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The Failed Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference: Cyclical Pattern or Paradigm Change?

Editorial by Marc Finaud

The Middle East: a Constant Source of Disagreement

UN Photo

Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference Opens in Geneva, 5 May 1975

On 22 May 2015, the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) ended without adopting any substantive final document by consensus. The main reason for what many frustrated participants, weary of four weeks of genuine efforts, called a failure was the rejection of the draft report by the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada: those three states parties objected to the proposed date – March 2016 – for the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General to convene a conference on a Zone free of Nuclear Weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East. It was reported that the principal objection to such a date came from Israel, a state not party to the NPT, which had however participated in the Review Conference as an observer.

The proposal to convene this conference – a project dating back to 1974 – was initiated by Egypt and supported by many other states parties; indeed, in the final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, all states parties had agreed by consensus to hold it in 2012 but the US, defending an Israeli position, decided that such a conference could not be convened as planned. Israel did take an active part in the consultations organised by the Finnish Facilitator in Switzerland from 2013 to 2015 with Arab countries, but it insisted that prior agreement on an agenda and the modalities of the conference was a prerequisite.


Once again (...) the issue of the Middle East and the Israeli nuclear capability was a decisive factor of the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of a Review Conference.


Once again, as was the case in 1995 (the indefinite extension of the NPT) and 2010, the issue of the Middle East and the Israeli nuclear capability was a decisive factor of the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of a Review Conference.

The Cycle of Success and Failure of NPT Review Conferences

However, looking back at the whole five-year Review cycle since the entry into force of the Treaty in 1970, one cannot escape the conclusion that the adoption of a consensus final document follows an irregular pattern. Substantive documents, not only on the review of implementation of the Treaty but also on new initiatives to support this implementation, could be adopted by the Conferences of 1975 (1), 1985 (2), 1995 (3), 2000 (including the “Thirteen Steps” towards nuclear disarmament) (4), and 2010 (with an Action Plan of 64 actions including 22 on nuclear disarmament).(5) By contrast, the final documents of the 1980 (6), 1990 (7), and 2005 (8) Conferences were merely procedural.

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, addresses the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

The reasons for the successful adoption of final documents or lack of agreement were varied throughout the Review cycle: in 1975 and 1985, there was still some enthusiasm and high expectations in view of the first bilateral nuclear arms control agreements between the US and the Soviet Union; in 1995 and 2000, even more so with the end of the Cold War, the INF Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Conversely, in 1980 and 1990 US-Soviet negotiations stalled, and in 2005 the US preferred no document to a moderate text void of any condemnation of Iran, by definition unacceptable to Tehran.

In recent years since the 1995 indefinite extension of the Treaty, some observers noted that even years (2000, 2010) were propitious to substantive agreements while odd years (2005, 2015) seemed marked by a curse. The explanation may be found in the length of intervals between two Review Conferences in which states parties succeeded in adopting substantial commitments that later appeared too ambitious or not resilient to the deterioration of relations among the key states.

This year, beyond the disagreement about the Middle East –deemed by some as a pretext or a scandalous paradox dictated by a non-state party– it is true that, compared to 2010, increased tensions between Russia and western countries because of the conflict in Ukraine did not help the search for consensus especially on nuclear disarmament. In a quasi Cold War atmosphere, the Russian delegation accused the US and NATO to refuse negotiations on ballistic missile defence, the deployment of space weapons as well as US non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed in European countries and other threats to ‘strategic stability’ in Moscow’s eyes.

