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15 May 2009, No. 10

Searching for consensus
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will


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On Thursday, consensus on Chair’s draft recommendations continued to elude delegations. After another morning of consultations and regional group meetings, the Chair opened the plenary meeting lamenting that he had not been able to garner consensus on his draft recommendations. Expressing the belief that it would be best not to ruin the spirit of cooperation that had been demonstrated thus far at the PrepCom by continuing to fight over the recommendations, he opened the floor for comments on ways to move forward.

Of the 25 delegations that spoke, most expressed disappointment that consensus on the document could not be met. Many, including those of Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Russia, and South Africa, said they would be willing to agree to the revised text. Most of these delegations said they would have agreed to the original text as well and reiterated their understanding that the recommendations are not binding and do not prejudge the outcome of the RevCon.

Only a few delegations took the initiative to be transparent about their positions. The UK ambassador said that while the revised text contains four policy issues that the United Kingdom has opposed on public record, the only remaining problem for his delegation was two letters in the preambular paragraph. Sources suggested the UK wanted to alter the sentence explaining that the recommendations identify “areas in which, and the means through which, further progress should be sought in the future” to “could be sought in the future.”

The Egyptian delegation expressed very clearly that it is dissatisfied with large portions of the revised recommendations. The Egyptian ambassador listed several specific examples. He questioned the title of Section 1, “Universality of the treaty, and of principles of disarmament, non-proliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” arguing that this could lead one to believe that the rights related to nuclear energy granted to NPT states parties under article IV of the Treaty are to be universally applied. He also criticized the revised disarmament action plan for recommending only some but not all of the 13 practical steps from the 2000 RevCon, arguing that only partially citing previous decisions undermines them. Further, while noting that some of the recommendations in the Middle East section have been improved, he objected to the use of the word “consider,” arguing that the PrepCom must be more assertive in recommending the RevCon take action on things.

The Cuban delegation said it would have supported the original draft but that the watering down of practical disarmament measures moved the Committee further away from consensus. It expressed belief that some states parties seem to not really be “in a position to produce substantive recommendations at present time that would help us to truly move forward in applying three pillars.”

Despite these discrepancies, many delegations—including those of the African Group, Chile, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States—encouraged the Chair not to give up just yet. The US delegation argued the Committee was “closer than is apparent” to reaching agreement and asked for more time to “work out the small differences” between delegations. However, the Iranian delegation expressed disbelief that any consensus could be reached and urged the Chair to close consideration of this issue and move on. The Iranian ambassador argued that the states insisting that consensus could be reached were simply trying to ensure they would not be blamed for the stalemate.

Many of the most drastic revisions to the draft recommendations, particular those relating to disarmament, are now more in line with nuclear weapon state positions—for example, the elimination of a recommendation to examine ways and means to commence negotiations “on a convention or framework of agreements to achieve global nuclear disarmament,” and another to identify “refraining from the qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons” as a practical disarmament measure. Given this, and given that the Egyptian and Cuban problems with the recommendations are well known, it could be disingenuous for some delegations to suggest that consensus is nigh.

However, as Ambassador Landman of the Netherlands pointed out, the Chair knows best what the remaining difficulties are. He noted that while the statements delivered during Thursday’s plenary made it sound like the PrepCom could “make the extra mile” and arrive at an agreement, the Chair should call upon those countries that in his view have to make that mile, to do so. The Chair agreed to postpone a decision on the recommendations until Friday morning, though he said he would not hold consultations with delegations between now and then. Suggesting that the delegations work with each other on the issue, he said he would be happy to hear about any new initiatives.

Despite uncertainty about the future of the recommendations, most delegations welcomed the overwhelmingly positive atmosphere at this PrepCom. The Australian ambassador, describing some of her previous PrepCom experiences as similar to “pulling teeth,” emphasized that since the Committee has already adopted an agenda and held substantive debates, the session should by no means be considered a failure if it is unable to forward recommendations to the RevCon.

Indeed, this is the most constructive NPT conference in quite some time. While it will be disappointing if the spirit of compromise is diminished in the debate over the recommendations, it does not mean the RevCon is a lost cause. The fact is, the majority of states parties were willing to compromise. And while it remains to be seen what the Obama administration’s official policies will look like by the 2010 RevCon or to what degree other states parties might be willing to “give and take” next year, there have been many promising indications of good will and cooperation at this PrepCom that should be carried forward as a manifestation of the recommendations.

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