Disappointing NPT conference

A four week U.N. conference to improve compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ended Friday even without adopting a final document. The failure of the NPT review conference, which took place 70 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is highly regrettable, especially in view of the achievements at the previous meeting held in 2010. A 64-point action plan adopted in the 2010 conference said, among other things, that “the nuclear weapons states commit to undertake further efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate all types of nuclear weapons, deployed and non-deployed, including through unilateral, bilateral, regional and multilateral measures.”

This year’s conference was held at a time when dark clouds hang over efforts to reduce nuclear arms. Although the United States and Russia signed the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) in April 2010 and it came into force in February 2011, the confrontation between the two powers in the Ukraine crisis has prevented them from making progress in efforts to cut nuclear weapons. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin disclosed on a TV program that Moscow was ready to put its nuclear forces on alert to cope with a possible NATO intervention in the Ukraine crisis a year ago. China is seeking to attain operational capability of submarine-launched ballistic missiles so that its navy will have a “first credible long-range sea-based nuclear deterrent.” North Korea claimed in early May that it successfully test-launched an SLBM from a submerged submarine — a development that could eventually pose a serious threat to the U.S.

Held amid these difficult circumstances, the review conference had all the more significance and could have played an important role in pushing for progress in nuclear weapons reduction and nonproliferation. The draft of the final document, which did not see the light of day, included recommendation that the United Nations set up a working group to carry out studies for one year from September on effective steps to achieve cuts in nuclear arms. It also called on nuclear weapons states — the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China, which are also the veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — to issue regular reports on their efforts to reduce nuclear arms, including the number and types of warheads they possess and their deployment, for reviews by the 2017 and 2019 gatherings to prepare for the next NPT review conference and for the 2020 review conference itself.

True, it would be unrealistic to expect the NPT member states to bring about a turnaround in the international situation for the reduction and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons just by holding a review conference. The outcomes of such conferences, held every five years, reflect the dynamics of international politics. But the failure of the latest conference should serve as a reminder that the countries that signed and ratified the NPT should make steady efforts to make the nonproliferation regime effective and achieve a reduction in nuclear arms.

Several factors contributed to the collapse of the review conference. The participants were unable to overcome differences over a call for a regional conference on banning weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. The proposed gathering would not discuss regional security issues. The proposal, made by Egypt and other Arab countries, was clearly aimed at the nuclear weapons that Israel allegedly possesses. The call was unacceptable to Israel, which is not a party to the NPT but attended the conference as an observer for the first time in 20 years, and to the U.S. Britain and Canada joined them in opposition. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller accused Egypt and the other Arab states of imposing “unrealistic and unworkable conditions” on the discussions at the conference.

The nuclear weapons powers and non-nuclear weapons states also could not bridge the gap that separates them regarding the path toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. Taking a cue from the 2010 NPT review conference, which expressed “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons,” Austria, Mexico and other non-nuclear weapons countries stressed the need for a legal framework to secure a road map toward the abolition of nuclear arms. An earlier draft of the final document called on the NPT member states to consider legal measures, including a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. But this provision was deleted from the final draft after the nuclear weapons powers opposed it.

Still, it is important to note that the humanitarian impact of nuclear arms was an important part of the discussions at the conference. The provision was proposed against the background of a speech by Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. With the backing of 159 of the 191 NPT member states, he said, “The only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination.” Austria hosted a major international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Vienna in December. In the wake of the review conference, a move to seek a ban on nuclear weapons outside the NPT framework may accelerate.

Japan attempted to include an invitation for world leaders to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the document. But the attempt was blocked by China, which said it portrays a “partial interpretation” of history with Japan seen as a “victim,” rather than a “victimizer.” China’s action disappointed survivors of the atomic bombings. It is regrettable that Beijing has ignored the simple fact that a nuclear attack causes irreparable harm to large numbers of innocent people.

But Japan on its part should realize that such visits as it proposed constitute only a peripheral part of the efforts it must make to help realize a world without nuclear weapons. While Japan is the only country that suffered nuclear attacks, it continues to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This is a fundamental contradiction for Japan. This nation should seriously consider how it can fulfill its special responsibility as the sole victim of atomic bombings in the global efforts to reduce and eventually eradicate the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.