Peace Magazine: Another View of the NPT Review Conference

Peace Magazine

Another View of the NPT Review Conference

John Hallam attended the 2020 (2022) NPT Review Conference that took place throughout August at UN headquarters in New York

• published Oct 01, 2022 • last edit Oct 01, 2022

Throughout the entire month of August, the 10th Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) took place. If you looked for it on mainstream media, you’d have seen little trace of it. Nonetheless, it was opened in style by the UN Secretary General, and its opening days drew attendance from senior diplomats and foreign ministers.

The ‘miracle’ however, was that it even took place at all. As review conferences for the NPT take place every five years, and as the last one was in 2015, it had been due to take place in May 2020.

Just as the COVID pandemic was starting to wreak havoc with hospital emergency departments and with air travel.

The conference was in fact postponed twice before it finally took place in a very subdued UN, last month, in the aftermath of the first meeting of states parties of the TPNW (Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons).

It took place against what may have been the grimmest, scariest background of any NPT review conference. (When the Cuban Missile Crisis took place, the NPT did not yet exist — indeed the CMC was one of the events that helped to convince nuclear weapons powers that there should even be an NPT.)

From February 24th onwards, and even more from February 27th when Vladimir Putin very publicly and ostentatiously placed Russian nuclear forces on an allegedly higher state of alert, and throughout the entire month of March and April, this author lived in a state of near panic.

Putin was threatening to use nuclear weapons and the Russian state media said that, if nuclear war broke out, it would be regrettable but all Russians would go to heaven and all other people would go elsewhere. At about the same time, the Pentagon took its alert status up to DEFCON-2, the highest it has even been, then slowly lowered it back to 3 and then to 5 in April and May, with an ‘option’ to take it back up.

This was like holding an NPT review conference during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The conference itself was an oddly calm and gentle(wo)manly affair. There was acknowledgement after acknowledgement of the world’s peril, starting with Secretary General Guterres’s opening statement that the world is ‘one miscalculation’ away from catastrophe. In the UN’s air-conditioned sub-basement, out of the heat of New York’s streets, the end did not feel quite nigh.

However, there were noticeable changes from previous NPT conferences. It was much harder to access diplomats. I had a secondary agenda: to promote the idea of an UNGA resolution that would condemn any use whatsoever of nuclear weapons as violations of the UN charter, so I had to collar some diplomats and talk to them about the idea.

This had usually been easy. NGOs sat in Conference Room 4 right next to the diplomats. When my favourite diplomats made terrific speeches, I used to march up to them, congratulate them and ask for a coffee and a chat.

What was missing in the draft outcome document was a pathway

Now, however, the diplomats were on the bottom of the General Assembly hall and we NGOs sat four floors above. Later, diplomats disappeared into tense secretive huddles in obscure places.These difficulties were compounded by the lack of government briefings in the morning. Reaching Critical Will used to organize them, but this time only organized one.

There seemed to be no receptions or cocktail parties — a critically important way for NGOs and diplomats to talk to each other. The NGO presentation day was sparsely attended, though there was diplomatic presence on the General Assembly floor. And diplomats attended events on nuclear risk reduction — both the one I organised for NGOs and those organised by heavy-duty think tanks, such as Carnegie and Governments.

There was a much greater emphasis on nuclear risk reduction than at any previous NPT review conference. I used to be almost the only person getting up in front of 200 assembled NGOs, think tanks, and representatives of Governments and saying that the sky is falling, or that there is an unacceptably high risk of the sky falling. Now everyone from the Secretary General downwards was doing so. Risk reduction was central in the first draft report of Main Committee-1, and then the draft final document.

The idea of No First Use (NFU) as a risk reduction policy also made it into both the first and the second drafts of the Main Committee-1 document, then dropped out, just before the documents were merged, becoming the draft and second draft final document.

As usual in every NPT review conference, the vision and ambition in initial drafts are progressively watered down to achieve a ‘lowest common denominator’ that the nuclear weapon states might sign. In doing so, many babies are thrown out with bathwater.

Sadly, words that in their initial form were halfway adequate are progressively diluted. (I don’t know whether to believe the stories of unwholesome arm-twisting.) Eventually, nothing is left but worthless platitudes. The Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy (LCNP) noted that:

“What was missing in the draft outcome document was a pathway, or pathways, to implementing Article VI and related commitments…. What the draft document had instead, in essence, were vague commitments of the NPT nuclear-armed states to make “every effort to further decrease the global stockpile of nuclear weapons …

“The 10th NPT Review Conference did very little to advance the cause of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons, a world promised by the NPT. There will need to be a change of course toward nuclear abolition if humanity is not to be condemned to living for still more decades with the very real risk of catastrophe … so devastating that it renders unviable human society in its current form.”