The Main Disagreement: the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

UN Photo/Mark Garten

UN Secretary-General Urges Nations to Make Nuclear Disarmament Targets a Reality at the NPT Conference, 3 May 2010

But the main feature of the 2015 Conference – and the real reason for lack of consensus thereof – was the widening gap between the expectations of most non-nuclear weapon states and the negative attitude of the nuclear-weapon states, in particular with regard to the now well-established process on the ‘humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons’ (HINW). Already in 2010, this approach was raised by many states parties following new studies derived from climate change research and bringing new evidence of the catastrophic effects that any detonation of nuclear weapon could have, whether intentional, accidental or terrorist. This was reflected in the 2010 NPT document and followed by three important conferences convened outside the NPT framework by Norway in 2013, Mexico and Austria in 2014.(9) However, the nuclear-weapon states boycotted that process, apart for the US and the UK at the last conference. Their main critique was that this process ‘detracted’ from the NPT ‘realistic’ and ‘step-by-step’ approach. Indeed, supported by the main proponents and guardians of international humanitarian law (IHL) such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the logical consequence of this HINW process was the more ambitious prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, considered as inherently contrary to the fundamental principles of IHL: distinction, proportionality, protection of civilians, etc.

In the wake of the 2014 Vienna conference, the Austrian government launched a ‘Pledge’ aimed at ‘filling the legal gap’ for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. At the 2015 Review Conference, this Humanitarian Pledge (10) was adopted by 106 states parties. The civil society organisations that supported this initiative finally preferred that there was no adoption of a final document appearing necessarily as a compromise with the positions of the nuclear-weapon states. Indeed, the draft reports that were submitted to the Conference could have weakened the previous commitments for further actions and progress towards nuclear disarmament. Moreover, some of the nuclear-weapon states not only argued that their achievements in this area were sufficient or that they could not commit to deadlines for the total elimination of their nuclear weapons but went as far as claiming that the majority of world population accepted to have its security rely on nuclear weapons or implying that the NPT provided nuclear-weapon states with the legitimate right of indefinite possession of nuclear weapons. In contrast, many states parties refused to continue condoning a system based on the domination of a few nuclear-armed states over the overwhelming majority of the international community. The delegate from South Africa compared that system to the Apartheid.

What Future for the NPT and Nuclear Disarmament?

Recent history has created strong precedents that give enough prominence to human security and cooperative security over traditional, ‘realist’ nation-state zero-sum-game approaches for reasonable hopes to be nurtured.

In a likely scenario of what may appear as a paradigm change, the supporters of the Humanitarian Pledge would normally convene a diplomatic conference to negotiate a nuclear weapons ban treaty, thus following the model of the Ottawa Treaty on Antipersonnel Landmines and the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions. The ban treaty will no doubt be forcefully resisted by the nuclear-armed states and will not by itself lead to further reductions or the elimination of nuclear weapons. But it will establish a strong moral and legal norm, especially if the treaty is ratified by a large number of states. And with the support of active civil society organisations, parliamentarians, high-level political or show business figures, it stands a good chance of exerting sufficient pressure on the governments of at least a few nuclear-weapon states. Whether the domino effect will work remains to be seen and will certainly face many serious obstacles such as regional conflicts and nationalistic postures. But recent history has created strong precedents that give enough prominence to human security and cooperative security over traditional, ‘realist’ nation-state zero-sum-game approaches for reasonable hopes to be nurtured.


Marc Finaud Senior Programme Advisor, Emerging Security Challenges Programme, GCSP. The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.


(1) United Nations, Document NPT/CONF/35/I of 30 May 1975.
(2) United Nations, Document NPT/CONF.III/64/I, Annex I, of 25 September 1985.
(3) United Nations, Document NPT/CONF.1995/32/I of 12 May 1995.
(4) United Nations, Document NPT/CONF.2000/28/Parts I and II of 19 May 2000.
(5) United Nations, Document NPT/CONF.2010/50/Vol. I of 28 May 2010.
(6) United Nations, Document NPT/CONF.II/22/I of 7 September 1980.
(7) United Nations, Document NPT/CONF.IV/65/I of 4 October 1990.
(8) United Nations, Document NPT/CONF.2005//57/Part I of 27 May 2005.
(9) See: Reaching Critical Will, “The Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons”.
(10) See: Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The Humanitarian Pledge”.