear weapon states and had been agreed with all the nuclear powers, the US threw a pernicious banana skin under the Review Conference when it refused to let the agenda mention the consensus outcome from 2000 as the basis for reviewing and evaluating progress on the Treaty in 2005. The predictable consequence of this strategy was that the 2004 PrepCom was unable to agree on an agenda, which then delayed the start of substantive work at the Review Conference, causing great frustration.

After placing its banana skin, the United States kept a relatively low profile and watched from the corner as various delegations and eventually the whole conference slipped up. Having declared in advance to the media, if not the conference, that it didn't matter whether there was an agreed outcome or not, the US exercised no positive leadership to get one. The delegation appeared inexperienced and disengaged. The architect of its NPT strategy, John Bolton, undersecretary for arms control at the State Department from 2001, was in limbo in May 2005, as his confirmation as US ambassador to the United Nations was held up by revelations of bullying and manipulation. Behind the scenes, however, the US was being shielded by Western Group consensus, aided by its trusty ally, the United Kingdom, which by a strange anomaly dating back to 1975 holds the position of WEOG coordinator for the NPT.

Aware of substantive opposition to its positions from many of its allies, Washington sought to avoid both confrontation and construction. It issued numerous statements, but refused to give the NPT conference an accountable report of efforts to comply with its disarmament commitments under Article VI. Instead, the US displayed a big colourful exhibition about its nonproliferation achievements in the UN hallway and issued glossy brochures with chronologies of significant NPT-related events that managed to miss out the CTBT and consensus agreements from the 2000 Review Conference.

Iran Shrewdly Deflects Attention

Iran, determined to avoid criticism of its uranium enrichment programme, played a clever game to prevent any practical discussion of measures to control or limit nuclear fuel cycle options. When its core interests with regard to the nuclear fuel cycle and criticism of its uranium enrichment programme were not at stake, Iran was publicly helpful, bent on deflecting attention and winning friends. Its sizeable delegation briefed NGOs, worked the conference floor, and explained how it only desired to model its nuclear programme on Japan's, even to the extent of permitting "24/7 inspections".

Adept at behind-the-scenes manipulations of conference procedure and the consensus rule in the Non-Aligned group, Iran benefited greatly from the reluctance of countries such as Brazil, Japan, France and Britain to see the conference discuss - let alone adopt - effective and non-discriminatory measures that would curb the high enrichment of uranium or the separation of plutonium.

Egypt: Strategically Subtle or Tactically Inept?

While the US manipulated in the background and Iran exerted its charm offensive, the Egyptian delegation was out front making its objections visible, particularly in relation to the conference agenda and the committee reports. Egypt explained its concerns in terms of principle and practice, with particular reference to the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East and the agreed outcome of the 2000 review conference. However, as Egypt repeatedly exposed itself to flak by objecting, some delegations began to speculate about its underlying motivations.

According to one explanation, Egypt was under pressure for domestic and regional reasons to uphold the agreements on the Middle East and nuclear disarmament obtained in the two previous review conferences. It is certainly true that Egypt had played a prominent leadership role in persuading Arab states to support the 1995 extension decision, which was adopted with two decisions to strengthen the treaty plus the Resolution on the Middle East. Egypt also helped to persuade several Arab states to join the treaty after 1995, and was a member of the New Agenda Coalition. Faced with US determination that the regional and disarmament commitments of 1995 and 2000 be sidelined, coupled with an absence of strategic leadership from the NAM, NAC or anyone else, and a conference president that appeared reluctant to offend the major powers, Egypt may have considered that it had little option but to oppose counter-productive or minimalist agreements. Egypt also had regional concerns, needing to ensure that Iran was neither allowed to develop nuclear weapons, nor isolated and rendered more dangerous by short term US policies.

Whatever the reasons for Egypt's tactics, there were important differences between the objectives, motivations and conduct of the three countries identified as the main spoilers. The US and Iran pursued narrow self-interest, whereas Egypt appeared to have a more constructive regime-building motivation, even if its tactics at times appeared inept. Though many hold all three responsible for the conference failure, this blame assignment ignores the complicit role of other delegations and the motivations and deficiencies of other important players.

