NPT News in Review, Vol. 15, No. 4

Political gridlock
1 May 2018

Allison Pytlak

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In conversation yesterday someone reflected that after having attended meetings of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for over 20 years, very little seems to have changed in the content of the statements being delivered. In some cases it is almost as if the same statements are recycled year after year, with minor updates only, despite the fact that outside of the conference room the world is changing. Tensions rise and fall, policies shift, and, especially recently, the possibility of nuclear weapons use is more real than it has been a long time, but inside the PrepCom, both process and substance stays the same. To many observers, NPT review cycles feel like the political equivalent of being in a midtown Manhattan traffic jam—total gridlock, with sirens of alarm screaming in the distance. 

This begs the question: what will it take to pierce through the apathy and instill some urgency into our work? How can we move beyond statements that “express disappointment” or “indicate strong disapproval” and instead take action that remedies the problems?

The Cluster 2 discussions held on Friday and Monday, with a specific focus on the Middle East and regional issues, demonstrate this conundrum.  The NPT’s indefinite extension would not have been possible without the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East—it is yet another bargain underpinning the Treaty. Lack of progress here is, not unlike frustration stemming from non-progress on disarmament commitments, eating away at both the NPT’s credibility and the trust and confidence among states parties. Yet, because it is so bound up in the broader geopolitics of the region, the subject is trapped in gridlock.

There are also new dimensions of complexity emerging around the unrealised Middle East weapons of mass destruction free zone.  A working paper submitted by the United States on “creating conditions conducive to a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and delivery systems” suggests that the NPT need not be the primary mechanism for progress on a WMD-free zone. Other states parties refuted this conclusion, because in their view it is a reinterpretation of, and backtracking on, the 1995 commitment.

Meanwhile, nearly all states parties have in their statements referenced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, given that it is up for renewal on 12 May but faces an uncertain future in the face of new—and suspiciously well-timed—evidence of violations on the part of Iran. Without prejudice to the validity of any newly-released violations, the source and the timing of the release can be seen as a provocation that will further exacerbate an already souring relationship between and Iran and the United States.

Through working papers and suggestions made in statements, there is appetite to break through these roadblocks but, as is noted frequently, the main obstacle may be political will. If true, then maybe the surest path to the destination requires changing the route. Many NPT states parties have regularly brought forward ideas and suggestions to improve working methods in order to generate outcomes. The PrepCom chair has tried to encourage interactive discussions since the end of general debate, but so far there have not been any takers (rights of reply do not count as such). Most states prefer to remain in the comfort zone of prepared statements. The practice of other treaties, including in the area of disarmament, non-proliferation, and arms control offer ideas: mechanisms for intercessional work, such as working groups or committees, or shorter annual meetings with some decision-making capacity, could be useful in breaking down politicisation and alleviating the enormous pressure that builds up and is placed on review conferences. As another idea, cultivating space to address the contents of national reports might incentivize more states to complete such reports, as it would give purpose to what otherwise is perceived as an empty exercise.

The world also is changing around us in other ways, through the development of new technologies that can be harnessed for good, or for bad. The vulnerability of nuclear weapons systems to cyber or digital threats is something NPT states parties must consider and address, as has been starting to occur with greater frequency particularly at this PrepCom. However, it is not sufficient to address these threats only in terms of preventing hackers, terrorists, and criminals. Instead, we must view cyber and digital threats as further impetus to disarm completely and to eliminate any risk of a detonation through cyber “attack” or otherwise.

The old adage, it’s not the destination but the journey, could well apply in this situation; we encourage states parties to make best possible use of every part of the road between here and 2020.


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