Our Research Fellow in proliferation and nuclear policy has just returned from the latest meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in an optimistic mood.
Between the 29 April and 10 May, states parties to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) met for the final Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) before the treaty Review Conference (RevCon) in 2020. The atmosphere at the meeting seemed surprisingly positive, despite enduring hurdles to the adoption of a consensus document in 2020. As representatives of many states pointed out, there is increased pressure on the 2020 RevCon to produce a ‘successful’ outcome. This, in part, is a result of the slow progress on disarmament efforts by the nuclear weapons states (NWS), but also because 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the NPT, and 25 years since states parties agreed to its indefinite extension. There have been many debates over what a ‘successful’ RevCon might look like, often predicated on achieving a consensus document. But during the most recent PrepCom, a statement by Japan was much more poignant: ‘the world is expecting a meaningful outcome of 2020’. The common themes at the first week of the PrepCom meeting indicate four areas that can contribute to a ‘meaningful’ outcome for 2020 and that can be sustained beyond the RevCon: transparency; verification; progressing disarmament; and risk reduction.
Transparency was regularly cited by states parties as a priority action point. The UK has taken initiative in this space, publishing a draft implementation report for the PrepCom, and holding a side event during the first week to solicit feedback. The group of states that make up the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) have also championed transparency, drafting a reporting format to help guide states to produce common and comparable national implementation reports, which was submitted as a working paper to this year’s PrepCom. The format proposed by the NPDI differs slightly from that used by the UK, which follows the format agreed to by the P5 Process (the permanent, veto-power members of the UN Security Council). However, the differences in report formatting should not be a barrier; while a check-list is helpful, a written report should be viewed as the start of transparency, not the end product. Efforts to be transparent need to go beyond paper to include dialogue between the NWS and between the NWS and non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS).
At present, some states do not view transparency as a process. For example, although France referred to transparency, it was done so by highlighting the information that could be found in open sources and supported by the circulation of a document that outlines French nuclear policy and capabilities written by a non-governmental expert. This approach dismisses the purpose of transparency – not an information sharing exercises as an end in itself, but one which builds trust and confidence between all states parties.
Disarmament verification work was also a prominent feature of the NPT PrepCom. The recently concluded Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on disarmament verification seems to have made a valuable contribution, raising political awareness of this technical work. Up until 2014 when the US launched the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, technical work on verification had been limited to a small number of states. Although the IPNDV includes around 25 participants, it still struggles to consistently included a wider range of countries: this outcome is partly due to limited resources; partly due to weak political buy-in from all states.
Although at present the verification tools required are not attached to implementing a specific treaty, technical work can make progress to ensure that when a disarmament treaty is negotiated , the technical tools to implement it are available.
However, because of the relatively exclusive nature of this work and its technical focus, verification has not earned the attention it deserves. The GGE, tasked with advancing political discussions not technical progress, has helped to improve this. During the PrepCom a Norwegian statement, informed by the GGE, proposed setting up a trust fund under the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs: a pot of money that lower-resourced states could use to support their regular engagement with technical verification work to strengthen inclusivity and improve the relationships between NWS and NNWS within the NPT. The ongoing challenge here will be China's and Russia’s lacking participation. During the PrepCom Russia stated that without a negotiated treaty to underpin this work, technical work on verification is premature.
In debating how to progress disarmament, the PrepCom meeting re-highlighted the question of prioritising the implementation of previously agreed actions over new initiatives. Many states called on the NWS to fully implement the 13 Steps and the 2010 Action Plan which call for the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, as well as a reduction in stockpiles and in the prominence of nuclear weapons in security doctrines. Alternatively, some states have proposed new initiatives for progress in disarmament, such as the US’s Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament, and the announcement of the Swedish initiative to support implementation of Article 6 of the NPT, both of which will formally kick off this summer.
Reducing Nuclear Risks
The debate on progressing disarmament was also coupled with a discussion on the efforts to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles relative to the value of policy changes to support disarmament. However, this conversation was made increasingly difficult by the US statement declaring that numerical reductions have ‘gone as far as [they] can’ in the current environment. Still, the US did also note that space for dialogue remains, complementing a growing conversation on nuclear risk reduction. This discussion also reflects the multi-faceted nature of disarmament, recognising that it is not just about numerical reductions but changes to nuclear weapons policies which are likely to reduce the NWS’ reliance on these capabilities.
Towards 2020 and Beyond
Efforts to promote transparency are not a one-time offering and must be thought of as part of an ongoing dialogue. A key part of this will be ensuring that the NWS are able to engage with each other and with the NNWS actively. The opportunity created by the UK provides a great example of how to action this, which will hopefully be carried beyond this review cycle. Given that transparency did feature frequently in PrepCom discussions, the NWS should be encouraged to follow the UK’s lead here.
Of course, technical work on disarmament verification will not be sufficient to fulfil disarmament commitments, but it should be an enduring key component. At a minimum, the current level of technical work should be maintained, and the efforts of the GGE to broaden political engagement should be bolstered. Ways to take this forward will hopefully be clearer once the GGE report is published.
Engaging in dialogue on risk reduction should be prioritised. It provides an opportunity to reconsider the conversation on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and reaffirm negative security assurances – two issues raised by many in the PrepCom. At a minimum all states parties, but especially the NWS, should restate in 2020 that ‘nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought’. Although China did re-state this at the PrepCom, widespread reaffirmation was lacking.
The PrepCom demonstrated that states parties are willing to work hard to maintain the NPT process. Although a consensus outcome for the 2020 RevCon remains far from assured, the 2019 PrepCom has laid the foundations to a more positive outlook. And it has spurred creative thinking.
Cristina Varriale is a Research Fellow in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy group at RUSI.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.