The P-5: Rhetoric without Much Substance

There were both contrasts and commonalities in how the P-5 characterised the challenges faced by the non-proliferation regime in 2005. Yet despite efforts led by France, the five nuclear weapon states foundered in their efforts to agree a P-5 statement. Though some had tried hard, they were still a long way from agreement by the time the Conference opened, and so failed to exert the positive influence that the statements of 1995 (from Britain, France, Russia and the United States) and 2000 (by all five) had achieved.

Intensive negotiations during the conference diminished the brackets on the draft statement, and by the final week only a handful remained, including the CTBT, Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and North Korea. In the end, however, US hostility to a paragraph endorsing CTBT entry into force scuppered the effort, and there was no P-5 statement.

Considering how seriously they seemed to regard the plight of the non-proliferation regime in their opening statements, the failure of P-5 states, individually or collectively, to make a constructive input to the Conference is all the more revealing.

The United States, for example, had proclaimed: "Today, the Treaty is facing the most serious challenge in its history due to instances of noncompliance" notably North Korea and Iran, and by non-state actors. The US statement continued: "By secretly pursuing reprocessing and enrichment capabilities in order to produce nuclear weapons, North Korea violated both its safeguards obligations and its non-proliferation obligations under the NPT before announcing its intention to withdraw from the Treaty in 2003. In recent months, it has claimed to possess nuclear weapons. For almost two decades Iran has conducted a clandestine nuclear weapons program, aided by the illicit network of A. Q. Khan. After two and a half years of investigation by the IAEA and adoption of no fewer than seven decisions by the IAEA Board of Governors calling on Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA in resolving outstanding issues with its nuclear program, many questions remain unanswered. Even today, Iran persists in not cooperating fully. Iran has made clear its determination to retain the nuclear infrastructure it secretly built in violation of its NPT safeguards obligations, and is continuing to develop its nuclear capabilities around the margins of the suspension it agreed to last November, for example, by continuing construction of the heavy water reactor at Arak, along with supporting infrastructure." The US also characterised two categories of "problematic non-state actors": blackmarket traders like the A.Q. Khan network; and terrorist organisations.

Russia emphasised the lack of entry into force of the CTBT; slow uptake of the IAEA Additional Protocol; deadlock in the CD impeding negotiations relating to disarmament; proliferation-sensitive technologies and energy development patterns; 'breaches', 'noncompliance' and 'technical failures'; and nuclear blackmarket activities. With regard to North Korea's announced withdrawal, Russia was "convinced that this situation can be resolved through political and diplomatic means". On Iran, Russia called "for current negotiations and consultations to provide such decisions with regard to Iran's nuclear programme that would meet the country's legitimate energy needs on the one hand and dispel doubts as to the peaceful nature of its nuclear activities on the other."

China raised concerns about "uncertain, unstable and unpredictable factors affecting international security [which] are increasing... [and] increasing non-traditional threats intertwined with traditional threats [that] constitute new challenges for international security. Terrorism and the proliferation of... WMD become increasingly prominent. The emerging regional nuclear issues as well as the exposure of [a] nuclear smuggling network have overshadowed international nonproliferation efforts. It is no less disturbing that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty... regarded as a 'cornerstone of strategic stability' by the international community, was discarded; outer space is facing the danger of weaponisation; the prospect of entry-into-force of the CTBT is diluted; international arms control and disarmament is at a stalemate; the... CD has long been paralyzed, making it impossible to start negotiations on issues such as the fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) and the prevention of arms race in outer space."

In an unmistakable dig at the Bush administration, China also listed further "negative developments, including sticking to the Cold War mentality, pursuing unilateralism, advocating pre-emptive strategy, listing other countries as targets of nuclear strike and lowering the threshold of using nuclear weapons, researching and developing new types of nuclear weapons for specific purposes, and new destabilizing factors to international security."

