Dr Rebecca Johnson writes from New York: On Friday night I saw Russia’s delegates blame others for Moscow’s decision to veto the outcome document, putting another nail into the NPT coffin. The delegation then staged a walk-out that was meant to be intimidating, but just looked pathetic. Everyone was exhausted. It was long after the Tenth Review Conference should have ended, but the Argentine President Gustavo Zlauvinen had gone several extra miles to try to find language that Moscow would agree to on Zaporizhzhia, the endangered nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The text had already been watered down many times. What Russia really wanted was a text that would not contain any mention of Zaporizhzhia. As the NPT is supposed to deal with risks from nuclear power as well as weapons, that was impossible for others to accept. The text before us no longer contained explicit mentions of the war on Ukraine, but reference had to be made to finding ways to ensure that Zaporizhzhia did not explode into a worse nuclear catastrophe than Chernobyl and Fukushima.
The clock ticked on. In the end, after delaying the start of the plenary until two hours after it should have finished, Zlauvinen called the meeting to order, explained his efforts, and asked for consensus on the revised document. Russia gave a rambling speech about being willing to keep negotiating for many more days and weeks if necessary, blaming ‘others’ (and by implication Zlauvinen) for not meeting Russia’s ‘concerns’. And so the NPT ended.
I have participated in NPT conferences since 1995. Periodically I had to nip out the back of the UN General Assembly Hall to explain the developments and answer questions from journalists. Amid heightened nuclear threats, proliferation and war, I would explain, the need for tackling nuclear dangers and achieving nuclear disarmament were more vital than ever, and yet this most recent NPT Review Conference failure was not a surprise. This is the first time Russia has openly vetoed, but I’ve watched US delegations block consensus over mentioning Israel in text supporting nuclear free or WMD-free zone efforts (2015) or on nuclear disarmament (1990 and 2005), in which Washington was often accompanied by London’s government of the day, though not always to the final mat.
Without in any way downplaying the globally serious humanitarian and environmental dangers when military threats combine with nuclear facilities like Zaporizhzhia, trapping it in the vicious war on Ukraine, it is important to put this into the NPT context. Russia’s veto over Zaporizhzhia is consistent with the military sense of entitlement that nuclear weapon possessors have been given since 1945. Regrettably the NPT in 1968 was structured to reinforce the status of five nuclear-armed states and promote nuclear technologies for what were then called ‘peaceful purposes’. Despite many well-meaning intentions and efforts by nuclear-free countries over decades, NPT conferences are still riddled with contradictions that drive proliferation and nuclear dangers rather than eliminating them.
In this 2022 delayed conference Russia and other nuclear-armed NPT members have spent four weeks criticising each other while colluding to block meaningful recommendations and actions on nuclear disarmament and nuclear dangers from the existing nuclear arsenals and facilities. Despite the rhetoric, they helped each other to keep and wield their own nuclear weapons, come what may.
France and various NATO allies whittled away at removing language that reflected the real world facts, agreements and importance of the 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. As Russia was busy deleting references to Zaporizhzhia, on the penultimate day France wore Zlauvinen down to edit the single paragraph acknowledging the TPNW with a further deletion to remove the basic fact that the first meeting of TPNW states in Vienna this year had adopted a declaration and programme of action.
For the record, the TPNW was launched at the 2010 NPT Review Conference to take the implementation of NPT obligations on nuclear weapons forward. The first meeting of TPNW states parties in Vienna successfully adopted concrete and forward-looking outcomes that clearly and practically address issues that the NPT has not been able to do, including ways to prevent nuclear use and acquisition, verifiably eliminate nuclear arsenals, and assist and remediate nuclear-impacted communities and environments.
Closer to home, the UK delegation focussed mainly on presenting itself as a responsible NPT member working on nuclear safety, security and verification. It stayed close to the US and supported some EU positions, but generally glossed over UK nuclear modernisation and proliferation-promoting policies and claimed lots of credit for promoting and selling nuclear technologies around the world, a bit like UK weapons sales. At the NPT Conference the US, UK and Australia wrangled with China about Australia’s nuclear submarine plans (AUKUS) while ignoring concerns and opposition from numerous Pacific countries. But mostly the UK head was kept fairly low – after all, there’s no credible government to take decisions while a couple of uninspiring Tory ministers vie for unrepresentative Tory votes to decide which of them will be anointed UK prime minister.
In the end, after sound, fury and a staged walk-out by Russia, an NPT ‘Depositary State’ meant to be responsible, it was left to many delegations to have the last word. In the UN General Assembly hall late Friday night, I heard strong and inspiring speeches of hope and determination from all over the world as well as the disappointment and anger of those that truly understand nuclear dangers and humanitarian risks.
Among these, several noted how the final text had been badly cut, skewed and weakened by all the nuclear-armed states, especially on nuclear disarmament. Pacific nations and others underscored the lost NPT paragraphs on assistance for victims of nuclear use and testing; Ireland lamented the loss of important paragraphs on women’s full participation in all areas of disarmament and diplomacy; and several reiterated the vital contributions made by civil society. Costa Rica’s ambassador quoted from her earlier joint statement on humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, which was supported by 147 states. Austria called on all NPT members who want to achieve actual progress on nuclear disarmament to join the TPNW. Mexico’s joint statement on behalf of many nuclear-free nations and peoples was especially inspiring: ‘We will not rest until the last state has joined the TPNW, the last warhead has been irreversibly dismantled and destroyed, and nuclear weapons have been totally eliminated from the Earth.”