The P5 discuss disarmament in Geneva

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This week, the NPT nuclear weapon states—also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5: United Kingdom, United States, China, France, and Russia) meet in Geneva to reaffirm their commitments to nuclear disarmament and implementing the 2010 NPT Action Plan. The group will meet privately on Thursday, and on Friday will present a statement that will be carried through to the NPT Preparatory Committee meeting (PrepCom), which commences the following Monday, April 22nd. Hosted by Russia, this is the fourth private meeting of the P5 on these issues since 2009, and the group is working towards a deadline to report back to other NPT member states at the 2014 PrepCom on “concrete progress of their steps leading to nuclear disarmament”, as indicated by Action 5 of the 64-point plan.

The group’s efforts on the NPT Action Plan have been performed mostly behind closed doors. The P5 have acknowledged the frustration from other NPT member states and civil society on the lack of transparency in this process, but continue to assure us all that they are making progress. The five countries insist that the confidentiality of the P5 dialogue is essential to its success; trust needs to be established amongst the P5 nuclear weapon states, before transparency with others can be attained.

Although the closed nature of this process can be frustrating to those outside it, the fact that the five NPT nuclear weapon states are engaging in a dialogue on nuclear disarmament can arguably be seen as success in itself. We’ve come a long way in the last few years: during the Cold War, some of these states considered each other enemies, and even five to ten years ago, an open dialogue on nuclear disarmament between these five nations was still not possible.

Because it is so new, these five countries are still in the exploratory phase of the process and issues are still being added to the agenda each meeting. The P5 process now, however, is ostensibly more like a permanent fixture than a temporary fix and not about preserving the status quo, but rather pushing each other to be transparent about activities, and questioning actions that countries are taking or not taking. One of the projects that the P5 has been transparent about is the glossary review of key nuclear terms, which is being led by China. As mundane as it might sound, it gets the countries to start to thinking on the same page about terms and makes them reflect on concepts like ‘deterrence’ which have been around for years, but may not hold as much relevance as they used to.

We are mid-way through the 2010-2015 NPT Review cycle and many are reflecting on progress that has been made so far, and short falls that have transpired. The failure to convene a conference in Helsinki on the Middle East nuclear and WMD-free zone by the end of 2012 will be counted amongst the latter, and the P5 will undoubtedly address this in their meeting and joint statement—given that the three co-sponsors of the WMD-free zone (the U.K., U.S., and Russia) are also P5 member states. The P5 will also need to consider ongoing challenges, recent developments, and new thinking in the nuclear world: the dialogue with Iran on its nuclear program is a an ongoing diplomatic challenge that has come to a deadlock yet again at the latest meeting in Kazakhstan in early April; the threats of nuclear and military strike coming from North Korea which will require skillful diplomacy on the part of China and the U.S. to avoid conflict; and the recent governmental conference in Oslo, which re-framed nuclear weapons as a humanitarian issue. The P5 countries decided not to attend this conference in Oslo, but the 127 countries which did attend are beginning to think about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the greater urgency for global nuclear disarmament.

These are just some of the circumstances behind why the P5 should expect to see more pressure from the non-nuclear weapon NPT member states at this PrepCom in the lead up to the 2014 reporting of the P5 and the 2015 Review Conference. A hardening of expectations from the non-nuclear weapon states and a demand for qualitative (i.e. reductions in the salience of nuclear weapons via a no first use policy) versus quantitative (i.e. more bi-lateral cuts between Russia and the U.S.) results is anticipated. The P5 have assured other NPT member states that their confidential meetings are crucial to the progress of their efforts, but sooner or later people are going to want to see results. UK Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Jo Adamson, disclosed that the P5 is expecting some of these more challenging questions at this week’s press conference on Friday after the release of their joint statement.

 These are the views of the author.

View our full background brief on the P5 Geneva meeting here