Jeffrey LewisNotes from the REVCON III

Gaukhar is back with the third and final installment of her posts from the 2015 NPT REVCON.  If you are interested, we’ve also posted two podcasts in the NPT REVCON Follies, one with Gaukhar and another with Andrea Berger.

The RevCon of Our Discontent: The Post Mortem

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

 Have you forgotten all about the RevCon and me? I’m sorry. I think my brain tried to block out the memory of four weeks in New York, but shame (and Jeffrey) got me back to writing. Because it’s been a while, you get a longer post and a supplementary timeline of the RevCon’s last week.

The NPT Review Conference’s last week was devoted to last-ditch and closed-door negotiations to formulate different parts of the draft final text. A group of about 20 states was negotiating on disarmament at the Algerian Mission, while chairs of Main Committees II and III were leading attempts at the UN to agree on nonproliferation, safeguards, nuclear security, export controls, response to withdrawal, and other issues. Neither the disarmament group nor any of the committees could reach consensus, so on Wednesday evening, the RevCon President took over to put together a compromise proposal, a non-negotiable “take it or leave it” draft final document. Its disarmament part came out earlier than others, on Thursday morning. The full version was delayed until 2 am on Friday morning, reportedly because of the continued efforts to agree on the text regarding steps towards the establishment of a Middle East WMD-free zone. (Here’s my more detailed timeline of the last week.)

Here I Am, Stuck in the Middle (East) with You

As you all know now, on May 22, the RevCon concluded without a consensus agreement on the final document. Although the RevCon was dominated by disarmament debates, it was ultimately the Middle East that brought it down, as the United States and the United Kingdom (oh, and yes, Canada) rejected the draft text’s provisions on the Middle East WMDZ conference. The move probably shouldn’t have surprised most delegations, so why did it? The Middle East always had a high potential to wreck this RevCon and was expected to be a contentious issue, but it was not at the center of the debates throughout the conference. After the initial unveiling of the sides’ respective positions, the conversation disappeared almost entirely behind the scenes, and the later in the RevCon it got, the harder it was for the outsiders to assess the situation.  So when the issue emerged from thick fog on the last day of the conference, many genuinely didn’t know what to expect.

Egypt showed up at the RevCon with a big gun, though mostly pointed at its own feet.  The “Arab paper” (and its twin “NAM Middle East paper”) contained a number of eyebrow-raising demands.  The paper requested the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) to convene the conference on a Middle East WMD-free zone within 180 dys of the RevCon closing, eliminated both the facilitator’s role and the preparatory multilateral consultations on the agenda and the outcome of the conference, and indeed prescribed what the outcome should be. Not only were those conditions unacceptable to the United States, even some of the Arab delegations were uncomfortable with the paper. A number of Non-Aligned states weren’t psyched, either, but chose not to pick that particular battle.

Russia, who seemed to have decided that the one thing they really cared about at the RevCon was the Middle East, played “the good NPT depositary” to the Arab states and kept trying to come up with compromise proposals. The Russian Middle East paper and subsequent Subsidiary Body 2 Chair’s draft text remained fairly close to the Egyptian position, but returned the preparatory consultations and introduced the possibility of a designated/special representative to lead the process (though after the treatment Ambassador Laajava got, who would want a job the description of which apparently includes getting kicked in the shins for all your trouble?). It’s not clear how happy Egypt was with either proposals, but I heard they were happy to keep pushing for their position.

The RevCon President’s final proposed text went the furthest in meeting the US condition that all states in the region, including Israel, agree to the agenda and outcome before the conference is convened. While it still had a deadline for the conference and the UNSG as the convener, it also stipulated that regional states should engage in consultations to agree on the conference agenda by consensus, and that any decisions emerging either from the preparatory process or from the conference should also be made by consensus. At the same time, the UNSG, the NPT depositaries, and other states were to ensure that the conference isn’t postponed, creating ambiguity about whether the conference would have to be convened by March 1, 2016 even without a consensus on the agenda.