France and Britain endorsed the overall perspective and objectives contained in the EU Strategy to combat WMD and the 43-paragraph EU Common Position on the 2005 NPT Review Conference. Additionally, France alluded to "profound changes... in the world" and built on the EU prioritisation of five threats: "terrorism, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, regional conflicts, state failure, and organised crime". France noted that "In the face of these dangers our principal safeguard remains the recourse by the community of States to determined action and effective multilateralism while respecting the law".

France identified as its five key objectives for the conference: an effective verification system; strengthening the multilateral system to address cases of non-proliferation; greater State accountability for transfers of nuclear items; facilitation of access to non-sensitive nuclear items for States that respect their commitments; and holding a debate on the issue of withdrawal from the NPT. France concluded by quoting the UN Secretary-General's opening statement to the Conference: "International regimes do not fail because of one breach... They fail when many breaches pile one on top of the other, to the point where the gap between promise and performance becomes unbridgeable."

Britain referred to "changing threats, and challenges" that "served only to underline [the NPT's] importance and therefore our support". Noting that "non-proliferation and disarmament are inter-linked in achieving the Treaty's goals", Britain said the "the relationship between the two processes is neither simple nor mechanistic... we believe that progress in non-proliferation is important in its own right..." Saying that the "challenge is to acknowledge and to underscore by our actions that all of us have responsibilities as well as entitlements under the Treaty", the UK indicated that it supported the suspension of nuclear fuel cycle cooperation with states that violated their non-proliferation and safeguards obligations, that it wanted the conference to decide on action to resolve existing cases of such violation by states parties, and that it should "address withdrawal... and work together to prevent future abuses of the Treaty so as to ensure that nuclear energy can continue..." Britain wanted "the Treaty's objectives to be sustained and their implementation strengthened for the security of all", and looked "forward to negotiation and agreement of a strong Final Document at the conclusion of this Conference."

Lack of Leadership

The P-5 were not the only ones to disappoint the conference and the hopes of NPT supporters by failing to provide leadership. As noted above, the European Union, had come prepared with a 43-point Common Action which contained some good positions, but the EU had no convincing strategy for taking its ideas forward. Unlike in 2000, this was not because Ireland and Sweden were involved in a more radical and effective initiative than the EU majority. Far from it, the NAC had collapsed in all but name before the review conference started. The special interests of Britain and France, as nuclear weapon possessors and plutonium reprocessors, certainly contributed to the EU's inability to go beyond high sounding platitudes, echoing 1995 and 2000, but does not fully explain the EU's complete failure of leadership. There were internal divisions, since many were critical of Britain, which used its influence as WEOG coordinator to cover and front for the obstructionist positions of the United States. The UK role weakened attempts by others (Germany and the Netherlands, for example) to try to use EU influence for more constructive ends, but though this undoubtedly provoked additional frustration, it does not explain or justify the lack of an effective strategy.

Headed by Luxembourg for the six months that included the review conference, the EU should have done much more to promote the NPT's objectives. Recalling the Treaty's preamble about the devastation of nuclear war, its statement had called the NPT "an irreplaceable, legally binding instrument for maintaining and reinforcing international peace, security and stability... the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and the essential foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament under article VI, as well as an important element in the further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."

The EU particularly highlighted challenges arising from: the delay in CTBT entry into force, despite its impressive number of signatories and ratifiers; that 106 NPT parties had not yet put into force the Additional Protocol; the continuing urgency and importance of "preventing terrorists from acquiring or developing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons and their means of delivery, as well as radiological dispersal devices".

With regard to the "illicit trade in highly sensitive nuclear equipment and technology", the EU welcomed efforts to dismantle "illicit" trafficking and procurement networks (leaving open the question of what it might regard as a licit trafficking network). Specific reference was made to "Pakistan, Malaysia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates" but no mention of Britain, Germany or other European countries whose nationals and nationally-registered companies have also been implicated in the A.Q. Khan network.