NPT conference chair Gustavo Zlauvinen told Tariq Rauf that he’d tried to convince the nuclear weapons states to commit to a pathway to eliminating nuclear weapons but was refused point blank. A number of NGOs have dismissed the final document as in various ways ‘worthless’.

I believe these very negative evaluations of the document do not serve the cause of nuclear disarmament well. I do not mean that they are flat wrong, but they do not tell the most important part of the story. To gain a different perspective, read all of the 2015 draft final document, which, like the 2022 final doc, failed to be formally adopted.

Then read the 2020/2022 draft final document. The more caustic critics of the draft final document may not have done this.

The LCNP evaluation, though negative, does grudgingly note some positives:

The draft outcome document acknowledges that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has entered into force and held its first meeting of states parties in June. (para. 127, p. 18) The document refers in a more than cursory manner to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of use of nuclear arms, and it states that states parties commit to comply at all times with international humanitarian law and the UN Charter. (para. 7, p. 25; para. 124, p. 17) Because use of nuclear weapons is irreconcilable with humanitarian law, a commitment to non-use of the weapons should have been added; however, the nuclear-armed states are not ready for that.

The document reaffirms support for implementation of the 1995 NPT resolution on establishment of a zone free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the Middle East, and acknowledges the recent process to this end set in motion by the UN General Assembly. (paras. 165, 172, pp. 22-23) However, several states from the region stated that the provisions should have been stronger and more pointed.

The document welcomes the attention in recent years to assistance to victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and to environment remediation following such use and testing. (para. 125, p. 17)

The document includes a commitment of states parties “to ensure the equal, full and effective participation and leadership of both women and men in the NPT implementation and review and to further integrate a gender perspective in all aspects of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation decision-making processes.” (para. 187.41, p. 29)”

In the area of risk reduction there is much that is new and has been spoken of by NGO campaigns such as the Global No First Use campaign and others over a number of years.

The conference also contained brief reference (initially spun much more positively) to the first meeting of states parties to the TPNW (127).

The draft final declaration notes that the ‘only way’ to completely eliminate nuclear risk is by the total elimination of nuclear weapons, a point doubled down on in 143 and action point (36).

It urges the US and Russia to negotiate and conclude a successor to the New START agreement and welcomes their joint statement immediately prior to the conference.

“…17. The Russian Federation and the United States commit to the full implementation of the New START Treaty and to pursue negotiations in good faith on a successor framework to New START before its expiration in 2026, in order to achieve deeper, irreversible and verifiable reductions in their nuclear arsenals.”

It expresses ‘concern’ at the ‘deteriorated’ international security environment.(5) This is one of the points that initially had stronger language, but the bite is still there.

The ‘only way’ to completely eliminate nuclear risk is by the total elimination of nuclear weapons

It also says that: ‘awareness of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons ought to underpin’ our actions on nuclear weapons. While this language isn’t as strong as from the Open-Ended Working Group or the Vienna or Oslo or Nayarit conferences, it is stronger than other NPT review conferences.


Many Governments, such as New Zealand and Malaysia, were disappointed with the final result. However, whatever their reservations, they were prepared to sign onto an imperfect document. What finally sank the draft final document was Russia’s reaction to text that, without naming Russia, expressed grave concern about its occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and its attack of Ukraine, as well as its repeated nuclear threats.

As LCNP noted, one of these textual references — to respecting “internationally recognized borders” — seems “almost designed to elicit a Russian objection blocking consensus.” However, I doubt that this language was included out of bloody-mindedness, as LCNP implies. It probably was heartfelt and would have been passionately defended. Not to have had it there would have been seen by many governments and NGOs as itself a dereliction.

Conference chair Gustavo Zlauvinen viewed the conference as ‘very meaningful’ and I think he is correct.

The draft final declaration presented an advance over the language and commitments of previous final declarations. Like the 1015 final declaration, it wasn’t formally adopted, though it could be viewed informally as ‘what everyone except Russia will agree to.’

The review conference used the process of consensus, whereby a single government can prevent the adoption of a final declaration that satisfies everyone else. An alternative would be majority or supermajority voting. Arguably, supermajority voting should be used instead. Maybe Zlauvinen should have put it to a vote, but I would not like to have been in his shoes, doing so.

The conference was anything but a waste of time, and its draft final declaration, whatever good language had been gutted from it, is anything but worthless. [*]

John Hallam is co-convenor of the Abolition 2000 working group on nuclear risk reduction and nuclear disarmament campaigner with PND, and member of the No-First Use Global steering committee.

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.38, No.4: Oct-Dec 2022
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