The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970, is hailed as the cornerstone of the international nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament regime. To date,191 States have joined the Treaty thus achieving near universality.
For the past 50 years, the NPT has been successful in containing the spread of nuclear weapons; promoting nuclear technology transfer and co-operation; and, to a limited extent, influencing the Nuclear-Weapon States (NWS) to reduce their nuclear arsenal. To date, no NPT State Party (except North Korea) has acquired nuclear weapons’ technology. The so-called ‘nuclear-capable states’ - India, Israel and Pakistan - have always been outside the NPT. The Treaty has, thus, served the primary purpose of what the initial drafting Parties - USA and USSR - intended. The Treaty has, however, been the subject of criticism for failing to prevent vertical proliferation - the diversification and modernisation of nuclear weapons by NWS - and lack of progress towards nuclear disarmament, as required under Article VI of the NPT. Indeed, to address this shortcoming, the UN General Assembly, in July 2017, adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Treaty, which subsequently opened for signature at the UN on 20 September 2017, currently has 81 Signatory States and 37 States Parties. It will enter into force upon ratification/accession by 50 States.
The NPT (under Article III) has empowered the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to facilitate and verify the implementation of nuclear safeguards, in order to provide the International Community with the assurance that nuclear materials and facilities are not diverted for military purposes. To this end, the IAEA Safeguards Inspectorate has been collaborating closely with the European Commission Safeguards Inspectorate (under Euratom Treaty), other regional organisations across the globe (under Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Treaties), and individual Member States.
On a quinquennial (five-yearly) basis, in the month of May, States Parties to the NPT have been convening at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York to review the functioning of the Treaty, as stipulated under Article VIII (3). The ‘Review Conferences’ assess the implementation of the provisions of the NPT in relation to its three pillars: (i) Nuclear Disarmament; (ii) Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons; and (iii) Research, development, and peaceful uses of Nuclear Energy.
Exactly 25 years ago, at the 5th Review and Extension Conference of the NPT, in May 1995, Parties agreed on the indefinite extension of the Treaty. This was amid extensive negotiations and bargaining between the NWS, who were promoting the extension, and the NNWS, who were concerned by lack of progress towards nuclear disarmament. The Conference also agreed on the completion of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and negotiations on the ‘Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty’ (FMCT) for weapons purposes. An FMCT, once in force, would provide restrictions for the NWS (US, Russia, UK, France, and China), as it would prohibit the production of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. Moreover, a resolution calling for establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East was adopted.
The ‘2010 Review Conference’ was successful in unanimously agreeing on, inter alia, the need for the five NWS to reduce and eliminate their nuclear arsenal; to ratify the CTBT, where applicable; and to commence negotiation on FMCT (Fissban Treaty). It further endorsed the establishment of a zone in the Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, in relation to the non-proliferation pillar (Articles II and III of the NPT), the Review Conference urged NNWS to conclude and implement the ‘Additional Protocol’ to their Comprehensive Nuclear Safeguards Agreements with the IAEA, to ensure undeclared nuclear material and nuclear activities are not diverted towards nuclear weapons programmes. In promoting the universality of the NPT, the Review Conference requested the return to the NPT. It also reiterated accession to the Treaty by India, Israel and Pakistan, and placement of all their nuclear facilities under IAEA Safeguards.
For the first time in 40 years, the 2010 Review Conference addressed the issue of ‘Nuclear Security’, and its implications for non-proliferation. In this context, the State Parties were encouraged to join the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (2005), the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (1979), and to ratify the 2009 amendment to the 1979 Convention. The following Review Conference in May 2015, however, ended with no consensus, and no concrete outcome.
As regards the 2020 NPT Review Conference, which marks the 50th anniversary of NPT, the Preparatory Committee commenced its work in May 2017, and released its final report in May 2019. However, due to restrictions posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Conference was postponed for a year. The Review Conference was to consider a number of issues relating to the three pillars of the NPT, inter alia, universality of the Treaty; nuclear disarmament; nuclear non-proliferation; strengthening of safeguards; peaceful use of nuclear energy; safety and security; implementation of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East; and the withdrawal from the Treaty.
For the past 50 years, the Treaty has served as the cornerstone of the international nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. It has empowered the IAEA; has facilitated safeguarded co-operation in peaceful applications of nuclear technology; and has prevented the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. However, it has achieved limited success in preventing the diversification and modernisation of nuclear weapons by NWS. It is expected that the postponed Review Conference, in 2021, will address this discord, to ensure a more balanced approach in upholding the provisions of the three pillars of the NPT, and to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
Dr Bahram Ghiassee is a Principal Associate of GSDM. He holds dual qualifications in Nuclear Engineering and International Law. He specialises in Nuclear Security and Nuclear Non-Proliferation, with specific interest in issues related to Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Weapons, and their impact on the environment. To get in touch with Bahram email [email protected].