Anna Hood: observing the frustration at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
1 October 2022
Opinion: With a rise in risk that nuclear weapons might be deployed, Dr Anna Hood says it is frustrating to see mere lip service paid to disarmament.
With Russia threatening to use nuclear weapons in its war with Ukraine, nuclear weapon states continuing to modernise their weapons and ongoing concerns about both Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programmes, it has been widely acknowledged that the risk of the use of nuclear weapons is greater today than at any point since the Cold War.
Against this concerning backdrop, 190 countries met in August at the United Nations Headquarters for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. For the past five decades, the NPT has been one of the main international agreements governing matters relating to nuclear weapons.
It is designed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, provide a path to nuclear disarmament, and facilitate the peaceful use of nuclear technology. NPT Review Conferences are times when the international community can come together to check whether states have been complying with the terms of the treaty, to develop initiatives to further the treaty’s aims and diminish the risk of a nuclear catastrophe.
Given the grave risk of nuclear weapons’ use and the fractious security environment, the stakes for the 2022 Review Conference were high and the negotiating conditions extremely challenging. I was the civil society participant on the New Zealand delegation so had a front-row seat to the ins and outs of the month-long efforts to secure an agreement and a chance to take part in the formal negotiation sessions as well as some of the many meetings that took place amongst small groups of states in the backrooms of the UN and cafes of New York.
Like many of the other states in the world that do not have nuclear weapons, New Zealand went into the negotiations determined to secure some significant advances on the nuclear disarmament front. It has been many years since any progress was made towards a nuclear-free world and there was a strong sense that now was the moment when real action was needed.
The final text on the table was far from perfect but did provide for modest steps forward on the disarmament front ... against the odds, the indications were that all of the countries at the Review Conference were prepared to sign on to it.
Frustratingly, however, while the nuclear weapons states paid lip service to the importance of disarmament, it was apparent from the get-go that they were very reluctant to take substantial steps forward. Throughout the course of the Review Conference, they argued repeatedly that the current global security environment meant that the time was not right to take strong action on disarmament. Those in favour of disarmament made valiant efforts to highlight that the current security threats meant that this was precisely the time to pursue disarmament, but such arguments had little effect.
Despite the geopolitical tensions buffeting the Review Conference and the very different views on how to address the threat posed by nuclear weapons, on the last day of negotiations it appeared that an agreement was in sight.
The final text on the table was far from perfect but did provide for modest steps forward on the disarmament front including the beginnings of a framework for measuring and monitoring the disarmament efforts of the nuclear weapon states. What is more, against the odds, the indications were that all of the countries at the Review Conference were prepared to sign on to it.
Very disappointingly, however, at the eleventh hour, Russia scuttled the agreement. From day one concerns about Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and its capture of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant dominated debates at the Review Conference. Many Western states demanded strong condemnation of Russia’s illegal actions in the final agreement while Russia refused to contemplate any suggestion that it was somehow in the wrong.
Despite strenuous efforts to accommodate the varying views on the conflict and some very careful drafting, the Russians refused to come on board. As the NPT Review Conference operates by consensus, this refusal jettisoned any hope of the agreement being adopted.
Many Western states demanded strong condemnation of Russia’s illegal actions in the final agreement while Russia refused to contemplate any suggestion that it was somehow in the wrong.
The failure of the Review Conference to produce an agreement is deeply concerning. It is four years until the next one is held, and countries will have another chance to try to reach an agreement on how we move forward and reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe occurring.
This state of affairs raises big questions about the adequacy of the NPT regime and has led some to suggest that it’s time to abandon it and pursue other avenues for nuclear disarmament.
One such avenue could be the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a treaty created in 2017 that completely prohibits nuclear weapons. The difficulty here though is that, so far, the nuclear weapons states and their allies have refused to engage with the TPNW.
There are no easy answers – let’s hope that it doesn’t take a very serious nuclear crisis to force states to take the bold steps required.
Dr Anna Hood was a civil society participant on the New Zealand delegation to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.
This article reflects personal opinion and first appeared in the October 2022 edition of UniNews.