Puppeteering the NPT

The Committee met in Vienna to prepare the next NPT Review Conference, and this young Canadian activist was there

By Ray Acheson | 2007-07-01 12:00:00

From 30 April to 11 May, the states parties of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) held the first of three Preparatory Committees (PrepComs) leading up to the 2010 Review Conference. Review Conferences are held every five years to assess the NPT's implementation, and the PrepComs give all members a chance to shape the debate and get their issues of interest onto the agenda for the Review Conference. I attended as a representative of civil society in my capacity as researcher and writer at Reaching Critical Will, a project of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. We disseminate information and provide analysis on multilateral disarmament fora during the year to governments, diplomats, experts, activists, and the general public, with the aim of complete elimination of nuclear weapons and all related materials and technology through the enlightenment of a critical mass pursuing change in nuclear policies around the world.

Wrangling Over the Agenda

This PrepCom was the first NPT conference since the complete failure of the 2005 Review Conference, so the tone for the first three days was cautious optimism. The mood plummeted to pessimism on day three, however, whenprocedural wrangling over the Chair- man's proposed agenda prevented substantive debate from beginning.

The breakdown was over language in the agenda that reaffirmed "the need for full compliance with the Treaty." Iran felt that a number of states singled it out during the first days of general debate for being in alleged non-compliance with the non-proliferation aspect of the Treaty, which prohibits non-nuclear weapon states from acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran requested that the agenda clarify that "compliance" means all aspects of the Treaty, alluding to the nuclear weapon states' obligation to negotiate the elimination of their nuclear weapons, something they promised to do at the Treaty's inception in 1968 but have not yet begun.

Several sessions of the conference were cancelled as the Chairman entered into frantic consultations with all of the delegations, trying to reach a compromise that would enable his agenda to be adopted by consensus. This impasse continued for days. Delegations and NGOs continued to gather at 10am and 3pm each day, dressed in suits, with minds and pens poised for work, only to wait. And wait. Sometimes for hours. We waited knowing that at any minute, someone would come in and tell us to go home until the next session. Murmurings in the cafÈ and the hallways reflected disgruntlement and confusion. NGO representatives tried to contribute substance to the conference by continuing to hold events, panel discussions, and government briefings.

On Friday at the end of the first week, when the floor was opened for comments for the first time in two days, the delegates were clearly frustrated, in particular with what many saw as Iran's political games. Finally, South Africa proposed a compromise, and Iran said it would take the weekend to seek approval from Tehran. When Tuesday morning rolled around with still no sign of progress, everyone's nerves were on edge, but Iran finally accepted the agenda with South Africa's amendments.

For a young peace activist, this process was dumbfounding. Having reported on various multilateral disarmament fora over the past two years, I knew more or less what to expect - and what not to expect - to come out of this PrepCom, but its lack of functionality reached new lows. While it was frustrating to watch days of possible substantive work slip by, it was also fascinating to see at first-hand how the broader political context affects our work in these seemingly sequestered multilateral fora, how the decisions and positions taken by delegates here are controlled by puppeteers far out of sight in the capitals. What happens in the NPT review cycles is a reflection of what is happening in the political and military world. For example, the Iranian Ambassador's refusal to accept the Chairman's agenda was largely related to Iran's escalating confrontation with the UN Security Council over its nuclear program. It perceived injustice in the NPT's bias toward preventing proliferation over against encouraging disarmament.

Despite this shadow cast over the PrepCom, there were some positive aspects. For example, interactive debate made a rare appearance at this conference. One of the absurdities of "general debates" in multilateral fora is that everyone reads prepared statements and rarely acknowledges that anyone else has spoken before or after them. One morning, Canada's Ambassador Meyer, who has been pushing for interactive debates for a long time, decided to start one without waiting for the Chairman's consent. He forged ahead with comments on others' statements and invited other states to do so as well - which they did. For the astonished NGOs, it was like watching a child forming a complete sentence for the first time.

Yet, observing from the corner, I had the sense that states are still not hearing each other. There are many diverse, nuanced, fluctuating views about the subjects under discussion, which are dependent on changing political, economic, environmental, and social factors.

The debate at these fora, however, is largely stationary. There is a severe lack of flexibility in re-examining one's position or understandings based on others' viewpoints or arguments. This is largely a factor of the ambassadors acting as mouthpieces for their governments' policies, which of course reveal important fault lines between nuclear weapon states' and non-nuclear weapon states' positions on the disarmament and non-proliferation regime. The debates over reductions versus elimination, rights versus obligations, security first versus disarmament first, or Iran versus the United States demonstrate a disconnect in the way certain states view disarmament. For example, the nuclear weapons states talk about reducing their arsenals, while the non-nuclear weapon states talk in terms of elimination and absolute numbers. While the US declares, "The extraordinary progress it has made toward the goal of nuclear disarmament, particularly in recent years, gives the United States an unsurpassed record in this regard," New Zealand argues that those without nuclear weapons appreciate reductions, but nearly forty years after the nuclear weapon states accepted the obligation to negotiate complete nuclear disarmament, there is no cause for big celebration.

One astounding aspect of the PrepCom, however, was that many delegates do listen to civil society. In particular, they appreciated, and even referenced, the daily newsletter Reaching Critical Will put out every day. Delegates sought us out each morning to pick up the latest edition. We passed out copies, literally warm from the press. We were also allowed to attend all sessions, including the often-closed door substantive debate meetings, and we were given three hours one morning to deliver presentations to the entire conference. We had a voice and a presence at this PrepCom as I've never seen before, and it was empowering. We received compliments from the most unlikely sources, while still maintaining loyal readership from those who truly share our vision for a nuclear weapon-free world.

They did listen to Civil Society

Civil society clearly has a role to play, and many of the delegates are ready to listen. We need to utilize this position while we can, before the tides shift once more to closed meetings and a general brush-off or failure to acknowledge the value of NGO contributions.

Observing the impasse in all multilateral disarmament fora, determined by the political and military tensions outside the halls of the UN in New York, Geneva, and Vienna, is much like watching an impending train wreck. Civil society and many enlightened delegations can see the trains rushing towards each other at top speeds, but those on the trains do not seem to notice or care. We yell warnings at the top of our lungs, hoping the conductors will realize the full implications of their actions and end their game of chicken before it's too late.

How Can We Make it Matter?

Thus the main question of civil society's work at the PrepCom, and the PrepCom itself, is not "What does it matter?" but rather, "How can we make it matter?" Decisions by governments affect what their ambassadors are allowed to do and say inside the multilateral fora - for example, the US and UK decisions to pursue the indefinite retention and updating of their nuclear forces means their diplomats avoid questions of disarmament and emphasize the importance of non-proliferation.

Regional tensions undermine possibilities of compromise, while the perpetual imbalance of military might weakens trust and flexibility. In response, how can we, collectively as diplomats and peace activists, make what happens inside count? How can we effectively work from within, so that our successes here, such as the ones at the 1995 and 2000 Review Conferences, are translated into successes in reality and not just in letter?

The answer lies in demonstrating our will for change. We can refuse to take no for an answer. How to effectively convey that message in a way that could affect the policies of the most powerful states in the world remains to be seen. Ten days of PrepCom didn't show us the way, especially when so much time was lost to determining proper language in the agenda. But there's a whole year until the next one.

Ray Acheson works for "Reaching Critical Will," in New York City.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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