WILPF Statement to the Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

The Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) took place in Vienna from 24–28 July 2023. WILPF delivered a statement to the only session open to civil society participation on 25 July 2023.

Thank you, Chairperson.

I am speaking on behalf of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the world’s oldest feminist peace organisation. WILPF has participated in the work of the NPT since the Treaty’s inception—and we have consistently advocated for nuclear disarmament since 1945. Our programme Reaching Critical Will has been a leader in the NPT space for more than twenty years, coordinating civil society participation, archiving primary documentation, and providing monitoring, reporting, analysis, and advocacy for states parties, academics, activists, and others.

It is thus ironic and counterproductive, in our view, to convene a Working Group to improve the working methods of the NPT and then exclude civil society from that Group. Civil society has been instrumental in analysing the NPT’s implementation, holding governments to account for their commitments, providing expert knowledge to NPT-related processes, and increasing the transparency and accessibility of the Treaty through documentation and reporting. Because we have been engaged in the work of this Treaty for so long, organisations like ours have historical knowledge about what has been tried before, both within the NPT and in other treaty bodies, and can provide recommendations to strengthen the NPT review process so that states parties can implement the Treaty effectively and transparently.

To this end, we have several specific ideas for the consideration of this Working Group, which we hope will be taken up during your discussions this week.

Working methods

We suggest the elimination of the general debate in Preparatory Committees and Review Conferences. Year after year, nearly identical statements are read out by delegations in the general debate and then again during thematic segments. This is not an effective use of time or money. Alternatively, the general debate could be retained, and thematic debates could focus on specific issues or questions identified by the Chair of the meeting. Either way, the key is to avoid the current situation, wherein talking points and positions are simply repeated throughout the meeting.

This would also enable the shortening of PrepComs to one week each. Instead of holding three two-week PrepComs, each review cycle could instead include three or four one-week meetings. By making better use of the time within these meetings, a lot of money and time can be saved without detracting from the important work of this treaty body.

To this end, each PrepCom should focus on a specific set of priority issues. This way, discussions can be focused and time utilised efficiently. Of course, states parties and other participants can still raise any issue they wish, but focused discussions can help guide our work for the creation of recommendations to the Review Conference, and the development of new commitments at the Review Conference.

Furthermore, each PrepCom should evaluate the work undertaken regarding past commitments. This can include the submission of National Reports, which some states parties already do, but should also include the systematic assessment of these reports, as well as analysis from states parties, international organisations, and civil society groups that are monitoring NPT implementation.

To support this work, we encourage the establishment of a process for interactive dialogue with civil society academics, activists, affected communities, and other experts. In other disarmament processes, such dialogues are used to introduce information and questions for discussion among states parties and with those working actively on relevant issues.

Review Conferences should be dedicated to the final evaluation of work undertaken throughout the review cycle, and, most importantly, to establishing new commitments and obligations to carry implementation forward. To meet this goal, the method of reaching agreement needs to change. Too often, states parties spend weeks negotiating text in good faith, only to have all this work thrown out at the last minute by the veto of one or two states—sometimes by states that are not even party to the Treaty, working through proxies. This is unacceptable for any credible instrument of international law.

The recent report from the UN High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB) argued that a frequent obstacle to progress in multilateral fora is “the overreliance on decisions by consensus, which has been interpreted in many settings to mean unanimity without objection.” It describes consensus as a “highly inefficient and unfair approach” that allows a small number of states to block multilateral action. The Board argued that, “This does not mean there is no place for consensus…. But where consensus prevents equitable and effective decision-making on issues of global concern, alternatives must be found.” To this end, the Board recommended that states “identify key processes to be shifted to qualified majority, double majority, or non-unanimous definitions of consensus voting systems. While making every effort to achieve unanimous decisions in all multilateral forums, our response to issues of global concern cannot be decided by a small number who benefit from the status quo.”

This recommendation must be taken up by NPT states parties. Adoption of final documents that reflect the views and commitments of most states parties must not be able to be nullified by a handful of states. International law, and the actions to which governments commit to implement the law, must be upheld regardless of political circumstance or economic preference. Lives are at stake, as is the integrity of the entire multilateral system.

Civil society

Civil society participation and engagement is crucial to the work of the NPT and to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The best outcomes—and more effective implementation of agreements—have come from collaborations between states, civil society groups, and international organisations. The last NPT Review Conference recognised this, noting in the final iteration of the draft outcome document “the value of positive interaction with civil society, research centres, academia and affected communities during the review cycle and greater engagement with non-governmental organizations in the context of the review process of the Treaty, as well as in the pursuit of nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation objectives.” That document called on states parties “to commit to promote and enhance the participation of civil society.”

To enhance engagement with civil society, NGO input should not be relegated just to one meeting of each NPT Preparatory Committee and Review Conference. Representatives of NGOs and international organisations should be able to intervene in discussions in order to respond to particular points of debate and offer expert advice and information on certain issues, as they do in other disarmament forums such as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

Civil society should also be allowed full participation in all NPT-related meetings. There should not be a separate process for NGO access to Working Group meetings in the future, should this forum convene again. In addition, Subsidiary Body meetings during NPT Review Conferences should be open to civil society, as are the Main Committees. To remain credible and relevant, the multilateral system must open up to enhanced civil society participation, rather than allow this very troubling recent pattern of further tightening and closing spaces to governments only.

