A momentous step was taken on Thursday, 11 May 1995. I was attending my second nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference and my briefcase was under my seat. It contained signed declarations by the heads of delegations of Canada and 110 other NPT States parties. Over the past three weeks I had collected these signatures, which represented commitments to support the indefinite extension of the Treaty. If the plan succeeded, the NPT would become permanent—never expire. Over the past year, Canada had promoted that outcome, led by the indefatigable Ambassador Christopher Westdal, the head of the Canadian delegation.
Now twenty-five years have passed—and what a change! No longer is Canada visibly promoting nuclear disarmament. In 1995, at the NPT Review and Extension Conference Canada was highly instrumental, sounding a clarion call for “permanence with accountability.” But this leadership has faded away, replaced by seemingly craven allegiance to US militarism and NATO’s reliance on nuclear weapons for “allied” security. Canada is now walking away from the disarmament commitments that had won consensus in the review conferences of 2000 and 2010.
The Harper years were considered dark ages. But Canada still has not altered the Harper government’s positions in the NPT review process, though the Liberals have been in office since 2015. For two decades, Canadian foreign ministers have been notable for their lack of vision in implementing the NPT or advancing nuclear disarmament. Let me recount here a few of the efforts made to solve nuclear problems during that earlier period.
Fortunately, on that day, May 11, 1995, I never needed to remove the batch of signatures from my briefcase. All 175 States parties in attendance decided without a vote to extend the Non-Proliferation Treaty indefinitely. This outcome was possible only because an indivisible “package” had been negotiated, linking together three decisions and one resolution.
The three decisions in the package aimed to: (a) strengthen the review process, (b) establish clear objectives and principles for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament; and © extend the Treaty. It called for a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, no agreement could be reached on a final declaration at the conference, for certain nuclear weapon states were perceived to be gloating over the indefinite extension and would not agree to a formal declaration about the five-year review of the Treaty’s implementation.
Still, at least the “package” was adopted, and it would strengthen the review process. In the future, all review conferences would be obliged to evaluate the implementation of the Treaty over the previous five years and recommend ways to enhance its universality, integrity, and authority.
Moreover, the “package” elaborated the principles and objectives of the NPT—which actually has three pillars: (1) nuclear disarmament; (2) nuclear-non-proliferation; and (3) peaceful uses of nuclear technologies. The package addressed all three pillars.
As regards nuclear disarmament, the conference agreed to complete the negotiation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty no later than 1996; to create promptly a treaty prohibiting the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and for the nuclear-weapon States to pursue systematic efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating them.
On nuclear non-proliferation, the conference agreed to strengthen the safeguards or verification system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Indeed, in the future, countries would be allowed to obtain nuclear supplies only after they have accepted the IAEA’s full-scope safeguards and made legally binding commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons.
On facilitating cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the conference agreed that all the parties to the Treaty have a right to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
Finally, the resolution called for the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, and for all States in the region to accede to the NPT and place all of their nuclear activities under IAEA verification.
What has been achieved in the 25 years since the NPT was made permanent? What has come of the solemn commitments by the nuclear weapons states? We can rejoice that nuclear weapons have been reduced to about 13,500—with 90 per cent held by Russia and the United States. But we must join General Lee Butler’s lament, quoted above, that militarism prevails worldwide. Butler knew whereof he spoke; he had been one of the nuclear war planners to evaluate the 12,500 targets in the US’s plan for using nuclear weapons; he cut it down to 3,000 targets.
Now, nuclear disarmament is at a standstill, existing treaties have been dismantled or are at risk. New types of nuclear weapons are being developed with new missions and a lowered threshold of use. Sometimes, national leaders are even threatening to use their nuclear weapons.
In 1995 when they were deciding to extend the NPT indefinitely, many delegations emphasized that this did not mean that the nuclear weapons states could continue possessing nuclear weapons indefinitely. Today, however, some of the nuclear weapons states diplomats conveniently forget that this is so. They should review the writings of their betters and predecessors, such as Ambassadors George Bunn and Roland Timerbaev, respectively the US and USSR negotiators of the NPT, “Nuclear Disarmament: How Much Have the Five Nuclear Powers Promised in the Non-Proliferation Treaty?”. Times may change but solemn treaty commitments of States endure—_pacta sunt servanda_, a concept sadly alien to some of these current policy makers.
