Jeffrey LewisNotes from the NPT REVCON

Michael Krepon noticed that we’ve been silent on the issue of the ongoing NPT Review Conference and had an inspired idea — why not ask my colleague Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova to send us her thoughts from New York, where she is attending.

Gaukhar is great — she is the director of our  program on International Organizations and Nonproliferation. You can follow her tweets from the REVCON at @GaukharM using the hashtag #NPT2015.

Notes from the NPT Review Conference

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

The Ninth NPT Review Conference kicked off in New York last week without much fanfare. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was there, speaking on the first day, as was Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, along with a number of other ministers, but there was little excitement or positive energy in the room. From their packed nosebleed section, NGOs could see plenty of empty seats behind delegation desks in the grand UN General Assembly Hall.

This lack of excitement is not surprising as, unlike in 2010, we arrive to the 2015 RevCon with the Prague Agenda having decidedly run out of steam, the US-Russian arms control dialogue deadlocked, and Russia’s adventures in Europe prompting many NATO allies to hug nuclear weapons tighter. The Humanitarian Initiative has broad-based support and strong momentum behind it, but it is also a source of tension, with the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and some of their nuclear allies uneasy about its goals and next steps.

Before the conference started, the United States had already been messaging that it (and the NPT) can well survive without a consensus outcome document—either anticipating a resolute nyet to everything, or trying preemptively to undercut the leverage of non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) prepared to crash the RevCon over nuclear disarmament and particularly the humanitarian dimension. And for at least one other usually active participant—Iran, priorities this year are elsewhere: Zarif (or any other Iranian representative, for that matter) did not even deliver a national statement at the General Debate. After speaking on behalf of NAM on the opening day, he dedicated most of his time to meetings on the P5+1 talks, and this week, theIranian delegation is busy negotiating the text of the joint comprehensive plan of action at the EU Mission in New York.

“This is going to be a long RevCon”

In the three-act RevCon drama, General Debate is the time for opening monologues—stating beliefs and expectations and setting the stage for the negotiations to follow. As expected, last week’s speeches highlighted large gaps between states’ positions on nuclear disarmament—and not only between nuclear and non-nuclear-weapon states, but also among the latter. The Middle East WMD-free zone issue is another major source of contention, though the cast of dramatis personae there is much smaller.

The Middle East probably requires a separate post, but let’s just say that the Arab states are profoundly unhappy about the failure to convene a regional conference on the zone and believe the blame lies anywhere but with the Arab states. They are particularly unimpressed with the co-conveners’ (Russia, UK, and U.S.) performance and request now that the UN Secretary-General convene the regional conference within 180 days of the RevCon conclusion. The UN Secretariat wants this as much as a root canal, but they are at the mercy of state parties. The co-conveners, for their part, would like to have another go at implementing the 2010 decisions and convening the conference “as soon as possible” (but please no deadlines). As one of the people in the thick of all this commented to me, “This is going to be a long RevCon.”


NNWS dissatisfaction with the progress on nuclear disarmament isn’t new, but there are a couple of common threads in the debate this year. For example, concerns about the ongoing and planned modernization by the NWS of their arsenals featured quite prominently in the opening statements. Most non-nuclear-weapon states judge modernization as evidence of long-term commitment to retaining nuclear weapons rather than eliminating them, and as contrary to both NPT Article VI and Action 1 of the 2010 document. It does not help that most NWS insist they cannot stop loving the bomb any time soon, what with nuclear weapons guaranteeing their security, sovereignty, and freedom of action.  And in this dangerous, unpredictable world, beatings will continue until morale improves nuclear weapons will be retained until the global context and security situation change.  Furthermore, Russia and France recently discovered the part of NPT Article VI they like the most, and at least one of them suggests that the discussion should be focused on general and complete disarmament rather than nuclear.