Gender and intersectionality

To be credible in today’s world, the multilateral disarmament and non-proliferation system must also seriously consider issues of gender and intersectionality. In recent years, gender has gained increasing prominence in the working papers, statements, and policies of many NPT states parties. The gendered patterns of harm caused by nuclear weapon activities, diversity in participation in disarmament processes and negotiations, and the discourse of and approach to nuclear disarmament are three key issues requiring further examination and consideration during this NPT review cycle and beyond.

The final draft outcome document of the last NPT Review Conference reflected some of the work being undertaken to incorporate these perspectives and to increase diversity in the NPT framework. In addition, 67 states parties signed a joint statement on gender, diversity, and inclusion that recognised that “the intersections of race, gender, economic status, geography, nationality, and other factors must be taken into account as risk-multiplying factors” in relation to nuclear weapons. It also highlighted that nuclear weapons have different effects on different demographics and recommended various ways to address the impacts of nuclear weapons as well as to diversify participation in work for disarmament and non-proliferation. It urges that “for women and other underrepresented groups, there must not only be a seat at the table, but also real opportunities to shape conversations, policies, and outcomes.”

Any work to strengthen the NPT review process must take forward these efforts.

In terms of diversity, NPT states parties should support and facilitate the participation of people of all genders in NPT meetings, nuclear weapon decision-making spaces, and in work to implement the Treaty. It should also promote and facilitate the participation of other marginalised groups, including people from affected communities and those of diverse racial, socioeconomic, and other backgrounds, who have been systemically excluded from nuclear weapon related work in the past. To achieve intersectional diversity, states parties should establish a sponsorship programme for diplomats from Global Majority countries and for women, nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ diplomats to attend NPT meetings and to participate in relevant programmes, trainings, and policy work.

States parties should also seek the appointment of women and other marginalised people to leadership positions within the review cycle, including Chairs of Preparatory Committees, Main Committees, and Subsidiary Bodies, Presidents of Review Conferences, in the Bureau, and within their own delegations.

When drafting outcome documents, working papers, and statements, states parties should use inclusive language such as “all genders” and call for other metrics of diversity beyond gender. The Secretariat should also collect, track, and publish gender-disaggregated data and statistics on diversity more broadly within NPT meetings.

The NPT review process should also support and facilitate the participation of people from nuclear weapon affected communities, including by welcoming their input to the drafting of recommendations and other outputs from meetings. States parties should also facilitate research on gendered, racialised, and economic impacts of nuclear weapon production, testing, deployment, and use, including through funding and amplification of results.

States parties could also build off the framework suggested by Australia, Canada, Colombia,

Ireland, Mexico, Namibia, Panama, the Philippines, Spain, Sweden, and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in the last review cycle in their joint working papers to the Review Conference and the 2019 Preparatory Committee. These papers suggested that states parties integrate questions into NPT-related policy development, implementation, and review to ensure that gender inequalities are not exacerbated and that equality and justice in gender relations are promoted. For example:

  • Have sufficient time, resources and expertise been allocated to address gender consideration in the proposed policy?
  • Are systems in place to collect, track and publish relevant data disaggregated by sex, gender, and age?
  • Has the policy identified opportunities to challenge gender stereotypes and increase positive gender relations through equitable actions.

The 2019 paper also urged states parties to, among other things:

  • Raise awareness of unconscious bias;
  • Hold participants accountable for behaviour that doesn’t support gender equality;
  • Show commitment by raising issues related to gender early and consistently, and encouraging the increased and full participation of women;
  • Be inclusive in informal discussions and also in more formal settings;
  • Organise briefings to solicit ideas on how to improve gender equality and why it matters;
  • Ensure efforts are made towards a gender-balanced bureau in the review cycle;
  • Encourage delegations to set targets to strive towards gender-equal delegations;
  • Mentor and provide speaking opportunities to delegates at all levels;
  • Encourage those organising side events relating to the Treaty to consider gender balance on panels;
  • Encourage colleagues who are men to attend NPT events focused on these issues;
  • Try to run family-friendly meetings, which allow delegates to meet family commitments, such as picking up children;
  • Include diversity in images and language promoting NPT events;
  • Ensure that people of all genders are represented in support functions, such as note-taking and secretariat duties;
  • Engage with delegations that have a majority of men among their delegates, to encourage them to redress the situation;
  • Collect, track and publish gender-disaggregated data and statistics on gender in delegations and panels; and
  • Cultivate greater inclusivity and effective participation in other areas beyond gender (e.g., youth, expertise, geographic diversity, civil society, diversity of ideas).

Finally, it is vital that the NPT review process avoid just “adding women” to its meetings, but instead that it listens to marginalised and affected voices offering alternative perspectives about nuclear weapon and security. As Ireland suggested in its 2019 NPT working paper, delegations should “step outside the traditional, one dimensional security approach to addressing nuclear weapons, and embrace issues of gender equality and human security,” and should “avoid the use of gendered discourse that perpetuates harmful stereotypes about power and security.”

Genuine diversity impacts what is considered normal, acceptable, and credible. Confronting norms around nuclear weapons is imperative to making progress on disarmament. The association of nuclear weapons with power, as described above, is one of the foremost obstacles to disarmament.

Moving beyond the gendered dichotomy of normalised behaviour is important to make progress on nuclear disarmament. NPT states parties can continue to advance the progress we have seen so far in inequity in participation by emphasising the importance of including intersectional analysis and perspectives in the NPT’s work. This would help challenge the established pattern of power relations, thereby moving the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation agenda forward.

Thank you for your attention, and we look forward to taking these ideas forward in the work ahead.

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