The EU expressed worries about increases in "conflict potential at a regional level" and was "deeply concerned that some non-nuclear weapon states parties to the treaty do not always comply with their nonproliferation obligations". It deplored North Korea's announced withdrawal from the NPT and mentioned its "firm resolve to contribute to the search for a peaceful solution, through negotiations". It also promised that the EU was "united in determination not to allow Iran to obtain military nuclear capabilities".

The Non-Aligned Movement also came with some comprehensive positions on paper, some good and some rather out-dated; but like the EU, it provided no kind of strategy or leadership to promote their implementation. This was in part because Indonesia had become co-opted by its management role as Chair of Main Committee I, South Africa's unusual passivity (relative to the role it undertook in 1995 and 2000), and the parts played by Iran and Egypt, which prevented any coherent strategising by the NAM. Moreover, while most NAM countries are in agreement about disarmament (at least on the level of rhetoric), they are divided about nuclear energy and the fuel cycle, and cannot be seen to criticise their own members, including Iran, non-NPT members India and Pakistan, and other participants who may be up to their necks in proliferation networks and double-dealing.

The NAM statement, read by Malaysia, declared: "The NPT is at [a] crossroads, with its future uncertain... The lack of balance in the implementation of the NPT threatens to unravel the NPT regime, a critical component of the global disarmament framework." It did not mention by name North Korea, Iran, Libya or the Khan network and said that the NAM would be guided in their approach to the NPT conference by the Millennium Summit, and decisions taken at the XIII Conference of NAM Heads of State or Government (Kuala Lumpur, February 2003) and the XIV NAM Ministerial Conference (Durban, August 2004). These "affirmed that multilateralism and multilaterally agreed solutions, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, provide the only sustainable method of dealing with the multiplicity of disarmament and international security issues. With regard to non-proliferation challenges, the NAM asserted: "We all have concerns about nuclear non-proliferation, both vertical and horizontal. We all have fears about nuclear terrorism; we fear for the possibility of individuals or groups and other non-State actors getting their hands on nuclear explosive devices and using them for terrorist activities. We all continue to have nightmares for so long as there is the continued existence of nuclear weapons, and humanity has called for their total elimination. At the same time, we want to preserve the inherent right to peaceful uses of nuclear technology including energy. This NPT Review Conference should rightly serve to take care of our concerns, allay our fears and reduce our nightmares." Despite these resounding sentiments, however, the NAM was as divided and directionless as in previous review conferences.

Not much can be said about the New Agenda Coalition, which began to fall apart soon after it brought about the ground-breaking disarmament plan of action ("13-Steps") in 2000. Attempts were made to cobble together some joint statements, the best of which was the opening speech given by New Zealand on behalf of the seven nations (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden).

This complained that "we have yet to realise the NPT's preambular injunction on 'the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery'" and continued: "according to the latest estimates the number of existing nuclear warheads today amount to upwards of 30,000... almost as high as the estimated number of warheads that existed when the Treaty entered into force in 1970... Even today's stocks of fissile material are enough to produce thousands more nuclear warheads. We continue to be far from the implementation of the 'programme of action' towards implementation of Article VI contained in the Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament agreed in 1995 and the 'practical steps for... systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI' agreed in the year 2000. The CTBT has not yet entered into force, negotiations for a treaty banning the production of fissile material have not begun, a subsidiary body on nuclear disarmament has not been established, the majority of weapons reductions are not irreversible, transparent, or verifiable, and the role of nuclear weapons in security policies has not been diminished - to give but a few examples of the lack of implementation of the 1995 and 2000 agreements."

North Korea and Iran were both mentioned in relation to efforts to resolve those challenges, and the NAC noted that "in spite of recent positive efforts, tensions remain high in the Middle East Region". Concern was also expressed about the "possibility that terrorists could acquire nuclear weapons, and by activities such as those of the A.Q. Khan network."

The existence of common statements did little to hide the fact that the NAC members were pursuing individual interests and agendas, and that Egypt and Sweden were barely on speaking terms. The lesson to learn from the NAC's experience is that issue-based coalitions, groups or alliances should form and stay together only when they can constitute a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and if they have coherent strategies and effective leadership as well as good positions.

