We are at a unique and important point in the history of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. 2020 marks 75 years since nuclear weapons were first used, 50 years since the entry into force of the NPT and 25 years since the treaty was extended indefinitely. While the quintennial NPT Review Conference (RevCon) was scheduled for April 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic it will now be postponed until 2021.
The NPT has been an unquestioned success. It enjoys near-universal adherence and remains the foundation for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and sharing the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology. However, it is facing tough challenges, including stalled progress on North Korea, the uncertain future of the Iran nuclear deal, and the frustration by many states about the slow pace of nuclear disarmament and the increasing risks of nuclear weapons use.
Given these challenges, in 2018 NTI launched the Global Enterprise to Strengthen Nonproliferation and Disarmament (GE). The GE is a Track 1.5 initiative that regularly convenes officials from over 20 countries with the objective of strengthening the NPT and contributing to a successful RevCon. It encourages practical steps and commitments that demonstrate the ability of States to work together to advance the Treaty goals.
Throughout our meetings, the focus of the GE’s work was narrowed to three areas that hold particular promise for making real progress on reducing nuclear dangers and contributing to a successful RevCon: risk reduction, transparency, and fissile material management.
For each of these areas, the GE identified commitments that could be made by groups of countries before or at the RevCon, as “Joint Voluntary Commitments”. These commitments could also be reflected in a RevCon Final Consensus Statement. Though these are not intended to be a substitute for efforts to achieve consensus outcomes at the RevCon on the NPT commitments and principles, which remains vital. Rather, they are meant as a way to encourage like-minded states to move forward on the practical implementation of commitments. Importantly, many of these actions could be taken now without waiting until the RevCon is rescheduled due to the pandemic.
Though not a replacement for resumed progress toward nuclear disarmament, actions taken to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use are increasingly viewed by NPT States Parties as essential interim measures that can provide a foundation for future disarmament. Given today’s security environment and the state of relations and distrust among the nuclear-weapon states (NWS), the GE worked to identify specific actions that NWS can agree to as part of a risk reduction agenda. The extension of the nuclear arms control treaty, New START, by the US and Russia came up frequently during GE discussions as a critical step to preserve the regulation of the bilateral nuclear relationship and as a signal of commitment to the NPT’s nuclear disarmament goals. The following priority options were also identified:
- An affirmation by all NWS of the Reagan-Gorbachev statement that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”;
- A commitment by NWS to reinvigorate the pursuit of nuclear disarmament as required by their repeatedly reaffirmed obligations under the NPT;
- Strengthened dialogue among NWS on nuclear doctrine and strategic stability within the P5 process (including the creation of a Working Group); and
- Broadening the P5 dialogue to include crisis avoidance and management (including the creation of a Working Group) to identify actions in a crisis that could lead to misinterpretation, miscalculation, and possible escalation and to pursue measures to address them.
Enhancing transparency is critical to strengthening the NPT and to further promote disarmament and non-proliferation. Transparency discussions included specific proposals and initiatives to facilitate sustained and interactive dialogue among NWS and between the NWS and NNWS and the types of information (numerical and perspectives on priority issues) that would be of particular concern in such dialogue. Reporting on NPT implementation and facilitating dialogue among states builds trust and confidence among States Parties and fosters mutual understanding. Within the NPT, greater transparency also helps bridge the knowledge gap between countries by creating a shared understanding from which to have more in-depth discussions. From the GE discussions, the following priority options were identified:
- Commitments to strengthen mechanisms for sustained reporting on NPT implementation including submitting implementation reports in a regular and timely manner and engaging with other States Parties to explore how to improve the consistency of data across national reports;
- Strengthening dialogue within the NPT Review process on national implementation reporting. This includes a RevCon decision to dedicate time at future PrepComs for the discussion of national implementation reports and updates to previously submitted national reports; and
- A commitment by NWS to enhance transparency of the P5 process as well as of their own nuclear doctrines, postures, and activities.
Fissile Material Management (FMM)
Strong Fissile Material Management (FMM) is integral to achieving the NPT’s non-proliferation, peaceful uses, and nuclear disarmament goals. It includes effective physical protection against access to nuclear weapon usable materials by terrorists; accounting, control, and safeguarding of fissile materials; and reporting of fissile civil and military stockpiles/infrastructure. The following priority options were identified by GE participants:
- Support for incremental steps toward the development of a comprehensive baseline of information about nuclear-weapon material and its production.
- Affirmation of support, accompanied by implementing actions, for robust and effective physical protection of nuclear material;
- Reaffirming commitments made in INFCIRC/912 on minimizing and eliminating the use of highly-enriched uranium in civil applications. And/or announcing the decision to undertake those commitments; and
- Support for the work of the United Nations Group of Government Experts on Verification and the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification.
Meaningful progress can be made before the RevCon to achieve the commitments set out above. This should include sustained engagement of the NWS under the P5 process. There is currently no alternative vehicle for discussions among the NWS on NPT-related priorities, including doctrinal issues and risk reduction. The important work of ad-hoc disarmament groups, such as the Swedish Stepping Stone Initiative, should also continue. Their members should focus on promoting and agreeing to implement specific actions in support of the NPT. Existing bilateral and multi-party consultations also can be continued to help create a foundation for success at the RevCon.
On the 50th anniversary of the NPT, the risk of nuclear weapons use remains higher than in decades, and the regime is under serious pressure. States Parties have a responsibility to use this occasion to take actions that strengthen the NPT and demonstrate to the world that they can work together to advance the Treaty’s goals. The ideas generated by the GE form the basis of activities to be implemented before the RevCon, or commitments made at the RevCon, and would show that progress is being made.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.
Image: Flickr, Stefan