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April 24, 2015

Bulletin 203: NPT Review Conference circus begins

Dear friends and colleagues –

Beginning Monday, May April 27 and lasting through May 22, the United Nations headquarters in New York will host the ninth five-year Review Conference (RevCon) of the Parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Arms (NPT).  Related NGO activities are beginning today. (See the extensive calendar of events at Reaching Critical Will and also see RCW’s RevCon page for access to reports, documents, and commentary as they become available.)

Numerous NGOs and some governments have produced statements and position papers preparatory to this big shindig – which, as far as its formal proceedings go, is quite certain be “a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

There could be disarmament progress made however behind the scenes – in our judgment if, and only if, we are talking about progress toward a treaty banning nuclear weapons.  Like the eye of the blackbird in Wallace Stevens’ poem, it is the “only moving thing.” "Among twenty snowy mountains, / The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird.”

The NPT (text here) opened for signature in 1968, entered into force in 1970, and now embraces all states except India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, and South Sudan.  It is built on three main ideas.  First, nuclear weapons are so counterproductive to security that they are voluntarily abjured by all signatories, except for five: the U.S., Russia, U.K., France, and China.  These states also happen to be the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

The second big idea follows from the first, namely that these five states, having acquired nuclear weapons before the NPT was negotiated, have a special status and can keep their nuclear weapons for an indefinite period.  However they do pledge, vaguely, to completely disarm eventually.  This special status includes veto power for each of the five nuclear weapon states (in addition to the states which comprise the rotating governing board of the IAEA) over any amendments to the treaty.  This of course anchors the Treaty firmly in the distant past, locking down its discriminatory regime.

The common idea connecting these two “pillars” of the treaty is that nuclear weapons are illegitimate – immediately and permanently for most states and eventually for all.  The NPT thus contains within it a commitment by all parties to a universal ban on the possession, manufacture, and transfer of nuclear weapons, a ban which takes effect immediately upon signature for 190 states and someday for the final five. Another five states – three with nuclear weapons and one with nuclear explosives at least – lie outside these commitments of course.

The treaty’s third big idea is that peaceful nuclear technologies such as nuclear power are wonderful and should be universally shared and promoted, with appropriate safeguards.

Any final document with commitments undertaken by the NPT Parties at this RevCon requires consensus of the Parties.  This, with the above-mentioned veto provision (in Article VIII), means that the RevCon starting Monday, like all eight preceding meetings over the past 40 years, will produce no binding disarmament measures which are not embraced by all five nuclear weapon states.  The set of such measures is the empty set.

The best single NGO position statement in the run-up to RevCon that we have read came across the electronic threshold this morning from the French disarmament network Armes nucléaires STOP and the French International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).  Writing for these organizations Dominique Lalanne said:

At the end of each Review Conference a document is submitted for “consensus” approval. The consensus principle avoids holding a vote whereby Nuclear States would be forced to accept majority measures that run counter to their interests. The opposition of a single State prevents a consensus and blocks adoption of the final document. And if no agreement comes out of it, the Conference is considered a “failure”. It is clear that Nuclear States will not accept a consensus that would clarify the need for a ban treaty to supplement Article VI of the NPT... which provides for nuclear disarmament.

So the call we make to Non-Nuclear States is quite simple: “To highlight the urgency of a treaty banning nuclear weapons, reject the final consensus of the NPT Review Conference unless it specifically sets out full disarmament as an objective, with a binding timetable. And after the ‘failure’ of this Conference convene the international community to implement the ban treaty.”

Strangely, there are many experienced NGOs attending this RevCon which still imagine, or pretend, that the nuclear weapon states – the five states within the NPT and the four states outside it – will, within the foreseeable future, negotiate a comprehensive nuclear disarmament treaty.  This is an entirely futile hope.  All nuclear weapon states are by definition hostile to effective disarmament diplomacy.

We cannot help but conclude, as we recently wrote to a large number of colleagues and subsequently posted at Forget the Rest, that anybody who wants nuclear weapon states to be involved in disarmament diplomacy is in effect helping that diplomacy fail.  For disarmament advocates, that’s just dangerously naïve.  Recent White House nuclear czar Gary Samore expressed the U.S. position succinctly: “Nuclear disarmament is not going to happen…It’s a fantasy. We need our weapons for our safety, and we’re not going to give them up.”  This, not the empty, Nobel-angling rhetoric of Obama’s Prague speech, is the permanent U.S. position.

For the first time in many years there is real progress in disarmament diplomacy but it does not involve the nuclear weapons states, except as adversaries.  See Bulletin 198 for more on why we think so. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a network of 424 NGOs in 95 countries, will be at the RevCon (ICAN briefing materials for the RevCon are available here).  Several dozen states have expressed support for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons and the momentum toward a ban has been building in both state and civil society over the past four years.

At NPT events the many arms control and nonproliferation NGOs that will be present largely function as camp followers of the nuclear weapon states.  They all support variations of the theme that nuclear weapons are legitimate for some states – which turn out to include the states that matter politically and financially to these organizations – but not for others.  Most work on nonproliferation, which is nearly always conflated with disarmament.  They sometimes have suggestions as to how deterrence could be made more stable, which should neither be discounted nor taken for more than they are.  Many of them do say they want nuclear disarmament someday just like President Obama says he does, but invariably the disarmament they seek is one in which the existing power structure, both domesticand international, does not change.  State-approved forms of discourse must be used as well.  In the U.S., “national security” means international dominance, and that can’t be questioned.  If arms control groups have the temerity to seek nuclear disarmament at all, they seek it without political change, a contradiction.  As one wag put it, the goal is “just right” nuclear weapons, defined as: “not too large, not too small / not too many, not too few / not too old, not too new / enough for me, and none for you.”

Given the cost and the cacophony that prevails at these meetings, Study Group staff will be supporting our allies and agents on the ground at the RevCon with analyses of statements made from our office in Albuquerque.

Stay tuned for the next Bulletin, which will follow this afternoon,

Greg Mello


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