Since it is to be expected that political priorities and personalities will change over time, care must be taken to monitor whether the whole remains more positive, active and effective than the individual members would be on their own or if they joined in other ad hoc alliances.

If the whole does not remain more effective and progressive than the alternatives, then it is time to recognise this, disband and move on. A dysfunctional coalition constrains its members rather than empowering them.

Finally, on the subject of poor leadership, questions need to be asked about the role of the Brazilian presidency. Ambassador Duarte was nominated to be conference president in large part because of Brazil's role in 2000 as a NAC member and its association with the NAM. No-one could have faulted Duarte's dedication as he criss-crossed the world consulting assiduously with states and civil society in the run-up to May 2005. Yet there turned out to be remarkable little to show from all those travels and meetings, at least not in the conduct and outcome of the review conference. Rightly described by New Zealand in its closing remarks as "dignified, consultative and patient", Duarte remained oddly detached and unperturbed, regardless of the chaos and frustration unfolding around him.

Despite the example of three of his more successful predecessors (in 1985, 1995 and 2000), all of whom had likewise been faced with tough issues and obstructionist states, and despite discussing with many NGO experts and diplomats about ways in which the rules of procedure and review conference precedents might be utilised to broker innovative compromises and outcomes, the 2005 president seemed content to let the meeting slide into oblivion, as quickly and quietly as possible.

Perhaps he felt that if no final document was possible, nothing else was worth attempting; or perhaps his over-riding objective was to avoid a public knock-down fight and steer the conference into a minimalist outcome (adoption of a technical report) on the principle of "do no harm". If so, then he was successful. Two less benign explanations need also to be considered, however. Could Duarte's minimalist approach and unflappable calm have been meant to show the P-5 (and especially the United States) that Brazil was sufficiently conservative and pragmatic to be trusted with a seat on the UN Security Council? Or was Brazil, one of the last states to accede to the NPT, seeking to protect its own anomalous and problematic positions with regard to uranium enrichment, the IAEA Additional Protocol and even the CTBT? Uncomfortable though they might be, such questions need to be asked, though it is unlikely they will be answered.

Implications of Failure: a Nuclear Weapons Resurgence without Deterrence

For some, the 2005 review conference will have provided quiet satisfaction. The Bush administration had made it obvious that it would prefer no agreement to one that reinforced the 2000 commitments or the CTBT. Iran succeeded in preventing any text that would name, shame or criticise its nuclear programme. Absent from the conference, India, Pakistan and Israel, together with North Korea, might be happy that the conference failed to criticise them or apply stronger measures to induce them to disarm. If such was their aim, Egypt and several other non-nuclear weapon can be said to have succeeded in preventing any agreement that might have weakened or repudiated the 1995 and 2000 commitments. But all these states - and particularly human security - will be losers if the non-proliferation regime unravels further, a foreseeable (though not inevitable) consequence of these failures.

At a time when the value of nuclear weapons is being reasserted by states as diverse as North Korea, Russia and the United States, governments will only reduce nuclear dangers if they face up to the fact that such weapons are a security problem, not an asset. This is recognised for biological and chemical weapons, the use of which is banned, though more needs to be done to prevent terrorist use by irresponsible governments or armed groups.

Balancing obligations, incentives and monitoring mechanisms, the non-proliferation regime was constructed in the 1960s to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to the 20-plus aspirants that President Kennedy had feared. Though proliferation was retarded, the regime failed to stop a small number of states from acquiring capabilities and weapons programmes outside the treaty, in part because the P-5 undermined efforts to stigmatise such weapons by continuing to assert the strategic importance and security value of their own nuclear arsenals.

Now the credibility and effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime are under intense pressure. The nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran have exposed areas of weakness relating to the lack of adequate enforcement powers and the inherent technological link between the nuclear fuel cycle and weapons materials. The review conference had the opportunity to address these weaknesses, but failed to act. The major danger we now face is not that there might be one or two new states with nuclear weapons in the future, but that weak or muddled policy responses allow such states to succeed in being accepted, as India, Pakistan and Israel's nuclear programmes are now, in effect, accepted as de facto by most if not all - and that such acceptance will undermine the security value of the treaty for all.

