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NPT PrepCom highlights frustrations over disarmament and Middle East (Ray Acheson)

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Ray Acheson

The second preparatory committee (PrepCom) of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) met in Geneva from 22 April to 3 May 2013.[1] The key issues facing states parties at this meeting included the nuclear weapon possessors' failure to comply with their disarmament obligations; the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons; and the failure to convene a 2012 conference on a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) free zone in the Middle East.

The PrepCom did not resolve any of these issues, nor did it make headway towards ensuring success at the next review conference. A walk-out by the Egyptian delegation in the middle of the PrepCom session, along with the mounting frustration from many non-nuclear weapon states with the failure to achieve nuclear disarmament, have indicated stress on the NPT regime as it approaches the 2015 review conference.

The second PrepCom marks the half-way point in the treaty's review cycle. It is an opportunity for states parties to assess implementation of the treaty and related commitments. It also a chance to start looking ahead to next review conference, to think about what measures will be necessary to advance the treaty's objectives. However, most of the PrepCom consisted of statements making the usual complaints or demands. Reviews of what has been implemented so far were provided more by civil society groups than states parties.[2] Aside from one session devoted to proposals for institutional reform, states did not focus on elaborating next steps to improve a situation that almost everyone agrees is becoming dangerously untenable.

This is unfortunately typical for NPT meetings, because the review cycle is a process that favours the status quo by pitting possible forward momentum against maintaining the "stability" of the regime. This "status quo" is the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons by five countries. China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States, also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5), feel that article VI of the treaty allows them to possess those weapons for now as long as they eventually plan to get rid of them. Countries that push for concrete progress in fulfilling the disarmament-related objectives of the treaty are told they are upsetting "strategic balance".

Fortunately, this attitude is seen as increasingly unacceptable to the majority of states parties. Just two months ago in Oslo, Norway, 127 governments, several UN agencies, and many civil society representatives took a close look at what would happen if a nuclear weapon were detonated today.[3] The overwhelming conclusion was that no agency or government would be able to effectively respond to the humanitarian and environmental catastrophe that would be created by the use of nuclear weapons.

In the first few days of the PrepCom, 80 NPT states parties signed a joint statement condemning the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. "It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances," argued the 80 states. "We owe it to future generations to work together to rid our world of the threat posed by nuclear weapons."[4]

The P5 and their nuclear allies largely ignored the joint statement. The P5 countries say that the consequences of nuclear weapons are so well known there is no longer any point in discussing them. Some of the P5 allies, which incorporate nuclear weapons into their security doctrines either through bilateral relations or through NATO, also distanced themselves from the joint statement. Japan refused to sign because it stated that nuclear weapons should not be used under any circumstances.[5] Australia and Sweden refused to sign without commenting about which specific language they objected. Sweden's foreign minister, in an impromptu call to a morning radio show, dismissed the statement as "no big deal" and the 80 co-sponsors as "not really serious states".[6] Some NATO countries, including all of those that host US nuclear weapons on their soil, refused to sign because they saw it as "contradictory" to their NATO obligations. This position is clearly not an official NATO line, given that four NATO countries (Denmark, Iceland, Luxembourg, and Norway) saw fit to sign the joint statement.

The drama over the humanitarian statement is merely indicative of the broader problem with the NPT. There is a growing discord between the P5 and their nuclear allies on the one hand, and everyone else on the other. While most governments are adjusting their strategies and politics to the 21st century, the P5 and their nuclear allies lag behind.

Throughout the PrepCom, many governments voiced disappointment and frustration with the lack of tangible progress on nuclear disarmament. They expressed concern that the P5 do not appear to be implementing the commitments they agreed to in 2010, or their commitment to nuclear disarmament. The most tangible effort the P5 have reported on from their joint meetings since 2010 is the development of a glossary of key nuclear terms.[7] This has created some consternation among states parties that already feel that it has taken far too long for the P5 to engage seriously with their disarmament obligations.

Middle East
Another point of serious contention at the PrepCom was the failure to convene a conference on the establishment of a WMD free zone in the Middle East. This conference was supposed to be convened in 2012 in Finland. However, the US announced the meeting's postponement in December 2012, leading fellow conference co-sponsor Russia as well as the Arab League to denounce this decision. The Arab states made it clear at the PrepCom that they consider this to be a violation of the commitment made at the 2010 NPT review conference and that they expect the conference to be held as soon as possible in 2013.

The facilitator of the conference, Jaakko Laajava of Finland, has proposed holding multilateral consultations on the topic as soon as possible.[8] The Arab League questioned the lack of agenda and framework for these consultations. It said it was ready to participate in such consultations if it was held under UN auspices and with an "appropriate" agenda attached to the invitation.[9] The US, on the other hand, stated that an "agenda simply cannot be dictated from outside the region − it must be consensual among the States who must live with the agenda".[10]

To highlight its frustration with the lack of progress in fulfilling the commitment related to the WMD free zone − a commitment which stems back to the 1995 NPT review conference − the Egyptian delegation walked-out of the PrepCom after the facilitator gave his report. The delegation said it cannot wait forever for the start of this process. More broadly, it expressed frustration with making concessions for agreements that are never implemented − and then still being expected to comply with those concessions.[11]

While Egypt is the first country to walk out of an NPT meeting on this basis, it is certainly not alone in experiencing this frustration. Thus all NPT states parties have the responsibility to address this problem.

Egypt's walk-out, regardless of one's position on the matter, hinted at the potential fragility of the NPT. It made the point that the NPT regime is not so sacred that it can relegate important issues to an indefinite holding pattern. The 2015 review conference will be a crucial moment in the NPT's history. Will the WMD free zone conference have been held by then? Will a process to establish such a zone be underway? Will the P5 really just report on a glossary of definitions, or will they have actually made progress on their obligations made in 2010 and in the treaty itself?


Still Assuring Destruction Forever
Reaching Critical Will, a project of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, has published a new report on nuclear weapon modernisation entitled 'Still Assuring Destruction Forever'. The nuclear weapon states possess approximately 19,500 nuclear weapons and all of them have plans to 'modernise' − upgrade and/or extend the lives of − their weapons. The report includes chapters on the nuclear weapons programs of China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, followed by three thematic chapters addressing international law, divestment, and political will. The report is posted at

Author: Ray Acheson is the Director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). She is editor of the NPT News in Review, produced daily during NPT meetings.

1. for details and documents.
2. Reaching Critical Will's NPT Action Plan Monitoring Report,
3. for details and documents.
5. Yasushi Saito, "Japan refuses to sign international document describing nuclear weapons as inhumane," 25 April 2013,
​6. "Swedish FM attacks signatories of Humanitarian Initiative: 'Not serious states'," International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, 8 May 2013,