How disagreements over Russia’s nuclear threats could derail the NPT review conference

United Nations General Assembly Hall at UN Headquarters, New York (Image Patrick Gruban, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Members of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), also known as the Ban Treaty, gathered June 21-23 in Vienna for the first meeting of states parties to the treaty. As the first formal gathering since the treaty entered into force in 2021, the meeting set the course for the implementation of the treaty’s prohibitions on nuclear weapons and related activities and its positive obligations to assist nuclear weapons. victims and environmental restoration. The meeting also shed light on what to expect at the second highly anticipated nuclear meeting of the summer: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

For context, the ban treaty is intertwined with the NPT, although proponents and opponents of the TPNW disagree on exactly how. Critics of the ban treaty – which include nuclear-weapon states recognized by the NPT and their allies – argue that the treaty is an unrealistic approach to disarmament that threatens to disrupt the NPT, the cornerstone of the global disarmament regime. and non-proliferation. Members of the Ban Treaty instead say the treaty complements the NPT and provides practical mechanisms to implement the NPT’s commitment to disarmament – and reaffirmed this in Vienna.

Perhaps their most secure bond, the two treaties have designated the summer of 2022 as an auspicious time to meet. Members of the NPT will gather in New York in August for the 10th Treaty Review Conference to identify and address challenges facing the treaty and its broader regime.

Last week’s ban treaty meeting provides useful insight into what issues may be most pressing and simultaneously presents its own challenges. NPT members can anticipate disputes over Russia’s war on Ukraine, disagreements over how to approach the Vienna meeting in New York, and continuing divisions over the NPT’s disarmament mission.

Russia’s nuclear rhetoric. Many members of the ban treaty condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine and “the nuclear threats and accompanying rhetoric” in Vienna. Others, however, did not. This disparity became the main point of contention of the meeting. Importantly, the meeting statement broadly condemns “unequivocally any nuclear threat, whether explicit or implicit and under any circumstances.” But he stops short of calling out Russia for its invasion of a non-nuclear-weapon state in accordance with the NPT and its dangerous nuclear rhetoric.

The fact that member states of a treaty banning nuclear threats could not agree to explicitly denounce Russia’s actions suggests a contentious path for the NPT review conference. Russia is, after all, one of the five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the NPT. Some states are likely to outright condemn Russia’s nuclear rhetoric. Already, many — including the United States and its European allies — have argued that Russia’s actions pose significant challenges to the NPT, with serious implications for both disarmament and nonproliferation. Russia’s invasion could also undermine joint commitments made by the five nuclear-weapon states in late 2021 and early 2022 to advance strategic risk reduction as well as prevent nuclear war and nuclear races. to armaments.

Russia, on the other hand, is likely to push back and find support – or at least a lack of criticism – from some states with ongoing economic or ideological ties to Moscow. This assertion could conceivably dominate the atmosphere at the NPT Review Conference and prevent any substantial outcome.

Recognizing Vienna in New York. The first meeting of states parties in Vienna gave impetus to the ban treaty. Days before the meeting, three states – Cabo Verde, Grenada and Timor-Leste – ratified the treaty, and Malawi followed suit a week later. Even more states to plan do so in the coming weeks. The high-level attendance at the meeting – from the Prime Minister of Fiji to several foreign ministers and MPs – sent a strong political signal of members’ commitment to implementing the treaty. And unanimous agreement on a political declaration and an action plan suggests that this momentum will continue before the next meeting at the end of 2023.

Building on this momentum, TPNW members are likely to push for recognition of the treaty and the outcome of the Vienna meeting at the NPT Review Conference. Member states will want to celebrate their efforts to initiate a measured way forward for the treaty and to fulfill the NPT’s commitment to disarmament. Meanwhile, opponents of the treaty are likely to reiterate their concerns, noting in particular that the meeting did not resolve concerns about the treaty’s verification mechanisms. Remarks from Germany, the Netherlands and Norway in Vienna – all NATO states that participated as observers in the meeting – suggest that opponents are also likely to criticize the results of the meeting for excluding language on concluding comprehensive safeguards agreements and IAEA additional protocols.

In its remarks, Norway presented perhaps a mutually acceptable way forward: stick to the basics. His delegate said:[w]We recognize that the TPNW has entered into force and we recognize that 86 countries have signed it. Such factual acknowledgment of the ban treaty could serve as appropriate language for a NPT outcome document in New York.

Exceptional divisions. TPNW members made key decisions in Vienna to move the ban treaty forward. Meeting participants adopted deadlines for the destruction and elimination of nuclear weapons by future members, established working groups to advance key provisions of the treaty, and agreed to establish a scientific advisory group to establish the implementation of the treaty on scientific and technical advice.

However, states have not designated a competent international authority to verify the complete and irreversible dismantling of a state’s nuclear weapons program. To be clear, they did not have a treaty mandate to do so at the first meeting. But, as skeptics have pointed to concerns about the ban treaty’s verification mechanisms, failing to designate an authority means key questions about the treaty’s implementation remain unanswered. Such lingering tension between proponents and opponents of the TPNW reflects a larger challenge facing the Review Conference: a fundamental divide among NPT member states over the priority given to the treaty’s disarmament mandate.

While proponents of the ban treaty and many other non-nuclear-weapon states are frustrated with the lack of progress toward disarmament, nuclear states and their allies argue that the geopolitical security environment is preventing meaningful progress. in disarmament. This cleavage weakens the NPT regime. Russia’s war in Ukraine has only deepened the rift, with proponents of the ban treaty saying the war has demonstrated the unacceptable dangers of nuclear deterrence and opponents saying it has underscored the importance of reinforce deterrence. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also raised fundamental questions about reducing the risk of nuclear use, an area of ​​common interest beyond the disarmament divide. Are current risk reduction tools designed to prevent misperceptions and unintended escalation sufficient to address intentional escalation and risk-taking by a nuclear-weapon state?

Delegates heading to New York in August will struggle to find solutions to these challenges. But their task will be made easier if they put aside their differences and work in good faith towards an outcome that not only reaffirms the importance of the NPT, but offers concrete steps towards its future success. Now more than ever, States must work together in pursuit of a common goal: to restore, safeguard and advance the disarmament and non-proliferation regime.

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