Nuclear deterrence for the weak against the powerful

The NPT's historical discrimination between the rights and obligations of nuclear haves and have-nots, which was bolstered by cold war power relations, is proving to be unsustainable in the new security environment. Both the 2004 High Level Panel on "Threats, Challenges and Change" and the Secretary-General's 2005 Report "In larger freedom" warned of a "cascade of proliferation" if the nuclear non-proliferation regime were further eroded and undermined. As discussed in these UN reports, the early 21st century is characterised by deteriorating relations among major powers, the unravelling of the treaty-based security regimes, an increased sense of vulnerability to terrorist attack, and crises of legitimacy and credibility in national and international institutions of governance, including the United Nations. Such developments are important factors in creating a fear-filled security environment, and they are the avoidable consequence of policy choices by major governments, not least the United States.

Though the P-5 seem to be the last to realise this, the logic of nuclear deterrence, such as it was in the cold war, is worse than irrelevant when faced with extreme ideologues. Such aggressors will not be deterred by nuclear or other weapons held by their target countries or anyone else; on the contrary, they may have strategies aimed at provoking a nuclear or similarly disproportionate retaliation. Leaving aside the question of who could be justifiably targeted in retaliation for a terrorist attack, any use of nuclear weapons in response to terrorism - however bad - would be counterproductive.

Mininukes do not solve the logical gap. Whatever the size and yield of the warhead, crossing the nuclear threshold in retaliation or preemption would destroy moral authority, fragment any international anti-terrorist coalition, and likely redirect international outrage from the original perpetrators to the nuclear weapon user. Instead of there being one centre of destruction, caused by the terrorists, a nuclear retaliation would create more devastation, thereby dividing international response and practical aid. Moreover, the consequences of a policy of retaliation are indefensible in human terms and would be a recipe for signing many new converts for the terrorists' cause; consequently, the threat to do so lacks credibility.

In the 21st century, nuclear deterrence has no convincing role and should be abandoned. The priority needs to be reducing the incentives, opportunity and access to weapons capable of mass destruction. Though they cannot be deterred, terrorists may be prevented. The policy focus needs to be on strengthening the regimes, combined with vigilance and better intelligence. Stronger action will also be needed to prevent access to and supply of the finances and necessary ingredients for nuclear terrorism.

Some states are attracted to nuclear weapons because they appear to convey enhancements in status or security, or in political and regional prestige. They are also coming to be perceived as a way to hold off invasion or pressure from more powerful countries, especially the United States, as North Korea sees itself as doing. Such perceptions are already making it more difficult for some governments to hold out against domestic and populist demands that they should provide such "advantages" for their citizens as well.

It is profoundly worrying to observe how nuclear weapons are increasing in salience after a drop during the 1990s. Any new nuclear entrants will likely cause their geostrategic rivals to reconsider their positions. If the erosion of the non-proliferation regime is not halted, the danger is not just that a few additional countries will hedge their bets, but that global restraints will crash, causing a proliferation surge.

Bizarrely, given what is at stake, a small number of states still seek to maintain and even develop or replace their nuclear arsenals while relying on collective commitments to non-proliferation to deny other states the same weapons. In this way, the P-5 and India, Israel and Pakistan are free-riders on the non-proliferation regime, which is beginning to crumble under the weight of their policies' contradictions. As their policies have greatly added to the regime's vulnerability, they need to consider that if non-proliferation collapses, their security will also be severely compromised.

Regional problems increase the risks

While North Korea's nuclear gamesmanship appears to be chiefly directed towards the United States, the inadequacy of Kim Jong Il's regime, the shared border with South Korea and long and painful history with Japan all contribute to a volatile security environment, where misjudgment or miscalculation could potentially result in the use of nuclear weapons. As noted by South Korea's Deputy Minister, Chun Yung-woo, "the Korean peninsula suffers from diminished security because of the miserable failure of the NPT to contain the nuclear spectre".

