RECNA NPT Blog 2022 Final Edition No.0

0. (Overview) Significance and Issues of the 2022 NPT Review Conference

This NPT Review Conference was unprecedented in that it was held at a time when Russia, a depositary state of the NPT and a permanent member of the UN Security Council supposedly with special responsibility for the international peace and security, was invading Ukraine while blackmailing it with nuclear weapons. Under these circumstances, the five nuclear-weapon States (NWS or N5) could not engage in meaningful dialogue in the lead-up to and during the Review Conference, as they had done in the past, and thus expectations for any kind of outcome were very low. Nevertheless, once the conference actually began, although many countries accused Russia of invading Ukraine and threatening nuclear intimidation, and Russia responded, the entire conference did not heat up unnecessarily, and the three pillars of the NPT were discussed relatively in a calm manner.

Compared to the 2015 Review Conference, this time there was not much sense of tension, and the meeting as a whole proceeded in a relaxed atmosphere. The 2015 Conference was tense. Tensions were high between the humanitarian group, which had come to the meeting with the possibility of starting negotiations for a nuclear weapons ban treaty on the cards, and the group of the NWS and allied countries, which wanted to stop them. This time, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was already completed, which may have conversely created a lack of tension. Before the Conference, I had been paying particular attention to the question of whether the nations would be able to share a sense of crisis about the NPT regime in the face of Russia’s nuclear threats and the shaky nuclear norms that have emerged. The lack of tension that I felt may have been due to the lack of a shared sense of crisis.

Although the atmosphere was rather relaxed, as the meeting progressed, many points of contention came to the fore in complex ways. Although there was no sign of a landing point in sight by the end of the third week, a push during the final week brought us one step closer to adopting a consensus. In the end, Russia blocked the adoption of the draft Final Document mainly over the treatment of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). However, given the initially low expectations and the numerous points of contention and their complex structure, it is a miracle that consensus was even close. At the official plenary session on the final day, when it became clear that the consensus could not be attained, many countries expressed their dissatisfaction with the draft Final Document, even though they said they were ready to participate in the consensus. However, since in diplomacy it is said that the more countries express dissatisfaction, the more successful it is, the draft Final Document may have been successful in a sense.

Before the meeting, when asked what it would mean if this Review Conference failed again, I replied that it would depend on how the agreement failed. For example, the meaning will differ greatly between a case in which, due to a violent confrontation between groups, the document breaks down with no prospect of agreement, as was the case in 2005, and a case in which agreement was substantially reached but could not be adopted due to opposition from one or two countries (e.g., in 2015). This Conference belongs to the latter category. Compared to the former case, the negative impact on the NPT regime is likely to be more restrained.

In fact, the draft Final Document, after acknowledging the entry into force of the TPNW, includes a number of statements recognizing the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, which is the basis of the TPNW, and also includes victim assistance and environmental remediation, which are newly highlighted in the TPNW. Although the draft Final Document was not able to condemn Russia’s nuclear intimidation itself, it contained languages that, with Russia’s nuclear blackmail in mind, “the NWS commit to refrain from any inflammatory rhetoric concerning the use of nuclear weapons”, that “States parties commit to making every effort to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again”, and further that nuclear risk reduction measures should be developed. Other new issues relevant to today’s international situation were also included such as the establishment of accountability, transparency and reporting mechanisms, disarmament and non-proliferation education, including “interactions with and directly sharing experiences of the peoples and the communities affected by nuclear weapons use and testing to know their humanitarian and environmental impact”, the principle of the prohibition of armed attack or threat of armed attack against nuclear installations, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Still, there is no doubt that the NPT regime faces major problems. Even though the conference was one step away from adopting a Final Document by consensus, I did not get the impression that a sense of crisis about the NPT regime was widely shared. Rather, I heard strong dissatisfaction with the NPT regime from many delegations. Even in the general debate, the evaluation of the NPT as the “cornerstone” of the international nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime was limited mainly to Western countries. Rumors circulated that if no results were achieved this time, some countries would not attend future NPT Review Conferences or would withdraw from the NPT and move on to the TPNW. In fact, Kiribati mentioned the possibility of withdrawal from the NPT (although unknown to what extent this was serious) at a formal plenary session during the final week.

It is hard to believe that confidence in the NPT regime can be maintained if Russia, a depositary state of the NPT, is invading in blatant violation of the security assurances it gave to Ukraine in the Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine returned the nuclear weapons in its territory to Russia in exchange for security assurances. Many non-aligned countries feel that nuclear disarmament has been slow to take hold, that they are pressed with progress in nuclear nonproliferation, and that the benefits from peaceful uses of nuclear energy are not provided to any great extent. Whether or not this is a fair assessment, such perceptions and sentiments are growing stronger every year. It is natural that dissatisfaction with the NPT regime would only increase. This does not mean that we should give up on the NPT regime. Even though the TPNW has been established, the NPT is the only nuclear weapons treaty to which all five NWS are parties and which brings them together with non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS) almost every year. The NPT is the only treaty in which the five NWS are obligated to negotiate nuclear disarmament in good faith, even if the obligations are not specific and vague. Whatever approach to nuclear abolition one prefers, the NPT must not be taken lightly or for granted. However frustrating it may be, we must not give up, for the collapse of the NPT regime is in no one’s interest.

This conference showed once again that nuclear disarmament cannot be separated from the realities of international politics. The lack of agreement this time does not mean that the NPT regime will collapse immediately. However, as an unequal treaty, the NPT inherently contains instability and the risk of collapse, and constant maintenance is necessary. To this end, faithful implementation of past agreements is the first priority. Then, it is necessary to engage in frank dialogue on the fundamental differences in thinking that are the cause of the division among the countries. It is essential to respect each other’s way of thinking, rather than imposing one’s own way of thinking on the other or unilaterally condemning the other’s way of thinking. If we then work jointly to earnestly identify specific barriers to the common goal of nuclear abolition, we will naturally find a way forward. The “bridge-building” expected of Japan, which Prime Minister Kishida declared in his speech to be the “guardian” of the NPT, would be to lead such a joint effort. The new “International Group of Eminent Persons” on nuclear disarmament scheduled for November, which Prime Minister Kishida announced at this NPT Review Conference, is expected to do just such work. We need to keep a close watch on what concrete actions will be taken to maintain and strengthen the credibility of the NPT regime at next year’s G7 summit in Hiroshima, which has become increasingly important in light of the breakdown of the NPT Review Conference.

(Michiru Nishida)

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