2019 NPT PrepCom And Article VI: Faultlines And The Future – Analysis


By Shivani Singh*

The third and last NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) Meeting for the 2020 NPT Review Conference (RevCon) was concluded in New York on 10 May. Though there was a general agreement on certain outstanding issues, the 11-day meeting ended in a lack of consensus on the most important and controversial pillar of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—Article VI—which lays out state party obligations to undertake measures for nuclear as well as general and complete disarmament (GCD).

What does the US and Russia’s blatant contravention of their disarmament obligations mean for the future of Article VI?

Pactum de contrahendo: Article VI

Contrary to Article VI, nuclear weapon states (NWS) have failed to take any substantive measures to fulfill their “legal” and “political” obligations as outlined in Article VI. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its Advisory Opinion in 1996 on “Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons” elaborated on the legal duty of states to abide by the provisions of the article, saying, “There exists an obligation to ‘pursue’ in good faith and bring to a ‘conclusion’ negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” This was further emphasised in the 13 steps adopted at the 2000 NPT Review Conference.

Moreover, the promise of non-proliferation by non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) was in fact in exchange of a commitment to disarmament by NWS during the NPT negotiations. This came to be known as the “great political bargain.”

According to the ICJ, without the insertion of Article VI, “it would have been exceptionally difficult and perhaps impossible to negotiate a non-proliferation treaty with substantial number of NNWS on board.” However, owing to pressure by the NWS, an extremely diluted version of disarmament obligations was incorporated in the text (Article VI).

Tensions started to build up when the NPT was extended indefinitely in the 1995 Review Conference. With this extension also came the promise of taking decisive measures to achieve nuclear abolition which was the political precondition that facilitated the indefinite extension. Finally, in the 2000 Review Conference, the 13 Steps towards nuclear disarmament were adopted as part of a political compromise.

From Disarmament to Re-armament

The 2019 PrepCom fell short of debating the developments over the past two years that run contrary to the very spirit of Article VI. The downward spiral was kick-started by the 2018 release of the US Nuclear Posture Review, which enunciated an apparently aggressive national nuclear strategy by introducing flexible low yield non-strategic nuclear warheads. One, this move lowers the threshold for nuclear use. Two, there is also the added complication of assessments of threat perception and accordingly, the nature of retaliation, hence making the possibility of miscalculation more plausible. Following its promise, the US started manufacturing low yield nuclear warheads at the Pantex nuclear weapons plant in Texas in the beginning of 2019. Additionally, the US also revealed plans tore-introducea nuclear-capable Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM).

Following this, the US announced its decision to withdraw from the only arms control treaty still in place from the Cold War period, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). This move opens a pathway for the deployment of intermediate range missiles and also jeopardises the future of the New Strategic Arms Reduction treaty (START) that is set to expire in 2021.

In response, Russian President Vladmir Putin announced the successful test of the latest dual-capable Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle (HGV) on 26 December 2018, which will be capable of subverting all air defence systems with its capability of manoeuvring “horizontally and vertically at hypersonic speeds.” In addition to Russia, China and the US are also frontrunners in developing and perfecting this technology.

States not party to the NPT and possessing nuclear weapons like India are also following suit. India, with its recent Anti-Satellite Missile (ASAT) test, has joined the league of Russia, the US, and China, in becoming the fourth state with ASAT capabilities. On 12 June 2019, India conducted the latest test of its dual-use Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HTDV) which is to be used in the future to launch hypersonic missiles for defensive and offensive purposes alongside its civilian applications.

These are only some among a wide pool of measures that suggest a rearmament trend, which is quite far removed from thenuclear and general disarmament envisaged by Article VI. Unfortunately, these measures have weakened NPT’s disarmament pillar, with no serious intent on the partof state parties to remedy the operational and normative damage done.

The Debate Remains: Disarmament First, or Non-proliferation?

The general sentiment concerning Article VI acrossstates party to the 2019 NPT PrepCom remained that of skepticism. There was strong opposition by NWS and most nuclear umbrella states to adopting any strong language concerning their disarmament obligations in the final document. As a result, the PrepCom failed to adopt a consensus document.

The US presented a working paper on ‘Creating Environment for Nuclear Disarmament’ (CEND), hence tweaking the language from the earlier proposed ‘Creating Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament’. The change of terminology from “creating conditions” to “creating environment”suggests a deliberate incorporation of vague platitudes to de-emphasise their legal commitment as per NPT obligations.

While states like the Philippines, Iran, and Ireland asserted that nuclear disarmament should not be held at the mercy of progress on non-proliferation commitments by NNWS, the US, UK, Sweden, and Switzerland stressed the importance of measures for verification and transparency about nuclear weapons and policies as a pre-requisite for disarmament.

While one of the main concerns of the NWS towards taking any concrete measures for disarmament remains the threat of nuclear proliferation amongst NNWS, it is important to underline that the goals of disarmament and non-proliferation are tied together. It is thus important to take the necessary steps to increase transparency in the exchange of information.

It is also crucial that bilateral/multilateral confidence-building measures for nuclear security go in hand-in-hand with international regulations on arms control and disarmament. These two processes need to be pursued parallel to one another instead of a consecutive step-by-step approach, which can help bridge the gap between the two camps (NWS and NNWS).

Despite the shortfalls, the 2019 PrepCom brought to the fore the changing normative lens with which states have begun to view the concepts of ‘security’ and ‘nuclear disarmament’. This was evident in the stronger language that was adopted in the revised draft of the consensus document that reiterated the 2010 NPT RevCon recommendations on “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and also mentioned the need for a “legally-binding norm to prohibit nuclear weapons.”

Although the revised draft could not be adopted, it still shows how far along the states have come in accounting for human-security centered norms in their policy on nuclear weapons. This development is encouraging and is reason for some hope in the upcoming 2020 NPT RevCon.

*About the author: Shivani Singh, Researcher, Nuclear Security Programme (NSP)

Source: This article was published by IPCS


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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