The line of control in Kashmir is still a potential flashpoint for war, including the use of nuclear weapons. Though India and Pakistan appear to have backed down from the nuclear sabre-rattling of 1998-2001 in favour of confidence-building measures and enhanced lines of communication, both are building up their nuclear forces and pursuing missile capabilities. Neither side has as much stability as it would like, and it remains to be seen whether the neighbours have sufficient stability to make a bilateral deterrent relationship work. (The United States and Russia had several near misses, and they did not share a highly contested border.)

The conflict in the Middle East pre-dates Israel's nuclear programme, but Israel's policy of nuclear opacity and the widespread assumption that it has a significant nuclear arsenal serves as an excuse and impediment to efforts to persuade other states in the region to adhere to and abide by non-proliferation constraints and commitments.

Remove the genie's symbolic power and justifications for use

Though their destructiveness derives from their physical properties, nuclear weapons are pre-eminently political and carry symbolic importance for state leaders as well as non-state extremists. A great deal more can be done to limit access to the physical components, but the real key to reducing dangers lies in understanding how nuclear weapons are employed symbolically and politically in domestic politics, strategic relations and international security debates.

An important reason why biological and chemical weapons were able to be prohibited and given up by the vast majority of states is that they came to be stigmatised not only as inhumane, but as unethical, even cowardly; that is, something that morally responsible leaders would not use. What prevents the nuclear genie from being put back into its bottle is not the technology or know-how, but the value still accorded to nuclear weapons, particularly by states that have them.

That nuclear weapons are presently valued as an important emblem and currency of power is not a natural or military fact or attribute connected with the weapons' utility, but a social and political fact constructed and sustained by the major powers. By its actions and policies, the United States has helped to create a context in which nuclear weapons become the ultimate necessity for, and symbol of, state prestige and security. Accordingly, when the United States or other nuclear powers try to prevent other states from obtaining nuclear weapons, they may be seen as coercively denying sovereignty, power and self-determination to others. What should be a collective endeavour for common security is thereby turned into a counterproductive contest for control, feeding nationalist and anti-imperialist passions.

Cuts in arsenals may reduce some nuclear dangers, but unless and until they are accompanied by a disavowal of use (and therefore value), they fail to have the desired political impact, both for the non-nuclear weapon states and on the decision-making of potential proliferators. Western allies have to stop running away from the inescapable logic of what the NAM have argued for years: non-proliferation is unsustainable without real and significant progress in nuclear disarmament and the devaluation of nuclear weapons.


On May 2, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on NPT parties to imagine "a nuclear catastrophe in one of our great cities". Depicting the impact - not just the obvious annihilation and pain of those directly affected, but the less thought-about implications for hard-won freedoms and human rights, development and trade - he posed the question all would have to ask themselves, "Could I have done more to reduce the risk by strengthening the regime designed to do so?"

The answer to come out of the 2005 Review Conference was that the majority knew what needed to be done but lacked the courage, determination and strategies to stand up to or bypass the few who want to carry on nuclear business as usual, regardless of the future security risks for the world. The lesson to be learned is that good ideas and proposals just remain on paper unless they are combined with effective strategies and game plans for how to achieve them - in 1995 and 2000 there were not only good ideas, but innovative, pragmatic strategies and active presidents willing to use the rules and procedural tools to their maximum possibilities in order to achieve useful, regime-building outcomes.

Another lesson for the non-proliferation regime is that the nuclear fuel cycle is a much bigger security problem than recognised when the treaty entered into force in 1970, and will have to be urgently addressed. But instead of sending a clear message to would-be proliferators, the Conference allowed several countries to protect their financial and nuclear interests above international security imperatives.

A further conclusion concerns the group system based on the Western Group and Others (WEOG), Eastern European leftovers, and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). This is outdated, severely dysfunctional and provides a refuge for scoundrels and naysayers to hide within. As well as requiring additional institutional powers, NPT parties need to overhaul their traditions and rules, including their lack of transparency and negative attitude towards civil society participation.