My boss has been to many more NPT meetings and knows better, so he was skeptical that the United States would accept the Middle East text. However, the significant delay in the release of the draft final document created an impression that the Middle East consultations that ran late into the night on Thursday had resulted in some kind of an agreement. Since there were no plenary sessions on Friday morning, most states had limited opportunity to gauge the US and others’ opinions, and the US delegation wasn’t exactly walking around broadcasting its displeasure with the text. As I understand, Egypt also didn’t make it clear to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that there in fact had been no agreement on the Middle East. (Perhaps Egypt did genuinely expect the United States to accept the draft?) Instead, both Egypt and Iran, though touting an appropriately tough line on disarmament throughout the RevCon, at the end were prepared to sell a dead cow argue for the acceptance of the final document in spite of discontent with the disarmament part. A number of people were unpleasantly surprised in the end, while Russia—the Budapest Memorandum and INF treaty violator and nuclear weapons modernizer—got to ride out of it all on a white horse.

Where does it all leave us on the Middle East WMD-free zone? It might well be back to the drawing board now, to the 1995 Middle East Resolution, which, inexplicably, Egypt seems to prefer today over implementing the 2010-recommended steps.  Which is a shame, really, considering it was a hard battle to get the 2010 agreement, and, slow as the process may have been, the consultations led by the Finnish facilitator were starting to show progress. In their closing statement, the United States indicated they are still up for implementing the 2010 mandate, if everyone plays by the consensus rule. That would require a change in the current Egyptian position, and who knows when that might happen? Barring any significant changes in a variety of states’ behavior, it seems that the subject will remain a thorn in the NPT review process’ side.  If states allow it, future RevCon outcomes will continue to hang on the issue where the majority are but observers, unable to seriously influence the process and results.

Nuclear Disarmament: The Almost-Outcome

RevCon failures are not joyous occasions, but I have a feeling a number of the non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) weren’t particularly heartbroken to lose the disarmament part of the draft final document. Some delegations were probably relieved because the US move spared them the need to either block the document themselves or explain the acceptance of a disarmament text they found disappointing.

The text tabled on May 21 was not a product of agreement in the small group that negotiated at the Algerian Mission, but the RevCon President’s (with the help of other conference officers) attempt at a compromise language on the basis of those negotiations. Though not without progressive elements, the proposed text fell short of many NNWS’ expectations. The draft mentioned the humanitarian impact a good number of times, but didn’t give the initiative the strong endorsement the majority of the NNWS sought.  The joint statement on behalf of 159 states was only noted (rather than welcomed), along with the 26-nation statement, and the P5 statement. On the other hand, the text emphasized that concerns about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use “should continue to underpin” nuclear disarmament efforts and lend them urgency. Urgency, however, wasn’t very evident in the text on further measures, as in most instances the “urging” was directed at the Conference on Disarmament, so famously paralyzed.

The one important area where the document urged the NWS to act was in addressing the risks of accidental use of nuclear weapons. Otherwise, the NWS were mostly called upon or encouraged to implement measures they were asked to implement before (or at least consider implementing, such as reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons). The call for greater transparency got beefed up with a request for reports in 2017, 2019, and 2020, and recommendations on specific reporting categories. Luckily for China and Russia, though, reporting under specific categories was to be considered “without prejudice to national security,” and you know how threatening transparency is to China’s security in particular.

Finally, to answer the calls for effective (legal) measures for nuclear disarmament, the draft document recommended that the UN General Assembly establish an open-ended working group (OEWG). The suggested mandate for the group was to identify and elaborate effective measures to fully implement Article VI, which could include legal provisions but also “other arrangements.” The provision over which some of the NNWS stumbled, though, was the recommendation that the OEWG operate by consensus, promising another frustrating search for the lowest common denominator.

You Can’t Always Block What You Want

All in all, the disarmament text was easy enough for the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) to accept, and it placed on the unhappy NNWS the burden of rejecting the outcome and sinking the conference. I can’t know for sure that none of the NNWS delegations had a rejection text ready at the last plenary, but my impression is that no NNWS was in the position to block consensus, nor was there any collective action in the works.

Ironically, some of the states were likely willing to hold their fire to allow for the agreement on the Middle East. More broadly, however, the near-outcome reflects both the reluctance of individual states to bear the political cost of wrecking a RevCon and the limited ability to organize and block consensus jointly. Theoretically, as the largest NNWS group NAM has the greatest potential to block any outcome they don’t like, but in practice, it can rarely mobilize like that. Moreover, current NAM chair Iran, as I noted before, has been preoccupied with other matters, and leading a NAM revolt at the RevCon was the last thing they needed ahead of the last month of the P5+1 negotiations.

