Sergio Duarte on the conference's outcome


by Sergio DUARTE

Member of the Group of Eminent Persons, Ambassador, President of the 2005 NPT Review Conference and Former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs

It is not unusual for Review Conferences of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which are held at five-year intervals, to end without adopting a substantive Final Document. Over the years, five out of nine such Conferences were unable to find agreement on a substantive text on the implementation of the NPT. That was the case at the 1980, 1990, 1995, 2005, and at the latest one, which concluded on 22 May2015 in New York. Parties differed sharply on several important points, from a perceived lack of compliance with commitments to nuclear disarmament or non-proliferation, to assistance to non-Parties and the application of safeguards, among others. However, they consistently reaffirmed their support for the NPT.

This poor record of agreement among the Parties at Review Conferences is rooted in the very structure of the NPT which created a divide between five States that already possessed nuclear weapons at an arbitrarily set date and those that did not and attributed different rights and obligations to each of the two categories. Despite the inherent imbalance of the NPT, since its entry into force in 1970 the overwhelming majority of the international community gradually joined as non-possessors. Nevertheless, universality has thus far eluded the promoters of the NPT: four Member States of the United Nations are not Parties to it.

Disagreement over the urgency for the conclusion of a comprehensive test-ban treaty also presented problems at past Review Conferences. Fortunately, however, recent NPT Final Documents consistently promote the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-ban Treaty (CTBT) and support the establishment of the International Monitoring System.  

Many Parties to the NPT that do not possess nuclear armaments are increasingly skeptical of the willingness of the armed States to accept clear, legally binding obligations to disarm while at the same time advocating ever stricter mandatory controls over the peaceful nuclear activities of the former, in the name of non-proliferation. This pervasive sentiment explains most of the difficulty to achieve progress. At the 2015 Review Conference, recurrent divergences over the implementation of past agreements on the question of the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East once again proved to be an unsurmountable obstacle.

There is, however, reason for hope. In spite of its failure to adopt a substantive Final Document, the 2015 Review Conference provided impetus for a new and ambitious proposal based on the widespread concern about the humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. There was ample support for a pledge, initiated by Austria, to “fill the legal gap” with regard to nuclear disarmament. A significant number of Parties to the NPT seem determined to take forward the negotiation of a convention banning such weapons, even without the participation of the nuclear weapon States and some of their allies. Promoters believe that such a convention, an idea endorsed by the Secretary- General of the United Nations in 2008, would create a powerful moral barrier enshrined in an instrument of positive international law and would also help to bring about the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The next arena for the debate on the process to be followed in order to attain that objective will certainly be the First Committee at the next Session of the United Nations General Assembly. Governments, international organizations and committed NGOs must prepare for a constructive discussion of possible paths to success.