Forthcoming NPT review conference: Prospects and challenges

By Maimuna Ashraf

Notwithstanding various instruments, one of the predominant challenges in the contemporary security environment to world peace and security is the spread of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), since its ratification is broadly accepted as world’s most triumphant international arms control accord, which has been adhered by all states except North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Sudan. Conversely, the proliferation record in few last decades shows that the international mechanism to combat nuclear proliferation is relatively proving inadequate to handle prevailing challenges as the suspected cases of nuclear proliferation i.e. India, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria, were not deterred or reversed. Consequently, various recent developments have drawn attention to indigenous imperfections and worth of NPT, as several proliferation issues remain unsettled, ineffectively addressed or purposely overlooked.

Since NPT entered into force, Review Conferences are held after every five years to evaluate the implementation of three pillars of NPT; nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In 2015, the NPT Review Conference will take place at UN Headquarters from 27 April to 22 May. The state-parties will gather to consider a number of key issues, including: “universality of the Treaty, nuclear disarmament/regional disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation, promoting and strengthening of safeguards, measures to advance the peaceful use of nuclear energy, safety and security of nuclear technology, implementation of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East, measures to address withdrawal from the Treaty and procedures to further strengthen the review process.” The question arises what can be the expected agreement and disagreements concerning the agenda of NPT Review Conference? The NPT Review conferences have often failed to achieve consensus on a final document. The main disagreements have occurred between nuclear weapon states and non nuclear weapon states.

The Middle Eastern region, that has emerged as a vital component in international geo-political landscape and security domains will be an inevitable concern for parties to NPT. The Iranian nuclear program will be a primary issue, although six-powers (P5 and Germany) and Iran have recently reached at a Joint Plan of Action to restrict Iranian nuclear technology capabilities for civilian purposes only, precluding nuclear weapon development. However, the final agreement is yet to be reached, having the tendency to further complex or relax the regional calculus. The Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s endorsement of the Geneva Deal between Iran and P5+1 led by the United States is being widely considered ‘hesitant’ and the Saudi Regime is suspected to incite ambitions to develop nuclear option in a future triangular regional power-politics among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran. Israel, a non-party state to NPT, already has a robust nuclear weapons stockpile in the region and is reportedly in quest of second strike capability. The implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution on a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) will be a predominant issue in the agenda of NPT review conference 2015; however, consensus on such a possibility remains unfeasible viewing the suspicious Iran, Egypt’s policy against signing Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC) and Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and Israel’s developments.

In Northeast Asia, North Korea (that withdrew from NPT and resumed its nuclear weapon program) would likely to face criticism for its nuclear and ballistic missile developments and demands to cease its nuclear activities. The major challenge for NPT states-parties would be to reach an agreement that would not deteriorate the credibility of international non-proliferation instruments and equally acceptable to North Korea. Even though the idea of Six-Party Talks and Northeast Asia Weapons Free Zone would likely to be addressed in coming review conference, the likelihood to reach on consensus is low. Moreover, Japan has already interpreted its war-renouncing constitution to exercise the right to collective self-defense, raising questions about Japan’s future intentions behind remilitarization and its impact on non-proliferation regime.

In South Asia, Pakistan and India are not party to NPT but frequently face international pressure to become a member of the treaty. The nuclear developments in the region should be of global concern for its potential grave implications. Primarily, the original provision and revived advancement of Indo-US nuclear deal undermined the non-proliferation efforts as the deal violates Articles I and II and undermines the fundamental purpose of NPT to prevent nuclear proliferation. The deal may encourage NPT signatory states to defy the treaty obligations under the withdrawal clause, Article X of the NPT, and pursue their national interests. Moreover, India’s potential inclusion in Nuclear Supply Group (NSG), after the India-specific exemption to NSG guidelines, is disturbing regional nuclear equilibrium and triggering Pakistan to indulge in a nuclear arm race to ensure credible deterrence which is posing serious challenges to nonproliferation regime. Likewise, the country-specific safeguards display a discriminatory institutional mechanism of the nonproliferation regime and undermine the nonproliferation endeavors.

Evidently, no timeframe has yet been specified to halt the nuclear arm race and to nuclear disarmament under the Article VI of the treaty that calls on all states to “pursue negotiations” on “effective measures” related to it. The two important elements of the nonproliferation regime (CTBT and FMCT) have never come into effect which questions the status of nonproliferation efforts. The credibility of negative security assurances will also be a profound debate in review conference, whose credibility has been questioned after Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum pledged Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for Ukraine joining NPT and giving up nuclear weapons.

Thus, the future of non-proliferation is contingent on the series of events that predominantly includes the US-Iran deal, US-North Korea negotiations, India’s membership to NSG and Indo-US deal. The prevailing security issues demands a nondiscriminatory and effective institutional mechanism to resolve the Spartan challenges which are hindering the way forward to nuclear non-proliferation.

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Maimuna Ashraf

Maimuna Ashraf works as a Senior Research Associate for an Islamabad-based think tank Strategic Vision Institute. She works on issues related to nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and South Asian nuclear equation. She writes for South Asian Voices, international blogs and national dailies.

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