In 2000 and 2010, subsequent review conferences made follow-on commitments, but these have largely been sidelined. Indeed, there are belligerent and unhinged attacks on the diplomats who advocate fulfilling past commitments. Instead of creating an environment for nuclear disarmament, faith is being placed in rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns of creating the environment for nuclear disarmament.
In May 2020, the CTBT has not entered into force and the US might pull out of it. Fissile material cut-off treaty negotiations have not started at the Conference on Disarmament, and systematic reductions in nuclear weapons are at a standstill. Indeed, existing arms control treaties are being abandoned and the only remaining strategic arms reduction treaty between Russia and the US—New START—will expire in February next year unless renewed. In addition, new nuclear weapon systems are being developed and nuclear doctrines changed to lower the threshold of use of nuclear weapons.
As for new nuclear supply arrangements requiring full-scope IAEA safeguards and legally binding non-proliferation commitments, the US broke that commitment in 2005 and approved nuclear cooperation with India, despite its non-compliance with UN resolutions. By 2008 the Nuclear Suppliers Group agreed, as an “exception,” to supply India with nuclear items. These actions violate the principles and objectives that were adopted in 1995 and reaffirmed by the 2000 conference.
This is especially egregious in the Canadian context because India had violated the peaceful use commitment given to Canada by extracting plutonium from the Canadian-supplied research reactor CIRUS and using it for its May 1974 nuclear test. Then India went on to make 16 nuclear reactors by illegally copying the design of the CANDU pressurized heavy water reactors supplied by Canada. Even now, India remains in violation of Security Council resolution 1172.
Nor has the resolution on establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East been implemented. Instead, the three co-sponsors—Russian Federation, UK and US—are divided, with the US at loggerheads with Russia and the Arab States. The Arab States, out of frustration, have pushed through a process under the aegis of the General Assembly, but the implementation of the 1995 resolution is blocked within the NPT review process.
The review conferences in 2000 and 2010 agreed on additional steps and actions that built on the 1995 principles and objectives for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. But these were not fully implemented or were reversed in some cases. Consequently, the 2005 and 2015 review conferences broke up in bitter discord over differences on the Middle East resolution and dissatisfaction over the pace of nuclear disarmament—problems that will again haunt the next review conference.
To effectively protect the NPT and consensus commitments of 1995/?2000/?2010 requires a number of steps. First, the UN needs to escape the politically toxic environment of New York and convene the upcoming and future review conferences in Vienna as I have argued. Second, extra time is needed to recover from the ill effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, to create a favorable international political milieu, the NPT review conference should not meet in 2021 but in 2022.
On April 20, I published an article arguing for postponing the conference from January 2021 to later in that year, but since then my ideas have evolved further. Let’s do something new and ambitious by holding it in Vienna in 2022 during the April-May time when the preparatory conference will be planning the 2025 review conference. We can just add two weeks to the regular “PrepCom” proceedings to create the normal 20 working day session. Thus, the 2022 PrepCom’s substantive discussions would be subsumed within the review conference.
Success at the next review conference depends on maintaining the relevant elements of 1995/?2000/?2010 outcomes. They, along with the Treaty itself, can be considered the “triptych” of the NPT acquis.
The Berlin Declaration on The NPT at Fifty, fortunately endorsed by Canada, got it right when it stated that: “We underline that past NPT commitments remain valid and form the basis for making further progress in fully implementing the treaty and achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.”
Malaysia on behalf of 16 countries has circulated a Joint Communiqué, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the NPT, which provides continuity of obligations. The Communiqué inter alia reaffirmed that indefinite extension of the Treaty cannot in any way be interpreted as a justification for the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons; highlighted the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons use; reaffirmed past commitments agreed upon during previous review conferences; urged the nuclear weapon states to implement their existing commitments, and to build further upon these to accelerate fulfillment of the goal of the NPT, which is a world without nuclear weapons
Characterization by some diplomats that the reaffirmation of existing past commitments as “conventional wisdom that is at least a generation out of date” wins no friends.
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic will influence notions of “national security” and should lead to rethinking about the role of nuclear weapons in international security. We may even resurrect such concepts as “our common future”, “human security”, “cooperative security”, “common security”, and “collective security” (not the NATO version) from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s as ways to achieve a more secure world.
Tariq Rauf is former Head of Nuclear Verification and Security Policy at the IAEA, Vienna.