The 2009 NPT PrepCom managed to get beyond the rancor and discord that has characterized other recent NPT meetings and to focus instead on concrete discussions and proposals – not enough to guarantee success for the 2010 Review Conference, but certainly enough to set a base for a serious and cooperative effort toward consensus.

Even on its good days, the international review process to assess progress in implementing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) amounts to an exercise in being grateful for small mercies. At the just concluded NPT preparatory committee meeting (PrepCom) in New York, there were indeed some mercies to be enjoyed, small though they still were, followed by all around gratitude that they weren’t even smaller.

This PrepCom was the last of three two-week sessions (2007 through 2009) tasked with setting the stage for a productive formal Review Conference in May 2010, and its most noteworthy achievement was to approve the formal agenda for next year’s conference. By any standard that does fit into the category of small achievements, but in the context of the rancor and discord that have characterized recent NPT meetings, and in the context of the 2005 Review Conference which foundered on more than a week of wrangling over a contentious draft agenda, advance agreement on the agenda is a significant accomplishment that reflects a tangible and promising change in attitude and morale.

There was hope that this new atmosphere of cooperation would be enough to yield a breakthrough agreement on an extensive set of recommendations to be forwarded to the 2010 Review Conference (see posts here for May 12 and 13), but, in the end, that was not to be. Agreement was tantalizingly close and the debate reflected broad areas of common ground[i] along with a new willingness to acknowledge the concerns and expectations of particular groupings, but the old divides prevailed. The nuclear weapon states once again gave assurances that they were making genuine progress on their Article VI disarmament obligations and promised renewed energy in that direction, but they also wanted more focus on strengthened safeguards and new limits on access to proliferation sensitive technologies. Non-nuclear weapon states, those within the non-aligned movement in particular, gave assurances that their disavowal of nuclear weapons remained firm, but insisted that acceptance of additional restraints, as well as the long-term viability of the Treaty, depended on much more significant progress on disarmament.

The PrepCom Chair, Boniface Chidyausika of Zimbabwe, remained confident that with more time consensus could have been reached,[ii] and despite the differences there was certainly a prevailing sense that extensive changes in US policy and diplomatic style were fostering hopes for more balanced attention to the three pillars of the NPT – disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. US President Barack Obama sent a message to the PrepCom in which he acknowledged “that differences are inevitable and that NPT Parties will not always view each element of the Treaty in the same way.” He added, however, that “we must define ourselves not by our differences, but by our readiness to pursue dialogue and hard work to ensure that the NPT continues to make an enduring contribution to international peace and security.”[iii]

In particular, the international nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation environment now includes heightened expectations, promoted by both the US and Russia, that the newly-convened US-Russia disarmament talks will yield significant reductions in their nuclear arsenals and set the stage for further reductions involving all the nuclear-armed signatories to the Treaty, and at some point the nuclear armed states outside the Treaty – a prerequisite for many for balanced implementation of the Treaty. The PrepCom produced an agenda for the 2010 conference; it and the 2007 and 2008 sessions produced an impressive array of recommendations to guide deliberations in 2010, even if they did not win consensus; and the session displayed a new sense that all the recent prominent proclamations of the goal of a world without nuclear weapons are having an impact on real world expectations and negotiations – three mercies which warrant some genuine gratitude.

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Notes 

[i] See the Chairman’s draft recommendations (NPT/Conf.2010/PC.III/CRP.4/Rev.2) which were not approved as a formal action of the PrepCom. Available at Reaching Critical Will, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/npt/prepcom09/papers/CRP4Rev2.pdf.

[ii] Press Conference by Preparatory Committee Chairman, 15 May 2009, UN Department of Public Information. http://www.un.org/News/briefings/docs/2009/090515_NPT_Chair.doc.htm.

[iii] Statement by the United States to the 2009 NPT PrepCom, 5 May 2009. http://www.un.org/disarmament

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