Nuclear arms control treaty set for review as divisions over non-proliferation mount

Security Council meeting on non-proliferation and supporting the Non-proliferation Treaty ahead of the 2020 Review Conference. [UN Photo/Loey Felipe]

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in March, the United Nations is preparing to review the accord amid growing signs that divisions and distrust are rife among countries that possess nuclear arsenals.

“Relationships between states – especially nuclear-weapon states – are fractured. So-called ‘great power competition’ is the order of the day. Division, distrust and a dearth of dialogue are increasingly the norm,” UN disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu told a UN Security Council meeting, requested by Germany, on Wednesday (26 February).

Nakamitsu warned that “the spectre of unconstrained nuclear competition looms over us for the first time since the 1970s”.

Although she did not directly point the finger at US, Russia and China, Nakamitsu warned the world is “witnessing what has been termed a qualitative nuclear arms race – one not based on numbers but on faster, stealthier and more accurate weapons.”

“Regional conflicts with a nuclear dimension are worsening, and proliferation challenges are not receding,” she added.

In force since March 1970, the NPT is the only binding multilateral commitment to the goal of disarmament by states which officially stockpile nuclear weapons. Initially intended to last for 25 years it was indefinitely extended in 1995.

According to the landmark accord, the non-nuclear power states have undertaken not to acquire nuclear weapons and the states with nuclear arsenals are obliged to pursue disarmament, while all have the right to access nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, under certain safeguards.

So far, 191 states are parties to the NPT and only India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan remain outside.

The UN conducts a review conference every five years, with the next one, due in April/May, meant to address the North Korean nuclear and missile developments, the shaky Iranian nuclear deal, last year’s collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and the continuing modernisation programs of the five recognised nuclear-weapon states.

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Against this background, Nakamitsu said she hopes to encourage “a spirit of flexibility” during the conference in April, which is meant to reaffirm commitment to the treaty and all its obligations, and to the norm against the use of nuclear weapons.

At the meeting, UN Security Council members “expressed their resolve to further advance the goals” of the NPT, in light of current international geopolitical challenges, but they also stressed “the importance of upholding and strengthening the Treaty,” current UN Security Council President, Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, said on Wednesday (26 February).

They called on all states parties to the NPT “to cooperate in facilitating progress in non-proliferation, the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and nuclear disarmament” and “expressed their readiness to work together and join efforts to achieve a successful outcome at the 2020 NPT Review Conference.”

Although all 15 Security Council members supported the final statement on the NPT, UN sources said the Russian and the US representative clashed at the meeting over the breakdown in arms control negotiations.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the Council that the only realistic way ahead is applying pressure and stepping up nuclear diplomacy.

A role for Europe?

On Tuesday, foreign ministers of 16 countries gathered in Berlin to support the Swedish-brokered Stockholm Initiative on Nuclear Disarmament and adopted a political declaration calling nuclear weapons states to take measures.

Swedish diplomats had repeatedly warned the ‘NPT community’ not to “turn up empty-handed in 2020” and initiated a process to carve out joint proposals for the upcoming talks in New York.

According to Maas, the meeting proposed “a number of practical steps to help avoid misperceptions, reduce nuclear risks, and restore trust”, including verification measures, greater transparency with regard to nuclear weapons stocks, crisis-proof communication channels and open dialogue about strategic stability and nuclear doctrines.

After the INF Treaty collapsed last summer and with several other accords in jeopardy or set to expire, disarmament experts have called for an “urgent response”, including from the Europeans, who had largely looked on during its demise.

Europe weighs consequences as nuclear missiles treaty expires

A landmark agreement of Cold War-era arms control signed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan in 1987, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) banned a whole class of medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles of 500 to 5,500 kilometres.

As NATO members, the majority of EU member states are covered by the military pact’s ‘nuclear umbrella’, with several of them (Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and the UK) hosting US nuclear weapons on their territory.

In a post-Brexit push in February, French President Emmanuel Macron called on Europeans to propose together “an international agenda of arms control”.

According to Macron, the moment has come for Europeans to “define together what their security interests are” and act to establish “a renewed international agenda for arms control”, an area where new treaties are to be written.

In mid-February, EU lawmakers in the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) adopted recommendations for the European Council and the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on what stance to take on preparing the 2020 NPT review process, nuclear arms control and nuclear disarmament options.

“The EU needs to continue to work hard to make the upcoming NPT Review Conference a success,” rapporteur Sven Mikser (S&D) said, adding that  the treaty “continues to be the best instrument available to the international community to pursue a path towards a world free of nuclear weapons.”

In a recent Parliament report, MEPs recommended the Council and the EU foreign policy chief should “reaffirm the EU’s and member states’ full support to the NPT and its three mutually reinforcing pillars of non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful use of nuclear energy”.

After the 2019 INF treaty collapse, MEPs urged EU officials to call on the US and Russia to resume dialogue and put in place a new legally binding instrument for short- and medium-range missiles. They also sought clear commitments from Russia and the US to extend the new START Treaty before it expires in February 2021.

EU lawmakers also recommended the EU should continue its commitment to keep the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) alive as a guarantee to keep Tehran’s nuclear enrichment programme in check.

Iran ratified the NPT in 1970 but has been under international pressure since 2005 for not providing relevant information on its nuclear programme, while North Korea unilaterally withdrew in 2003 and has since conducted six increasingly sophisticated nuclear tests.

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