The NPT Review Conference is finally going to happen, but what can it achieve?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, better known as the NPT. This was clearly a good time to hold a Review Conference (or ‘RevCon’ to use the diplomatic jargon), and not solely because one was due anyway, given that RevCons take place every five years. The NPT has never had an easy history since it came into effect in 1970. The nuclear have-nots have constantly complained that the five recognised nuclear weapons states have not kept to their commitment, under Article 6 of the treaty, to eliminate their nuclear weapons. North Korea left the treaty while a number of unrecognised, but still manifest nuclear powers, such as Israel, India and Pakistan, never signed on in the first place.

Moreover, the organisation established under the auspices of the NPT to ensure the verification of the NPT treaty provisions, and thus the compliance of all its 192 member state signatories, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) based in Vienna, struggled to get its inspection teams into places like Libya, North Korea, Iran and Iraq. This was due to the obstructionism and deception tactics of their governments. In the case of Iraq, this refusal to cooperate fully with the IAEA was used by the United States and United Kingdom to justify a highly contentious invasion of the country in 2003 to depose the regime of Saddam Hussein.

This history demonstrates that diplomats and arms control experts have never lacked difficult and controversial agenda topics at the five-yearly RevCons, normally held at the UN in New York. At the 1995 RevCon there was an agreement to prolong the NPT (initially designed to last for 25 years) indefinitely. The consensus at that time was not easy to achieve as many participating states insisted on a regular and in-depth review process, as well as the setting up of nuclear-free zones in the Middle East, which was at that time an initiative targeted against Israel, as their price for agreeing to prolong the NPT indefinitely.

Yet the next NPT RevCon comes not a moment too soon. It has already been postponed three times from its original date in the spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it is due to begin in New York on 28 January next year and last for four weeks. During the nearly two years of postponement, the nuclear environment has indisputably taken a turn for the worse.

The pressure on the NPT is not coming only from the nuclear weapons states

Geopolitical rivalries between the US, Russia and China – all major nuclear weapons powers with military strategies relying heavily on nuclear weapons – have intensified. All three global powers are investing massively in nuclear weapons modernisation and testing new systems and technologies. Last week Russia test-fired its new Zircon sea-launched hypersonic missile with a 1,000km range. It has rolled-out over the past 24 months the Avangard and Kinzhal hypersonic and glide missiles with ranges of 5,000km and 2,000km respectively. It is investing in new nuclear cruise missiles including one with an underwater capacity. According to Russian President Putin, observing the Zircon test last week, this missile travels at nine times the speed of sound, whereas the Kinzhal travels at ten times, and the Avangard at 27 times the speed of sound, overwhelming the capacity of US and NATO missile defence systems.

Russia has also developed a Peresvet laser which could blind the satellites on which the US relies for its early warning of missile launches. China’s nuclear and missile programmes are moving ahead rapidly. Last week the Pentagon released a report claiming that China will increase its missile holdings by 700, or perhaps even 1,000, by 2030. Over the past few months, there have been a number of US intelligence reports and photographs reaching the press that show new missile silos being constructed in China’s western desert and indicate that this major increase in China’s nuclear weapons capabilities, compared to the current estimate of 320 warheads, will become operational around the 2023/2024 timeframe. The Financial Times also caused something of a sensation in US and Western defence establishments when it reported last month that China had secretly tested last July a hypersonic missile able to orbit the earth before striking its target. It is not that Washington had failed to anticipate these Chinese weapons developments; it is just that they seem to be happening faster than Washington had anticipated. At the same time, the US has also been developing hypersonic weapons of its own, as well as launching programmes for new generations of strategic bombers and submarines, and a new tactical nuclear warhead to replace the aging W77 aircraft-delivered bombs in service with NATO.

