By Tariq Rauf *
As Spring is in the offing, the days are drawing near when representatives of up to 191 countries will convene at a review conference at the United Nations in New York, from 27 April 27 to 22 May, to celebrate 50 years of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) being in force. Coincidentally, this also will be the tenth in a series of quinquennial NPT review conferences. Nonetheless, as at present the COVID-19 virus continues to spread globally, the wise and prudent course would be to postpone the NPT review conference to next year and not risk the health of the participants or contribute to the further propagation of the disease and further strain already stressed health care systems not only in the developed world but especially in developing areas.
The United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres along with the 2020 NPT Review Conference President, Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen (of Argentina), should exercise their leadership and responsibility to postpone the conference to the same time in April-May 2021. As of this writing, many international conferences and exhibitions have been cancelled or postponed worldwide to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 and to protect those who would have participated at such events. Even the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are under threat of postponement. The NPT review conference should be no exception and should be postponed to 2021.
The year following an NPT review conference always is a gap year; hence there should not be any impediment to moving the NPT event to next year. This would be the responsible and prudent thing to do. No crucially important decisions need to be taken this year and the 50th anniversary of the NPT can be marked by speeches and statements by ministers in New York, Geneva and Vienna – locations of multilateral nuclear diplomacy – as well as in London, Moscow and Washington, the capitals of the three depositary States for the NPT, and elsewhere around the world. Subjecting hundreds of delegates to a serious health risk cannot be justified on the grounds of commemorating 50 years of a treaty – not even a treaty as important as the NPT!
While nuclear arms control wonks, including myself, are fretting over the minute details of the forthcoming NPT review conference, the corona virus disease (COVID-19) is on the verge of becoming a pandemic. But we should act responsibly and strongly push for the postponement of the NPT conference to next year.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020 and by 28 February the WHO had increased the assessment of the risk of spread and risk of impact of COVID-19 to very high at the global level. According to the WHO Situation Report 39, the virus has spread outside of China to 60 countries, as shown below.
Corona viruses are similar to influenza viruses in that they are both single strands of RNA. Four types of corona viruses commonly infect humans, causing colds and related respiratory ailments. These corona viruses are believed to have evolved and propagated in humans to maximize their own spread — which means sickening, but not always killing, people. By contrast, the two prior novel corona virus outbreaks — SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome, named for the location of the first outbreak) — originated in and were disseminated by live animals, as was the H5N1 virus.
All these virus borne diseases proved to be highly fatal to humans. COVID-19 reportedly already has killed more than twice the number by SARS. With its potent mix of characteristics, COVID-19 can be fatal as it makes people ill, but not in predictable, uniquely identifiable ways.
Harvard University epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch in his “very, very rough” estimate (relying on “multiple assumptions piled on top of each other”) has stated that 100 or 200 people were infected in the U.S. a week or so ago. But that is all it would take to widely spread the disease. Lipsitch has predicted that within a year, 40% to 70% of the world’s population could be infected with COVID-19? With the world’s population hovering around 7.5 billion, that translates to some 3 to 5 billion people getting COVID-19 and that perhaps fatalities of 60 to 100 million, according to Lipsitch.
Should unfortunately this worst case prevail, we could have the worst pandemic in human history, even exceeding the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 that killed 50 million people. Under the above scenario, in the United States there could be up to 130 to 230 million cases of COVID-19, with up to 2.5 to 3.5 million fatalities. Obviously, these are the worst “worst case” predictions and likely will not come true, but still an abundance of caution is advisable and unnecessary large conferences and gatherings of people should be avoided. Hence, all the more reason to postpone the 2020 NPT review conference to 2021.
2020 NPT Review Conference
The NPT is the world’s most widely adhered to multilateral nuclear arms reduction and non-proliferation treaty. It is considered to be a resounding success in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons to five States that have signed the Treaty and to four others that are not bound by it. Mainly as a result of the NPT, some 10% of the electricity generated in the world is by nuclear power reactors contributing to clean energy, and billions of people benefit daily from the applications of nuclear technologies in such areas as medicine, agriculture, water and animal husbandry.
The principal failing of the NPT has been lack of progress towards eliminating nuclear weapons. Despite a half-century having elapsed since the NPT entered into force, as I have written previously, “The grim reality is that more than 14,000 nuclear warheads of the nine nuclear-armed States are deployed at more than 100 locations in 14 States, the dangers of nuclear weapon use are increasing, and there are stocks of nearly 1,400 tonnes (or 1,400,000 kg) of weapon-grade uranium and 500 tonnes (or 500,000 kg) of weapon-usable plutonium good for more than 130,000 nuclear warheads. Remember, it takes 25 kg or less of highly-enriched uranium and 8 kg or less of plutonium for one nuclear warhead.”
The NPT was the first international arms control treaty to incorporate a periodic review procedure. Five years after entering to force in 1970, a review conference was held and under the terms of the Treaty quinquennial review conferences have been held every five years since then. At the review conference, countries meet to review the implementation of the Treaty over the past five years and to agree on recommendations and benchmarks to strengthen implementation over the coming five years.
