Beginning this month, Geneva will host the second session of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. Given North Korea’s threats of nuclear war and the ongoing standoff with Iran over its non-compliance and nuclear ambitions, much is left on the table for participants to discuss. To learn more about the NPT, Review Conference and Preparatory Committee, we spoke to CIGI research assistant Simon Palamar.

CIGI: What kind of participation is there at PrepCom meetings? What do different actors hope to achieve? 

Simon Palamar: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which helps interpret and administer the Chemical Weapons Convention, has legal status.

The NPT, on the other hand, has no secretariat. The PrepCom and Review Conference is sort of all there is when it comes to resolving disputes about treaty interpretation and how to enhance the monitoring and enforcement of the NPT. The IAEA has the responsibility to monitor parties to the treaty, but all of its powers (on this issue) come from the treaty. So when it comes to resolving disputes about the treaty, and how to improve its function, this is pretty much the chief international forum.

In a way, there are relatively few organizers of the PrepCom and there is no real invested international bureaucracy, which has upsides and downsides. What we can expect to see in Geneva is all the parties to the NPT will show up (most countries in the world — only four are not signatories to the NPT). These states typically send delegates from their office on disarmament, who are usually the same people at the Review Conference.

Increasingly, we see participation from civil society: NGOs, activist groups, etc. They have no status in the NPT, but over time, the standard behaviour has evolved where these organizations, such as Reaching Critical Will, can send representatives — there will also be International Atomic Energy Agency representation, of course, because they have a vested interest. Civil society groups attend and observe, and some of them do useful work. For example, Reaching Critical Will collects states’ papers and statements and makes digital online archives in order to keep a record of each state’s official position. As part of the 2000 NPT Review Conference, states parties made a commitment to issue regular reports detailing how they are implementing Article VI (the disarmament article) of the NPT. Project Ploughshares has a project where they assess how well states are meeting this commitment, and attending PrepCom meetings in the past has been an important part of Ploughshare’s effort. Although these efforts have no legal weight, these are important forms of soft monitoring and verification mechanisms. I can’t speculate on how much of an effect such participation has on US nuclear weapons policy (for example), but it does serve as a very useful resource and keeps the issues of treaty obligations in the public eye.

Of course, some of the PrepCom deliberations are behind closed doors and lots of bilateral side meetings take place that no one else is privy to. So it’s important that we have some sort of documentary record other than the final PrepCom statement, which is sometimes hollow diplomatic rhetoric that everyone agrees to. Occasionally these statements have some interesting content, like the 13 steps from 2000, but sometimes, like the 2005 Review Conference, it was a disaster, with no agreements and just meaningless diplomatic jargon. It’s good to have someone there who is documenting what is being said.

CIGI: A CIGI project you are currently working on looks at the role of “constructive powers.” What role and impact do such states have at a multilateral forum like PrepCom? 

Palamar: States tend to break themselves into blocs at these sorts of NPT discussions. For example, you have the New Agenda Coalition, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (which Canada is part of), and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). In many ways, because there are no binding outcomes, PrepCom is not a negotiation forum like others seeking to conclude a formal treaty. Nevertheless, important discussions take place and one technique to standardize things and raise agenda items is to form blocs with countries that share interests, values and reciprocate support. 

A group like the constructive powers is often what we tend to think of as middle power countries: their economies are big or have high per capita incomes; they’re democratic; they have a history of creative diplomacy; and importantly, the constructive powers have no nuclear weapons. CIGI’s Constructive Powers Initiative (CPI) brings together policy planners and experts for a type of 1.5 track diplomacy where politically important and tough topics can be discussed. The importance of nuclear disarmament or stopping the spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technology, for example, can be informally considered in a comfortable environment, where ideas for creative diplomacy can be suggested.

These sorts of coalitions are important, but the risk is that they turn out to be just dogmatic blocs. The NAM can sometimes simply oppose whatever the United States, United Kingdom or France (or other Western states) are doing because that is what they have always done.

The CPI is really a group where countries with some common interests and attributes can have disagreements and can make creative compromises. Constructive powers can then take these creative compromises to a forum like PrepCom to sound out broader support.

CIGI: Threats of nuclear war from North Korea and Iran’s non-compliance continue to dominate headlines. Do such current events take centre stage at PrepCom meetings?

Palamar: These events inevitably influence what goes on at PrepCom. For example, the United States tried to put a ban on selling all uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing equipment to countries that didn’t already have it. They tried to see if this was something that other countries would go for. That was really a reaction to the discovery of Iran’s activity in 2002. Sometimes countries will name and shame. They’ll say, “Listen Iran is in noncompliance of its treaty obligations,” and they’ll really hammer on the point that we need stronger and more concerted action on non-proliferation.

North Korea, which is no longer a signatory of the NPT, is a bit of a different case. There is some legal opinion that its withdrawal was done improperly, so they’re still members and are therefore in noncompliance of the NPT. There are mechanisms to withdraw, and I think for practical purposes, we should consider that North Korea is not a signatory. Nevertheless, if we reflect on what North Korea has been saying lately, it’s important to remember that it is a fairly rare event anytime a country threatens another country with nuclear weapons. We tend to remember the Cold War like this was happening all the time. Well, it wasn’t. I will not be surprised if North Korea’s recent language does affect what some states say at PrepCom and I think the country’s language will be used by some states to make arguments for universalizing the NPT.

A third country we should discuss is Israel, because it is also not a party to the NPT. At the 2010 Review Conference, part of the final statement was a commitment to a conference to discuss establishing a weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-free zone in the Middle East. This was supposed to happen in 2012, but did not. Arab states have, subsequently, threatened to boycott these PrepCom meetings.

Chances are the Arab league will attend PrepCom because they don’t want to not be here. The meeting does give them an opportunity to bring up the fact that they’re upset about the WMD-free zone and Israel. They also have their own concrete interests, as many of the Arab states don’t want to see Iran acquire nuclear weapons.

CIGI: Although North Korea withdrew from the NPT, do you see any impact that its posturing might have on the compliance of other NPT signatories?

Palamar: It’s important to remember that the NPT does allow parties to withdraw if their national security interests are at stake. I don’t think South Korea is going to withdraw, nor do I think Japan is going to withdraw. But if you look at polling data from South Korea, during times of tension you tend to see a significant plurality, if not a majority in some cases, supporting the idea that South Korea might want to consider acquiring a nuclear weapon (or acquire the ability to acquire one — the hedging option).

I would not expect South Korea to name and shame North Korea during PrepCom, because the former tends to see problems with their neighbour as really a regional issue. The United States, China and probably Japan would also prefer to keep this a regional issue. Ultimately, though, countries that are not party to the NPT can exert a lot of influence on what goes on in the discussion at PrepCom and the Review Conference.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.