There are also problems beyond the rivalry between the US, Russia and China. After former US president Trump abrogated the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) in 2015, Tehran has pushed ahead rapidly to enrich uranium up to 30%, well on the way to making a nuclear weapon. It has also impeded inspections by the IAEA and dismantled inspection cameras at sensitive nuclear sites. It continues to delay a visit to Tehran by the IAEA Director General, Rafael Grossi. Iran has agreed after a long delay to return to the talks in Vienna on reviving the JCPOA on 28 November. Yet as the months go by and Tehran ramps up its enrichment programme with more advanced centrifuges to well beyond where it stood when the JCPOA was first negotiated, the prospect of either Washington or Tehran reviving the nuclear deal appears increasingly slender. Meanwhile, after observing a moratorium on new missile tests in the first part of 2020, North Korea has gone back to its past pattern of provocations, launching short-range missiles and just a few weeks ago its first submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Yet the pressure on the NPT is not coming only from the nuclear weapons states that continue to point to each other to justify their retention of nuclear weapons and also costly modernisation programmes. On the opposite side of the argument are those non-nuclear weapons states that have lost patience with the slow, step-by-step and intrusive verification process to achieve disarmament enshrined in the NPT. Driven by recent scientific and academic research into the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, these states have coalesced around a campaign led by the NGO, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), to prohibit the possession of all nuclear weapons.

We are witnessing a stand-off between the advocates and critics of nuclear deterrence which is arguably more polarised today

ICAN gained a significant boost for its efforts when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. This process, led by countries such as Austria, Sweden and Mexico, has now led to a UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which entered into force in 2021. Currently, 123 countries have signed up to this treaty. Others such as Norway or the Netherlands, which are NATO members, have debated whether to join this process as observers. The TPNW will not achieve its objective of eliminating nuclear weapons anytime soon given the enduring hostility of the nuclear powers and NATO’s commitment “to remain a nuclear alliance as long as nuclear weapons exist”, as stated in the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept.

Yet the fact that this treaty has now come into force, and over half of the UN’s global membership has signed up to it, gives the treaty a certain moral standing in delegitimising nuclear weapons and in further restricting the already limited and extreme circumstances in which their use could be contemplated. The nuclear powers have been put on the back foot and need to come up with more and better arguments on why nuclear weapon deterrence contributes to international peace and security, thereby removing more risks than those created by the very existence of these deadly devices. This moral pressure may bear fruit soon if the Biden administration decides in its Nuclear Posture Review, due to be issued early next year, to further restrict the functions of US nuclear weapons by declaring a no-first-use policy and that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks or to respond to such attacks. In short, a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.

This policy shift would certainly help the Biden administration to win plaudits from the TPNW community, but the prospect of the US embracing the ‘sole purpose’ doctrine is certainly sending shivers down the spines of Washington’s European allies who have traditionally relied on the credible threat of US nuclear weapons to respond to an overwhelming Soviet and now Russian conventional invasion. How the nuclear issue is handled in NATO’s new Strategic Concept, where France is looking to reaffirm the alliance’s traditional nuclear orthodoxy, while the new German coalition government would like to see movement towards lessening the reliance on nuclear deterrence and is also proposing a major disarmament initiative, will be an interesting space to watch.

Nuclear weapons are becoming more sophisticated. The Iran and North Korean nuclear files are as far from resolution as ever. There is no immediate prospect of nuclear-free zones in the Middle East, and nuclear arms control is moving backwards in the wake of the Trump administration’s abrogation of the INF treaty banning intermediate-range missiles and China’s refusal to join strategic weapons talks between the US and Russia. As a result, the NPT today looks more fragile than ever as we head towards the RevCon next January.

In addition, we are witnessing a stand-off between the advocates and critics of nuclear deterrence which is arguably more polarised today than it has ever been. Like Mark Twain’s quip about reports of his death, the NPT’s demise has been constantly predicted throughout the 50 years of its history, and yet it lives on. Indeed, with the perspective of hindsight, the NPT’s achievements are impressive.

It will be interesting to see how the nuclear weapons states respond at the RevCon

Firstly, it has set the internationally recognised norms and standards regarding the possession of nuclear weapons and who is allowed, albeit subject to conditions, to have these weapons and not allowed. Article 6 of the NPT commits the nuclear weapons states to give up their nuclear weapons in a balanced and phased manner, although it sets no timetable. It has also regulated access by states to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and provided those states with advice and expertise, especially on technology and safety issues. It has devised a safeguards regime providing for verification of the peaceful use of nuclear programmes and for imposing sanctions and taking action against those who violate these rules. Currently, 183 states come under this comprehensive safeguards mechanism, and another 131 states have signed up to the IAEA Additional Protocol that obliges those states to even more transparency and to allow short-notice challenge inspections or on-site monitoring.

