Enhanced Prospects for 2010: An Analysis of the Third PrepCom and the Outlook for the 2010 NPT Review Conference
Published on Arms Control Association, by Rebecca Johnson, 24 May 2010.
The just-concluded third Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting for the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference has been heralded as a much-needed success story, with much of the credit given to the Obama administration’s more positive approach to multilateral diplomacy and arms control. In the most constructive and collegial atmosphere seen in an NPT meeting since 2002, the agenda and all significant procedural decisions for 2010 were adopted expeditiously in the first week of the May 4-15 meeting in New York. Barring any unforeseen and dramatic deterioration in relations, there is an excellent chance that next year’s review conference will be able to open smoothly and get down to work without the kind of frustrating procedural delays that marred the 2005 NPT Review Conference. … //
Because it proved impossible to agree on recommendations for 2010, some diplomats have characterized the 2009 PrepCom as a procedural success but a substantive failure. Such assessments misunderstand both the role and the significance of the PrepCom. The chief role of the third PrepCom should be to lay the groundwork for the following year’s review conference. A critical part of this preparatory task is to decide on the agenda, officers, and background documentation, which this meeting achieved. A further, equally important function of the PrepCom is to make governments aware of expectations and contentious issues so that these matters can be addressed in the months leading up to the review conference.
Among all the relevant issues that were debated, three seem most likely to determine the success or failure of the review conference. What emerged from the PrepCom was a clear sense of the need to develop practical measures for carrying forward commitments on nuclear disarmament and the Middle East and strengthening the regime institutions to deal more effectively with questions of compliance and implementation. The principal mechanisms for identifying and discussing these issues were the chair’s drafts on recommendations. By airing these issues in a context that was reasonably cooperative and forward-looking, the PrepCom performed a useful service.
Notwithstanding their rhetoric encouraging Chidyausiku to keep trying because “we are nearly there,” few delegates really believed that consensus on any significant recommendations would be achievable one year prior to the deadline for the real decisions. Somewhat to their surprise, they found themselves closer to accomplishing this task than any previous PrepCom, but the negotiators next year will have cause to thank them for not locking down the possibilities prematurely.
By sending the NPT a direct message in which he reiterated his commitment to seeking the “peace and security of a world free of nuclear weapons,” Obama hoped to restore confidence in the NPT’s credibility and effectiveness. This more constructive U.S. approach clearly had a beneficial influence on the conduct and outcome of the 2009 PrepCom, and its positive effects are now being felt in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), which two weeks later agreed on a program of work, including negotiations on a verifiable fissile material treaty, ending more than 11 years of paralysis.
If sustained in the CD and carried into the 2010 review conference, the improved dynamics and cross-group alliances may create new opportunities for substantive progress in 2010 and beyond. Many challenges lie ahead. Obama’s leadership will be necessary to ensure that the U.S.-Russian negotiations on a START follow-on bear fruit and lead to further reductions in non-strategic as well as strategic nuclear weapons. His leadership also will be needed in facilitating U.S. ratification of the CTBT, which would reinvigorate efforts to bring the treaty into full legal effect, reinforcing the international community’s hand when dealing with North Korea’s continuing attempts to develop and test nuclear weapons. Now that the CD appears ready to start negotiating a fissile material production ban, the nuclear-weapon possessors will need to dust off their political, technical, and verification resources and encourage other countries to send effective negotiating teams to Geneva. Obama has made a good start by re-establishing a constructive arms control relationship with Russia but must reach out to China to allay its concerns about future threats from missile defenses or space-based weapons and to forge a more effective partnership to address the proliferation challenges coming from North Korea.
The British government has expressed support for a world without nuclear weapons and has made intriguing statements about becoming a “disarmament laboratory.” Closer British and U.S. cooperation could provide leadership to work on the technical challenges of verifying nuclear disarmament and bring the other nuclear possessors-the non-NPT parties as well as the declared nuclear-weapon states-onto the path toward reducing reliance on nuclear weapons. Although no one is arguing for the 13 steps to be reaffirmed without change, the summaries from the 2007 and 2008 PrepComs and the chair’s draft recommendations this year suggest that states will want to identify more concrete steps and negotiate a more urgent action plan to implement these commitments. International eyes will be watching to see whether the Obama administration makes good on its rhetoric and further de-emphasizes the role of nuclear weapons when its new nuclear posture is determined in the coming year.
It is widely recognized that the problems besetting the Middle East cannot all be addressed or resolved in the NPT context. Nevertheless, it is clear that strengthening the nonproliferation regime means that more must be done to engage with the concerns of people and states in the Middle East, where Israel’s nuclear arsenal and Iran’s nuclear ambitions constitute a proliferation-driving subtext that continues to undermine regional stability and could derail international efforts to strengthen the nonproliferation regime in 2010 and beyond. During the PrepCom, Iran and Egypt each showed signs of internal disarray, not least over whether to court the Obama administration or remain aloof and condemnatory. Iran’s forthcoming elections may be critical in determining which direction it takes, but the international community must consider whether there might be better ways to engage Iran and reduce the proliferation dangers arising from its uranium-enrichment program.
Finally, the PrepCom has demonstrated yet again that there is a need to develop some concrete and practical options for strengthening the NPT’s institutional powers, resources, and authority, whether through converting the current review process into one with annual decision-making meetings or by giving intersessional powers to a secretariat or nominated bureau.
For the review conference in 2010 to be judged successful, there will need to be agreement on renewed principles and objectives for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, together with an action plan and some practical steps for reducing nuclear dangers, strengthening the nonproliferation regime, and accelerating progress on nuclear disarmament. The real challenge, however, is not about what kind of document can be adopted in 2010, but what kind of agreements and commitments are undertaken, and whether the NPT parties have the political will and institutional capacity to ensure their implementation. Although the positive atmospherics of the 2009 PrepCom give cause for hope, the 2010 review conference will be successful only if it results in decisions that are taken seriously and implemented. For this, the key governments need to project beyond 2010 and work hard over the next year to develop convincing action plans and apply the requisite resources for meeting proliferation challenges and moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons. (full long text and Endnotes 1 – 3).
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