The 2015 NPT Review Conference

Every five years since 1970, member states of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) meet at UN headquarters in New York to assess the implementation of the treaty. The Review Conference (the “Revcon”) will conclude at the end this week.

Q1: What is the NPT Review Conference? What are its goals?

A1: Although member states of the NPT are continuously engaged in implementing various elements of the treaty, the Revcon is the formal process for evaluating progress on the three “pillars” of the NPT: nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Since the treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995, some observers question the importance of these review conferences, but sometimes they set benchmarks for performance in different areas. They are also an important forum for legitimizing norms that develop over time. In general, non-nuclear-weapon states like to use these review conferences for extracting commitments from the nuclear weapon states on nuclear disarmament steps, while nuclear weapon states tend to focus on ensuring the nonproliferation regime is as strong as it needs to be.

Q2: What is on the agenda now? What are some of the sticking points that have emerged since 1995?

A2: At the 2010 Revcon, NPT member states agreed to a 64-Point Action Plan covering the three pillars of nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The plan was not meant to be completed in five years, but has been used to gauge progress on all three areas of treaty implementation. In light of deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia, some of the disarmament steps remain out of reach, including further reductions in strategic or tactical nuclear weapons beyond New START, but there have been some positive steps worth noting, for example, P-5 meetings on transparency and the publication of standard reports on Article VI (disarmament obligation) implementation. Entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) are still high on the agenda.

Some of the highlights, good and bad, of the current conference include: political sparks over the failure to hold a conference on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, the relative quiet over Iran’s nuclear program, the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and North Korea’s nuclear program. Notably, last week at the Revcon, Egyptian negotiators called for the resignation of the special negotiator on the WMD-free zone in the Middle East, Finnish Ambassador Jaako Laajava. On Iran, the interim agreement in April 2015 on a joint comprehensive plan of action on Iran’s nuclear program has dampened some of the previous tension evident in Revcons over the conflict between peaceful nuclear energy and nuclear nonproliferation. On the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, the question is whether or not elements of the ongoing process since 2013 will be incorporated into the Revcon. Although not an official part of the 2010 Action Plan, there is widespread support to use this issue to pursue a legal prohibition on nuclear weapons. Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program may be the dog that didn’t bark at the Revcon, despite worrisome signs of increasing nuclear capabilities.

Q: What are the likely outcomes of the 2015 Review Conference?

A3: With each review conference, diplomats hope for but try not to expect a final consensus document. Historically, half of the review conferences have produced consensus documents, although some have been more important than others (for example, the 2000 Review Conference consensus document helped to ratify the 1995 extension decision). Any number of developments could help derail consensus: U.S.-Russian tensions, proposals for sweeping multilateral approaches like nuclear weapons conventions or bans, and dissatisfaction over the inability to move forward on a conference on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. But the lack of a consensus document may not be the worst thing. Instead, a quiet reaffirmation of the goals set in 2010, whether or not parties are able to agree on a final document, would still provide an ambitious work plan for nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Sharon Squassoni is director and senior fellow with the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Bobby Kim is a research assistant and program coordinator with the Proliferation Prevention Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Sharon Squassoni

Bobby Kim