The IAEA also did an effective job of verifying Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA and in pushing Tehran to come clean on its past nuclear activities and research programmes, an area in which Iran has a long and sad history of denial and obfuscation.

Finally, and this is less well known, the IAEA has been instrumental in developing nuclear materials for civilian purposes. It has done work on how these can contribute to food safety, cancer therapy, agriculture, the treatment of COVID-19 through sterilisation and surveillance technologies, and the detection of micro- and nanoplastics in the world’s oceans. DG Grossi of the IAEA has been in attendance at COP26 in Glasgow to demonstrate how nuclear technologies can help to address global climate change monitoring, beyond the greater use of nuclear power to increase clean energy and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Thus, despite the TPNW emerging in recent years as an alternative to the NPT and a shortcut to total nuclear disarmament, the more ponderous NPT process still has its advocates. Since it has enforcement and verification mechanisms for what its member states decide, the NPT is viewed as more realistic than the largely aspirational and declaratory TPNW. Its step-by-step, “trust but verify” approach is more likely to be embraced by the nuclear weapons states than one-sided or non-verifiable sweeping disarmament measures. The NPT RevCons are also the place where the nuclear weapons states still meet with their non-nuclear counterparts. Despite the current polarisation there is still the possibility of building bridges between the two camps.

In this connection, Sweden launched the Stockholm Initiative in 2019 to try to identify common ground. It has involved looking for proposals that the nuclear weapons states might be prepared to live with, based on the principle that some progress, even if modest, is better than no progress at all. Up to now, the Stockholm Initiative has held high-level meetings in Stockholm, Berlin, Amman and Madrid. It has produced a risk reduction package with 22 specific proposals in a Stepping Stones document. These can be implemented in an incremental way to promote transparency, de-alert nuclear devices and move the nuclear weapons states away from dangerous postures like launch on warning. There are also declaratory steps such as committing never to launch a nuclear war. These short-term measures could move the celebrated Atomic Clock, which for decades already has graced the cover of the Bulletin of the Union of Concerned Scientists, away from 100 seconds before midnight and put renewed energy behind the NPT’s Article 6 commitment to nuclear disarmament. Already some states have begun to align themselves with some of the Stockholm Initiative measures. It will be interesting to see how the nuclear weapons states respond at the RevCon in terms of their willingness to reach out to the other side.

The renewal of the US-Russia START agreement on strategic nuclear warheads for a further five years is one basis to build on

Given all the contentious issues, both past (but still unresolved) and more immediate, it will be difficult to define success at the NPT RevCon, or at least what could be considered as a meaningful outcome. Yet here are a few things to look out for when it comes to building bridges and re-establishing confidence in the multilateral step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament.

First, will the nuclear weapons states recommit to the goal of universal and total nuclear disarmament? This may well be in the NPT already but such a commitment at the RevCon and in the context of the current geopolitical tensions will have great symbolic value.

Second, will the nuclear weapons states accept to include a reference to the TPNW in the final RevCon document? Currently, most are reluctant to do so for fear of giving the TPNW more profile and legitimacy. Yet the TPNW is the elephant in the room, and it will only pick up more support from both states and civil society if the nuclear weapons states are seen to deliberately ignore it. Instead, the NPT RevCon and in particular its final statement is the opportunity for these states to lock horns with the nuclear abolitionists and to make their argument that the NPT route is a better and safer way forward. The renewal of the US-Russia START agreement on strategic nuclear warheads for a further five years is one basis to build on; the recent resumption of the US-Russia Strategic Stability Talks in Geneva may well sketch out a new mandate for reductions that could help the nuclear weapons powers to be less on the defensive. Other nuclear weapons states, such as China, the UK and France, could indicate a willingness in theory to join multilateral arms control and disarmament negotiations at a later stage. It might also help if the nuclear weapons powers would endorse some of the risk reduction and transparency measures outlined in the Stepping Stones document of the Stockholm Initiative.