The states leading the Humanitarian Initiative, for their part, might have felt they had made a clear and loud enough point without blocking the final document. The humanitarian dimension is a central element of the disarmament debate now, not likely to simply dissipate if the NWS ignore it long enough. The issue of collective action, however, remains a serious question for the Humanitarian Initiative going forward, in the context of broader questions about its future.  On the RevCon’s last day, Austria announced that 107 states had endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge (formerly known as the Austrian Pledge), committing to pursue efforts to “stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate” nuclear weapons. It’s an impressive number, reflective of the pent-up frustration and hunger for new approaches among the NNWS, but what are the 107 actually prepared to do? Would they indeed take the risk of establishing a new process to ban nuclear weapons, as many in civil society argue they should, or prefer to stick to existing structures and keep trying to exert pressure there?

I noted in my second post that at this RevCon, NPT parties looked to be approaching the point of irreconcilable disagreement on the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and the humanitarian imperative of disarmament. For now, it seems both sides were willing to step away from that line, but the fact that, the Middle East aside, the final document was most likely going to be adopted doesn’t mean that they have overcome their differences in any substantive way. The first Preparatory Committee session of the next NPT review cycle is not until 2017, but states will have to face each other and those differences much sooner than that.

There might be room for more humanitarian impact conferences, especially if the NWS engage more substantively on such issues as the risk of use of nuclear weapons. But there is also a risk of turning the HINW conferences into another institution where everyone ritualistically repeats their well-known positions, and I’m sure states are wary of that. The OEWG remains an option for furthering the conversation on implementing Article VI, though I’d expect the Humanitarian Initiative states to push for a more ambitious mandate than what the draft final document recommends. The differences that were papered over in the RevCon’s draft final document, including the OEWG mandate and rules of procedure, will likely then come to the fore again at the UN First Committee in October.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    I freely admit I am asking about stuff I don’t have the country specific background on here, please bear with me…

    As someone not familiar with Egypt’s role in prior NPT conferences, I am wondering if they have been this active of a WMD free zone in prior review conferences and other diplomacy. I am aware of the interest in the region (other than Israel) in such an agreement, but did not know Egypt was a major driver for it.

    Has this always been so, or are they newly focused on it after the recent dynamic upsets in their government?

    Are there good resources / things I should be looking at to understand the context better?


  2. Gaukhar (History)

    Yes, Egypt has always been the drivers for this issue. They picked up the Iranian proposal at the UNGA in 1974 and have run with it, in various fora, ever since.

    A promise to do something about creating the zone was Egypt’s price for supporting the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 (see the 1995 Middle East Resolution). They pretty much sank the 2005 RevCon over the lack of progress on this (GWB Admin’s lack of interest in multilateralism & disarmament didn’t help, either).

    In 2010, Egyptians were mostly the ones negotiating with the US (and Russia) the decisions to convene a regional conference and appoint the facilitator.

    Here’s an article reviewing the history:; and a more in-depth report:

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Thank you!

  3. Jonah Speaks (History)

    The main problem with these conferences is the insistence that everyone gets a veto. In the NPT Review Conference, why does Egypt (or any other single nation) get a veto? In the U.N. Conference on disarmament, why does Pakistan get a veto on whether a fissile materials treaty can even be discussed? Why do 44 nations get a veto on whether the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty can ever enter into force?

    A whole lot more might get accomplished in these international fora if nations did not mindlessly grant a veto power to every other nation that might want to gum up the works. Why not something more sensible, like a 2/3 majority to get resolutions passed? If some nations are inherently more important than others, give them more votes, but not a veto.

  4. John Hallam (History)

    My own article on the NPT Revcon, whose analysis in many respects agrees with Gaukhar’s, can be found at:

  5. Martin Schenk (History)

    What I find most interesting about this review conference is the lack of media coverage about it.
    Even in Austria where I would expect the local media to turn the austrian input to the “humanitarian pledge” into something big, the event passed with barely a mention in the papers.
    It seems as if no one outside of the conference hall is really expecting these conferences to lead to anything more than either a shallow compromise or a blame game about whose fault it is that no compromise was reached.

  6. Julius (History)

    Don’t forget to hover your mouse over the comic (for the tooltip)!