What's in store for the PrepCom?

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Over the coming two weeks, the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the Review Conference (RevCon) of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will meet, in Geneva, for the second time in the NPT’s current five year review cycle.

Roughly translated for those who do not speak bureaucrat:

The NPT, which entered into force in 1970, is the key international agreement aimed at preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons. Alongside its primary goal of non-proliferation, it also commits existing nuclear weapon states to consider steps towards nuclear disarmament. A total of 190 parties are signed up, including five temporarily-recognized nuclear weapon states (NWS) – those that tested a nuclear device prior to 1st January 1967, who also happen to be the “P5”: the permanent five members of the UN Security Council.

Every five years, the parties agree an action plan to progress the Treaty’s objectives, which are global nuclear disarmament, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The latest Action Plan was drawn up at the last Review Conference in 2010 and will be assessed in 2015. The intervening PrepComs, like the one that is taking place this week, are intended to maintain momentum throughout these review cycles.

So the process itself is (pretty) clear. What is less evident is the impact the next two weeks of deliberations in Geneva are likely to have, in practice, on the global nuclear weapons regime.

And at this particular juncture, it’s rather hard to tell. The global conversation on nuclear disarmament and preventing further proliferation suffers from hugely complex dynamics wrapped up in the larger context of power between states: between the nuclear weapons states (NWS) themselves; between the various non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS); and, of course, between the NWS and the NNWS.

Having a process whereby these inter-state groups actually sit down and talk is invaluable. The question is how meaningful a conversation this is likely to be this time around.

The next two weeks are an opportunity to continue bridging divides and to hash out some practical confidence building measures in advance of the 2015 RevCon. Or - it could serve to vent the frustrations which are becoming increasingly apparent, particularly between the NWS and the NNWS. This second is itself a useful service to the cause of the Treaty, but is insufficient to ensuring its sustainability.

Last week, as Rachel Staley reported, the five nuclear weapon states party to the NPT met in Geneva to develop a consolidated statement in advance of the PrepCom. The statement, which issued on Friday, covered the full spectrum of NPT areas: and whilst strong on recognizing the importance of progress, its substance was vague. It highlighted the fact that P5 talks had “emphasized the importance of continuing to work together in implementing” the 2010 Action Plan; “exchanged views concerning prospects for further steps to promote dialogue and mutual confidence in this area”; and reviewed the “significant developments in the context of the NPT since the 2012 Washington P5 Conference”.

This diplomatic haziness is unlikely to play well with the NNWS this week. Just last month, many of the NNWS convened at a conference in Oslo to discuss the “humanitarian impact” of nuclear weapons - which may, in part, be borne from frustration at a perceived lack of action by the NWS on their commitments towards disarmament. The NWS, collectively, chose not to attend the conference. Look this week for plenty of criticism in the chamber directed at them for this non-engagement.

What is missing is an understanding both of the complexity of the disarmament challenge for NWS - which has only been heightened by domestic pressures over how to approach relations with countries such as North Korea and Iran - and the need for greater transparency from the NWS on the “significant developments” they claim they are making towards their NPT commitments.

And this discussion would not be complete without reference to the curveball that is the ‘2012’ Conference on a Middle East zone free of WMD that never happened, spiked because perhaps the region was not yet in a state to sit down and talk, but largely because the Israelis were still smarting at the manner in which the conference had been conceived and fearful that it could be used to ambush them. There will undoubtedly be a sense of betrayal expressed by the Arab states towards the United States in particular, but where this is taken will indicate what sort of a future the Conference may have, and where states parties go from here.

It would be easy to be pessimistic about the likelihood of any significant developments from the PrepCom. But we continue to hope that there will be attempts to engage from all corners of the debate. This is one of the few opportunities to consider how the disarmament and non-proliferation debates really intersect, and meaningful dialogue will be critical to moving towards untangling, rather than reinforcing, some of these hugely complex dynamics.


These are the personal views of the author.

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