Third, the NPT RevCon could usefully agree on a mechanism to assess the implementation of the treaty commitments by the 190 odd member states and publish an annual report. It could also request more transparency and regularity in reporting from the nuclear weapons states. Currently, the IAEA tends to focus on the problem cases such as Iran or North Korea, but a more universal and IAEA peer-reviewed system of reporting would give the international community earlier warning of non-compliance, inconsistencies or undeclared nuclear activity, even if only on a small scale.

Fourth, the conference could look at the challenge to the international non-proliferation regime that is coming from the transfer of nuclear technology to non-nuclear weapons states for military purposes. This is not necessarily for the production of nuclear weapons. For instance, recently the US and UK agreed a pact (AUKUS) with Australia to help that country build eight nuclear-powered submarines. Russia and China have denounced this deal, claiming that it violates the NPT’s provisions forbidding the transfer of technology that could allow the recipient country to acquire the know-how to set up its own nuclear weapons programme over time. The US and UK have strongly rejected the charge as the AUKUS deal is for submarines, not bombs, even if the submarine designs may allow nuclear as well as conventional tipped missiles to be fitted at a later date. So, as there are other countries, such as South Korea, that may be tempted to follow the AUKUS model, the NPT RevCon could usefully adjudicate this issue.

The stakes are high and there is much work to do in just four weeks of consultations

Next, the diplomats in New York could take forward the work on the safety of nuclear materials. This was a major initiative of the Obama administration which organised two successful global summits in Washington to improve the tracking and safe storage of nuclear isotopes, fuel rods, and enriched uranium and plutonium. The NPT RevCon will work on a new Protocol on the monitoring and inspection of small quantities of nuclear materials. This could help to re-energise nuclear safety efforts which were largely neglected during the Trump years but which will become ever more urgent as more countries revisit civil nuclear power and the acquisition of nuclear reactors as part of their strategy to reduce carbon emissions and enhance their energy security.

Work could also usefully begin on revising the Additional Protocol to make it obligatory rather than merely voluntary for all states operating domestic civilian nuclear programmes, even if only for medical use. The IAEA has been working on a Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials to cover the various aspects of nuclear safety. Ideally, the RevCon could put the final touches to this Convention so that it can be opened for signature in the course of 2022.

Of course, observers will expect the NPT RevCon to take up all the better known and contentious issues, such as the Iran nuclear programme, the missile tests and larger than expected uranium stocks of North Korea, and the long-standing refusal of the US and Israel to go along with the setting up of nuclear-free zones in the Middle East. As these are the issues that the media and political leaders like to follow, the diplomats in New York will be tempted to gravitate towards them. Yet this may steal time away from less salient areas where the NPT RevCon could build badly-needed bridges and make some quiet but real progress. In any case, the Iran file is being handled by the 6+1 talks in Geneva involving the US, UK, France, Germany, EU, Russia, China and Iran; and Iran’s NPT compliance is being handled by the IAEA Board of Governors. The North Korea file is being dealt with in the 6+2 process which brings the same international actors together with North and South Korea. So there is little added value that the RevCon can practically bring to these files at present – all the more reason to concentrate instead on the pragmatic agenda outlined above.

This year is undoubtedly the year of climate change, culminating with COP26 in Glasgow. It is urgent for the global community to tackle climate change, as the alternative is a planet that would be progressively destroyed and become uninhabitable. Yet a nuclear winter with a radioactive cloud descending on the earth could destroy much of life on the planet in the space of a single afternoon if nuclear weapons were ever to be used in quantity, and by more than one side in a conflict. So the NPT RevCon is more significant than the usual worthy international gathering at the United Nations.

The stakes are high and there is much work to do in just four weeks of consultations. It is, therefore, all the more important that civil society and the NGOs active on non-proliferation and disarmament issues be allowed to participate in the RevCon. At the moment, and because the conference is being organised at short notice, it is not clear if civil society will be invited. Yet we have seen this past week at COP26 how important the role and voice of activists and outside experts are in putting pressure on government officials and negotiators to move forward. There is still time to open the RevCon door to civil society before January next year – and it is important for the credibility of the NPT review and the future viability of the treaty itself that this door be opened wide.


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