27 May 2005, No. 20
A passing storm
Rhianna Tyson | WILPF
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These were some of the adjectives that were used by diplomats and NGOs alike yesterday to describe the atmosphere and mood surrounding the final hours of the NPT Review Conference.
The final negotiations, which consumed the last two days, were focused on an asterisk to the Final Document, which itself is nothing more than a technical report of the meeting.
In the beginning of the Conference, the Non-Aligned (NAM) had fought hard for the inclusion of a reference in the agenda to the 1995 and 2000 Conferences. Having lost that week-and-a- half-long battle, their only recourse was to make a statement that welcomed the adoption of the agenda, noting that it provided an opportunity to include results of previous review conferences and their agreements. At that time, the UK also made a statement, speaking on behalf of the Western Group, which simply welcomed the adoption of the agenda.
Now, two weeks later, the last battle was fought over how, or if, to include references to these statements. For the Non-Aligned, a reference to their statement would ensure a reference- albeit a minor, asterisked one- to past conferences. While such a footnote is a tremendous regression from the triumph of 2000, it would still ensure that those historic agreements would not be entirely negated.
Nonetheless, the Western Group refused to allow even this minute reference to be included in this otherwise worthless Final Document.
After days of closed-door negotiations and debates, the Non-Aligned caved. There will be no asterisk to their statement, and thus no reference whatsoever to 1995 and 2000 in the 2005 Final Document.
NGOs are left in the corridor struggling to understand why. After all, this past month of procedural wrangling was justified on the principle behind the position of the Non-Aligned, rather than the efficacy of their efforts. Obviously a footnote isn’t terribly significant in the real world of nuclear weapons; it is not a decisive factor in whether or not a country will disarm or proliferate. The battle, then, was over the principle of the matter. To ignore, then renege, then deny commitments already reached in a multilateral forum serves to not only undermine the Treaty itself, nor just the review process, but rather multilateralism itself. While some hawks may view this past month of procedural quarreling as evidence of the failure of multilateralism, it was multilateralism that the NAM were trying to save.
But then to capitulate at the last minute, to agree to strike out any and all references to the revered past conferences, strips the NAM of their principled position, and tosses them into the anti-multilateralist trap set by the US and others, to whom the erosion of the NPT serves only to further justify unilateral or plurilateral alternatives.
The governments should be embarrassed at the tremendous waste of time, energy and resources that this Conference consumed, and indeed, most diplomats are. Many were walking around in a delirium-like haze, aghast at the futility of their efforts to strengthen the NPT.
Some, however, refused to give up all hope. The Conference did, after all, provide a forum for the exchange of ideas, for the forging of common ground from which to build substantive work in the future. It did facilitate the coming together of almost 2000 NGO representatives, which refuse to allow what happened behind closed doors to erode their determination to see a world free from nuclear weapons.
One diplomat likened this Conference to a thunderstorm– dark, scary and potentially damaging. A thunderstorm, however, also cleanses and nourishes the growth of new life.
This analogy resonates even more strongly with those of us in New York who, for the past week, have been suffering through unseasonably cold and rainy weather, a perfectly poetical climatic reflection of the gloomy and dismal atmosphere in the basement of the UN. Today, however, the weather report tells us to expect the first warm and sunny day that New Yorkers have seen in a while.
Conferences fail. Talks end up in collapse. Hard-won agreements are flushed away by the will of a single government.
But governments change, and with them, the policies that nurture– or wreck– diplomatic opportunities change, too. Today, the thunderstorm of this Review Conference will finally pass, just as the clouds will part above the United Nations building. Given the lack of substantive, transparent progress in the governmental meetings of this conference, civil society, whose efforts here this month did sprout new ideas for reaching nuclear disarmament, will grow stronger after the rain.