In treaty terms, the failure in 2005 to adopt further substantive recommendations means that agreements obtained in the review conferences of 1995 and 2000 still stand as the benchmarks for measuring progress and promoting compliance. It can even be argued that the lack of consensus in 2005 underscores the fact that the principles, measures and steps adopted by consensus in past review conferences have not yet been implemented, and more work must be done to ensure that they are. But in reality, the fact that the majority of states lacked the will or backbone to stand up to the few naysayers sends a dangerous message to would-be proliferators and existing nuclear weapon possessors that the regime is too weak to stop them.

It might be easy to dismiss this conference as representing the triumph of procedure over substance, but that would be to miss a crucial point about multilateral diplomacy. Egypt, the United States, the NAM and others bandied around demands for inclusion or exclusion of dates like "1995" and "2000" and words such as "outcomes" and "negative security assurances" because in diplomacy, language is code and the codes contain potential access, legitimacy or denial for issues of substance.

Finally, To make real headway in reducing the threats and dangers from nuclear weapons, attention must be paid to the symbolic, strategic and political factors, as well as to the physical materials and components. The fact that disarmament has never been internalised as a genuine policy imperative by the nuclear weapon possessors continues to complicate and thwart efforts to prevent proliferation, rendering them less effective and authoritative. The current US administration does not appear to mind, as its ideologues are happier working outside multilateralism and think they can contain nuclear threats by means of more controllable groupings such as PSI and the London Club of nuclear suppliers. But theirs is a dangerous illusion, doomed to disappointment. Already a number of states are reasserting their criticisms of the decision to extend the NPT indefinitely in 1995, and more will begin to hedge their bets. If the military utility and security value of nuclear weapons continue to be evoked at high level by some states, the have-nots will lose confidence that the non-proliferation regime can meet their security needs.

The 2005 review conference has further exposed how the US-driven shift from norm-based non-proliferation to counter-proliferation, involving self-selected coalitions of the willing, has weakened some of the essential infrastructure and tools that the international community needs for combating WMD and terrorism.

Whether the next decade is characterised by increased security or proliferation will depend on the development of an integrated approach based on disarmament, nonproliferation and human security, to reinforce the norms and laws of the international regimes with better practical controls tailored to deal with the specific threats posed by nuclear weapons and technologies. This is necessary to provide the rationale and international legitimacy for integrating the norms, rules, institutions and practices built up to constrain WMD during the 20th century with the policing powers and tools developed more recently to deal with non-compliant states and stop commercial or non-state actors whose activities threaten national and international security.


[1] For a broader discussion of these issues in the run-up to the review conference, see Rebecca Johnson, "The 2005 NPT Conference in Crisis: Risks and Opportunities", Disarmament Diplomacy 79 (April/May 2005).

[2] Comprising Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden, the G-10 has coordinated on "Vienna-based" issues since 1980, more usually relating to export controls, safeguards and issues of nuclear safety.

[3] Note verbal from Mexico and Declaration of the Conference of Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (CZLAN/CONF/5), NPT/CONF.2005/WP.46, May 18, 2005.

[4] See "Combating the Risk of Nuclear Terrorism by Reducing the Civilian Use of Highly Enriched Uranium," Working Paper submitted by Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden, 2005 Review Conference on the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, May 20, 2005 (NPT/CONF.2005/MC III/WP.5).

[5] See Rebecca Johnson, "Report on the 2004 NPT PrepCom", Disarmament Diplomacy 77.

[6] NPT/CONF.2005/31.

[7] NPT/CONF.2005/32.

[8] The final document of the review conference lists all the officers of the Conference, including those not covered in this summary.

[9] See the article from Carol Cohn, Felicity Hill and Sara Ruddick in this issue of Disarmament Diplomacy on "The Relevance of Gender for Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction".

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Annex: Selected Documents and Statements from the Review Conference

Main Committees

Statements and Comment

© 2005 The Acronym Institute.