The most remarkable and persistent common thread, however, is the humanitarian dimension: a new development in the NPT discourse since 2010. Speaker after speaker last week expressed concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, and welcomed the three humanitarian impact conferences that took place in Norway, Mexico, and Austria in 2013 and2014. It is evident that the majority of NPT states want the humanitarian imperative to be reflected in the final document in stronger terms than it was in 2010, but specifics vary from state to state, and group to group. (Here’s what 15 states think, for example.)

Some NNWS see the humanitarian dimension as a call to action to prohibit nuclear weapons in the near term, while others caution about “shortcuts” and emphasize the need to engage the nuclear-weapon states. Reflective of divisions among the NNWS themselves, the RevCon heard two joint statements on the humanitarian impact—one on behalf of 159 states, and another on behalf of 26. The major difference between the two is that the former insists that nuclear weapons shouldn’t be used under any circumstances. The NWS are in such a bind they couldn’t even agree to use the word “humanitarian” in their joint statement (thanks, France) and downgraded the consequences from “catastrophic” to “severe.” Including a strong endorsement of the humanitarian imperative in the RevCon final document thus would likely require an epic battle, but the states leading the Humanitarian Initiative appear ready for a fight.

Closely linked to the humanitarian discourse is the question of where we go from here on nuclear disarmament, and whether that motion would be step-by-step or completed in anyone’s lifetime at all. Commonly described as “the only realistic way” by several state parties, the step-by-step approach is criticized more than ever at this RevCon. It is perceived by many as an excuse for inaction, exacerbated by the NWS description of the 2010 Action Plan as a “long-term roadmap,” from which NPT should not deviate. The counter-trend is the call for “closing the legal gap” with regard to the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Most prominent is the Austrian Pledge to pursue “efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.” Well over 70 countries now support the pledge, including all of Latin America and the Caribbean. The New Agenda Coalition has requested that the RevCon seriously discuss legal approaches to measures to achieve nuclear disarmament, including a convention or a ban. It is hard to imagine that such discussion will get very far at this RevCon, given the outright NWS opposition, but a number of states have indicated implicitly or explicitly that the prohibition of nuclear weapons should be pursued with or without the NWS.

In the NPT games, non-nuclear-weapon states traditionally feel that the odds are ever in the favor of their nuclear-armed counterparts: after all, they hold the weapons, and since you cannot very well force them to disarm, for any idea or proposal to advance in the NPT context, the five need to be on board. Well, there was something of a mockingjay whistle ringing around the UN General Assembly Hall last week. Is there a revolt brewing? Will the fire catch on? I’ll keep you posted as it develops.



  1. shaheen (History)

    Nothing in what the author (elegantly) writes is pushing me away from the thought that the RevCon is one major tired diplomatic circus, where various animals and acrobats make their well-rehearsed shows and unsurprising numbers. Having participated in one, I came out with the certainty that its duration should be cut by at least two-thirds. What a sad loss of time, energy and money.

    • Vijai Nair (History)

      Shaheen – You have it bang on. I too went through the 1995 Conference to extend the NPT indefinitely. A total farce orchestrated by Western shenanigans.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Hmm, I am not sure Shaheen means what you think.

  2. Philipp (History)

    Great precis, Gaukhar. As you continue to post, I’d particular welcome commentary linking internal NPT RevCon dynamics to concrete ramifications outside the “circus,” as the commentator above termed it. Or to put it more sharply, why should observers not deeply vested in the internal politics of the NPT care? I think there are some interesting potential observations to be made there, and you’re well positioned to make them.

  3. shaheen (History)

    Philip put it in a much more subtle way than I did. And Jeff is right. I don’t think that 1995 was a farce. Actually, I think that it was the only RevCon that mattered and deserved more than a week of discussions.

    • Vijai Nair (History)

      Every evening I was visited by delegates from different states (including Iran, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria, Malaysia, & others). They discussed their frustration at the stone walling by the Western delegates & behind the scene activities. I wrote a detailed Report, which I will try to locate & send to you. This is too important an issue to resort to subtleties. Magoo