The record of successfully agreeing to establish and implement benchmarks unfortunately is mixed – with a successful review conference followed by a failed one. Thus, the 1975, 1985, 1995, 2000 and 2010 conferences agreed to implement new benchmarks and actions, while the ones in 1980, 1990, 2005 and 2015 failed to do so. More information on this can be found here.
Normally, NPT review conferences attract participation of 300-400 persons but this year the expected attendance could be much higher bringing together participants from all over the world.
Sadly, though, as I have previously noted the prospects for making any progress on nuclear disarmament are remote as the Russian Federation and the United States are engaged in modernization of their nuclear weapons; and the United States is pursuing a policy of steadily abandoning treaties, multilateralism and striking out in favour of unilateral nationalistic policies. Last year, the United States abandoned the 1987 Intermediate- and Shorter-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as well as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) limiting Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme; earlier in 2002 it pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that formed the basis of strategic stability between Russia and the United States.
In addition, the United States has not indicated any interest in extending the 2010 New START Treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons that will expire in February 2021, and in preserving the Open Skies Treaty that permits confidence-building aerial overflights. In addition, some officials now are openly verbally attacking supporters of nuclear disarmament and resurrecting the odious McCarthy era character assassination of those in other countries who promote fulfilling the nuclear disarmament obligations under the NPT.
2021 NPT Review Conference
All signs point to a failed NPT review conference this year given the new Cold War, dismantling of the Cold War nuclear arms control architecture, an ever widening rift between countries continuing to rely on nuclear deterrence and those that favour complete nuclear disarmament, modernization of nuclear weapons, lowered threshold of nuclear weapons use, and declining civility in diplomatic discourse. Add to this the health uncertainties created by COVID-19 and we are looking at a mix of a toxic political environment and a health environment contaminated by a highly infectious virus. It is not at all certain that New York City will remain entirely free of COVID-19 virus through April-May.
Furthermore, some delegations have been complaining about visa denials by U.S. authorities to attend UN conferences and this year’s session of the UN Disarmament Commission had to be postponed. Costs of hotel accommodation in New York are soaring, as are the costs of food and eating out in restaurants. The expertise for nuclear verification, safety and security, and peaceful uses lies in Vienna (Austria), while that of negotiating multilateral nuclear arms control in Geneva (Switzerland). New York has no diplomatic expertise related to the NPT. Thus, there are no compelling reasons at all to convene the presently scheduled NPT review conference in New York this year.
It would be both prudent and smart to postpone the NPT review conference to April-May 2021 and to move the venue to Vienna (Austria). Vienna is the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where two of the three “pillars” of the NPT always have been located – nuclear verification (safeguards) security and safety, as well as the peaceful applications of nuclear technology.
Since 2007, the first session of the preparatory committee for the five-yearly NPT review conference has been held in Vienna. In addition, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) is headquartered in Vienna. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) also has a Vienna office. Thus, from a Secretariat perspective, Vienna is well endowed and experienced to host an NPT review conference.
Furthermore, hotel and food costs in Vienna are very reasonable, even given the exchange rates for the Euro and the US dollar. Reasonably priced accommodation is plentiful in Vienna, and public transport is well organized and serves all conference locations. As a historic hub of international conferences for more than two centuries, Vienna is well established and no problems with visas for Austria have been reported.
Detractors of moving the NPT review conference to Vienna will voice pre-programmed and automaton like views that all Member States of the United Nations are represented in New York and this assures a high level of participation. The reality, however, is that of the 191 States Parties to the NPT, generally not more than 150 show up at review conferences and then too small delegations only make a showing on the first and last days in order to be listed in the official list of participants.
Given concerns about the carbon footprint of air travel, convening the review conference in 2021 in Vienna can also have a positive impact in reducing the carbon burden of attendance. The geographic location of Vienna in Central Europe will greatly reduce distances to be travelled by delegates from Asia, Africa and Oceania, as well as of course by European countries – these regions put together comprise the largest number of countries in the world. Only the North and South American delegates will have increased travel distances, but these obviously are a minority compared to those from the regions noted above.
An NPT review conference this year though desirable for meeting the five yearly cycle is not absolutely necessary; rather under the circumstances it poses unacceptable health risks and is a luxury that the international community can ill afford.
The best option is to formally announce the postponement of the 2020 NPT review conference to 2021 with the venue being Vienna, as soon as possible – the earlier the better. The longer this decision is delayed the greater the costs incurred in cancelling flights and hotel rooms – while government and IAEA/CTBTO delegates may well be able to afford such penalties as tax dollars pay for their expenses, for civil society participants the cancellation costs would be onerous and unaffordable as they either self-finance or rely on charitable donations.
For all the reasons noted above, including especially the continuing spread of the COVID-19 virus designated by WHO as a very high global risk, it would not only be inexcusable but also immoral on the part of the UN and the NPT Secretariats to delay any further the announcement of the postponement of the NPT review conference to 2021 and to initiate the logistical preparations for holding it in Vienna next year.
* Tariq Rauf has attended all nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meetings since 1987 as a delegate, including as senior adviser to the chair of Main Committee I (nuclear disarmament) in 2015 and to the chair of the 2014 preparatory committee; as alternate head of the International Atomic Energy Agency delegation to the NPT; and as a non-proliferation expert with the Canadian delegation from 1987. Personal views are expressed here.